Last Friday night convalescing from a mystery virus I watched the Maysles brothers' (with Charlotte Zwerin) Gimme Shelter (1970). The documentary chronicles the U.S. tour of the Rolling Stones in the autumn of 1969. The film is famous because it captures the Hells Angels riot at the Altamont Free Concert, a moment that is widely accepted as the shattering of the Hippie dream of a "Woodstock nation," the Utopian aspiration that the Western youth could come together at free rock'n'roll festivals, practice "peace & love," and somehow spontaneously heal the rancid body politic.
Woodstock took place in August of 1969. The Rolling Stones weren't there. A free concert in early December at the end of their U.S. tour, a tour which was criticized by Ralph Gleason for its high ticket prices, was a way to mollify critics and tap back into the Woodstock magic. (Michael Lang, one of Woodstock's co-creators, also played a role at Altamont and can be seen in Gimme Shelter.)
The Maysles come down strongly -- the way Zwerin edits the film -- on blaming the Hells Angels for the violence. There are numerous shots of the Angels guzzling canned beer and clubbing concert-goers with weighted pool cues.
Seeing the documentary again, what impressed me about the Altamont sequence -- I've seen Gimme Shelter numerous times over the years -- is how excellent Jefferson Airplane was, not only the band's sound and how they looked on stage, but how they stood up to the Hells Angels -- Marty Balin even pitched himself into the crowd to try protect people and got knocked unconscious by the Angels for it -- and how Grace Slick spoke to the audience and tried to calm the situation.
When I was at the university in the 1980s, Jefferson Airplane, at that point known as Starship, was the worst of the old Hippie bands trying to stay on the gravy train by crafting New Wave pop songs to fit the barren "It's Mo(u)rning in America" Reagan-era Zeitgeist, songs like the brain-dead, chest-thumping "We Built This City." I remember being offended by seeing Grace Slick yukking it up with Dick Clark on American Bandstand:
But clearly at Altamont Jefferson Airplane comported themselves in a heroic manner, far more so than the Rolling Stones. The genius of Gimme Shelter is in its shots of the audience, Jagger powerless onstage, reduced to a spectator performing "Under My Thumb," as the Hells Angels knife to death Meredith Hunter:
We'll have to return to Altamont. It is a goldmine. The Hippies realized in real time their dream had died. This is December 1969, which sets the stage for the freak-out year of 1970.