"Gimme Shelter": The true story

How a free Rolling Stones concert turned into a colossal mass bad trip -- and spawned the most harrowing rock 'n' roll movie ever made.

Published August 10, 2000 5:02PM (EDT)

Thirty years after its original release, "Gimme Shelter" remains a red-hot paradox: an exhilarating sober-upper. When it reopens at the Film Forum in New York Friday, it will once again ignite audiences with sinuous yet explosive concert numbers from the Rolling Stones' 1969 tour, when Mick Jagger was at his jangly prime.

But it frames those performances with pictures of Jagger in front of a film viewer, watching footage of the '69 tour, the dealings that created a free concert on Dec. 6 of that year at the isolated Altamont Speedway in Livermore, Calif., and the band's embattled appearance there before a freaked-out crowd and a violent clutch of Hells Angels. At the soul-shriveling climax, a knife flashes -- and a murder unspools on-screen. The image is so blunt and Jagger's response to it so shrouded or implacable, that the film becomes disturbing in an almost primordial way.

In the rock dishonor roll that includes the Who concert in Cincinnati in 1979 and Pearl Jam in Roskilde, Denmark, this year, no name flashes out more luridly than Altamont. At Altamont, even a star -- Jefferson Airplane lead singer Marty Balin -- was knocked out. With 850 injured, two dead in a hit-and-run, another drowned and an 18-year-old black man slain by a Hells Angel, Altamont was awful enough to have arbiters of hipness call for the kids of Woodstock Nation to be put in stocks.

The making of -- and response to -- the film of the concert, "Gimme Shelter," proved to be just as tumultuous: It drew the most dynamic rock stars, rock writers, documentary-makers and movie critics of its era into an intellectual mosh pit. The story of this movie and its discontents is a pop-cultural saga that stars Jagger and Pauline Kael and Vincent Canby; Haskell Wexler and Greil Marcus and Stanley Booth; and includes cameos from the likes of George Lucas and Walter Murch.

The way the film's three directors -- David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin -- shape the material, the movie is a tribute to the Stones as popular artists wrapped inside a cautionary tale for the counterculture. The filmmakers crystallize the jagged contradictions that gave rise to an epochal fiasco.

From the start, the atmosphere is ripe for catastrophe. The entire enterprise is all too willful. There's something perilously off about the blend of the Stones' zonked brand of superstar noblesse oblige, fabled attorney Melvin Belli's high-powered maneuvering on behalf of the group and the surrounding attempts at seat-of-the-pants, grass-roots organizing. When disaster strikes and strikes again -- first with the Angels' leaded pool cues, later with the flaunting of a gun and the slice of that knife -- it's doubly excruciating because we see it coming. Zwerin and the Maysles slow the moment of the murder down for Jagger (and for us) on an editing table. The shot is shadowy and we know we're not getting the whole story. But the harrowing context gives the deadly scene an apocalyptic stature. It's part of a colossal, mass bad trip.

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When "Gimme Shelter" was released, some of the country's most powerful reviewers disparaged it. They said it was exploitative, too small for the subject -- even, since the Stones financed part of it, a made-to-order job designed to restore the group's tarnished reputation. "The great critics of that period got so caught up in the cultural moment that they missed the movie," charges Peter Becker. He's the director of the Criterion Collection -- the company that will release "Gimme Shelter" on DVD and that, along with Janus Films and Home Vision Cinema, spearheaded the theatrical re-release. "[The New Yorker's] Pauline Kael and [the New York Times'] Vincent Canby led the charge against 'Gimme Shelter' as an opportunistic snuff film, essentially saying that the filmmakers were complicit in the murder by having photographed it and subsequently profited from its theatrical release."

The central charge was that the concert was staged specifically to be filmed -- and irresponsibly so. While conceding that the filmmakers had caught Jagger's "feral intensity" with acute "editing of the images to the music," Kael said that "the filmed death at Altamont" was part of a "cinima viriti spectacular." She condemned the movie with rhetorical questions: "If events are created to be photographed, is the movie that records them a documentary, or does it function in a twilight zone? Is it the cinema of fact when the facts are manufactured for the cinema?"

(Kael is an old friend of mine. When I told her that her original review was still, in Albert Maysles' words, a "thorn in his side," she cheerfully remarked, "Tough shit!")

Canby panned the film, under the title "Making Murder Pay": in another New York Times piece Albert Goldman complained that the movie "really uses its brightly colored footage whitewash the Rolling Stones, who must share some of the responsibility for the disaster and who also, as it happens, are the people who hired the filmmakers."

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. chided the movie in Vogue. It was, he said, "unduly protective, not just of the Stones but of the Woodstock myth of the young." And a few years later, in 1976, Marcus, by then a book columnist at Rolling Stone, wrote that "the Stones were shown as victims, as if the purpose of the film was not to deal with real events, but to absolve those who paid for the film of any responsibility for those events."

See the movie in a theater today and you'll wonder what this critical rumble was all about. Younger viewers, especially, will probably be dumbfounded when they come upon these charges: Watching the Stones watch this wreck of an event in "Gimme Shelter," they won't think for a second that the filmmakers were trying to make the rock stars look like choirboys. At worst the Stones' responses are pitifully inadequate. During the actual cataclysm, they seem despairing and confused; even months afterward, they appear to be in shock. The movie never asks us to forget that the Stones were the concert's prime movers.

And the filmmakers don't beg any indulgence for themselves. True, they never lay out within the film that the Stones had hired them. And they don't touch on the role the movie played in precipitating the concert's last-minute move from Sears Point Raceway in Sonoma to Altamont Speedway. (Among other conditions, Filmways Inc., which controlled Sears Point, wanted the film's distribution rights.)

But by using the structural device of having the Stones witness the footage, the filmmakers break the illusion of seamless omniscience -- an illusion they're skillful enough to maintain if they want to -- and raise the question of their own complicity. Why are they showing this chronicle to the Stones? Are they themselves looking for the Stones' approval -- and our blessing? "Gimme Shelter" is a self-reflexive movie in the best sense: While presenting a chronicle of a catastrophe, it implicitly asks the audience to keep one eye focused on the chroniclers.

As I thought about the movie and interviewed a dozen people who either worked on it or attended the concert, several directed me toward the Jan. 21, 1970, Rolling Stone, which devoted 15 copy-crammed pages to Altamont under the headline, "Let It Bleed." It is often spoken of as the ultimate authority on the event. But when it comes to the widespread misrepresentation of the movie, I discovered, it was more like a smoking gun.

Marcus was at Altamont and with 10 others helped cover it for that issue of Rolling Stone; John Burks edited their contributions, newsweekly style, into one headlong unsigned piece. It's a mammoth and laudable example of on-the-spot journalism, and it helped redefine the concert in the public consciousness as the anti-Woodstock.

The legend of Altamont as apocalypse was largely based on that Rolling Stone cover story. Unfortunately, it contains a dozen short paragraphs on the movie that pin the blame for the disaster on the making of the movie. These paragraphs are pocked with errors, and lamentable in tone as well as content. They read as if they were written by someone who'd never been close to the making of any kind of movie. The magazine's chief movie critic at the time, Michael Goodwin, was at the concert, but his contributions to the piece were limited to a transcription of Jagger's exhortations for the crowd to calm down and "be cool"; Goodwin had recited the words into his tape recorder as Jagger said them, so they wouldn't get lost in the mob noise.

The introductory sentence to the movie section lays down some heavy attitude: "It may surprise many of the people who suffered Altamont to discover that they were, in effect, unpaid extras in a full production color motion picture." A cameraman says David Maysles told him to ignore a large naked woman "freaking out backstage" and shoot only "beautiful things." The whole account portrays the filmmakers as slick hired guns helping the Stones beat "Woodstock" to the screen, using Hells Angels as their bodyguards. Typical sentence: "The Stones figure they spent something like $80,000 on the Altamont affair, including helicopters, which isn't bad at all -- when you consider [it] as the cost of a movie set."

The Rolling Stone attack on the movie became by default the official story -- the one other journalists and fact-checkers would rely on. The "movie set" and "unpaid extras" slams from the Rolling Stone article are echoed, for example, in Kael's statement that "the free concert was staged and lighted to be photographed, and the three hundred thousand people who attended it were the unpaid cast of thousands."

There's one problem: It isn't accurate. Kael's review argued against automatically accepting any film that looks as real as the truth; it's a brilliant and potent critique of the cinima viriti school of documentary filmmaking in fashion at the time. But even if you embrace her argument, what she had to say about the making of "Gimme Shelter" doesn't fit the Maysles' method. They relied for their effects on molding found material, not spending time and money -- which they didn't have much of at Altamont anyway -- devising a reality "spectacular."

It's understandable that young, rock-oriented moralists looking to explain the disaster would turn moviemakers into villains. And the Maysles and Zwerin may have also misled their critics by putting the film together in a confident and seemingly inevitable way, as if Altamont were always its final destination and Mick Jagger's storm-cloud stare always its endpoint.

But "Gimme Shelter" is not about manipulating events -- it's about letting events get away from you. It presents the ultimate appalling oneiric vision of "going with the flow." Over the past three weeks, I discussed it with the surviving co-directors, Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin (David Maysles died in 1987); two of the film's cameramen, Stephen Lighthill and Walter Murch; a Salon editor and former Altamont volunteer, Douglas Cruickshank; three writers who worked on the Rolling Stone Altamont issue (Goodwin, Burks and Marcus); and no less than two Stans and a Stefan -- the Maysles' right-hand man, Stan Goldstein; Rolling Stones biographer Stanley Booth; and Stefan Ponek, a DJ at San Francisco underground radio station KSAN, who ran a post-Altamont talk show excerpted in the movie. I'm convinced that "Gimme Shelter" was less an act of exploitation than an attempt to derive order from chaos -- or at least cut the chaos down to size.

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Writer Stanley Booth was there from the beginning. (He eventually chronicled his time with the band in "Dance With the Devil," also released as "The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones.") Booth recalls that the band had been stung by criticism about high ticket prices from respected San Francisco Chronicle jazz and pop critic Ralph Gleason. "The band's trend of thought was: 'Gouge people for money? We don't know what American prices should be. We're not fucking businessmen. In fact, yeah, we'll have a free concert,'" he says.

Booth says the band also wanted to do a film, intrigued by rock movies like "Don't Look Back" (D.A. Pennebaker's documentary on Bob Dylan) and "A Hard Day's Night." There were reports that Haskell Wexler, the famed cinematographer and director of "Medium Cool," had turned them down, and that they couldn't reach an agreement with Pennebaker either.

"I had never heard of the Maysles brothers," Booth said. "Once they came on, I fell in love with them immediately. But I have to say I really didn't realize how fucking brilliant they were -- they were such sweet down-to-earth guys, so easy to be around, that you didn't realize how really good they were at what they were doing." He says flatly that the concert wasn't staged for the cameramen. "To intrude on anything was absolutely antithetical to the way the Maysles brothers worked," he says. "They would never ask anybody to do anything. What happened, happened -- no one had a game plan, least of all the Rolling Stones."

Albert Maysles recalls that he and his brother met with the group at the Plaza Hotel in New York, then went to Baltimore the next night -- Nov. 26 -- to see them in concert. He'd never seen the band before. "'Oh, sure,' we thought. 'They are great.' Then we came back and saw them again at the Plaza, because their Madison Square Garden performances were coming up. We didn't just want to make a concert film, but we had a hunch it would be more than that -- just what it was we didn't know. We made a deal with them to go to Madison Square Garden and started filming. We got so excited we stuck with them for the next couple of weeks, going to Boston, Florida and Alabama."

Did it take long for the Stones to get used to them? "We had just started to shoot a little bit, in the dressing room at the Madison Square Garden, when Mick came over to us and we put the camera and the tape recorder down. He said, 'You know, I'm not going to be an actor in this film.' We said, 'That's not the way we work.' From then on, it was absolutely smooth sailing. We didn't have to show them anything and we had their total cooperation."

Maysles acknowledges that a cinima viriti filmmaker is not an invisible man, but an inevitable presence in the action: "People who feel they know what goes on in the relationship between the documentary filmmaker and the subject sometimes think: 'Oh, it's fly on the wall. You don't want to be noticed or watched.' That's not it. A fly on the wall is a fly in the ointment -- you're stuck to the wall, you can't move around. It's very important that you have a rapport with the people that you're filming. It needn't be the kind of rapport where they feel they have to please you or follow your command; it's the kind of rapport where you're welcome and it's OK for you to be there. A human relationship is formed, and it can be formed almost immediately, the way it was with Mick."

Goldstein also came aboard at Madison Square Garden. He recorded sound for Albert when David was occupied. "They had no specific objective in mind," says Goldstein. "As you know, in the film there are virtually no personal moments with the Stones -- the Maysles were not involved with the Stones' lives. They did not have unlimited access. It was an outside view."

The Stones paid the Maysles $14,000 to shoot the Madison Square Garden concerts; as they traveled with the Stones, the filmmakers also received some expenses. When it became clear that the free concert was going to happen, the Maysles did not extend their commitment immediately: Footage of the free concert announcement that appears in "Gimme Shelter" had to be bought from a news agency. The Stones eventually gave them $129,000 to shoot at Altamont.

Stefan Ponek, the KSAN talk-show host, says he was aware of the strategizing for the free concert from the beginning and was in on some of the meetings. He recalls having contact with the Maysles, "but they were purists who didn't want to affect the action, and I don't think they did have much of an effect, to tell the truth."

Goldstein had experience in site management at Woodstock. In San Francisco as part of the Maysles' team, he realized, at a meeting at the Grateful Dead's ranch, that "no one was in charge of obtaining a site." Basic questions were being ignored, like "who was the lessor, who would pay for insurance, rent, etc., who was getting the permits and in what name." He saw that the group needed a lawyer and he put the Stones' management in touch with Melvin Belli.

Despite Belli's involvement, the group suffered a series of canceled clearances and broken deals that led from Golden Gate Park to Sears Point to, finally, just 24 hours before the show, Altamont.

In a passionate essay he wrote two years ago for the Library of Congress' National Film Registry, Goldstein summarized the chaos from the point of view of someone sympathetic to both the Stones and to the Maysles brothers:

"In retrospect, of course, everyone should have walked away. But, there was no one, no way to say STOP! NO! And, we shouldn't forget that, in the aftermath of 'Woodstock,' there was a general euphoria -- more than a feeling -- the sure knowledge that we, the rock 'n' roll, be-in, wear a flower in your hair community had triumphed and could, in anarchy, find peace, and overcome with love any who had an interest in violence. Not everyone believed that. Some raised concerns about public safety, control, etc. Those voices were overwhelmed."

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The unexpected antistars of the day and of the eventual movie were the Hells Angels. Goldstein reminds us that on July 5, 1969, three days after the drowning of Brian Jones, the band's original lead guitarist, the Stones gave a free concert in London's Hyde Park for a few hundred thousand people. As Goldstein puts it, "the English Hells Angels volunteered to be an 'Honor Guard.' It was a lovely, peaceful day. So it seemed natural to the Stones' crew to ask them to perform that same or a similar function at the concert culminating the Stones' U.S. tour."

It wasn't unusual to see Angels at the Bay Area rock shows of the time. The Stones' road manager, Sam Cutler, asked Rock Scully, his counterpart with the Grateful Dead, to extend the invitation. "A meeting was arranged at which it was agreed that the Angels would have an area set aside for them," Goldstein writes. Everyone understood that the Angels would both serve as Honor Guard "and perform other, normal 'watchdog' functions" that they were accustomed to providing at Bay Area rock concerts ..." And finally, "They would receive $500 worth of beer as a gratuity."

Not everyone took the Angels' participation so lightly. Marcus told me that his wife -- then nine months pregnant -- was planning to attend the free concert until she heard that the Angels would be part of it. Marcus said, "It's definitely true that Angels were lounging around the stage areas [of concerts at the time]. Allen Ginsberg had invited Angels to a Bob Dylan show and viewed them as 'our outlaw brothers of the counterculture,' though I always thought that was, for Ginsberg, the ultimate act of cruising."

He continued: "But what people don't want to talk about is that the Angels had attacked an antiwar march from Berkeley just when it crossed the border into Oakland, and beat the shit out of people. So it was a question of which myth you bought and how cool you wanted to think they were. The Grateful Dead took one perspective and me another."

Booth insists that the Stones themselves had next to nothing to do with the Angels' hiring. ("We had some lovely security: off-duty New York detectives, pros, who knew what they were doing, and were not happy to be at Altamont. The Angels were just violent bozos.") At any rate, Angels or no, Goldstein notes that there were scores of "volunteers who wanted to help throw a party. They wanted to have a 'Woodstock' where many thought it had rightfully belonged."

One of them was 16-year-old Douglas Cruickshank, now an editor at Salon. "We went out the day before to help build the stage and put up the towers and unload the trucks," Cruickshank recalls. "Everyone was feeling positive and wonderful. The next day, by sunrise, a deluge of people just began pouring in, coming and coming, with cars parked on off-ramps, cars parked everywhere -- to the poor farmers it must have been like having an invading army. Then the Angels came.

"There was a whole bunch of them throwing full cans of beer at people in the audience -- the cans could go way up in the air and come down on people. I heard a woman got a concussion when she was hit with a beer can."

Cruickshank saw the real-life unspooling of the moment in the movie when Jagger emerges from his helicopter and a fan abruptly slugs him. He also saw the Angels wreak numerous casualties on defenseless crowd members, with fists, feet and pool cues. "It was too many people; too much drugs; and the Angels just got out of fucking hand."

Did the show seem like a movie set? "One of the tough things about talking about the '60s is that it's hard to evoke the real spirit of that time," he said. "People now can't imagine anyone doing something for non-cynical reasons. I have no idea what the truth of [the Stones'] situation was, beyond them wanting to do a free concert -- and it was done semi-commonly then. Another, more cynical view may be true. But it doesn't ring true to me. Even when you saw cameramen, no one thought that the movie was the point of the thing."

Two of the cameramen assisting the Maysles that day were George Lucas and Walter Murch. Lucas, of course, would go on to direct "Star Wars" and other movies; Murch, his longtime writing and sound collaborator, is a multiple Oscar winner for sound and film editing. Lucas is on location shooting the latest "Star Wars" episode. For his part, Murch recalls: "[We] had a 1,000 mm lens which we were going to use in 'THX 1138' [Lucas' first feature film] and George and I wanted to do some tests with it, and this seemed as good a chance as any. There were absolutely no marching orders.

"My memory, fallible, is that in our meeting with the Maysles, David [Maysles] said that things would be unpredictable, and that we should simply get what we could. We went out to Altamont and sat up on a hilltop about as far away from the stage as could be, so we were completely removed from the 'action' of the event, unaware of the murder that took place."

Another "THX 1138" veteran who landed behind a "Gimme Shelter" camera was Lucas' focus-puller, Stephen Lighthill. He had followed the changes of venues in the newspapers until he received word that he should show up at Altamont with his camera. "That footage you see of people walking against the sunrise is mostly what I was shooting at that point," Lighthill says. "When people started to settle down, David pulled us together in a tent behind the stage; they anticipated a happy day. The idea was we'd go out in the crowd and find groups of people or individuals and make little stories."

A shoulder-brace contraption on which he had his camera mounted allowed him to get some prime footage. "Hells Angels were hassling me all day and telling me to stop shooting," he says. The brace meant he could shoot the action without obviously working the camera; it was look-Ma-no-hands (and no eyes!) filmmaking, and it fooled the Angels into thinking that he'd given up.

"All the stuff with people being beaten on with pool cues was shot by me," he says, "and as long as I wasn't looking at what the camera and the microphone were pointing at, nobody was the wiser. Whatever footage David got of Marty Balin getting knocked unconscious was mostly gotten from us."

Lighthill had his own beefs with David Maysles. "When we went backstage to get something to eat, David looked at us and said, 'What a great day this is!' We said, 'This is a horrible day, what are you talking about?' He didn't want to engage it."

But Lighthill scoffs at the notion that the concert was staged and lit to be filmed: "Nothing was done to accommodate the movie, everything was working against the purposes of filming. Normally in that situation you'd have the head camera person come in and handle lighting. There were no stands for the cameras, the way you'd do it now, and no communications." Lighthill also ridicules Rolling Stone's contention that the cameramen had Hells Angels bodyguards. "That's absurd! We were threatened as much as anybody else."

Lighthill prides himself with having caught "one of the most amazing sequences" of the concert: "This guy comes up behind Mick Jagger, freaked out, with his hands clenched and his face distorted. I've got Mick Jagger out of focus in the right part of the frame while the Hells Angels grab this guy back off the stage. A friend said, 'Only you would dare to shoot Mick Jagger out of focus.'"

To Lighthill, "The real hero of the making of the film was Charlotte Zwerin, who edited it and got a directing credit. I was stunned with what she got out of my footage. She compressed it and gave you the sense of a buildup of tragedy that you otherwise wouldn't have."

Zwerin joined the production only after Altamont. She gave the Maysles the idea for the film's signature images: that of Jagger inscrutably viewing the footage of a disaster. "I got a letter in Paris from David, saying that he thought they had a wonderful picture -- would I come back and work with them on it?" she recalls. "When they said they would show it to the Rolling Stones, I said you should shoot that. We needed a device: a way structurally to let people know what this movie was about early on. We were there very soon after the tour and they were being heavily criticized and were not about to talk at length about it. But it was not our intention to point fingers at them. The film doesn't absolve them and it doesn't say 'you're guilty' either."

Were some of Zwerin's selections meant to epitomize what was happening generally during the day -- like the plethora of bad trips? "It's what you did see in the footage: Many of the kids had been there all night, they'd been partying, so it comes as no surprise that you see people out of their heads very early on. From the point that you get Altamont in an aerial shot, you are telling the story of a day going by, and telling it in a certain amount of time. One had to give that sense of what the day was like, what was involved and how it progressively got worse."

I told Zwerin that Booth loves the film but thinks that it gives a misleading impression of the concert. He says that the Stones did not know if anyone or if dozens were murdered when Hunter was killed -- yet the band experienced a weird psychic release after Hunter's body was removed, and that release generated a peak performance.

Marcus, who doesn't love the film and had a hideous time at Altamont, also says the Stones were amazing that night.

"There's no question that after 'Under My Thumb' [the number they were playing when Meredith Hunter was killed] they began to play with a really astonishing sense of drama," he says. "That's the best way I could put it. I don't mean this was intentional -- it was almost as if the only way they could get out alive was to play so well that people would step back from them in awe. I'm not talking about calculation, but an instinct. There's no question they could have been in danger from the Angels; the Angels had already hit Marty Balin, and Mick Jagger was just a prancing little faggot to them.

"The performance of 'Gimme Shelter' was one of the most powerful things I'd ever heard. At one point the Maysles sent me tapes of the entire Stones performance uncut; it's out of a horror movie. The attempt to get a song started, the waves of terror going through the crowd, the way you feel the beat, and everybody's expectations, whether of the band or of the audience, broken into pieces -- the sense that anything can happen, and that nobody knows what is happening, is stomach-turning."

But Zwerin doesn't regret leaving any of that out. "We're talking about the structure of a film. And what kind of concert film are you going to be able to have after somebody has been murdered in front of the stage? Hanging around for another hour would have been really wrong in terms of the film."

In the end, the Maysles shouldered over $450,000 in additional expenses and had to wait for months for the Stones to sign releases so the film could be distributed. (New York real estate tycoon Leonard Holtzer eventually financed the movie's completion.)

Zwerin rejects the suggestion that she shaped the film to depict how the group fed off the aggressions of its audience. "I always compare the Rolling Stones to Frank Sinatra," she says. "If you ever saw Sinatra in his heyday, the way the audience acted was amazing -- it was the same thing, trying to shove their way onstage, and all this screaming and swooning. So was he asking for that? They're doing what as artists they intend to do. I assume they want a reaction or they wouldn't bother. But I don't think it's predictable -- onstage you do this, and that will happen in the audience. Sinatra was a skinny little guy who stood there and sang -- beautifully."

To Lighthill, beauty and ugliness will always jockey for attention in "Gimme Shelter": "It is schizophrenic; it deserves some criticism because it is two films, and one corrupts the other. You can't enjoy the concert footage in the first part fully because you know someone dies in the second part, where it becomes a documentary about a concert that goes bad. But I think in retrospect it's a better film than people made it out to be."

By Michael Sragow

Michael Sragow's column about moviemakers appears every Thursday in Salon. For more columns by Sragow, visit his archive.

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