"Gimme Shelter": The true story

By Michael Sragow

By Salon Staff
Published August 14, 2000 7:25PM (EDT)

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I never read the Rolling Stone article that Michael Sragow aims to debunk, but I find it hard to imagine that anyone really attributed the violence at Altamont to the concert being "staged and lighted to be photographed." While everyone agrees that the biggest mistake was the hiring of the Hells Angels for security, I've always thought that the Stones' degree of complicity was based on their decision to play on rather than cancel in light of all the problems, just as the Grateful Dead had already done earlier in the day. Sragow makes no mention of the Dead's well-documented decision and reasons not to play, and then he attributes the Stones' decision to go on to the flower-power idealism of the day. Ironic, isn't it, that the Grateful Dead were the realistic ones while the Stones were "overwhelmed" with such idealism? Maybe not, if you consider that the Stones had a film to make, which is the real connection that has been made between the violence at Altamont and the Stones' filmmaking ambitions.

Of course, perhaps those who suffered were martyrs for art, but that's a whole other issue!

-- David Lichtenberg

First off, I'm not condoning the actions of the Hells Angels at Altamont. The moronic notion that somebody would hire guys who planned to mediate the crowd with pool cues is bewildering to me. What I really wanted to mention was the fact that the article written about the Altamont show neglected to mention that the man "murdered" by the Hells Angels had in fact pulled out a gun. So the Angels can plead self-defense, to a certain degree -- I'm sure their belligerent behavior made everyone, especially those of any visible minority, a little nervy, even frightened enough to think about protecting themselves.

The Hells Angels were, and are, bad men, but to paint the incident out as a random killing by a horde of hate-spewing men is just plain wrong.

-- Karl Hungus

As a result of having been terrorized at Altamont, I have never seen "Gimme Shelter." The images of the crowd packed in front of the stage blowing like wheat was at first kind of beautiful but turned to sheer terror when Grace Slick blurted out while singing "We can get together" that some Hells Angel dude had just knocked out Marty Balin on the stage. It sent shivers through me. I was lucky being one of the only straight viewers up on the hillside where the smell of marijuana filled the air; the terror of many around me with their "heightened" senses was palpable.

I must say thanks to Michael Sragow for reopening the nightmare because I'd always thought that the film must be an exploitative attempt to profit from that dreadful concert. He presented enough information that may just lead me to finally see "Gimme Shelter" and perhaps begin to deal with the shock of that day more than 30 years ago.

-- Bruce McLean

I know it kind of spoils the story, but I knew a lot of people who attended and had a great time.

-- Dexter Peabody

I was a San Francisco anti-war activist in 1966-67 and worked on free concerts and marches that supported that movement. The bands energized the anti-war movement and pushed societal cultural limits. It was the heyday, of course, of the "flower children."

It was nearing twilight, I think, as Jefferson Airplane left and the Stones' road crew set up. The stage certainly did not seem to be lit for making a movie. The Angels, already grandiose, were getting extremely rowdy.

When the Stones came on, the young stoners in the crowd surged forward toward the stage, pushing against and over the parked choppers. The Angels went nuts and poured off the stage, randomly attacking the vanguard. The onlookers rapidly receded, trampling lagging unfortunates. The furious Angels righted their bikes from the grass and returned to the stage. But as the band started playing, the crowd again surged forward and the scene replayed itself, over and horribly over. I pulled a number of Angels off these unfortunate kids. After a few human tidal rips, the Angels began focusing on me. I decided I couldn't have any real effect on these clueless victims and I knew my own number would be up shortly. In an aura of impending doom, as it got darker and darker, I made my way back to the hilltop where I'd left my wife and bike.

The young man who eventually got killed stood tall and shirtless, writhing close behind me, loud and out of control. He seemed very stoned. Even after Keith or Ron (I can't remember who) got busted in the mouth after repeating Balin's protests, the tragedy played out. It was like some gruesome Shakespearean battle, inevitably proceeding toward doom. The Stones played, Jagger pranced and sang, as if it was the only thing they knew how to do, perhaps with a faith or hope that it would somehow solve things. It was awful, terrifying. Despite the chaos, they were absolutely electrifying.

I didn't know the guy got killed until the next day. I thought I'd read that he'd been stomped to death, a hole literally kicked in his back. I didn't know he had been stabbed. I never saw his gun, if he had one. He was the perfect target. These Angels were incredibly racist, of course. No reason for them to worry about the draft, or Vietnam, what with most ineligible via their own rap sheets for screwing young girls, petty thefts or assaults.

My wife and I got out of there, at the end of that final song. It had been very, very dark for some time.

Nothing in Sragow's wonderful recapitulation was discounted by my own experience. Though I don't remember Angels ever being used as concert "security" before, they were often present. Some event organizers and principals certainly did lionize them, including Allen Ginsberg, as you've pointed out. I saw absolutely no evidence that the whole thing was cooked up by any of the participants. The problem was their utopianism and this incredible naiveti. It likely included the organizers' tenacious drive to somehow overcome the obstacles which had been thrust in the way of their efforts to simply put on a free concert.

-- Frank Smith

Salon Staff

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