Monday, January 17, 2011

Rock on Film Part 10: Gimme Shelter

The Maysles brothers, having witnessed the Beatles’ moment of global breakthrough in their documentary The Beatles First US Visit, found themselves ending the love decade with a record of corporatised rock, long bad trips and fatal violence. Gimme Shelter is only partially about the Rolling Stones. Mostly, it’s about America looking wearily at the 60s gone and through stunned vision at the 70s to come. It’s not the 60s of Sargeant Pepper, it’s Charles Mansons’ 60s, Vietnam’s 60s, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy’s 60s. This ain’t Woodstock, it’s Altamont and if you were told not to touch the brown acid it was in a memory that you weren’t sure wasn’t just a dream, it was, apart from anything else, too late. All of America was on the brown acid when this film was made.

It’s also the time in which the Rolling Stones emerged from their own odd experiments with acid to find their path to the top of the mountain free of its obstacle in chief. The Beatles had raged, fought and then mumbled themselves to death as a unit and the Stones found themselves alone at the peak. So they did what any British rock band at the top of its form would do at the time and went on an excessively proportioned tour of America.  Only, this time their bright young manager wasn’t there to catch them and, cornered at a press conference about following the trend for massive free concerts, they said, “yeah, why not?”

Well, why not? All those tripped out spacerockers in Frisco went to the park and jammed for weeks on end with nothing but three chords and blissed-out thousand metre stares. And then there was Woodstock. If the Stones could top that one they’d have to go off-world for a bigger gig. But it wasn’t Woodstock, it was Alatmont, it was rough and down and somebody was killed there.

This film took a little longer than normal to surface after the events it depicts as some of it was called to appear as evidence in the case of the murder of  Meredith Hunter. The film begins not with a triumphant Jagger and co leading the crowd in a massed chorus of Brown Sugar but the band as citizens of their realm viewing themselves on a Steenbeck editing desk with the filmmakers taking them through the footage. In happier circumstances this might be a pleasant view to the narcissism essential to the rock star experience but here there is a weariness in the room and a sense of dread which will reach its peak within the next 90 minutes. A talkback radio show about the event plays too loud to ignore. The leader of the California chapter of the Hell’s Angels gets on the line (Jagger flashes wide eyed shock at hearing himself called an clown) and Charlie Watts, the least opinion dividing member of the band comments without irony or sarcasm, “I remember him. Nice bloke. Oh dear, what a shame.”

Then we’re plunged into the joyous part of the film. The stadium gigs. The lights and massive jet engine roaring adoration and evidence of why the Stones were contemporaneously dubbed the greatest rock and roll band in the world.  We see them off duty doing publicity shoots, partying in their hotels and listening to what seem like interminable repeats of mixes of the next album (Sticky Fingers). And then everyone gets on a helicopter which rises into the starless night sky and the fun is over.

 Altamont ground zero is teeming with hippies. Not the nice east coast hippies but the burnt out hulks that Steppenwolf said had “tombstones in their eyes”. Actually, to begin with this could be any outdoor festival from the past forty years. Folks milling, getting mildly stoned, dogs on rope leads. But it doesn’t last.

The hot day goes on, bands take the stage but most of them are in the background as the Maysles again find something more intriguing to point at. There’s a feeling moving through the crowd and it has nothing to do with peace and love. A heavy set woman, incrementally naked, wanders the swell of bodies in an acid haze. You don’t know what she’s been through so far but the place she’s headed will probably be worse. The dog from before roams, rope still around his neck. People are warned off climbing the flimsy but dangerous scaffolding. Already, doctors are requested from the stage. And more and more, each shot catches a glimpse of the leather, flab and grimaces of a Hell’s Angel.

Up on stage Jefferson Airplane, pioneers of the San Francisco groove of acid rock and anti-war protesting protest against the bikers beating someone in the audience. For his compassion, the lead singer, Marty Balin, is dragged from the stage and whacked unconscious. This is not immediately apparent to everyone in the band and they continue the song but it turns ragged and breathless and dies. The Grateful Dead arrive by chopper but leave after they are told about Marty Balin and the other beatings.

The Stones appear, excavate their way through the crowd to their caravans. Jagger wears a worried expression. The fans are teeming and fawning but it feels exhausted and drunken rather than vibrant and idolatrous.  They stay in the vans until they have to go on.

Cut to their arrival at the stage under the protective cavalcade of the Hell’s Angels, huge loud bikes driven by huge grunting men, hard eyes concealed by shades. They drive a channel through the crowd with what should have been a triumphal progress with the new Caesars of  rock and roll in the position of honour. It’s more like tanks through the streets of Saigon, though. How many butterflies broken on those wheels?

Suddenly it’s night time and the Stones are rocking the stage. Well they would but things keep happening. The crowd has swollen to a life threatening crush. People are fighting. The Angels are on the stage. One of them, beaming in from a lysergic constellation light years away, stands as a huge ursine worry near Jagger at the mic. He slowly caresses himself with eyes closed as though being massaged by the rarest and most exquisitely beautiful of the Venusian Vestals. He will have her this night if his come down doesn’t get him first. Jagger tells the crowd that something happens every time they do Sympathy for the Devil. The song breaks down twice and is abandoned. To their credit, the Stones do try and assuage the turbulence in front of them, sincerely, with more than a hint of unbelieving panic in their voices. Jagger in his harlequin outfit, seen from behind and in middle length shot, looks like a boy at a pageant taking the stage before a crowd of medieval tartars.

The band start up an oldie, Under My Thumb. The self pleasing bear beside Jagger has been replaced by the meticulously neat Sonny Barger, head of the Californian Angels. He fixes on Jagger, calculating him, comprehending his mystique with the eyes of Mr Freeze. To Jagger’s credit, he continues as though he’s alone on stage. I bet it wasn’t what he was feeling, though.

Things finally break down irrevocably and the Stones flee the scene in a chopper. Back in the editing room where we began, the band are shown a black man in a green suit get a knife in the back from an Angel. Run, freeze, wind back, repeat. The victim is revealed to have a hand gun. No one is innocent.

The band are shocked but no one grandstands. The mood is tired and cold. The editing session is over for them and they take their leave. Freeze frame on Jagger looking straight into the camera. Posterise. Big finish.

The dvd version no longer stops there. More poignantly, it returns to Altamont, an hour or so after the bands have gone. The crowds disperse or shiver around makeshift fires but all of them wander into the darkness as a live version of Gimme Shelter blasts out, ragged and barely controlled. Those who fought at Altamont will be different from those who danced at Woodstock. As with the clich├ęd difference between U.S. war veterans, the D-Day men exult while the ones from Tet or Khe San huddle into themselves and move on.

For one, I’m glad: not that someone died or a crowd of people had a bad time but that the peace and love 60s of Woodstock finds a balance in this record of a generation exhausted and abandoned. Those who survived the early 70s of that crowd would have taken an easy place beside their middle class west coast neighbours. Some might even recall the 60s with wistful pleasure. This film remembers differently.

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