I went to a Christian college, one where chapel was semi-required – you had to accrue a certain amount of “Christian Life and Service” credits during the school year or pay a fine, and chapel was the easiest way to get CLS credits. Three mornings a week, most of the school would gather at the church on campus for about 45 minutes. The “good” kids sat up front and got into the worship; the “bad” kids sat in the back with their headphones in or homework for the next class; the “really bad” kids didn’t show up at all.
Once a year for about a week, we had Revival. It was a scheduled event where chapel was every day (including the weekend), and where the tone of chapel was turned towards holiness, conviction, and getting right with God, in order to create a sweeping-up of people to get “on fire” for God. For me, it was a good opportunity to get caught up on chapels I had missed, but little more. Truth be told, it always seemed very strange to me. The idea that you could schedule a revival (for a certain week and not another) was contradictory to the very concept of revival. When there’s true revival, things change, the Holy Spirit moves, and everyone feels God’s presence to a radical degree. But it can’t be manufactured on a week of the college administration’s choosing.
That desire to re-create something spiritual and unknowable reminds me of the Altamont Free Concert. The promoters of Altamont tried to repeat the magic that happened at Woodstock and Monterey Pop. While they should have known that those events were unrepeatable, there was no way they could foresee the horrible way things would end.
Be warned; what follows is the lowest point in the life of the Rolling Stones, and one of the darkest moments in all of rock and roll history. Brian Jones’s death was just an indicator, a warning shot from God to the Stones that things were about to get really bad.
Like most badly-remembered points in history, Altamont started with the best of intentions. When you plan a concert, make it outdoors on a huge site, include a bunch of very famous bands on the bill, and don’t charge admission, profits probably aren’t your main concern. That leaves creating an event where music is celebrated, which is pretty pure in the scope of things. From the time the Stones announced the free concert, which they would headline, the press touted it as “Woodstock West.” It came less than a year after that “Festival of Peace, Love and Music,” and involved a few of the same people at the organizational level. But the romance and perfection of Woodstock couldn’t be manufactured at will.
The first mistake the promoters made was hiring the Hells Angels, a motorcycle gang, to handle security (if you hire a biker gang, what do you think is gonna happen?). Their second mistake was having the agreement with them be so loose as to make no mention of the word “security” at all. The terms, as the Angels understood them, were “we keep people away from the generators, and we get free beer.” No money exchanged, no contracts, no paperwork, no nothin’. It was kind of a gentlemen’s agreement, but the Hells Angels are no gentlemen. I’m not much for red tape, but I think in this case it would have not only have made things go more smoothly, but would have maybe prevented tragedy.
Things didn’t go well. There was an incident in the afternoon where Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin jumped off the stage in the middle of a song to help a fan who was getting the crap kicked out of him by a Hells Angel. The Grateful Dead (who had suggested the Hells Angels in the first place because they had used them before with success) were scheduled to go on after Jefferson Airplane, but decided not to perform in protest. Then evening came, darkness fell, and the Rolling Stones took the stage. After fighting broke out during “Sympathy For the Devil,” Mick Jagger implored the crowd to calm down and be cool. He then performed a somber rendition of “Under My Thumb.” It was during that song that Stones fan Meredith Hunter, after pulling a long-barreled pistol from his coat, was murdered by a Hells Angel.
A documentary film crew was present; they had filmed the Rolling Stones in the studio, and were on hand for the entire Altamont experience. When the murder happened, they caught the whole thing on film. The movie they made, Gimme Shelter, included footage of a very sad Mick Jagger looking at the concert tapes. The most poignant moment is when he’s watching the performance of “Under My Thumb” and freezes the frame right when the knife that killed Meredith Hunter connected.
Let It Bleed had already been released at this point, and Altamont was the Stones’ big opportunity to promote it. “Gimme Shelter,” the lead-off track, had likewise already been recorded several months before. The music is eerie and unsettling; not a new thing for the Stones by any means, but the eeriness was escalated by the tragic events that took place only a week later. It’s freaky how prophetic this song is. The lyrics speak of an insidious force threatening the life of the singer, and an atmosphere of gloom and death. In the bridge, there is even talk of “rape” and “murder.” However, the song ends on a hopeful note: “I tell ya love, sister – it’s just a kiss away.”
“Gimme Shelter” features Merry Clayton on backing vocals. She sings the bridge with such emotional power that it even takes Mick Jagger aback, as he can be heard saying “Whoo!” in the background after her voice cracks for the second time. Merry was pregnant at the time of recording, and suffered a miscarriage later that day; the strain of hitting the highest notes was a little too much.
The Rolling Stones are one of the only bands to ever have a murder happen during one of its live performances. “Gimme Shelter” is an unthinkably awesome song just by itself, but when it’s viewed in light of the giant debacle that is Altamont, its greatness rises to about 3 times its original level. Many critics call Altamont the point in history where the romance and glittering sheen of the hippie movement not only wore off, but was killed with devastating prejudice. To me, it was a turning point. It was a time when a large group of people said, “this isn’t true for us anymore,” and they went in search of another truth.
More about Let It Bleed tomorrow!