Gimme Shelter: Slipping the gears

Ah, 1969. Back when the Rolling Stones were merely grotesque instead of deathly and a white woman could unironically shill for the Panther defense fund. A time of innocence and rebirth, or at least, that’s the hype. Movements, like everything, have life cycles, and the inspiered creative movements of the 60s aged fast. They surely reached their maturity at Monterey Pop, where free spirits and creativity merged in an ideological fervor that seemed like it could burn away the evils of the world. By Woodstock the movement seemed to have lost its edge a bit: despite the tremendous “good vibes” cited in association with it, there wasn’t much actual there there, ifyou will. And at Altamont, surely, is where the 60s died.

Gimme Shelter does a very effective job of portraying Altamont’s many, many flaws. The most colorful of those failures was of course the recruitment of the Hell’s Angels as security, but the organizational failures were legion. Essentially, none of the facilities were appropriate to the crowd. We’re told about parking problems, shown sanitary and medical problems, and and the design of the stage area was obviously flawed. There was nothing intrinstically wrong with a lot of people getting together for a music festival, but squeezing all those people into too small a space is a recipe for tragedy. The Hell’s Angels were certainly not a wise choice, but Altamont was doomed even without their help.

I’m surprised by the extent of the candid video of the planning, of the crowd, etc. I guess I shouldn’t be, since candid/crowd shots made up a lot of the Woodstock and Monterey Pop videos, but I guess I view Altamont more as a train wreck than a festival, and it seems weird to me that there’d be so many video cameras around a disaster. The choice of footage brings up an intriguing question, as well: exactly to what extent was Altamont a greater disaster than Woodstock? Both have become their mythos, and footage used to depict them is representativeof the myth. I’m sure there’s footage of major organizational crises at Woodstock, and maybe even footage of people having a good time at Altamont. But instead it’s all Mick Jagger bitching out the audience and Marty Balin getting the crap beat out of him. In fact, in the end, Meredith Hunter’s death comes as a downright anticlimax, although it’s generally presented as the most damning physical evidence of Altamont’s organizational fuckups.

See also: IMDB, Wikipedia.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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