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Just a Shot Away: The Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter

02/21/2013 01:50 pm ET | Updated Apr 23, 2013

By Kristen Bialik

Gimme Shelter is a Greek tragedy with a rock 'n' roll chorus and a triple injection of hubris. Directed by brothers Albert and David Maysles, along with editor Charlotte Zwerin, Gimme Shelter was commissioned by the Rolling Stones to capture the last few stops of their infamous 1969 U.S. tour, which ended in the tragic free concert at Altamont Speedway where there were four deaths, including that of a black teenager who brandished a gun and was then stabbed to death by the Hell's Angels who were paid in beer to be security. It's a film within a film, a series of three interconnected, but deeply schizophrenic strains: euphoric moments onstage, the mundane business of concert planning, and the sober reflection of the Stones as they watch the footage post-tour.

Critics have used the film to affix blame on the Rolling Stones for the way they handled the planning leading up to Altamont and the event itself, to the Angels for their belligerence and violence, and even to the Maysles brothers for exploiting the violence on film, or worse, helping incite the violence simply by being there. But the film doesn't assign blame. It simply shows all the players as they are and as they react. The filmmakers also know that the circumstances that created Altamont were underway well before they joined the Stones mid-tour and long before the cameras started rolling.

While it seems counterintuitive, the violence at Altamont grew out of a wild, or wildly blind, optimism that had been building for the better part of a decade. Fresh off the heels of Woodstock, there was an elated sense of possibility, and especially a sense that music could bring people together in wonderful ways.

Stanley Goldstein, who worked on the film with the Maysles brothers in many roles, later explained the mentality leading up to the concert:

Emotions ran high. There was a subtext of 'we'll show them, the establishment, the authorities that they can't shut us down.' 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 & 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.

Even the quick scapegoats (and with lead-tipped pool cues as weapons, rather easy ones at that), the Hell's Angels, had reasons beyond poor planning for being security guards (a decision the Stones also received heavy blaming for, though of course it was a decision not entirely their own). While readily accepted as the penultimate antiheros in the Altamont story, the Hell's Angels of England had volunteered to serve as an "Honor Guard" on July 5, 1969, for a free concert in London's Hyde Park that the Rolling Stones put on in memory of the band's original lead guitarist, Brian Jones, who had recently drowned. It was, by all reports, a lovely, peaceful day for all few hundred thousand people in attendance.

Not only had the Stones had a positive recent experience with the Angels serving guard, but the Grateful Dead had worked out a long-established arrangement with the Hell's Angels that had become common in the Bay Area. The Angels would have a separate, roped-off area stocked with a few cases of beer. Coined Angel Land, the area reduced friction between other concert goers, gave the Angels a private space to do as they wished and, in exchange, the Angels would watch over the generators and other equipment. Of course, working relationships aside, the Hell's Angels had also attacked an anti-war rally at the Oakland-Berkeley boundary just a few years earlier and had reportedly beat the shit out of people. So it was a matter of choosing what image to believe in. The high-riding optimism of the times, along with more recent positive experiences, pointed to the Angels as a decent security plan. Besides, they probably wouldn't even be needed really, right?

The events at Altamont are often discussed or perceived as the final blow to the 1960s ideals. But like the contradictory stories of the Hell's Angels, of course, the 1960s was more than a time of peace, love and optimism. These feelings likely ran so high because of the equally present and radically opposite sentiments. The 1960s were also a time of violence, uncertainty and incredible doubt. It was, once again, a question of what you wanted to believe or participate in.

The Rolling Stones understood both sides and Gimme Shelter shows the violent collision of the two. They rile up "Wild Horses," then ask people to cool it and sit down. They play "Street Fighting Man," and ask why we're fighting. They sing "Sympathy for the Devil," then beg the crowd to stop come together in peace. It's not that they're hypocrites, it's that they live in both worlds: the fear and cynicism, along with the optimism and hope of the '60s. This was the same year that Let It Bleed came out, with "Gimme Shelter" as the lead track. In a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Mick Jagger said of the song, "Well, it's a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense... that's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It's apocalypse; the whole record's like that."

Let It Bleed had an apocalyptic sense of losing control, a paranoia that the inevitable end was near. Gimme Shelter feels like that, in part because we know all along that at the end death is inevitable. We're forced to watch what feels like a predetermined fate unfold. Every statement feels like a challenge, like when Jagger says of the growing festival movement, "It's creating a sort of microcosmic society which sets an example for the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings." Every song feels like a prophecy, as if it was all just "Love in Vain."

The moment Mick Jagger realizes that that the events unfolding before him are beyond control, that he is, in some way, complicit in the violence below, is one of the most incredible scenes in the film. He takes in the crowd below with a sudden fearful realization and says:

"All I can ask you San Francisco is like the whole thing. This could be the most beautiful evening we've had this winter. Let's get it together. I can't do any more than just ask you, beg you, to keep it together. You can do it. It's within your power everyone. Everyone. Hell's Angels. Everybody. Let's just keep ourselves together."

It's a plea from a pedestal that's used to people listening. Even earlier in the film we see Mick Jagger manipulate the crowd with ease, asking obliging viewers to climb down from scaffolding and get off the stage. But the crowd is beyond his power now. The light of his star is too dim to overpower the flame of excitement and violence that caught the crowd. He's singing "Under My Thumb," by riots are squirming underneath it. And suddenly it's there in his voice, his begging, and in the lost and unfamiliar look of perceived irrelevance. He's knows it's true. All he can do is beg. All the crowd can do is move with itself, give itself over to the unidentifiable forces pushing and shoving. All the Angels can do is react. All the Maysles' brothers and crew can do, without even realizing it initially, is capture a murder on film, but they have no powe (Bergman) (Taubin) (Goldstein) (Litwak) to stop it. There's no control. The only order is in the unstoppable chain of events.

Some critics have called Gimme Shelter exploitative, but it's really, as Amy Taubin writes, "a masterpiece of restraint and understatement." The Altamont performance of "Gimme Shelter" was, according to Goldstein, one of the most powerful things he'd ever heard. "The sense that anything can happen, and that nobody knows what is happening, is stomach-turning," he said. But in the film, the audio of "Gimme Shelter" is paired with a much more underplayed image. It's the final scene in the movie and we see a series of shots showing the crowd walking through the fields around Altamont Speedway. Concertgoers, bundled in blankets, float through a wash of yellow morning light with a shared path and shared purpose. It's a peaceful scene, one that stands in sharp contrast to the lightless chaos of the performance sequences. But "the sense that anything can happen, and that nobody knows what is happening" is still there. The innocent-looking figures only underscore what the lyrics remind us at every turn. That it only takes one. That at any moment everything could change. That war is just a shot away.

Kristen Bialik works in public relations in Milwaukee, WI. When she's not doing that, she's trying to learn Korean, trying to write short stories, or trying to scheme up ways she can work for Conan O'Brien in Burbank. They're works in progress.

Resources:

Barger, Ralph "Sonny". "Gimme Shelter: From Let It Bleed." Criterion.com 13 November 2000.

Bergman, Georgia. "Gimme Shelter: Snapshots from the Road." Criterion.com 13 November 2000.

Booth, Stanley. "Gimme Shelter: The True Adventures of Altamont." Criterion.com 13 November 2000.

Canby, Vincent. The New York Times 7 December 1970.

Goldstein, Stanley. "National Film Preservation Board." 10 November 1998. Library of Congress.

Litwak, Leo E. "Hells Angels Review." The New York Times 29 January 1967.

Lyndon, Michael. "Gimme Shelter: The Decade That Spawned Altamont." Criterion.com 13 November 2000.

Sragow, Michael. ""Gimme Shelter": The True Story." Salon.com 11 August 2000.

Taubin, Amy. "Gimme Shelter: Rock-and-Roll Zapruder." Criterion.com 13 November 2000.