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Gimme Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll and Shelter: Spine #99, Gimme Shelter (1970)
by MARK BRENDLE
Gimme Shelter frequently carries the label "the Anti-Woodstock." Many viewers and critics claim it documents the exact moment that the peaceful, innocent 1960s came to an end. Those simplistic interpretations of a complex documentary miss the point entirely. What Gimme Shelter accomplishes isn't the depiction of a turning point at all. Rather, it reveals the hidden underside of the entire hippie movement and shows that beneath the love-all, carefree surface, there was always an extreme violent tension. The dynamics at work at the Rolling Stones' Altamont concert are so complicated that multiple viewings of this movie are crucial in order to begin to sort out the apparent chaos and understand exactly what was going on.
Gimme Shelter is the cinema verité (or direct cinema, if you want to nitpick) rock documentary extraordinaire by the famous Maysles brothers, Albert and David, along with collaborator Charlotte Zwerin, about the Rolling Stones' 1969 US tour and its disastrous culmination in the poorly planned free concert at the Altamont Speedway in northern California that led to several deaths, the most remarkable of which was the stabbing of an (armed) African-American by a member of the Hells Angels.
The film's structure consists of three main parts: live footage of the Rolling Stones' performances during the tour, documentary footage of the process and happenings of the concert, and finally the most interesting piece, footage of the Rolling Stones watching the other two parts of the film in an editing bay, with their initial reactions to the material. This meta-layer of the documentary provides a whole different tone to the film than if it were omitted. However, like all aspects of direct cinema, it provides at best only a partial glimpse into reality.
It's no news that observing something changes it, but this simple fact renders the entire idea of direct cinema and documentary filmmaking in general a kind of imaginary concept. Sticking a camera in someone's face is a surefire way to modify their behavior. If the directors' goal is to capture truth on film, he works against his own interests the minute he pulls out a camera. But what's really important to understand is that people are always acting as if a camera is rolling. Jacques Lacan's concept of the Other (with a big "O") is the arbitrary, third-party gaze of the social-symbolic system. It is for this abstract entity that people "perform" their daily lives. So documentary film isn't just one step removed from reality, it's two: it's people pretending to be a certain way, different from the way they normally pretend to be.
In the case of Gimme Shelter, this is especially important to keep in mind while watching the band's reaction to the movie. The Rolling Stones were already one of the biggest bands in the world at the time of this movie, and as such they were all keenly aware of their "public personas" and the importance of maintaining them. Their reactions to the footage — even the footage of the stabbing — seem extremely repressed. Some of this may be due to "typical British stoicism," as is mentioned in the copious liner essays in the Criterion re-release, but even tea-sipping butlers would blink more of an eye at the death of a human being, as a natural reaction. The Stones' reluctance to commit to a position, summed up in the film's final scene with Mick Jagger walking out and giving a cold, empty stare to the camera, is the reluctance to take a position under the all-seeing gaze of the Other (the camera, the audience, society).
One notable exception to this observation-changing-the-observed rule is a brief scene of the Stones listening to their new song "Wild Horses" for the first time in the recording studio. There's something magical about it, magical because for just a fleeting moment everyone in the room "forgot" about the cameras and allowed themselves to be swept away by the joy of creation and completion, a true joy in the music that is lacking in the rest of the spectacle-packed film. But despite the inherent limits of documentary filmmaking, the Maysles captured some of the essence of this turbulent time and through expert editing, fashioned a film that can still convey that essence forty years later.
Everything that happened at Altamont can be explained via sexual dynamics. In order to see this, we can simplify the situation by splitting the participants up into three general categories: The Rolling Stones — the band and its immediate entourage — the Hells Angels, and the audience.
Rock and roll has always been at least as much about sexual energy as it has music. From Chuck Berry all the way to modern pop stars, selling albums has been about selling the artists as objects of desire. The Rolling Stones, and especially their figurehead, Mick Jagger, are exemplaries of this tradition. Jagger's sexual magnetism is the core of the Rolling Stones' success and the key part of their stage show. Rock concerts focus on the transfer of desire. The audience, composed largely (at least in the front rows) of young girls, desires Mick Jagger as an unattainable sexual object. They read his energy as pure sexuality, existing in a fantasy space, onto which they can project their own repressed sexual desires. Mick Jagger, for his part, projects his own desire — to be desired — onto the audience, giving himself to them as a sort of sexual martyr, taking on the collective sexual sins of the whole in order to provide mass catharsis. This celebrity-fan relationship is almost exclusively imaginary and therefore without real consequences.
This fantastic quality gives the relationship its intense power: its separation from the real world of sexuality (actual intimacy) removes the fear and threat that comes with true sexual encounter. Instead, a kind of fetishization takes place, where the audience receives the music of the band as sexual surrogate and the band receives the ticket and album sales from the audience as theirs. This fetishization abstracts the relationship enough that men can also participate in the idol-worship without compromising their heterosexuality or masculinity. It is strictly compartmentalization, but an effective compartmentalization. The typical male fan of a band like the Rolling Stones, while not consciously desirious of Mick Jagger sexually, nonetheless participates in the transfer of desire. Here, the male fan transfers his omnivorous sexual appetite onto the figurehead and vicariously receives the sexual adulation of females through him. The dynamic works in reverse as well. One of the most memorable musical scenes in Gimmie Shelter is Tina Turner’s electric performance of "I've Been Loving You Too Long," in which she strokes the microphone stand like a penis and has a simulated (?) orgasm on stage. This fetishistic-sexual relationship between performer and audience continues in its pure form to this day in every rock and pop concert on the planet. So why did everything go so horribly wrong at Altamont?
The Hells Angels were and still are the archetypical biker gang. So what is a biker gang? Typically, biker gangs are strictly male. There are female bikers, but rarely are they autonomous agents on equal footing with the other members. They are usually bikers' girlfriends or wives. So a biker gang is a predominantly male club, which makes sense given their group actions and attitude. First, bikers are all about bikes, which are the perfect epitome of externalized masculinity, a powerful, steel monster between the legs of any who dare to ride it. This kind of externalization of masculinity stems from inferiority or fears of inferiority. In fact, it is masculine inferiority that fuels all this aggressive, in-your-face behavior. In addition to their bikes, the Hells Angels are known for their violent, aggressive attitudes. You don’t mess around with the Hells Angels. They’re "bad boys." This kind of pseudo-rebellion, existing solely in the minds of those who participate in it, is repressed impotence manifesting as aimless violence. When asked what he was rebelling against in The Wild One, Marlon Brando, if he wanted to be honest, should have answered, "The ultimate impotence of the phallus."
To make matters worse, the Hells Angels were somehow, though no one is quite willing to admit exactly how or by whom, made to be an "authority" in the sense that they were "given" the symbolic power to exclusively exert physical force. A spokesman for the Hells Angels called into a local radio station and protested that "the Hells Angels aren't cops and never will be," but in reality the Hells Angels (at Altamont) and the police force share a very similar psychological space. Authority of this type is closely connected with sadistic perversion precisely because one can appeal to the desire of the big Other (the Law, the Rules, etc.) as imposing its will for the individual to act sadistically toward someone not inducted under the umbrella of authority. Authority demands respect, authority demands seriousness. Failure to comply results in violence, justified violence from the perspective of the authority, iniquity from the perspective of the victim.
Finally, there's the audience, composed primarily of young people, hippies. The free-love society of the 1960s hippie culture may have had some power to sexually liberate its constituents, but chances are the fervent rush for sexual escapade was an obsessive mask to escape a greater neurosis, such as fear of intimacy. Whatever the case may be on the symbolic level, the hippies for the most part were into free love, and as such they were receptive to the overt sexuality of a band like the Rolling Stones. They were also, more importantly, at odds with the Hells Angels, who represented repressed sexuality par excellence. It was the triad of these libidinal economies that provided the fertile ground for hostility and violence. But of course all of this was supplemented by the both the Angels' and the hippies' other favorite go-to for escapism, drugs.
Gimme Shelter is laden with hilarious footage of completely wasted young people, tripping out in another world on whatever drugs they had on them or were handed out at the time. This is a stark contrast to the highly cultivated image of young people in the 1960s as socially active and aware. These kids were simply blasted out of their minds, more and more interested in "living in the moment," i.e. sensually, and not reflecting on or giving weight to anything. These extreme cases were probably the exception, and found their way into the film so often due to the sheer fascination of watching someone freak out, but they represent the greater issue of drug use, especially in the late 1960s.
There's a great dichotomy when it comes to drug use that was first widely illustrated in the 1960s by the counterculture. On one side is the claim that drugs "expand the mind." On the other is the opinion that drugs reduce the capacity for coherent action and maybe even thought. The question is: do drugs enhance one's ability to observe and function within one's reality or hinder it? Obviously this is a question that differs from drug to drug, but for the people at the Altamont concert it's clear that the ultimate goal of most of the users was to suspend their judgment completely and "be experienced." Again, as is often the case with drugs, this is a double-edged sword. On one hand, being high increases one's ability to sensually experience reality. On the other hand, it dulls one's capability to effectively act upon this increased ability, or to even recall it clearly once it passes. It is a type of escapism, if nothing else; whether positive or negative, the purpose of drugs in late-1960s counterculture was often to escape the normal experience of consciousness.
But the hippies (and the Stones) weren't the only ones on drugs at Altamont. Biker gangs are notorious for their use of amphetamines, notably speed, to enhance their already aggressive personalities and to prepare for battle. Also, trafficking drugs was and still is a very profitable pastime for the Hells Angels, so these were no straight-laced, anti-hippie enforcers. There's no mention of the Hells Angels being on drugs during the Altamont incident, and even if they weren't, which is extremely unlikely, drugs were a large part of their culture and as such colored their perspective.
So on the one hand you have the audience (and the Stones) taking drugs that enhance their ability to enjoy, while on the other hand you have the Hells Angels probably taking drugs that enhance the symptoms of their repression of enjoyment, which is tantamount to reducing their ability to enjoy. It is the tension between these two perspectives, the chasm between not enjoying enough and enjoying too much that leads to violence between the Hells Angels and the audience (and the Stones, to some degree. Many members of the Stones’ entourage either felt or were directly threatened by the Hells Angels during the concert, and the entire band, as well as the Maysles, were targets of impotent death threats after the fact for documenting the Hells Angels’ murder). All of this is set, appropriately, to the "Satanic" blues-rock of the Rolling Stones.
Gimme Rock and Roll
Some might say it's unfortunate that the stabbing didn't occur during a performance of the Stones' most Satanic song, "Sympathy for the Devil," but the song during which it occurred, "Under my Thumb," is much more appropriate. It's precisely because Jagger held the audience, particularly, adulating females, under his thumb that the tension in the audience reached the point of violence. Jagger represented what the counterculture represented — over-abundant enjoyment. Famously, when asked if he was any more satisfied (a hilarious media pun on the Stones' hit song,) Mick Jagger replied, "Financially, no; sexually, yes; philosophically trying." The Hells Angels, already up to their ears in repressed-sexuality-manifesting-as-authoritarianism, couldn't help but be incensed by the sexual control exerted by this scrawny, androgynous little man over thousands of people.
"Under my Thumb," "Sympathy for the Devil," "(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction" — the Stones' catalogue is rife with music that speaks to two fundamental concepts: rampant, limitless sexual drive (imaginary, of course) and a rejection of the socially acceptable, typically dubbed rebellion. Between sex and rebellion, the Stones built a following of millions of people worldwide, channeling the zeitgeist back into the masses. Unlike the Beatles, who tended to channel more of the surface level counterculture concepts like love, experience, and peace, the Rolling Stones channeled its underbelly — that same abstraction that the Maysles captured in their film.
The Rolling Stones' dark music ("Paint it Black" comes to mind) speaks to the subtext of the counterculture, which is nihilism, destruction and negation. Mick Jagger and his band were not Satanic; the music they made was not Satanic, but the countercultural movement itself was Satanic, in the sense of being the enemy of the established authority. Counterculture by its very name implies a rebellion against the establishment. How is this anything but a Satanic act? Satan is the posterchild for the counterculture, their hero. But this was not the image that the participants in the counterculture wanted, so when Mick Jagger sang about sympathy for the devil, he was demonized for speaking the unspoken truth about the cultural movement at the time.
This is the real revelation of Gimme Shelter and of the Altamont disaster: the countercultural movement was a violent, rebellious, negation of the accepted forms of society, operating in a maelstrom of chaos, lucky to slip into obscurity with only a few catastrophes under its belt. People say that the Beatles were the voice of the 1960s, and they were, for its public, gaze-bearing face. But the Stones are the voice of the 1960s in their raw, chaotic reality and perhaps Mick Jagger's arresting look to the camera at the end of the film is an indictment of the viewer, of the everyday person, a look saying, "This is the reality of your counterculture."
The truth is that the counterculture wasn't fundamentally any different from any other young generation. The forms of their rebellion may have been new and excessive, but the rebellion itself lies at the heart of the human drama. Each generation rebels against the previous; it is the only means to progress and maturity as a species. The kids at the Altamont concert were actively pursuing sex, drugs, and rock and roll as a way to avoid being caught up in the world of their parents. They tried to escape the pains of conscience and consciousness. They tried to run away from the responsibility of shaping the future and of one day bearing the dominant form of culture on their shoulders. So, perhaps unconsciously, what the hippies wanted was shelter, the same as any sentient human. Who hasn't looked at the world in which we live and wanted to run away? Who hasn’t wanted to trade the necessary components of past reflection and future projection for a more immediate and intense present moment?
The undercurrent of nihilism in the counterculture was just a ripple from the explosion of traditional values that happened after World War I and intensified after World War II and the Holocaust. Across the entire world, people of all ages were trying to learn how to cope with the new existentialist world. Some dealt with it through denial (the older generations), some through intellectual and artistic expression, and some through escape into a sensual-spiritual fantasy world. One can hardly blame the counterculture for riding the waves of history, and it is especially ridiculous to blame an individual like Mick Jagger for something like Altamont.
The circumstances of the stabbing at Altamont are still debated. As shown in the film, all we know is that a black man, armed with a pistol, was stabbed and killed by a Hells Angel. It would be easy (and somewhat accurate) to blame this entirely on the Hells Angels, but the truth is that violence existed in the very nature of the event. One could point out all kinds of physical, logistical problems such as poor planning of the event, the problematic location, the lack of organization during the concert, etc. Take the filming of the concert, which many people speculated was done for its shock value, to promote the Rolling Stones; to this day, the Maysles are accused of exploiting tragedy to promote their film. But none of these forces compare to the current of history driving the counterculture and its subtext of violence and negation. This subtext existed, was strengthened by every denial, and ultimately exploded, in microcosm, at Altamont.
Gimme Shelter does exactly what a documentary should do: it promotes critical thought about the real-life events captured within. It offers ambiguous messages with multiple meanings without any judgment or interpretation. Gimme Shelter lacks a center perspective, a subjective perspective, and each viewer fills this position when he or she watches the movie. The reason Gimme Shelter stands so high above other rock-docs is that while at best, other documentaries on rock and roll reveal the gritty reality of rock and roll, Gimme Shelter lays bare the gritty reality of an entire generation.
I'd recommend buying this one, if you're into it, because multiple viewings are required to really understand what's going on and it never loses its entertainment value, assuming you enjoy the music of the Rolling Stones. The Blu-Ray transfer by Criterion is outstanding and the audio is superb. The commentary is interesting, especially the second half when things start to really heat up. The liner notes are a great and interesting read, but most Criterion liner essays are available for free on their website. An important piece of history, Gimme Shelter remains one of the best documentaries ever made.