Sunday, November 6, 2011

Gimme Shelter (1970)

A Trifle Too Satanic

directed by David Maysles, Albert Maysles
and Charlotte Zwerin
starring The Rolling Stones, a shitload of Hell's Angels,
The Death of the Sixties

"Something very funny happens when we start that number."

That's Mick Jagger's sudden lump-throated reckoning in the eye of the storm at Altamont — a limp-dicked stab at levity as the Stones bring "Sympathy for the Devil" to a halt and try to figure out just what the hell's going on out there in the darkness, what with all the pushing and shouting, and Hell's Angels gathering like storm clouds around the band, and naked fat zombie girls trying to claw their way onstage, while high-as-a-kiters tug at the speakers, and hippies who should be blissfully tripping are instead trying desperately to alert Mick to something. Meanwhile, new guitarist Mick Taylor's hiding under his hair and Keith Richards is busy rhythm-chording his way into the ether like no one since Nero picked up a fiddle. (Jagger in a frustrated snit: "Keef! Keef! Would you cool it and I'll try an' see wot's goin' on...")

Suddenly, a huge gap opens in the crowd, like cattle bolting at the bark of gunfire. What we can't make out (but would later be reported): pool cues wielded by pissed-off Angels begin cutting through the air — each one the flick of the whip that scatters a thicket of zonked-out teenagers who made the mistake of pushing too close to the stage or being too close to the Angels' motorcycles. Kids already huddled at the feet of the band begin clinging to the stage like a raft, afraid of being sucked backward into the vortex of cracked skulls and bad-trip confusion. A crying girl nods her head in time to Charlie Watts' ever-steady beat. The Stones slog on, torn and frayed, likely counting down the minutes until they can break for the safety of their helicopter. Jagger's weary improv during "Under My Thumb": "I pray that it's alright..."

Springing from the brows of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters and Hank Williams and Southern soul, the Stones were, by far, the best and blackest of our mutt-bred pop culture's Original White Niggers. ("Monkey Man," indeed.) They taught scruffy American boys how to be American — how to pout and posture, how to hold one's guitar, how to feed the birds the perfect cocktail of misogyny and sensitivity and have 'em thirsting for seconds, how to sound just black enough to align oneself with the sex and menace of the blues while staying hard-rock enough to headline stadiums and grace the T-shirts of the kids from the 'burbs. It took Mick 'N Keef to show us how to appreciate the blues, how to acknowledge our hillbilly roots, how to rub elbows and swap sweat with our Negroes (onstage, anyway), how to dig the funk and show ourselves up as mullet-headed, sexually insecure dinosaurs when we labeled the disco rhythms of "Miss You" and "Emotional Rescue" a craven sellout.

"Turd on the Run" and "Tumbling Dice" and "Brown Sugar" and "Monkey Man" and "Stray Cat Blues" mark the Stones as the true architects of what rock ended up as — that is, if we're taking as testimony the overall sound and approach of, say, Guns N' Roses or coke-era Aerosmith or uptempo T. Rex or the New York Dolls or the Faces or the Iggy Pop of Raw Power or the Black Crowes or Little Steven and Nils Lofgren in Springsteen's band or ZZ Top or the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion or any number of loud, sloppy blues-rock doo-dah merchants. The whole alt-country/"Americana" genre could send Father's Day cards to Exile on Main St.'s weary, drunken jaunts down the alleys and backroads of the South. Keith Richards' legendary fondness for dope plus the elegantly wasted grandeur of his onstage cigarette-dangling probably influenced legions of Slashes and Johnny Thunderses and God-knows-who-else in their personal acquisitions of needle-mania. Scuzz-punk malcontents Pussy Galore dedicated an entire album to deconstructing Exile. Liz Phair considered her Exile in Guyville a song-by-song response to it. Martin Scorsese can't make a gangster film without "Gimme Shelter" (the song). I used to reserve "Sweet Black Angel" as a ringtone for any black girls I was fucking.

And so, we watch the Stones-loving, Woodstock-era youth culture of Gimme Shelter with the fascination of anthropologists studying dinosaur fossils. Throughout the first half of the film, we're essentially hanging with the Stones on their 1969 tour of the States. We follow them as they check into their cheap motel rooms. (Holiday Inn!) We're treated to a work-in-progress version of "Wild Horses" during a mixing session at Alabama's famed Muscle Shoals studio. We chuckle at Keith in all his smacked-out, bad-teeth languor as he shows off his Marilyn Monroe T-shirt for the camera, seconds after swigging booze like bottled Kool-Aid.

We marvel at the ridiculously young Mick Jagger on the screen here, the one strutting across that Madison Square Garden stage in his Uncle Sam top hat and what looks like a goddamn kids' superhero costume, with his electrocuted-chicken dance moves and the sheer, genuine love of performing that keeps bubbling forth. We watch him and we see him as our parents once saw him: not the long-past-his-prime, thoroughly safe and jet-setting pop royalty who famously inspired a "get off the stage, old man" from Morrissey. No, this is a young and still-relevant Mick — fully aware of his powers, ironic to the core, and yet totally sincere in his embrace of the role of Sixties Cultural Avatar. It's Mick Jagger as the big, bad, booty-lipped Lucifer leading the youth down the pied-piper path to irreversible moral decay, who warned you coy little out-of-time cunts not to play with fire, who teased you with your own complicity in the culture that killed the Kennedys, who foretold all the rape and murder that was just a shot away, who brayed openly for coke and sympathy, who invited up your fifteen year-old sister (thirteen, if you believe the live version) and didn't even want to check her I.D. first.

This is rock as the riot-sparking madhattery that your parents and the county sheriff tried to shield you from. It's rock as a force of nature to kill or die or fuck to — as if Mick's hips were connected by invisible wire to each hit of the snare drum, as if Mick himself were nothing more than a puppet on the strings of the Charlie Watts-Bill Wyman steam engine pumping away behind and beneath him, as if the chugga-chugga juggernaut churned up by Keith and Mick Taylor were pure uncut China White being mainlined straight into his vein, all the way up to his brain, and the sheer fucking heft of the noise they're cooking up has possessed him, mind-body-and-soul. We watch the Mick of Gimme Shelter and the last thirty-odd years evaporate right in front of us: the faceless tours with 800-ft. video screens in corporate-owned arenas, the nostalgia, the classic-rock radio overkill, the graceless aging, the overly familiar crunch of those Keef rhythm chords as Mick licks his lips and gyrates his way through another tale of conquest or romantic desperation like he's still twenty-five years old.

And then we get to Altamont. And, oh, do the storm clouds gather fast.

Of course, the Maysles Brothers hadn't intended to be pallbearers at what the press would term the funeral for a generation's hopes. (If I wrote for, say, Rolling Stone, I'd probably liken the Sixties to some kind of "high" and call Altamont the "comedown.") Mundane as it seems now, it's key to remember: these guys were only there to capture primo footage of The World's Greatest Rock 'N Roll Band on what was then its first U.S. tour in three years. And so, we watch as a simple end-of-tour freebie gig at the Altamont speedway in northern California slowly mutates into Altamont — the End of the Sixties, the Death of the Innocence — piece by piece, the sheer spirit-depleting horror of the thing only gradually revealed, like a jigsaw puzzle that forms the poster for the new Rob Reiner movie.

During the Jefferson Airplane's set, the grinning death's head of impending doom materializes one image at a time — naked hippies writhing, sullen Angels sipping their beer, the musicians nodding and jamming, the crowd moving in tighter, pushing forward, then surging back. We get a jittery Grace Slick trying to still the waves of discontent — "Easy.... easy..." — that she feels coming off the crowd. Then the Airplane's Marty Balin gets knocked out by Angels and there go the floodgates — the crowd parts for some unfortunate soul meeting two or three pool cues at once, scythes cutting whip-like arcs through the pot-laced air, as if we've suddenly jerked forward into fast-motion and the film were unspooling past the gate faster than our eyes could comprehend. Calls for a doctor are met largely with indifference as the bad vibes have yet to spread out to the majority of the crowd. Minutes off the Stones' helicopter, Mick's greeted by a fan socking him in the eye.

And then, the queasy climax we came for: the crowd parts (again) around the spastic dance of a pimp-suited black kid named Meredith Hunter, who's either mid-scuffle or in a mad rush for the stage. For reasons debated endlessly in the forty years since — self-defense or harmful intent? — Hunter's left hand brandishes a revolver. Before we can blink, an Angel tackles him from the side and buries a knife in his back, sweeping him into the off-camera darkness to breathe his dying breath under (what was later reported as) a barrage of further blows and kicks. And thus, David and Albert Maysles' thrilling little Rolling Stones tour documentary became the evil twin to Michael Wadleigh's Woodstock, the Deep Throat of culture porn for assorted Sixties-backlashers, a snuff-flick dissertation on the impossibility of utopia.

"But where were the police?" you ask from your central air-conditioned penthouse suite of twenty-first century hindsight. "Where was security?" Apparently there were no cops — at least not until Meredith Hunter was already a lime-green lump on a stretcher. And all those drunken Hell's Angels going around cracking skulls and weighing down the makeshift stage? Well, they were the security.

Ah, the Sixties. That fleeting arrhythmia in the EKG of the twentieth century — a psychedelic fever dream of peace and love and brother-helping-brother before the culture yanked the thermometer from under its tongue, rose from its sickbed and continued onward in its otherwise uninterrupted march toward corporate-sponsored, conservative-voting, middle-class respectability. But what a dream it was, this era of automatic culture-cred parceled out to random longhairs, druggies and misfits due to their perceived antipathy to the Man. Didn't want to be shipped off to die in the 'Nam? You were a revolutionary, maaan. Evinced a dislike of the pigs and anyone else with the stench of authority? You were a revolutionary. Spent your days handing out pamphlets and shagging any body-painted, floppy-tittied, Buckwheat-bushed floozy who happened to spasm-dance her way into your acid-baked field of triple-vision, all while decrying the privilege that made such a charmed life possible in the first place? Oh, you were a revolutionary. (Of course, the bulk of this criteria applied as much to Charlie Manson as it did to, say, Abbie Hoffman or any kid at a Doors concert.)

And if you belonged to a notorious biker gang known more for boozin' 'n fightin' 'n runnin' trains on saggy motorcycle mamas than for any sense of social purpose or progressive political thought? Then, you were an "outlaw brother of the counterculture" and you and your sawed-off pool cues got hired to maintain order at a free outdoor festival headlined by Mick Jagger and company for five hundred dollars worth of beer.

The Maysles structured Gimme Shelter as a commentary on itself. The concert footage and the soul-crushing experience of Altamont are the movie-within-the-movie; the actual movie is the ashen-faced Stones in the brothers' editing room, after the fact. And they're on the same trip as us: watching the World's Greatest Rock 'N Roll Band go from hammer-of-the-gods cockiness to pathetic bleating and useless "brrrothers and sssisters" platitudes in the face of the kind of danger that can't be bought off or seduced with insouciant pop-idol poses. We watch the Stones as stars in their own version of Antonioni's Blow-Up, running the footage of Meredith Hunter's death back and forth to try and suss out the truth from the murk, the murder from the grain — that specter of a knife frozen in eternity against a girl's checkered dress, the inevitability of a dream's end paused and scrutinized again and again like Mathilda May's tits on a VHS tape of Lifeforce when you're sixteen years old. It's as if, by reversing that knife plunge and pausing it mid-air, the horror of a split-second decision fueled by drugs and half-comprehension — to say nothing of probable class resentment and the unavoidable racial element — could be sucked back into the portal of happenstance from whence it so rudely burst.

And maybe then, the dream would live on. Maybe then, the acid-heads we see spinning in circles before the Airplane's set would genuinely come to know expanded consciousness and the True Meaning of It All. Maybe then, the soccer mom we see taking up money for a Black Panther defense fund ("after all, they're just Negroes") would come to see the day when black and white and brown and plaid all melted together in a beautiful pan-racial orgy of Neapolitan ice-cream togetherness. Maybe one day, the Man and his outmoded way of thinking would finally shuffle off this mortal coil, and the children of Woodstock would assume his throne at last — the very ones who nattered on about changing the world (as if they were the first generation to hit upon that particular form of self-flattery) while those of lesser privilege lost limbs in Southeast Asia and had to settle for "Satisfaction" over Armed Forces radio. And — who knows? — maybe Hendrix would join Janis Joplin and the Lizard King and Danny Whitten of Crazy Horse onstage for a monster jam at the inauguration of President Ted Kennedy at the dawn of the Eighties. It was the Sixties. Time was on the side of the righteous. Anything was still possible, right?

Or maybe there's more to that cold-blooded stabbing that seemed so clear-cut on a Moviola in the Maysles' editing suite. Would history regard differently the sacrificial black lamb of the Stones' satanic white-blues communion had Meredith Hunter managed to squeeze off shots that ventilated some poor hippie chick's skull? Would it have thrown the actions of that murderous Angel into bold relief if Hunter had fired that revolver willy-nilly and sent errant bullets into one of the Stones, perhaps Jagger himself? Could the whole damnable misfortune be attributed to the seriousness with which the Angels took their job as concert security?

David Hemmings in Blow-Up knew: sometimes, the more you stare at something, the harder it is to ever know just what the hell you're looking at.

©2011 Scott Is NOT A Professional Film Critic

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