What would you do if your worst moment – with your impotence and your charlatanry all laid bare – were captured on film, for the world to watch, and re-watch, at will, forever and ever, so you were never allowed to forget it, or ever live it down? If you’re Mick Jagger, you would retreat into the high-tower of superstardom you had built for yourself, never to be seen again by the world except at a distance, as a celebrity, a character and a performer, everything but as a living, breathing, fragile human being.
For the Rolling Stones, the Altamont festival wasn’t just a lousy gig, it was a fundamental defeat. It’s too easy to ascribe symbolism to these things – just look at how the chaotic mudbath of Woodstock has come to be regarded as some sort of counter-cultural triumph – but Altamont, if not actually the “death of the sixties”, is certainly a kick in the crotch to every hippie delusion of love, peace, and togetherness. Love and peace are all very well; Altamont is abiding proof, though, that if you put thousands of drugged and drunken fuck-ups in one place, there will be hell to pay afterwards.
What happened, briefly, then, was this: as the festival’s final act, the Rolling Stones took the stage facing an increasingly moody and violent crowd. They soldiered on as scuffles broke out all around, repeatedly disrupting their set. At one point, a young man named Meredith Hunter tried to force his way to the stage with a gun; he was knifed and killed by a Hells Angel delegated to provide security. Contrary to the claims of the satanist fringe, Hunter wasn’t murdered while Sympathy for the Devil played; instead it was to Under my Thumb that he met his end. His was one of the four deaths that day. None of the Stones saw it from the stage at the time, but the concert film crew – though they weren’t to know until they reached the editing room – had caught it on camera.
The footage of Meredith Hunter’s stabbing is, not surprisingly, the centrepiece of the Gimme Shelter concert film which followed. What’s at least as arresting – to any pop fan, anyway – is the Rolling Stones themselves at that show.
Consider this: these here aren’t clean young Billy & his Bubblegum Dreamboats, they are the fucking Rolling Stones. They’re the scruffiest, meanest lads of the decade. They’ve given all the nice old ladies a fright, singing about the devil and about doing schoolgirls in the upstairs bedroom. These are the naive, pretty sixties, before Ozzy Osbourne and the all-night video-rental store: all of this must’ve come across as pretty forking bad-ass.
And here, a long way away from the pantomime world of the London rock ‘n’ roll circus, they wind up in a very, very serious mess.
It is then demonstrated to the world that, faced with real trouble, the almighty Stones haven’t a clue what to do.
You can watch for yourself. Mick Jagger & his boys, purveyors of shock value to the United Kingdom, are nervous wrecks: Mick tries everything he knows as the crowd, and the evening, slowly slip out of his control. He tries cajoling, he tries working up a groove to ease the atmosphere of menace, so everyone can settle back in; in a desperate bid, he tries the whole “brothers and sisters” line: it’s fake, of course, the Stones were never a brothers-and-sisters group. Everything about the Rolling Stones is fake. Loving the Stones has everything to do with taking their fakery for what it is: and yet, on some level, this humiliation of being exposed as a charade must’ve been unendurable. Because it’s one thing making the pretty girls shriek back home, and it’s another thing trying your hand at crowd-control when the crowd have murder in their hearts. You can see Mick falter at one point, and sag. Then he jumps back into his chicken-dancing all over again as if it’s his last hope. It is. He’s a pop star, after all. And there’s nothing much pop stars can really do, faced with the uglinesses of the outside world.
What makes pop culture so endearing, and yet so terminally stupid, is the fact that, for years, a lot of men and women have consistently gone against all elementary common sense and viewed – of all the unreliable, shallow, callous people – their singers and songwriters as their saviours, their hope, and their voice. And, sometimes, with the right pair of headphones on, and the right single on the spin, you can, just maybe, see why: even at a disaster of Altamont proportions, the Stones’ guitars sound warm and wonderful, full of urgency and conviction, their groove smacks and swings, until, for the briefest while, you come to believe the vast and dangerous lie that, if nothing else will, rock ‘n’ roll might just pull this sodding, overburdened, dirty, hopeless world out of its misery.