It’s often remembered as the day the Sixties died. On December 6, 1969, the Rolling Stones and a group of West Coast bands put on a free concert at the Altamont Raceway near San Francisco. The concert was billed as “Woodstock West,” but instead of being another gathering of peace, love and music, it was more like a bad trip.
The event was hastily put together by the Stones to celebrate the end of their American tour, their first with guitarist Mick Taylor. The stage at the venue was unusually low and was situated at the bottom of a hill. To keep the audience of 300,000 people from engulfing the stage, someone had the bright idea of enlisting the Hells Angels motorcycle gang to form a security cordon around the stage in exchange for (essentially) all the beer they could drink.
As the concert descended into chaos, the Hells Angels beat people with pool cues and motorcycle chains. A guitarist and singer for the Jefferson Airplane, Marty Balin, was knocked unconscious. When a man in the audience brandished a pistol during an altercation while the Stones were onstage, he was stabbed and beaten to death by members of the gang.
The whole sorry episode is captured in Gimme Shelter, the classic documentary by the brothers Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin. The film was released in 1970 and can be seen above in its entirety. Gimme Shelter contains elements of a typical rock and roll documentary, with footage of the Stones on the road and playing a concert at Madison Square Garden in New York. But the main focus is Altamont. The Maysles brothers hired a large team of cameramen for the event, including filmmaker Robert Elfstrom, Magnum photographer Elliott Erwitt and a young George Lucas.
Gimme Shelter is a fascinating record of the Sixties counterculture as it was falling apart. The last third of the picture is painful to watch but difficult to turn away from. The hubris and naiveté of the time are captured in a scene before the event, when Mick Jagger tells a group of reporters what Altamont is all about: “It’s creating a sort of microcosmic society, which sets an example to the rest of America as to how one can behave in large gatherings.”