Left Stone Cold

Branded as everything from "the anti-Woodstock" to "the end of the hippie dream," the Rolling Stones's ill-fated free concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969 is an entrenched part of rock lore. That's largely due to the stabbing death of an 18-year-old black man, murdered at the hands of Hell's Angels who were hired as "security" by the Stones for $500 in beer. That it happened in front of the cameras of co-directors Albert and David Maysles makes Gimme Shelter far more than your average rockumentary.

"My brother and I were always purists. Record the facts accurately, and that's what we did at Altamont," Albert Maysles says today. (His brother David is deceased.) The film ended up making history, and a gorgeously restored print is currently making a limited theatrical run.

The Stones -- perhaps smarting from turning down a slot at Woodstock -- decided to put on their own event; Mick and Keith had a film crew already on board to capture the "historic moment," since the Maysles were documenting the band's tour. The documentary's impending sense of doom is heightened by the brilliant editing of co-director Charlotte Zwerin, whose work creates the sense of a rapidly descending roller coaster about to come off its tracks.

" We had to establish early that we were going toward a disaster," Zwerin adds. "Ultimately, it says something about the Stones as phenomenon....reaching [that] level of fame and having their "bad boy' reputation collide with a situation that they've [sung] about."

The Maysles Brothers also filmed the band members as they watched the rushes; Mick Jagger noticeably reacts when the film is painstakingly slowed down to show that the victim, Meredith Hunter, actually pulled a gun just before disappearing under a mass of flailing bikers.

The directors never thought about excluding the Hunter footage, despite the fact that Jagger had veto power over the film and was slow to sign a release. The Angels balked at first, then demanded a $1 million fee as "life actors"; some of the bikers eventually assaulted David Maysles and reportedly threatened to kill the entire crew.

Who ultimately is to "blame" for the tragedy remains unclear. Though Hunter's death during "Under My Thumb" (not during, as often thought, "Sympathy for the Devil") was one of four, it was perhaps the inevitable climax of a poorly planned show that had changed venues three times, finally settling on a site that couldn't handle the overflow audience (many of whom were on bad drugs).

After an increasingly nervous Jagger tries to keep the show going and fails, the Stones ultimately flee Altamont in a tightly packed helicopter, a scene reminiscent of the frantic airlifts at the end of the Vietnam War. And while Albert Maysles -- who still considers the Stones to be the "best rock and roll band in the world" -- has not heard from the band on the restored film, he just might be on the lookout for that gray, now-senior citizen Hell's Angel still waiting for his cut of the action. After all, prescription drugs are pretty expensive now.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero