Reviewed by Jim C.,
The movie Gimme Shelter (1970) made an impression on me when I saw it as a teenager in the 1970s, with its spectacle of anarchy and violence at a place teenagers commonly hung out--the rock concert. I guess I wasn’t the only one. Don McLean wrote the hit song “American Pie” partly in response.
Forty-seven years later, former San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joel Selvin attempts a definitive analysis of what went wrong at the 1969 Altamont Free Concert, the subject of that film, in his book Altamont : the Rolling Stones, the Hells Angels, and the Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day. What was supposed to have been a free Woodstock West turned into a violent bummer, with on-camera beatings and death, and has come to symbolize the beginning of the end of the Woodstock hippie ideal.
Selvin interviewed Grateful Dead manager Rock Scully, Rolling Stones tour manager Sam Cutler, lighting director Chip Monck, and others who were involved behind the scenes of the show, as well as musicians, Hell's Angels, and attendees.
Factors contributing to the debacle included a 39-inch-high stage, pervasive drug-addled behavior, and a disastrous, widely held faith that everything would work itself out for the best.
Most customer reviews on Amazon give Altamont 4 or 5 stars, but cranky old Stanley Booth, author of the Rolling Stones book Dance with the Devil, gives it a 1 (but doesn’t say why). I had not seen the level of detail given in this book on this subject before, on the internet or elsewhere. Sam Cutler, whose job in all this was pivotal, was an important witness, and Selvin fully presents Cutler’s side of the story. I’m not sure I agree with Selvin’s assigning of blame in his last chapter, but I also can’t go against Stanley Booth, who was on the stage at the concert and had full access to the Rolling Stones throughout that period. Now I would like to hear Booth’s objections.