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Gimme the Stones

Stewart Oksenhorn

In “Almost Famous,” the new movie that explores the rock ‘n’ roll world, vintage 1973, a character makes the claim that the music is for the young: “Do you think Mick Jagger is gonna be a rock star when he’s 50?”It’s an obvious gag; Jagger, now 56, is still at the top of the heap. The Stones’ tours, now spaced every three or four years, are more massive and popular than ever. Mick and the boys – Keith Richards, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood (Bill Wyman having dropped out in the early ’90s) – trot out an album every so often, and they invariably sell well and are played on radio.In fact, with some four decades of rocking behind him, Mick Jagger is, then and now, the ultimate rock star. For as Jagger has gone, so has gone rock ‘n’ roll.When rock took full flight, in the early ’60s, it was born largely from American blues, a form that Jagger and the Stones adored and borrowed from heavily. When rock became legitimized as a serious art form later in the decade, it was the Beatles – the Stones’ main rivals and comrades – who led the way, but the Stones were just a step or two behind. As rock ‘n’ roll became about excess in all things – money, sex, ego, power – as the ’60s turned into the ’70s, Jagger was at the forefront. When rock went searching for new directions after the rise of disco in the mid-’70s, the Stones helped point the way with such albums as “Some Girls” and “Emotional Rescue.”And as rock ‘n’ roll descended into middle age, with an emphasis on marketing and moneymaking, Jagger has remained a figurehead. One of the wealthiest rock musicians, Jagger seems more motivated by money, success, and the illusion of youth than by making significant music. The Rolling Stones tours are well-choreographed, prop-filled stage extravaganzas that fill football stadiums. The band’s last few albums – 1997’s “Bridges to Babylon,” 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge” – are perfectly competent, listenable and even interesting. Younger fans first introduced to the Stones with this music might well see why the Stones are considered the enduring kings of rock.To older fans, however, the last two decades of the Rolling Stones have been about playing it safe. The recent albums – especially “Voodoo Lounge” and 1990’s “Steel Wheels” – are simply re-workings of a formula that has been successful since the early ’80s; one might well conclude that “Tattoo You,” from the early ’80s, represented the last truly fresh ideas the Stones came up with. — The re-release of the 1970 documentary “Gimme Shelter” shows exactly how dangerous the Stones – and rock ‘n’ roll – really were 30 years ago. The film, which captures the Stones’ 1969 American tour, is much more than a standard concert document. Instead, the film has a narrative flow: It begins with the Stones’ November 1969 concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden – packed, wildly energetic, and filled with such dark-hearted songs as “Brown Sugar,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” and “Street Fighting Man.””Gimme Shelter,” directed by brothers David and Albert Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, then moves behind the scenes, as plans are announced for a free outdoor concert – brainstormed and to be headlined by the Stones – in the San Francisco area. From the beginning, the idea seems a bad one: The original site, in Golden Gate Park, is nixed, and the organizers need to find a new location, one that can hold several hundred thousands of people, on a few days’ notice.It seems an impossibility, until one considers the power and ambition of Mick Jagger. Caught in concert in New York, Jagger seems a phenomenally charismatic figure. His sexual strutting sends women into stage-diving frenzies. Singing lyrics that call out to the powers of Satan, and the blackest desires of man, it is as if Jagger is channeling some vast, uncontrollable spirit as fuel for his charisma.The sense of danger builds as “Gimme Shelter” follows the plans for the free concert. The film introduces attorney Melvin Belli – notorious for representing Jack Ruby after his shooting of Lee Harvey Oswald – as he jumps into the concert-planning fray. Belli – fat, middled-aged, dressed in a three-piece suit – seems seduced by the idea of playing some part in rock ‘n’ roll drama. He pushes and threatens, ignoring all warnings, until the Altamont Speedway is secured as a setting for the concert, which will feature CSN&Y, the Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and the Flying Burrito Brothers in addition to the Stones.Jagger is an active party to the plans. At several stages throughout the documentary, Jagger assures the ever-present press that the Altamont Concert will be, like Woodstock just several months earlier, a chance for the youth counterculture to demonstrate its ability to have good, clean fun in massive numbers.Thirty years down the road, Altamont still stands as the proverbial death of flower power. But in the unfolding of “Gimme Shelter,” Altamont seems more the logical disastrous end that comes of excessive egos and ambitions, especially those of Mick Jagger.There is a threatening aura leading up to Altamont. The concert site is set up overnight the night before the concert. Warnings that the site and the roads leading to the speedway are inadequate are dismissed without pause. The Hell’s Angels are hired to handle security. Before the concert even begins, the stage area is an out-of-control mass of people.Things fall apart quickly. The Hell’s Angels’ idea of security is to administer a beating to any of the 300,000 concertgoers who get in their way. Jefferson Airplane bassist Marty Balin is beaten up – onstage, during the band’s performance. There are endless scuffles in front of the stage, leading to frequent interruptions of the music and threats of the same.And as darkness envelops the stage, with a surreal out-of-hand mood already established, the Rolling Stones take the stage. Already, Jagger seems shaken by his creation; the Stones haven’t made it through two verses of “Sympathy For the Devil” when the song is interrupted due to the mayhem.The Stones carry on, and things get worse. As Jagger sings “Under My Thumb,” the film captures 18-year-old concertgoer Meredith Hunter being stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels, just yards in front of the stage. Slow-motion footage also reveals the gun that Hunter carried and waved.In the aftermath of Altamont, Jagger’s ego was momentarily brought to earth. “Gimme Shelter,” roundly acclaimed as one of the finest rock documentaries, intersperses footage of Jagger and the Stones reviewing the film of Altamont, in all its terror. Jagger is humbled, stunned, depressed.Many have cited the killing of Hunter, in December 1969, as the end of an era. Jagger and the Stones would continue to invite the dark forces with their music. Still to come were such tunes as “Sister Morphine,” “Bitch,” and the utterly unapologetic “It’s Only Rock and Roll.”But Altamont was an exclamation point of what would be the logical result of rock ‘n’ roll’s excesses. And eventually, even Jagger and the Stones would retreat from what they saw at Altamont in favor of something tamer.”Gimme Shelter” is at the Wheeler Opera House Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 21-22, at 8 p.m. The 30th anniversary re-release features a new 35 mm print, restored state-of-the-art sound, and two minutes of footage not originally released.


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