Pleased to meet you, won't you guess my name?
I was watching the clip of the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy For The Devil" from the infamous "Gimme Shelter" movie, filmed at the Altamont Speedway in California, December, 1969, and thinking about real-life nightmares, or the idea of a collective sense of dread, evil, even. Playing with the highest and lowest that lives within people, and this time, losing.
Much has been written about this song, and the film, and its counterpart, the Woodstock Festival, just a few months earlier on the other side of the country. The two massive music gatherings have often been paired as dark and light, violent and peaceful. Nothing is ever quite that delineated in truth, but in this song clip there is such a sense of hopelessness, chaos, and waste. It has been said that Altamont signaled the end of the 60s and the Peace & Love Generation. Maybe it was more that, inevitably, the underside was exposed, something that always existed. Those who wanted to change the world, believed that love was all you needed, believed if all banded together anything was possible, refused to acknowledge the fundamental nature of people, all people.
Just as every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners saints
As heads is tails
Just call me Lucifer
'Cause I'm in need of some restraint
The Rolling Stones were about as evil as a pair of tube socks. "Sympathy For The Devil" hardly expressed their personal feelings; it was a piece of lyrical fiction, wonderings about the concept of evil. But in those days, heavy with the weight of Vietnam, assassinations, race wars, and drug culture casualties like Brian Jones turning up with more and more regularity, people looked at rock stars like gods, having messages of revolution, revelation. Look at Charles Manson and the Beatles' "Helter Skelter;" another nightmare of sickness and misunderstanding. "Yummy Yummy Yummy" plays over the radio while someone bleeds to death.
Altamont was a disaster, in every way imaginable. Look at poor Mick Jagger there: "Ohhhhhhhhm babies. There's so many of you." He stands there, looks, laughs a bit, tries to go into the song. The pale, dirty, dissolute crowd bickers, pushes, the Hell's Angels start smacking away on them. "Keith, Keith, Keith, Keith! Will you cool it and I'll try to stop it." Getting Keith Richards to stop the song, to attempt to calm 300,000 people, Jagger looks tiny, comically useless, his persona and fame powerless against what seems to be, and was, unstoppable.
In "Gimme Shelter" you see a clip of Jagger watching this scene unfold in the film editing room, face implacable, his fingers brought to his lips. I have often wondered what he was thinking there. We know, and he knows, what is coming: after a few more songs, a young man near the stage raised a handgun and was stabbed and kicked to death. The band played on, not knowing the seriousness of what had occurred, and also under the threat of harm from the Hell's Angels. Did Jagger feel responsible? Helpless? Empty? How does one go from singing covers of Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters to screaming little girls just a few short years previously, to this? Drugs and death and devils, all too plain the next morning in the cold light, filth and garbage strewn everywhere, everyone just trying to get the hell out.
At the end of the clip of "Sympathy For The Devil" we see a face looking up at Jagger, with a look of great sadness,tears under eyes, nodding to the music still. That is the face of someone who knows, surrounded by all the madness, the reality of a nightmare.
Tell me, baby, what's my name
Tell me, sweetie, what's my name?
Be careful out there, trick-or-treaters.