Troubled times, apocalyptic music


November 4, 2001



Determined not to be upstaged by Woodstock and anxious to deflect the familiar criticism that they had sold out, the Rolling Stones decreed that their 1969 tour (their first in three years) would end with a massive free concert in northern California on Dec. 6.

As the band saw it, this magnanimous gesture would usher in the new decade and cap a turbulent year that had witnessed the Apollo moon landing, the My Lai massacre, Chappaquiddick, the trial of the Chicago Eight and the Tate-LaBianca killings. Of course, it would also promote their new album--"Let It Bleed"--which would be released a week earlier, at the end of November.

Forty miles east of San Francisco in the small town of Livermore, the stage at the Altamont Speedway was set up in a low bowl-like area near the highway, surrounded on three sides by sloping hills covered with dead grass and sticker burrs. The biggest crowd the track had accommodated in the past was 6,500. Now 300,000 rock fans, many of them zonked senseless on downers and booze, stumbled down the one dirt access road.

The trouble started early and got worse as the day progressed, building to a crescendo as the Stones took the stage shortly after nightfall. There have been many attempts to allocate the blame, but it's generally agreed that the Grateful Dead's suggestion to hire the Hell's Angels as security and pay them off with beer was stupendously ill-conceived. Throughout the day, the bikers mercilessly beat anyone who got too close to the stage or otherwise offended their crude sensibilities.

While the Stones performed, the Angels began hassling an 18-year-old black fan named Meredith Hunter--some said it was because he was with a pretty white girl from Berkeley--and Hunter pulled a nickel-plated revolver to defend himself. In "Gimme Shelter," the tour film commissioned by the band, several bikers can clearly be seen stabbing and beating the boy to death (though it's a little-known fact that only one was ever indicted, and he was acquitted by a jury of his peers).

From the start, the Stones had been positioned by the masterful hypester Andrew Loog Oldham as the evil alternative to the cheerful, mop-topped Beatles--the rockers you'd never allow your daughter to date. And if the Fab Four crafted the supreme sunny-side soundtrack for the idyllic vision of the cultural rebellion that has come to be called "The Sixties," the Stones answered with the ultimate exploration of its darker shadows--an album of astounding power even before it became inextricably linked with Altamont, helping to sound the death knell for a generation's Utopian fantasies.

Like 1968's "Beggars Banquet," which followed the psychedelic excesses of "Their Satanic Majesties Request," "Let It Bleed" was a "back to basics" move that found the Stones reconnecting with the deep blues roots of their earliest days (they covered Robert Johnson's "Love In Vain," though they did not credit the legendary bluesman) while incorporating more of a country lilt ("Country Honk" was a remix of "Honky Tonk Woman" by Keith Richards' running buddy at the time, Gram Parsons).

This would be the last album to feature guitarist Brian Jones, who drowned in a druggy haze midway through the recording, but the band's founder had already been missing in action for quite some time. To replace the filigree that he usually added to Jagger/Richards tunes, the Stones turned to a fluid young guitarist named Mick Taylor and a glittering cast of supporting players that included strings arranger Jack Nitzche, guitarist Ry Cooder, keyboardists Al Kooper and Leon Russell, country fiddler Byron Berline, soon-to-be-ubiquitous sax man Bobby Keys, and vocalist Merry Clayton, whose spotlight turn at the end of "Gimme Shelter" marked the first significant appearance by a female musician on a Stones recording.

Hanging over the sessions was an acrid cloud of smoke from the heroin that Richards was always cooking up in the studio's back room. Mick Jagger was disgusted by what the drug was doing to his bandmate, his "lady," Marianne Faithfull (for whom he'd written "Sister Morphine" the year before), and many others in the Stones' inner circle. "All my friends are junkies," he howled in "Monkey Man," and as he surveyed the wreckage of a once-glamorous social scene in "You Can't Always Get What You Want," he told of a junkie named "Mr. Jimmy," widely thought to be producer Jimmy Miller.

Many fans hold that the album marks a summing up of the '60s Stones and the beginning of the band as a genre onto themselves, making what can only properly be described as "Rolling Stones music," and paving the way for the '70s masterpieces, "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile On Main Street." Their personal condition aside, the group's driving forces never played better--Jagger is at his most compelling on "Midnight Rambler," and Richards shines on "Monkey Man" and "You Got the Silver," his first solo vocal turn--while Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts are, as always, a rock-solid and wonderfully tasteful rhythm section (though Charlie would always resent Miller for pushing him off the drum throne on "You Can't Always Get What You Want").

Over it all loomed the darkness. "Gimme Shelter" will always be associated with death: Its aura of menace eerily foreshadowed Altamont, and Clayton's cries of "Rape! Murder!" at the end of the tune are haunting.

"Monkey Man" is a vivid reminder that the drug experience can produce bad trips as well as transcendent ones, while "Midnight Rambler" is a horrifying depiction of a serial killer. Inspired by the Boston Strangler (the Manson Family would not be pegged as murderers until 1970), Jagger displays a disquieting enthusiasm for the role; listen to the way he relishes the ending line, "I'll stick my knife right down your throat, baby--and it hurts!"

"It's a kind of end-of-the-world thing," Jagger would later say. "It's Apocalypse; the whole record's like that."

True, the album concludes with a hint of hope in "You Can't Always Get What You Want" (which is given an elegiac vibe courtesy of the majestic opening by the London Bach Choir and Kooper's resplendent French horn solo). But Jagger's promise that, "If you try some time, you just might find, you get what you need" is a stark contrast to the ideal that the Beatles held out; "All You Need Is Love" suddenly sounded ridiculously rose-tinted and fundamentally false.

The '60s had ended and the '70s had begun. The Rolling Stones had delivered the eulogy, and rock would never be the same again.