Thursday, September 1, 2016


Authors still getting mileage out of rock's darkest hour
by Don Stradley

Image result for mick jagger altamont

My favorite description of The Rolling Stones comes from Tom Wolfe in one of his early Esquire pieces, back before Esquire was dumbed down for the internet generation. “They’re modeled after The Beatles,” he wrote, “only more lower class – deformed.” Hundreds have tried, but few have pegged the Stones with Wolfe’s acid pithiness. Joel Selvin comes close in Altamont, his comprehensive examination of the disastrous free concert headlined by the Stones, where a local chapter of the Hells Angels motorcycle club was hired as security. The event is remembered solely because the Angels’ interpretation of crowd control was straight out of A Clockwork Orange; one audience member, a gun-wielding African-American male named Meredith Hunter, bled to death after learning his lime green suit was no match for an Angel’s blade. Since the show took place in the final month of 1969, the killing served as a bookend for the decade, “a stain,” Selvin writes, “that wouldn’t wash out of the fabric of the music.”

Though the band comes off as idiot savants who conjure riffs right out of the Mississippi Delta but are witless about anything else, they’re served well by Selvin. He puts the blame for the Altamont mess squarely on their bony shoulders, but not to where they come off as villains, just typically oblivious rock stars. For those of us who have seen Gimme Shelter, the grim documentary where Mick Jagger looked as if he thought he could control the Angels, or at least distract them, with his hyper dance moves  – watch him during ‘Sympathy for The Devil’; he’s on overdrive, and it’s not because he’s moved by Bill Wyman’s bass grooves – and took it as gospel, Selvin clears up a few things, namely, that the show wasn’t some kind of electrified witches’ Sabbath that went awry. Rather, it was a perfect confluence of forces not evil but inept.

The collection of maladroit characters is doled out with Dickensian detail – in the first chapter alone we meet a menacing drug-dealer with a hook hand known as “Goldfinger” – and in time we meet every low-rent hustler, hanger-on, and self-made businessman who thought he could turn a derelict speedway on the outer reaches of San Francisco Bay  into rock ‘n’ roll manna. As for the Stones, they’d missed out on Woodstock and, Jagger in particular, felt they’d lost some cachet. What better way to regain their standing in America than by aligning with the new hip bands of the day, the Airplane, the Dead, etc.? Jagger, surmises Selvin, thought the Stones could trump The Beatles, and Woodstock, if they could pull off a big free show for some California hippies. Why else would he hire a film crew to record the thing? The Stones wanted a movie chronicle of their American coronation. But instead of A Hard Day’s Night, they got the death of Meredith Hunter. How ironic that the Stones, those cheeky purveyors of all things black, would provide a soundtrack for the fatal knifing of a black man. 

By the book’s end, Selvin returns to where most of us started, solemnly declaring the Altamont concert as the hammer that crushed the sixties. He can’t help but be heavy-handed about it, even suggesting the Stones never again played so well,  an idea I don’t buy. Nor do I go along with his dismissal of the Angels’ favorite deterrent – the pool cue. I happen to think the cue is a great weapon – use it as a spear, or a bludgeon, and if it happens to break over somebody’s head, you still have the short end to use in close quarters. Selvin, who has covered the pop world for decades,  is damn near brilliant during the book’s first half, recounting the mangy crowd descending on the concert site as “a malodorous peasant army camping the night before the Battle of Agincourt,” or the aristocracy’s  view of Jagger as “a social novelty, an exotic beast tame enough to pet.” Even a new stash of sinsemilla is described with great care, its “fresh, fruity flavor, almost like tropical lawn clippings.” If only the book’s conclusion, which is as dry as a court summons, had such flair. I guess the road to damnation is a lot more interesting than actual damnation.

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