Monday, December 7, 2009


In contrast to December 7 1941—the date “which will live in infamy,” the day the Japanese navy attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—which shall be commemorated today, the date of December 6 1969, the day of the Altamont Speedway Free Festival, went unacknowledged yesterday by the American mass media. Given that yesterday marked that notorious event’s 40th anniversary, it is strange (hypocritical?) there was no mention of it, given the deluge of Woodstock 40th anniversary commemorations and product tie-ins that occurred this year. The only acknowledgements of the Altamont concert of which I’m aware are last week’s issue by Criterion of the Maysles’ Brothers documentary Gimme Shelter (1970) on Blu-ray Disc, and the box set released last month revisiting the Rolling Stones’ late 1969 U. S. tour, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! The Rolling Stones In Concert—40th Anniversary Deluxe Box Set (cover pictured). Otherwise, the event has gone unremarked so far as I know.

The infamous Altamont Speedway Free Festival was held on Saturday, December 6 1969 at the Altamont Speedway in northern California. Headlined by The Rolling Stones, the concert also featured Santana, Jefferson Airplane, The Flying Burrito Brothers, and Crosby, Stills and Nash. Ironically, The Grateful Dead, which helped organize the event and were supposed to play, declined the opportunity to perform once the violence got out of hand. Since there was no commemoration of Altamont in the media over the weekend, I’ve excerpted below my and Becky’s discussion of the event, taken from our co-authored book, Donald Cammell: A Life on the Wild Side (FAB Press, 2006). Our discussion below is taken from the word file we submitted for publication, and therefore may not precisely match the version that was printed in our book. Our remarks about Altamont occur in the context of the U. S. release of Performance, starring Mick Jagger, in August 1970.

More than half a year had passed since The Rolling Stones’ tour had culminated sensationally at Altamont on 6 December 1969, but the notoriety of that violent event was still resonating in the media. The Maysles Brothers’ documentary of the last ten days of that tour, Gimme Shelter, was not released until 6 December 1970. The Criterion Collection DVD of Gimme Shelter, released in 2000, included outtakes; among them, filmed backstage at Madison Square Garden on 27 or 28 November 1969, is footage of Tina Turner and Mick Jagger looking at what possibly is an issue of Rolling Stone. Tina Turner is struck by a picture of Mick Jagger in his Harry Flowers guise, telling Mick she’s definitely going to have to see the movie when it comes out. Someone off-camera asks, “What’s the name of the movie?” It would become clear in less than a year that Performance wasn’t just another “movie.”

We are told that in later years, although Donald had helped the Maysles Brothers with Gimme Shelter, he lamented his contribution was traduced by them. The violence that occurred during the concert at Altamont Speedway transformed Gimme Shelter from a mere concert film into something much different. The event actualized—Donald’s term—an aspect of Mick Jagger’s ambiguous persona that Performance didn’t so much create as reveal. Donald later claimed to have done some editing on Gimme Shelter, and while the late Charlotte Zwerin was most certainly a superb film editor, we have no reason to doubt Donald’s claim. Whether Donald performed actual, “hands on,” editing of the film, or was consulted in order to suggest a cutting strategy, we cannot say. Some unused footage was shot in London in early 1970, but we have not been able to determine, how, or in what way Donald participated in that shooting, if he did at all. He was still in London in January and February 1970; the re-edit of Performance had not yet begun. He may not have become involved until later that year, after he finished the re-edit of Performance around the first of May. Donald is given thanks in the credit scroll at the end of the film, though he apparently felt his contribution deserved more than such a perfunctory acknowledgement. Subsequently, although Myriam Gibril indicates Donald remained friends with the Maysles and would try to hook up with them whenever he was in New York, privately his estimation of their friendship had changed. Perhaps he should have known better: don’t get your personal relations mixed up in business.

Pauline Kael attacked Gimme Shelter in a notorious review published in The New Yorker. The Maysles wrote a response, but at the time The New Yorker did not publish letters, so their letter remained unseen by the general public until 1998. The Maysles’ letter refers to the “ambiguous nature of the Stones’ appeal” and the “complexity…of Jagger’s double self…his insolent appeal and the fury it can and in fact does provoke.”* Yet these insights were as much Donald’s as the Maysles’. They are simply reading in Gimme Shelter what already had been revealed in Performance, which had preceded Gimme Shelter in the movie theaters by four months (and was in the can over a year before Altamont). Donald had long recognized the ambiguous allure of Mick Jagger, believing Mick Jagger to be infinitely more interesting—and more dangerous—as a rock icon than, say, Elvis Presley, who dared to do nothing provocative with his masculinity. Indeed, Donald thought Jagger was much more daring in the deliberately ambiguous display of his sexuality. Of course, Donald had great respect for Brian Jones also, and most certainly Mick had taken a few lessons from Brian Jones about the self as art. “[Mick’s] dilemma is that he knows what he’s into.” Donald said. “He knows about the violence. This movie [Performance] was finished before Altamont, and Altamont actualized it.”

*The Maysles’ letter was eventually published in Kevin Macdonald and Mark Cousins, Eds., Imagining Reality, p. 394.

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