Woodstock and Gimme Shelter

The films Woodstock & Gimme Shelter were this week’s fare. If Woodstock was the Apex of the Hippie movement, then Gimme Shelter was the Antithesis. For Woodstock it was 3 days pf Peace, Love, & Understanding (and drugs & music) set in the laid back and beautiful NY countryside. The dream bubble so many youth had been riding, was popped one December night at Altamont Raceway in Livermore, California. Four months after Woodstock came Altamont, and the two couldn’t be more different. Some say that fateful night at Altamont was the loss of innocence for a generation, the final days of 1969 segued into a darker time, it was as if the hopes, dreams and philosophies of that generation died with Meredith Hunter.
Before I get into the differences of the concerts themselves, I want to look at the two films set against each other. Director Michael Wadleigh, of the film Woodstock, had chosen his shots carefully and intentionally. Woodstock showed the cooperative building of the stage and grooming the grounds, it showed the youth as peaceful, fun loving flower children. In between the shots of the concert goers, it showed performances by some of the most notable musical talent of the day. There were seven editors working on putting the Woodstock documentary together, including a young and talented up and coming Martin Scorsese. Woodstock was a commercial success and a great piece of art, it won several Oscars at the Academy Awards in 1971. It was a film that showed only the positive side of things. Woodstock had its down points and tragedies too, but no one was going to dwell on the negative, the film was crafted to show only the best side.
Gimme Shelter had a much different approach, it was raw. The Maysels brothers were known for their point and shoot and let the camera capture what it would. Their filmmaking philosophy was to capture it all and sort it out later, no pre-conceived storyline, just the pure facts. Charlotte Zwerin was a cinema vérité editor who worked with Albert and David Maysels, the three put Gimme Shelter together. They didn’t leave out any ugly detail. The drugged up hippies weren’t the free loving hippies of Woodstock, they weren’t white washed, and they were shown as they were. The cuts didn’t edit out the violent actions of the Hells Angels, nor the complications with the stage being unsafe for the performers. The triad wove a story from interviews and raw footage, they didn’t set the story they found the story. Through the interviews they found many different truths, everyone had their own perspective of what happened that night. The Hells Angels claimed it was the fault of the Rolling Stones, they were only there to sit on the Stage and drink beer. The footage shows much more, they weren’t just sitting passively. With every interview there was a visual to either substantiate the point of view or to discredit it.
Many of the same performers were at both concerts, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young; The Grateful Dead; Santana; and Jefferson Airplane. The looks on their faces tell different stories. Woodstock must have been a much more easygoing peaceful situation, the performers look relaxed and as if they were enjoying themselves. The faces at Altamont were ones of fear, frustration, and dismay. As much as Woodstock was more manipulated, and Gimme Shelter was not as manipulated, the looks on the performer’s faces tell us the two concerts were different.
Neither of the concerts were prepared for the number of attendees, Woodstock was just better prepared than the concert at Altamont. Both ran into trouble and had to change their venue at the last moment. Woodstock had a month to prepare, the promoters for the California concert had 4 days. Woodstock had 600 acres of countryside, Altamont had 83 acres of dirty little race track, void of anything beautiful surrounding it. Woodstock’s stage was higher and physical barriers had been built around the stage, sadly at Altamont the stage was low, easily accessible, and the only barrier were Hell’s Angels. Altamont was doomed from the start, who ever thought Hells Angels would be a good peace keeping force wasn’t thinking. You add the $500.00 worth of free beer they were paid in, well the only thing worse than a Hells Angel would be a drunk Hells Angel, take that a step more and add broken pool cues. The peace keepers at Woodstock were members of a commune, the Hog Farmers were led by hippy clown Wavy Gravy who had a cream pies and fizzy water as a consequence for getting out of line. No one assaulted the performers at Woodstock, but a member of Jefferson Airplane was knocked unconscious by a member of the Hells Angels (security) and Mick Jagger was punched in the face on the way to his trailer (lack of security).
Woodstock in the 3 day event with a half million revelers on 600 acres, Altamont was a one day concert of 300,000 people on 83 acres. The New York site held 83 people per acre, the California site had to hold 361 people per acre. The promoters of Altamont didn’t take what happened at Woodstock into consideration. Woodstock wasn’t supposed to be a free event, but when thousands of teen and twenty-something’s converged they tore down fences and barriers to get in. What did the promoters in California think would happen when almost as many people would come because the event was free? Woodstock was a 3 day campout and no one realized it was a capitalistic venture, the 1 day concert at Altamont was visibly driven by commerce. How can that be when Woodstock was selling tickets and Altamont was free? It was all about appearance, Woodstock appeared to be by the people for the people, Altamont’s promoters were visible and the appearance it gave was it was being sponsored by “the man.” 3 people died at Woodstock (a burst appendix, a drug over dose, and a hit and run by a tractor). 4 people died at Altamont (a drowning, 2 hit and runs, and the stabbing death of a gun wielding Meredith Hunter at the Hands of a Hells Angels security detail that felt threatened).
The sixties were all about Peace, Love, and everything that’s good, it was hope for the future, Woodstock was the end of an era. The seventies had the darkness of what happened at Altamont hanging over its head. The world had changed overnight, and everything that the sixties stood for had died.


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