It’s forty years since Albert and David Maysles purportedly captured the death of the hippie generation in their documentary film Gimme Shelter (1969). Their subject was the Rolling Stones and the context was the Altamont free concert attended by some 300,000 people fuelled by amphetamines and LSD. The ‘security’ for the event: several chapters of the Californian Hells Angels. In a shocking scene, a young man is stabbed to death amongst a surging crowd. Some say this was the very moment a generation imploded on itself. Albert Maysles talks to Daniel Tapper about this historic moment.
How did you become involved in filming the Rolling Stones and the Altamont concert?
I got a call one day from Haskell Wexler in California saying that he had just met with the Stone and they would be at the Plaza Hotel in New York the next day; would I want to look them up? The next day my brother and I were at the Plaza knocking on their door. We didn’t know their music but went to Baltimore the next day to attend their concert. We realised how good they were and a day or two later we were filming them in Madison Square Gardens, hoping the film would be more than just a concert, which it was when we got to Altamont.
In Gimme Shelter we see a young man in the crowd being murdered by a Hells Angel. Did this in some way implicate you in the controversy?
Since we don’t know the motivation of the killer, we must say that he was killed rather than murdered, I don’t believe this implicates us in any way. Pauline Kael wrote that we had staged events in order to make the film. This is totally false.
Did the Hells Angels or any of the bands object to being filmed?
No, except after the film was shot, the Hells Angels argued that they should receive one million dollars for being “lifetime actors.”
How did the Stones react to the concert? Mick Jagger looks noticeably shaken by the enormity of the event.
Mick Jagger obviously is shaken by the evolving event, but I’ve never talked to him about it.
People often say that the Altamont concert signified the end of the hippie era. Did you personally feel disillusioned by what you documented?
Indeed, one can say the Altamont concert signified the end of the hippie era. The beginning could be signified by the Beatles in the U.S.A. in 1964. Our film What’s Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A. can verify this.
One of the cinematographers involved in filming the event was the young, soon-to-be director George Lucas. How did he become involved Have you worked with him since?
We had only 24 hours to assemble our crew. We took a chance that he might help us, and he did. We became good friends, although we haven’t found the opportunity to work together since.
The Stones, Jefferson Airplane, Crosby Stills , Nash and Young, and The Flying Burrito Brothers all played, which band made an impact on you?
The Stones. Maybe that because we were paying more attention to them, the film primarily being about them.
What do you think Altamont’s legacy will be?
I think that someday when this drug war is over, people will realise that drugs should be legalised. Take the crime and profit out of it. Had drugs been legal at Altamont, and therefore had there been a proper security force, there wouldn’t have been the violence.