By Noel Mengel
October 06, 2008
IT WAS, and remains, a nightmare. Altamont.
Just that single word suggests something dark and horrible, even to
those who only have the sketchiest knowledge of what happened on that
day. Just as Woodstock has grown in myth as a glorious example of the
possibilities for youth culture and rock 'n' roll, Altamont is its
opposite. The place – a lonely, disused speedway track in the hills
south of San Francisco – where the optimistic spirit of the hippie
movement of the '60s was snuffed out in a hellish spiral of bad
drugs, bad vibes and violence.
Altamont often is referred to as the day the '60s died: December 6, 1969.
In the middle of it all was Sam Cutler who, as tour manager of The
Rolling Stones, was horrified to find an event the band had agreed to
take part in – but were never organisers of – spiralling out of control.
Violence and bad trips had been escalating as the day progressed. By
the time the Stones took the stage, Cutler was desperately worried,
not just for the safety of the fans but for his band. But there was
no choice for the Stones, Cutler reasoned. They had to play if they
wanted to get out of there alive.
From the first notes of the set, the malevolent atmosphere only grew darker.
Peace and love? Sam Cutler watched as a man in the crowd, Meredith
Hunter, pulled a gun and was set upon by the bikers who had been
invited to the event to keep an eye on the equipment beside the
stage. Hunter was stabbed to death.
For 40 years, the Stones have been blamed – as has their tour manager
– for what happened at Altamont. Now Cutler, who lives in Brisbane,
wants to set the record straight about what really happened with his
book, You Can't Always Get What You Want, one of those rare rock 'n'
roll reads that goes inside the inner sanctum of two major rock bands.
Cutler doesn't have a high opinion of most of the books he's read
about the Stones. He says most of them are tripe.
The Grateful Dead and The Rolling Stones
What's fascinating about Cutler's book is the way it contrasts
working with two of the biggest touring rock 'n' roll bands of them
all, since after Altamont Cutler stayed on in San Francisco as one of
the co-managers of The Grateful Dead. On one side, the very English
way of working of the Stones. On the other, the ultimate American
hippie outfit facing the capitalistic reality that they were so far
in debt it could mean the end of the band.
Altamont, like most historical events, turns out to be much more
complicated than the myth which has grown around it.
Cutler had been immersed in the London rock 'n' roll scene of the
'60s where his friendship with Nick Mason, drummer in Pink Floyd, led
to working as tour manager for the likes of Brit blues legend Alexis
Korner, and then in organising free festivals in Hyde Park. That's
how Cutler came to work with The Stones at their legendary July 5,
1969 concert, three days after the death of Brian Jones. Soon, he
found himself on the road with the band in the US.
The tour was a huge success, the largest grossing rock 'n' roll tour
to that time.
But, Cutler explains, the band faced constant criticism, accused of
rip-off ticket prices, as part of a counter-culture argument at the
time that bands shouldn't even charge for playing music.
In response, the band agreed to play at a final free concert in San
Francisco, alongside local area heroes such as Santana, Jefferson
Airplane and The Grateful Dead.
But the organisers who had set up the event disappeared as the mood
turned sour and violent. The Grateful Dead didn't show, leaving the
Stones dropped in a storm of controversy after the concert.
Life is not easy
Cutler rolls his own over coffee on a fine Brisbane spring morning, a
more comfortable meeting than in the days after Altamont when he
fronted a meeting with Hells Angels in San Francisco about what
happened. At 65, Cutler's first book is hitting the shelves and he
already has several more planned.
"Because of my upbringing and background I've never believed life is
easy," Cutler says. "Sometimes shit really does happen and whether
you like it or not you have to deal with it. I've never been someone
who goes, 'Why me?' Why not you?
"Dealing with Altamont, all of that could have been cut off at the
pass if The Rolling Stones had done what I thought they should have,
which was to stay on in California, call a press conference and say
what happened: 'I didn't kill anyone. I came here to play music, you
Americans f---ed it up because the people who were responsible for
organising it melted into the night.' With hindsight, I think The
Rolling Stones would agree they could have handled it better."
Altamont is just one event in a career that has brought Cutler close
to members of The Band, Pink Floyd and The Grateful Dead, to Jimi
Hendrix and Janis Joplin, as well as the strange cast of figures who
attach themselves to great fame and money, or at least managed to do
so when rock 'n' roll touring was on a less professional basis than
what it has become today.
Cutler remained friends with Charlie Watts, who invited him backstage
before the Stones' 2003 Brisbane show.
"The Rolling Stones are trapped with being The Rolling Stones, what
can they do that's new?" Cutler says.
"They've played Copacabana Beach in Brazil to 2 million people.
What's left? The first rock 'n' roll tour of China? That's been done.
What are they going to do, play in space?
"But the great thing I love about the Stones is this. However
professional you might think it is, when they get on stage, I know
they struggle to get it together, to get the groove right, the feel right.
"It could all fall over. That's what's so great about it, you get
that sense of vulnerability when The Rolling Stones play, that edgy
thing. Are they going to make it. Is Keith going to live through the
set, die mid-chord or what?"
Then there are the secret codes which bands use to communicate, or not.
"Keith Richards and Bill Wyman didn't talk for 10 years because Bill
thought Keith didn't like him. And Keith thought Bill didn't like
him. So English, man. Didn't go, 'You got a problem with me?',
American-style. The English are the Japanese of Europe, you know what I mean?"
The contrast with The Grateful Dead couldn't be more sharp, yet they
also had their own internal tensions – musical and personal.
"With the Dead, sometimes it could be the most incredible nights. I
did a show with them where they played for 9½ hours. Played for
three, four hours, 20 minute break, came back and played some more.
Other nights they played for four hours and it was considered a disaster."
Another disaster facing the band was a mountain of debt.
"Everyone from the '60s had to work out – how are we going to live?
"Everyone was going, we're going to grow our own vegetables and
carrots, but it wasn't working. Even the freaks and hippies got to a
certain point where they realised they have to grow up, be
responsible just like our mums and dads told us.
"There are bills to pay and if we don't pay, it's all going to go pear-shaped."
You Can't Always Get What You Want by Sam Cutler (William Heinemann, $34.95).