Mar 29th 2010
by Benjy Eisen
Sam Cutler claim to distinction is that he has served as tour manager
for both the Rolling Stones and the Grateful Dead -- and he is
finally willing to talk about the experience. The English-born Cutler
got his start in the 1960s working at free concerts at London's Hyde
Park, including a particularly famous one by the Stones that turned
into a memorial for original member Brian Jones. That concert led to
a job tour managing the Stones for their legendary 1969 American
tour, which ended tragically at a free concert at Altamont, just
outside San Francisco, when an attendee was stabbed to death by Hells
Angels handling security.
Cutler's long, strange trip continues after Altamont when he joined
the Grateful Dead's organization. After whipping their touring
department into shape, he took the band across Europe in 1972 and
then Canada on the famed but doomed 'Festival Express,' where some of
the biggest names in rock 'n' roll stayed up and jammed for days on
end, fueled by drugs, booze and one another. All kinds of fascinating
folks show up in Cutler's new tell-all book, 'You Can't Always Get
What You Want' -- from Janis Joplin and Syd Barrett to shady gangster
types and other unsavory characters. But the most intriguing story is
that of the man whose job was to hold it all together: Mr. Cutler himself.
I was always under the impression that the Rolling Stones hired the
Hells Angels to do security at Altamont, that the Hells Angels just
mercilessly beat an innocent fan to death for no apparent reason and
that it was the accident that killed the '60s. Your story paints
quite a different picture.
Yeah, well, that's all on the media, isn't it? It was all media
bulls---, that kind of narrative. It was just rubbish, man. And
that's why I took a long time to write this book. You need distance
and time to analyze things in order to really see them in their true
In 1969, you were hired as tour manager for the Rolling Stones. In
some ways, it was the first major American rock 'n' roll tour -- at
least of that size and scope. It also drew lots of criticism. In
addition to high ticket prices, the tour was seen by some as a
greedy, lawless beast that would roll through town, eating up all the
girls and drugs along the way. I'm sure that's not completely true --
but is it totally false?
No. But first off, on the ticket prices bit, the Rolling Stones
weren't really charging any more than the Doors were, OK? The Stones
were charging $8.50 and the Doors were charging $7.50. But the
Rolling Stones have always had sort of a bad-boy image and I don't
think they've ever done much to sort of play that down, as it were.
But it was a complex tour. There were different energies at stake
being put into play. And that's a lot of what the book is about. But
as far as the band is concerned, by current rock 'n' roll standards,
it was all very tame, really. In some ways. Go to a backstage scene
at a Grateful Dead gig if you want to see madness. The Rolling Stones
always tried to have it pretty cool backstage. It was their workspace.
At the same time, do you think there's any truth to the accusation
that the Rolling Stones were just in it for the money?
They were broke when they did that tour, so they needed the money.
But I don't think the Rolling Stones could ever be accused of only
playing for money. The Rolling Stones love to play. They give really
great value for money -- they play for two or three hours, always,
when they do shows. So I don't think the Rolling Stones have ever
been in it solely for the money. I think that's like saying the
Grateful Dead were only in it just for the money. You can't do things
that long and with that intensity without loving it, man.
You're the one that gave the Rolling Stones the motto 'The Greatest
Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World,' when you announced them each night.
Do you still think that?
When they're on, when they're really cooking, yeah. I love them. I
always have, you know? I think they're a brilliant, brilliant band.
You really see that when they play in a 1,500 seat club. That's where
the Rolling Stones are f---in' unbelievable. The Grateful Dead and
the Rolling Stones to me -- they're the two best bands that I've
enjoyed the most in my life, but of course these are subjective
things, aren't they? But I love them both and I still, to this day,
consider myself a member of the Grateful Dead family.
Of course, it's hyperbole, isn't it, to call some band the "Greatest
Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World." That's obviously a tall claim. But
as I pointed out in the book, I said it as a bit of reverse
psychology. Mick [Jagger] was furious with me for saying it. He hated it.
It seems like it was almost a challenge to them each night.
Exactly. Get out there and prove it!
Immediately after the tragedy at Altamont, the Rolling Stones
distanced themselves from it. They went back to Europe while you
stayed in California to clean up the mess -- and suddenly they even
stopped answering your phone calls. If Altamont didn't happen, do you
think you would've continued to work for them?
Oh, I'm sure. Why not? I looked after them. To this day, Keith and I,
and Charlie and I, we're close. They've got no complaints about me, man.
Within the Grateful Dead and Rolling Stones organizations, people
were willing to let you take the blame for Altamont. Yet, the blame
really falls elsewhere.
The point is, Altamont was a collectively organized thing -- but by
the West Coast bands, not by the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones
had f-- all to do with the organizing of it, man -- I arrived three
days before it happened! To total chaos! I mean, the Grateful Dead
couldn't organize a piss-up in a brewery in those days. They didn't
have a clue. And everybody else, they were all on this trip, but it
was chaos and that was the point.
So the concert was thrown together by a loose collective, but
someone close to the Dead's organization told me that the blame falls
partially on Jerry Garcia and Mick Jagger. Do you agree?
Well, um, yeah, there's some truth in that. But the biggest single
reason why Altamont was a disaster -- let's get this straight, right?
-- was the fact that the stage was a hundred centimeters [three feet]
high. It came up to your knees. It was meant to be on the side of a
hill at Sears Point [where the concert was originally planned]. They
moved it to Altamont and they made the mistake of putting it at the
bottom of the valley. If it had been a stage that was, let's say, 10
feet high, no one could've climbed it. There would've been no
security issues. See what I mean?
I think the San Francisco community has been in denial about the
thing for God knows how long. Everybody shared in the f--- up, from
the Grateful Dead to Santana to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, all
those people, all the hippies that were involved with trying to get
it together. It was a complete stuff-up, organizationally, and it
proved that it was beyond the capabilities of the San Francisco
community, at that time, to put something together on this kind of epic level.
But the San Francisco community had put on free concerts in Golden
Gate Park, within the city limits, that ran smoothly. And the
Grateful Dead were a group of hippies, whereas the Rolling Stones
were a brash rock band from England. If the Rolling Stones hadn't
been on the bill at Altamont and it was just the Bay Area bands, do
you think the disaster was still inevitable?
That's a hard one to say, isn't it? A hard one to answer. There's no
question that everybody lost their heads, in a way. The Rolling
Stones were involved and everybody just went loopy. But the fact of
the matter is it was called "the Rolling Stones' free concert at
Altamont," but it wasn't the Rolling Stones' free concert -- it was
the Grateful Dead's, Santana's, Crosby Stills Nash and Young's,
Jefferson Airplane's, the Flying Burrito Brothers' and the Rolling
Stones' free concert at Altamont. I think the Rolling Stones have
unfairly been labeled with the disaster when nobody else has ever
took their fair share of the blame. It's nonhistoric. It's inaccurate.
When you started working for the Grateful Dead, you were seen as
doing business in a hard-handed manner that was almost in contrast to
the Dead's public image as hippies.
One of the things was that the Grateful Dead, when I joined them,
were about four or five thousand dollars in debt. And in order to
continue to be the Grateful Dead, they had to make money. This was a
new thing for them, you know what I mean? A lot of people relied on
them, they had a big family of people to support, the band to
support, equipment requirements, all that stuff, you know? But they
didn't really have any idea how to do it.
So when Jerry [Garcia] asked me to be involved in the Grateful Dead,
it wasn't because he thought I was a wonderful person, necessarily. I
think it was primarily because he felt I had the skills necessary to
get the Grateful Dead on the road and make some money. Well, when I
joined them they were only making $3,000 a night, and when I left
them the figure that they got was $187,000 for [the 1973 Summer Jam
at] Watkins Glen [festival].
You were raised in postwar England by card-carrying Communists. Do
you think that played into your role with the Grateful Dead, in
trying to make this band some money while retaining their free communal spirit?
The thing is, the Grateful Dead never operated on the kind of
principle of naked greed. They never operated like a major corporation.
Could you say the same about the Rolling Stones?
The Rolling Stones like to see the money go directly to Switzerland
-- you know what I mean?
In the book, you mention that you saved Jerry Garcia's life twice.
Can you talk about that?
No, because that's personal. Listen, when you're a tour manager, you
can discover things about people that really should never see the
light of day. They're private. So I wouldn't demean Jerry's memory by
talking about these things in an interview or in a book -- I wouldn't
even talk about it with my friends. I hold his memory dear and
sacred, and that's one of my ways of honoring him.
The book ends when the Grateful Dead and you parted ways. You closed
shop with your booking agency in San Rafael, Calif. What did you do
immediately after that?
I went to India to be a hippie!