The last time I’d seen the Maysles Brothers’ documentary of the Rolling Stones’ 1969 Altamont debacle was long before I had ever been on a stage myself. The years I’ve put in playing the Bay Area with the Drogues in the interim gave me quite a different perspective on the recent(ish) Criterion Collection DVD.
It’s funny, but I didn’t remember Mick Jagger being punched in the face upon arrival at the site. The new high-definition transfer from the original 16mm negative only sharpens the sense of impending disaster as the day begins to unravel. You really get a glimpse of what it would have been like to be onstage surrounded by hordes of freaked-out people and unpredictable, violent Hells Angels as far as the eye could see.
When night finally falls, the lack of appropriate film lighting brings the malevolence claustrophobically close. You can see the event lurching toward what it ultimately became: a tribal blood sacrifice. At one point the reality of the situation seems to stop Jagger in his tracks, but only momentarily. He then breaks into a frenzied dance as Rome burns at his feet.
It begs the question: at that moment, did Jagger realize that all the Satanic posturing and flirting with the ancient blues idioms finally bear unholy fruit and to revel in it would be to feel its power wash over him? Or did he realize, that as a performer, to stop at that point would only make things worse?
The frozen shot of him walking away from the editing desk after confronting the film record doesn’t clear things up. Is that a look of remorse? Exhaustion? Or was that the look of an artist who saw the opportunity to push his persona as far as it would go, took it, and is defiantly culpable for the consequences?