The Rolling Stones' journey into the dark heart of America

No one better summed up the tumult of 1969 than the Rolling Stones on Gimme Shelter, opening track on Let it Bleed, their classic studio album of that year. Released as the decade was gasping its last breath, Gimme Shelter charted an ominous, doom-laden path forged by Keith Richards’ switchblade guitar and the apocalyptic rumble of Bill Wyman’s and Charlie Watts’ rhythm section. Into this storm Mick Jagger howled of fire sweeping the streets and a helpless, hopeless refrain: ‘War, children, it’s just a shot away.’

The glorious event of man walking on the moon aside, the year was scarred by the ongoing war in Vietnam, and in America by a battle of ideals being fought between the establishment and the emerging counter-culture. It was the new President, Richard Nixon, who acted as a lightning rod for this conflagration since he was a model of buttoned-up conservatism and moral turpitude. 

On America’s streets and campuses, anti-war protestors clashed with baton-wielding cops. In August, the hippies reigned at Woodstock, but that same month, on a sweltering night in Los Angeles, all the furies were unleashed. It was there that members of Charles Manson’s self-styled Family slaughtered the actress Sharon Tate and four others in an orgy of blood and hate.

As 1969 unfolded, the Rolling Stones endured their own hell. Drug-addled founding member Brian Jones was cut loose from the band and then drowned in the swimming pool at his Sussex home on the evening of July 3, aged 27. That summer the Stones also dismissed their shark-like manager, New Yorker Allen Klein, claiming he’d siphoned off their earnings. Even still, they were entering their decadent pomp as a group: conjuring up black magic on Let It Bleed and before it Beggars Banquet, the brace of albums that established their Satanic majesty.

At that point, they hadn’t toured America for three years. However, with 20-year-old virtuoso Mick Taylor replacing Jones on lead guitar, plans were laid for a 28-show swing around the US which was to begin in Fort Collins, Colorado on November 7. What ensued was a landmark run of shows for both the Stones and rock music in general, setting the benchmark for all future rock tours. It was to be the first time the Stones had gone out with their own PA and stage production, and that they had played to an attentive, ‘grown-up’ audience rather than screaming prepubescent girls.

Winding through the American heartland, beginning their 75-minute set each night with Jumpin’ Jack Flash and closing it with the death’s-head snarl of Street Fighting Man, the Stones reshaped rock music from pure entertainment into something more serious and transformative – a true cultural force. Introduced on stage by tour manager Sam Cutler as “the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world,” they were perhaps never more overpowering than they were right there and then. And for $6 a ticket, sold-out sports arena crowds were also treated to a supporting cast made up of the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, British teenage sensation Terry Reid, and two of rock’n’roll’s elder statesmen, Chuck Berry and BB King, who performed alternately.

From Colorado, the tour proceeded through a pair of star-crossed nights at the LA Forum and on to a triumphal three-show run at New York’s Madison Square Garden, where Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix hung out backstage. The last official date was at the West Palm Beach Pop Festival on 30 November, the Stones closing a bill that also included The Byrds and Jefferson Airplane. Yet they decided to tack on a free concert in California a week after the tour closed. This went ahead on 6 December, in front of 300,000 at the Altamont Speedway, a stock-car racing track sited in the rural north of the state.

Altamont ended in a maelstrom of chaos and death. As the Stones performed, an 18-year-old black youth, Meredith Hunter, drew a revolver on the gang of Hells Angels patrolling the lip of the stage and was leapt upon and stabbed to death. Hunter’s murder was captured on film by Albert and David Maysles, two brothers filming a documentary on the tour. In the Maysles’ subsequent movie, also titled Gimme Shelter, the Stones are seen piling into a waiting helicopter, visibly shocked, fleeing both Altamont and the 60s. They left behind a music business and also a country changed forever by the trail they’d blazed through those last, white‑hot months of 1969.

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Sam Cutler

The tour manager for the Stones in 1969 and later for the Grateful Dead.

“It was an utter circus on that tour. They come across as demented idiots, but the Stones are in actual fact civilised English gentlemen. They were very polite and it was always “please” and “thank you”. However, it’s the only time I’ve worked with a band where people who came into contact with them forgot how to act and completely lost it. All kinds of odd characters turned up wanting to bathe in some kind of reflected glory. Grown women had to get naked. The amount of libidinal energy going on was extraordinary. Other than Keith, who was in a relationship, the Stones lived, breathed and ate pussy.

“I’ve never known a man before or since who could go through more women than Bill Wyman. We used to call him Ten Minute Bill. He once suggested to me that I conduct a research project. I was to introduce myself to random women with the words: “How would you like to meet the Rolling Stones and fuck me?” Well, 95 per cent of them went for it and without any consideration. Of course, this was in the time before AIDS, so everyone was bonking quite merrily and the worst that could happen was that you’d have to get an injection in your bum from the doctor.

“In large effect, the 1969 tour changed the way the Stones and other rock bands did business. It became more of a professional enterprise. No longer did Mick Jagger see being on tour as some kind of wonderful thing. He realised it was a deadly serious business, and being the control freak he is, from then on he demanded maximum control of all aspects of it. It certainly changed his attitude to the West Coast counter-culture. That kind of naïve hippie act didn’t go down well with Mick. He despised their inability to get anything together.

“This complete nonsense has persisted that the Stones hired the Hells Angels as their security at Altamont. Altamont was in the not-very-together hands of the Grateful Dead’s office. It was explained to us that whenever there was a free show in San Francisco, the Angels would sit by the generators and the bands would have a collection and give them some beer. Muggins here paid five hundred dollars out of my own pocket for their beer at Altamont. I didn’t personally feel that responsible for any of what transpired. It was a bunch of Americans who didn’t know how to behave themselves. But the Stones played fantastically well at Altamont, as if their lives depended on it. Then they fucked off and abandoned me there, so that left something of a sour taste in my mouth.”

Ron Schneider

Allen Klein’s nephew and head of operations on the 1969 tour.He is currently writing a book about his time with the band.

“I got involved with the Stones through my uncle as a college graduate in 1965. I left Allen in August 1969 and a few weeks later got a call from Mick asking me to put together the tour. It was a gruelling schedule, but the bottom line is that they needed the money. Allen had sponged off all of their assets. They were a fantastic band at the time and also incredibly professional. There wasn’t much scope for debauchery; this was still a little bit of a time of innocence. It was on the European tour the next year that things got wilder, more hardcore.

“Each of the Stones was a character in his own right. Mick had the most business sense of any artist I’ve ever known. He was the leader, but over his shoulder was Keith. I always refer to Keith as a man’s man, the kind of guy you want on your side in a fight. He’s a real good buddy, but dangerous as all hell. As early as the ’65 tour, I was in a hotel room in Arizona and I heard a sound like a high-pitched ping. A small cloud of dust was coming up from the floor and there was a hole in my baseboard. Keith was in the next-door room and had shot a bullet through my wall. Turned out he was trying out these new Derringer pistols he’d bought. He told me he’d only have shot me in the ankle.

“Charlie was quiet, sweet and had that subtle, sarcastic British humour. Bill was the silent guy who liked to get laid a lot. While everybody else was out partying, Charlie was on the phone to his wife and Bill was off buying antique rugs. Mick Taylor was the kid, sweet-natured and innocent. I wasn’t aware that he was a vegetarian, so I had him eat turkey for Thanksgiving. I felt bad because it made him throw up all over the place.

Gimme Shelter was basically shot over two days at Madison Square Garden and at Altamont. I did the film deal the day before the Garden shows. My memory of Janis Joplin being there was her standing by the side of the stage screaming up at Mick, drunk out of her mind. There was this pimple-faced kid with her and they were running their tongues over each other’s faces. It was kind of sad.

“Every place we went to they basically had a riot. There was usually tear gas going off. Altamont was hell. It came about because of a scummy, lying press guy named Ralph Gleason. He kept putting out articles claiming the Stones were ripping everybody off, which is just the exact opposite of the truth. Unusually for the Stones, they started believing their press. My impression is that they were shamed into doing a free concert. I really wasn’t sure we were going to get out of there. The vibe was just one of death and evil.”

Chip Monck

Stage manager and lighting designer on the 1969 tour. Four months earlier, he served as the on-stage announcer at Woodstock.

“The term most often used on the tour was: ‘Go fuck yourself.’ It was a misery that lives on for me to this day. I was given two weeks to draw up plans for the tour, and then I had to take them over to Stephen Stills’ house in LA, which he’d lent to Mr Jagger and friends. He took me out to the pool deck where I laid out everything and started to explain to him what I wanted to do with the show. You could see boredom roll across his face. He just got up and said: ‘Aw, fuck it, do what you want.’

“The only people from the band I had any real contact with were Charlie and Bill. Keith and I spoke five words during the six years I worked with them. Mick and I had numerous conversations that amounted to us shouting and shaking fingers at each other in the various lavatories backstage. He hadn’t studied my plans and didn’t do anything to help me. Mick is a very accomplished artist, but also a pain the ass. During one argument, I threw a Xerox machine at him and broke his little finger. I remember him being very, very annoyed.

“At that point, the Stones were sloppy, undisciplined. Things would change at a moment’s notice and you just had to deal with it. I remember having to go out before a baying crowd at the Boston Garden. They’d been waiting for the Stones to come on, while the band was getting out of jail in Providence, Rhode Island. At a certain point, it looked as if they were going to burn the place to the ground. I went and stood stage centre, no light on me, and read to them from Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I read the entire book and they shut up.

“I saw a pick-up truck driving out of Altamont with the Stones’ on-stage rug rolled up and sitting on its roof. I realised that it was production property and I would be held responsible for it, so I ran after the truck and pulled the rug down. A fifteen-minute, um, discussion with the Hells Angels ensued, prior to me being hit in the mouth with the end of a pool cue and having my front teeth knocked out. The next day, I found [Hells Angel leader] Sonny Barger’s house and negotiated the return of the rug with him in exchange for a crate of brandy and a case of champagne.

“It took me two years to get to Meredith Hunter’s mother. The first time I got a cup of tea thrown in my face and a door slammed on me, but I kept going back. All I wanted to say to her was that I, and I would hope the rest of the entourage, was exceptionally sorry for what had happened to her son. I certainly didn’t get a thank you, but she did nod. To my knowledge, no one else ever contacted her. The Stones essentially just ran away back to England as fast as they could.”

Stanley Booth

The Stones’ writer-in-residence from 1968, and is the author of the classic 1969 tour account The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones.

“Iwas doing some pieces for a rip-off of Rolling Stone called Eye magazine. They asked me to write about Johnny Cash, but I wanted to do something on the Stones instead. So they sent me to Europe to meet the band and we became instant friends. I was from Memphis and a fellow blues aficionado, so they had a use for me. I was able to introduce them to BB King.

“Being on the ’69 tour was very sweet. It was the first time the Stones were playing for people who listened to them. And of course, every motherfucker in the house was stoned. I just hung out. Every day I was terrified I was going to get thrown off the tour. Mick and I would walk out to the side of the stage to watch Ike and Tina Turner. After seeing Tina we’d slump off back to the dressing room feeling like two skinny little white boys. She was a force of nature, man.

“I slept in the same bed as Mick in Boston. I was so exhausted that I collapsed and missed the first show of two that night. He came back and fell in beside me. It was a big bed. Mick has this kind of preppy side to him. But you did not fuck with Keith Richards. I remember going with him to a Japanese restaurant in LA. He had this wild hair and looked like a fucking aborigine. God knows he was awesome. As we were walking out of there, a couple were coming in the door. The girl looked at Keith and said: “You’d be cute if you put a rinse on your hair.” Keith said: “And you’d be cute if you put a rinse on your cunt.”

“Keith was the only person with any courage or derring-do at Altamont. The other Stones were terrified. The last thing you see getting on the helicopter in Gimme Shelter is the leg of my Levi’s. Getting my ass out of there was the highlight of the whole damn tour. I thought I could die there. But, you know, that tour was the best music the Stones ever made. When they came back to the States in ’72, Mick was wearing a pink suit and the show was played for comedy; in ’69 it was dark, it was heavy and it was art.”

Glyn Johns

The English record producer and engineer who taped the music on the tour for the Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! live album.

“We were also working on new music at the time, so on the West Coast swing of the tour we were based in LA and recording at Sunset Sound Studios. They were absolutely phenomenal as a band. Bill and Charlie were the best rhythm section by miles that I’ve worked with. Around ’69, Mick and Keith were also coming to their peak as writers. It was fantastic to witness the material they were coming up with. They were right out there on the edge of sonic and lyrical exploration.

“Being on the road with them was lunacy really. There were some very odd people who got involved with the tour and hung around the fringes of it. It was mayhem. As much as anything, the Stones were enjoying their success. They were very confident. They’ve never really changed, aside from the fact that Keith is maybe a bit straighter now and they’re longer in the tooth.

“I recorded the show at Madison Square Garden sat in a truck parked out back of the stage. It’s a fucking great live album. It was the end of the tour, they were played in and all of it was just as it came out on the night. We might have also used a couple of numbers I’d recorded in Baltimore, but there was no overdubbing. They did take it to another level. It was amazing to be involved with them during that period and I don’t regret a second of it.”

Terry Reid

Nineteen-year-old Cambridgeshire-born singer-guitarist at the time the tour began and was the Stones’ opening act.

“Ididn’t really see a bunch of cities. We’d wake up, be driven to the soundcheck, do the gig and then fly out. The odd day off would be on a Sunday. Keith would call that his laundry day, which meant he’d throw whatever he’d been wearing out of the hotel room window and then go off and buy a new set of clothes. Keith was a riot. He liked to have a party booked up ahead of us getting into each town. I don’t know what was more gruelling, his parties or the gigs. We didn’t sleep. That wasn’t allowed in your contract.

“I remember us all being on a particularly hairy charter flight to the gig in Champaign, Illinois. It was way out in the flatlands – there’s nothing there but the wheat belt and a train moaning by in the middle of the night. It was colder than hell and snowing. It wasn’t a big plane and we came in skidding on the runway. Everybody on board went totally white.

“The Stones used to like to wind the audience up a bit before they went on. Well, more than a bit. Sometimes they’d leave it an hour or more before they came out and that could get a bit dangerous. I recall thinking there was going to be a riot in Dallas, Texas. But it was a hell of a lot of fun, there was something going on every minute.

“Keith told me not to lend Chuck Berry anything, because he was always asking to borrow stuff and walking off with it. He was an old so-and-so. He’d turn up to each gig in a car and then rustle up a bunch of local college kids to be his band for the night. Sure as eggs are eggs, he came into my dressing room in Chicago and said he had to rush off to do another gig and didn’t have an amp. I weakened and handed him one of mine. Well, it was Chuck Berry. Of course, I never saw it again.”

Ken Davidoff

The 19-year-old official photographer at the West Palm Beach Pop Festival.

“We were sort of new to being hippies in Palm Beach. The county was behind the times, very posh, and the town elders wanted to pull up the drawbridge. The promoter had a hard time convincing a lot of people that they should have the festival. The local sheriff, the governor and all these local religious people were against it going ahead. It was mostly because they had seen what had happened at Woodstock.

“The raceway where the festival took place was way out west of town, basically at the edge of the Everglades. So it was swampy and the weather turned out to be dreadful, really wet and cold. It was rumoured that the sheriff had got his deputies to round up a bunch of alligators in the ’glades and then herd them towards the festival site. Everybody was waiting for the Stones, but they were six hours late arriving on site. It was freezing and all we had to keep people warm backstage was an eighty-gallon drum with a fire in it. The band didn’t come on till 4am and by then the crowd of 50,000 had diminished to, like, 3,000, but they were spectacular. They had a hard time keeping their instruments in tune because it was so cold. They didn’t even know where they were. Mick Jagger said: ‘Hello Miami.’”

Michael Lydon

Another writer embedded on the tour, and the author of The Rolling Stones Discover America.

“I got an assignment to do the Rolling Stones from The New York Times. By then I’d made it out to Memphis and spent the night smoking pot with Stanley Booth. He was the one who vouched for me with Mick and Keith. From then on, I was just part of the tour personnel. It was great fun. Stanley and I both knew we were right where every hippie in America and around the world wanted to be.

“The Stones were good guys, and our age. I got to know Keith best of all. He was very intelligent. He always reminded me of Miles Davies to the extent that he focused on the music, like a panther stalking it. Mick was a complex guy. All the time on the tour he was negotiating a deal with Ahmet Ertegun to get the Stones onto Atlantic Records. The only negative was that it was a little bit like a planetary system where the Stones were the sun. One’s importance or sense of having a good or bad day depended on how close an orbit you were in to the Stones.

“There was a lot of pot being smoked and some degree of cocaine going round. There were girls and whatever, but in general it was a pretty hard-working tour. The show was a machine: the band basically did the same songs every night. There was also this whole other thing right then of there being a new generation of people defining themselves. Becoming a hippie was not just a game, it was: “Who am I?” There was a very meaningful conversation going on about which side you were on. Mick and Keith were part of that conversation, and leading it to an extent.

“The show in Oakland took place right next to Berkeley, which at the time was the centre of student politics and support for the Black Panthers. That was a very dramatic night, because the student radicals wanted Mick Jagger to be on their side. At one point in the show, he tentatively raised one hand into a fist, which was the sign of being a radical. But then Mick put his other hand up and made a ‘V’ sign for peace. Then there was another show at a big college town in Alabama where the kids were still wearing ties and tweed jackets.

“At Altamont, for the first time I saw that there were people caught up in this thing that were truly lost. You couldn’t make a movement out of these people. But the music was really, really good and the sense of those times still matters to me. I’ve still got my hair in a ponytail.”

Paul Rees

Paul Rees been a professional writer and journalist for more than 20 years. He was Editor-in-Chief of the music magazines Q and Kerrang! for a total of 13 years and during that period interviewed everyone from Sir Paul McCartney, Madonna and Bruce Springsteen to Noel Gallagher, Adele and Take That. His work has also been published in the Sunday Times, the Telegraph, the Independent, the Evening Standard, the Sunday Express, Classic Rock, Outdoor Fitness, When Saturday Comes and a range of international periodicals.