There are books that you read and when you finish you say to yourself, “That was a good book!” And then there’s the book that causes you to think, “That was interesting, but…” Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hell’s Angels and the Inside Story of Rock’s Darkest Day by Joel Selvin falls into the second category.
One is unlikely to find factual errors in this account of the notorious concert. This is a plus. Another plus is that this nonfiction work appears to have been edited to within an inch of its life. I found not a single grammatical or punctuation error, something that is sadly unique in this day and age. Kudos to the staff at Dey Street!
So where does the “but…” come from? This account is written in tense and turgid language. It’s as if Selvin is writing about THE MOST IMPORTANT EVENT IN HUMAN HISTORY. It reads as if one is listening to Walter Cronkite reciting the facts that led to a third world war. Come on, Joel, it was only rock ‘n roll!
How overblown and overly dramatic is the language? Here’s an excerpt: “The whole event had turned into some oblique rite of passage, an ordeal to be endured by band and audience alike. The promise of love had been vanquished, and in its place, the specter of evil loomed. In a single day, Altamont had turned the myth of Woodstock inside out.”
Whew. So this music concert was about a battle between good and evil, and it represented a momentous change in our lives and our time. Well, OK, if you buy that. I don’t.
It’s not as if dozens of people died at Altamont. There was one death that occurred while the Rolling Stones played and another person died while leaving the event. These deaths were not insignificant, but the Altamont concert pales in comparison to multiple tragedies in our history, which is why Selvin appears to have lost a proper perspective in 2016.
Fans of the Stones may find themselves surprised and/or dismayed by Selvin’s view that this was the beginning of the end for the band in terms of musical excellence, honesty, and creativity:
Whatever they lost at Altamont, they would not get back. The Stones would play out their days like tigers in the shade, challenging neither themselves nor their audience. Instead of a cultural force, the Stones settled for being caricatures of themselves, a raucous and colorful but ultimately meaningless sideshow, prancing onstage with props, costumes, and elaborate stage sets in cavernous football stadiums, no more simple five men and the music.
Common, Joel, tell us what you really think.
Stones fans are bound to enjoy the 22 pages of color and black-and-white photos, which are likely to have been previously unseen.
A few rock historians might find Selvin’s account useful but I doubt that most rock music fans will want to spend their time ingesting over 350 pages of rather depressing facts. And, as in many accounts of the period, there’s far too much made of drug use and abuse; something one quickly finds boring rather than interesting. For a perhaps more entertaining read that reviews the events back in the day, and the Altamont concert, one might elect to read David Talbot’s highly engaging Season of the Witch: Enchantment, Terror, and Deliverance in the City of Love.
Fade to black. Paint it, black.