October 12, 2010

Rolling Stones Manager Finally Tells His Side Of Altamont

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 perspective.
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!

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