Sam Cutler’s You Can’t Always Get What You Want: My Life with the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and Other Wonderful Reprobates

cover, You Can't Always Get What You Want: My Life with the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and Other Wonderful Reprobates Oh, and a storm is threatening my very life today …

Once upon a time, back when Marin County, California, was still the home of the Grateful Dead, I helped manage a bookstore, Mandrake Books, in San Rafael.

It was the early-mid 1970s, and Marin County was rocking. Local bands played softball games in Fairfax. Imagine Jerry Garcia pitching to Bill Graham as we sat in the bleachers of the local Park and Rec field, shouting encouragement and insults, cheering them on, with a joint being passed around and little kids running all over the place. The small club scene was thriving, from the Sweetwater in Mill Valley to the Lions Share in San Anselmo to the Sleeping Lady in Fairfax. On any given night, you could wander in to one of those venues and see the Jerry Garcia Band — Nicky Hopkins lighting up the piano, John Kahn and Ron Tutt working the rhythm, Jerry doing his nine-fingered magic thing. Or Hot Tuna, bringing home the blues with Papa John Creach on fiddle, scenting everything with the feel of the Delta.

There was no rock star BS. People did their thing — they just hung out. And there was Mandrake Books. The rocker community wandered in and out, not least because we had a vast comic book collection, of the DC and Marvel variety and underground.

One day a kid came in and asked if we had any good books about the Rolling Stones. No idea who the kid was, I’d never seen him before and so far as I know I never saw him again, but I remember scratching my head and saying, well, no. Sorry. I don’t think there are any good books about the Rolling Stones. There was one thing out, a thriller called The Man Who Shot Mick Jagger, but this kid wanted history, not fiction; he mentioned Altamont.

So he wanted straight fact, at least insofar as the legend that had built up around The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World allowed for straight fact. And I couldn’t help him. There simply weren’t any good books about the Stones.

If I don’t get some shelter, Lord I’m gonna fade away …

Nearly 40 years later, there is finally — finally! — a good book about the Stones. And not only is it about the Stones, it may well be the first really clear look at that period in the world of Marin County and the Grateful Dead. The man responsible, Sam Cutler, is better qualified to do this than anyone else on earth; Sam was tour manager for both the Stones and the Dead. He was working with the Stones when Brian Jones was found dead in his pool after being fired from the band he’d founded. Sam took the fall for the spectacular clusterfuck that was the free concert at Altamont Speedway in 1969. The dude was there, yo.

Writing a history, a biography, a memoir, is a tricky business. Memoirs are particularly iffy; so much of what the writer remembers about his or her life is fogged over with time passing, substances used and abused, pain that the heart and ego want to push away. In the case of someone dealing with being adored by the masses, there’s always a risk of letting that color remembered perception: gel on the lens.

One of the most remarkable things about You Can’t Always Get What You Want is its brilliant balancing act. If there’s very little gel on Cutler’s lens, there’s no vituperation, either. This is no “I know where the bodies are buried and I’m getting back at you gits!” tell-all. This is one man’s memories, setting the record straight for one of the most pivotal periods in modern music and, by extension, in popular culture.

Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away, just a shot away …

I remember Sam coming into Mandrake. I’d met him a few years earlier, backstage at the Stones’ Madison Square Garden gig in 1969. I remembered having seen him, but I doubt if he remembered me. He’d been busy and purposeful and grim and harassed as hell; I’d been rolling by, not stopping. When I moved to Marin in 1971, eighteen months after the Altamont show, Sam had jumped ship from the Stones to the Dead, and I was, on and off, a member of the Dead contingent. A lot of the county were.

(Here’s a moment Sam may actually remember, from 1973 or thereabouts. I’ve only ever worn one kind of perfume, called Bal a Versailles. Very pricey stuff, created for Marie Antoinette. Sam, giving me a lift to my Mill Valley apartment from a Dead show at Winterland one night, dropped me off at my front door. Just before I got out of the car, he sniffed, wrinkled his nose, and said “Bloody perfume smells like a Turkish whorehouse.” I laughed so hard, I got the hiccoughs.)

Ooh, see the fire is sweepin’ our very street today …

For anyone interested in the hard brutal rape and murder of the Woodstock Nation that was Altamont, this is your book. Yes, there’s the filmed record, the Maysles Brothers “Gimme Shelter,” but there are some odd omissions in that one, explained and filled out by Sam’s account of the days leading up to the show. For instance, his detailing of Ralph Gleason’s share of the original sin — as chronicled in You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Gleason loathed the Stones, vilified them in the press as disrespecting and overcharging their fans, manipulated the idea of a free show until there was literally no way out of it, and then joined forces with Bill Graham to wreck the show as best they could — is flat and straightforward.

Sam doesn’t blame Gleason, he doesn’t blame the Dead, he doesn’t blame the Stones, or himself. He does what a good diarist and memoir writer should do: he documents. I’ve reread the Altamont section three times, and what comes off the pages in waves is the sense of inevitability, betrayal, tragedy, the bad advice, the unreal expectations, the hand of fate.

Altamont, on every level, was Shakespearean in its scope. Everyone involved showed their share of cowardice, of fear, of being too spoiled or sheltered to step up and take an equal share of the responsibility. Four people died at Altamont, the most notable being Meredith Hunter, stabbed to death right in front of a stage that the idiots in charge made less than a meter tall. If you’re too young to know the story, or too old to remember it, read the book. You’ll know then, and remember it.

Burns like a red coal carpet, mad bull lost its way …

An interesting informational thread runs through Sam’s account of Altamont: the presence of elements completely outside the music and the scene. The story exemplifies the word “sinister”: The Stones, unbeknownst to the band through their own laziness, had a mafia frontman and a cadre of the frontman’s thugs providing them with whatever they wanted on the 1969 tour, including Peruvian rock cocaine. Creepy enough, you’d think.

But at the show itself, even more disturbing elements showed themselves. There were literally jars of toxic LSD being circulated, on a scale unimaginable for a local dealer. There were thugs with pool cues, neither Hells Angels nor invited by the Angels, bashing heads. Watching “Gimme Shelter,” you see them and wonder. But reading You Can’t Always Get What You Want is a genuine “oh shit” moment. Federal agents and John Burch society types, Hells Angels and mafia, oblivious rock stars and local musicians too scared to do anything but run — and in the middle of that, the Stones’ tour manager, taking the fall for it all.

As everyone knows, four people died that night, but so did something else: the Love and Peace generation went down under a thundering jackbooted wave of switchblades, pool cues, and probable tampering by the Nixon government. And that, in fact, was probably the object of the exercise.

I could, quite easily, do another thousand or so words about You Can’t Always Get What You Want. I’ve concentrated on Altamont, but really it’s about so much more than that; this, after all, is a life being spanned and scanned. The music industry moments are many, varied, and in some cases viciously funny (I won’t spoil you with the single pithy paragraph on the subject of Paul Simon; let’s just say it’s heavily salted). Some are touching, I suspect more so for people like me, who knew a lot of these people, and who remember them with whatever gel or distortion on our own lenses.

The bottom line is, this book is the goods. It’s the bomb-diggety. It punches where a punch is needed and lets you take a deep breath and wonder when the air gets too rarified or thin. Sam Cutler’s world, whether you were there or not, is vibrant, fascinating, intriguing, and always offered with a clear eye and a clean sense of him stepping back and letting you judge for yourself.

And it’s possibly the best balancing act I’ve ever read.

(Random House, 2010)

[Update: Sam Cutler died in July 2023 at the age of 80.]

Deborah Grabien

Deborah Grabien can claim a long personal acquaintance with the fleshpots — and quiet little towns — of Europe. She has lived and worked and hung out from London to Geneva to Paris to Florence, and a few stops in between.

But home is where the heart is. Since her first look at the Bay Area in 1969, she’s always come home to San Francisco. In 1981, after spending some years in Europe, she came back to Northern California to stay.

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