Sam Cutler looks like he is all about rock and roll even at the age of 74.
Back in the '70s, when rock and roll counterculture was at its peak, Cutler had one of the toughest jobs in the world: he was a tour manager to The Rolling Stones and The Grateful Dead.
In his book, You Can't Always Get What You Want, he writes about what it was like to be on the road in the 1960s and 1970s and the fateful day of the Altamont concert. The Altamont Free Concert day (1969) is known as the most hellish day in the history of rock: the entire world was shocked at the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black petty criminal attending the Rolling Stones concert with his white girlfriend. Hunter was killed by a member of the Hells Angels motorcycle club and the incident shook the world; but the concert continued to go on.
Cutler spoke to Firstpost about his love for music, the concert controversy and what keeps him coming back to India (this visit was to attend the Tata Literature Live! Mumbai LitFest):
Firstpost: How did you get into the business of producing concerts, from being a teacher and running a folk club to managing concerts?
Sam Cutler: Like any business, you have to start at the beginning. If you want to be a teacher, you have to learn to read and write. If you want to be a pilot you have to learn to fly. I have always loved music and have always wanted to work in the music industry. So I learnt how shows were put on, how tickets are sold and all these different things. I spent a lot of time putting on shows, doing whatever was necessary to get the show going. You need to know more about music and I did what it takes to get there.
You learn about the stage, everything about the sound, how to sell tickets and how to put on a show.
And all this helps you when you are a tour manager, because being a tour manager makes you deal with all the problems the music industry has. It’s all about learning the nuts and bolts.
What are the nitty-gritties of being a tour manager?
Well, you know musicians shave themselves, brush themselves and make music; everything else the tour manager takes care of. The tour manager is involved with the money, the travel, and also more ephemeral things like delivering the musicians where they want to play, so they are in the right frame of mind. Making them ready to play. Doesn’t matter if it is rock and roll legends like The Rolling Stones or even Nusrat Ali Khan or Ghulam Ali; you cannot do a show if the musician is not in the right state of mind. If the musician doesn’t feel like it. They have got to be rested, fed and in the right state of mind to do the right show.
The tour manager deals with whatever problem that is — if there is a problem the tour manager will deal with it.
Any memorable experiences touring with so many bands?
It's a long time, so there are so many memories. The thing is, some of the nicest memories about the music business are not about the big shows and the money, they are more to do with when the bands were small and not-so-famous. The best memories I have of Pink Floyd is when they were not such a big successful band but instead when they were students; and studying architecture at college. The thing is once you get to working with the top people in the music business, it all gets very much the same. It's very hard to tell people that it's different. The nicest memories of the music business are like the nicest memories in my life; it's more about the small moments that count, and people being kind to you and you being kind to them.
You have called The Rolling Stones 'the greatest rock and roll band in the whole world'; do you think any current band matches up to their standards?
Who knows... To call a band 'the greatest rock and roll band in the whole world' is hyperbole. But you need to be doing it for fifty years and you have to see whether it's true or not. Like look at Ravi Shankar, what a long long creative life he had. You need to be around for a long time, and you need to prove it repeatedly that people like your music.
It takes time, you can't say that about children. I don't know if this mantle is meant for someone in the current generation.
Do you have any current favourite musicians or anyone you would like to manage?
We are in a kind of transition time now. All the old people need to come and die. The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and Pink Floyd, they need to go so that young people need to come around.
I asked my kids, "Would you like to go and see The Rolling Stones?"
My son retorted saying "What! My grandmother likes to see The Rolling Stones, not me."
I don't know who will be the next big thing. I see music all the time, and I think 'Meh, it's okay'.
But I do enjoy some music, like there is this band called The Cabinet, it is a bluegrass band, it's American country music. Chris Robinson from The Black Crowes has his own band (Chris Robinson Brotherhood) and I really like it too.
The thing about the music business is when you are in your 20s, that is all that matters. But once you get older, other more important things start to matter. I do like music, but it's more in proportion to other things that I like now more than music. Like writing, being with my wife, being healthy and coming here (to India).
Coming to the infamous Altamont concert, what do you think went wrong that day?
Well it was a cocktail of mistakes to begin with. It could have been great but it was a mixture of mistakes that all added up to becoming a nightmare. It was a series of mistakes of trying to do something very quickly, and trying to cover up a major mistake. We should have not tried to continue to do the show (after the death of Meredith Hunter). We should have stopped the show then and gone home. There was no coordination — there was total mayhem.
But we always learn from mistakes. Like when you want to go to the moon, you had the Challenger disaster, where so many astronauts died. So hopefully this was a mistake that everyone can learn from.
There’s a conspiracy theory that the government was distributing very potent LSD in the Altamont concert, which was twelve times the normal dose, to put an end to psychedelic culture. Is this true?
Well, its a as good a theory as any. It was a Nixon government at that time, a very right wing government, and there was no question that the whole 'counterculture movement' was opposed by the Nixon government. Because we were at the height of the Vietnam war, the government was opposed to any movements that would radicalise the youth. The government was against these youth movements (like concerts) that would make the youth more cohesive. The government would be only too happy to see that what youth culture was trying to achieve fall into chaos so that they can point a finger and say, 'Ah look, look how they behave, look this is crazy'.
What I do know is there were lots of bad drugs at that festival.
Who made them and why, we will never know. But I know hippies never distribute or try to distribute bad drugs to people. So where did they come from?
So the logical answer to that would be people who didn't care what the results would be.
The era was synonymous with drugs; were heroin and LSD very prominent on the scene?
I don't know any band or young people who have not experimented. A part of learning how to live is to experiment. They experiment with love, life, work and; you know they listen to their parents or they don't listen to their parents. Whether we like it or not drugs are a part of our culture, most young people do partake of them, so yes. Musicians are the same as anyone else, they don't come from Mars and Jupiter. They do this as well.
But some, like Janis Joplin and Jimmi Hendrix didn't learn quickly enough, they died from these things. All of life is a series of mistakes. Hopefully you learn and make progress.
You worked with The Rolling Stones for a year and they dropped you. Do you have any negative feelings?
I am still friends with Charlie (Watts), the drummer (of The Rolling Stones).
When you work as a tour manager of a band, you are not getting married, they are not your lovers. They are not really your boss. It's a relationship based on trust, you can't be the manager of a band, unless the band trusts you. And you trust them, it's a two-way thing.
I never expected to be the tour manager for a long time, it's not a job in the classical sense of a job. It is something you do depending on how much the band wants to work, doesn't want to work. How successful the band is, isn't etc.
What makes you keep coming back to India?
I'm a Buddhist so I love coming here.
Western people have a very romantic view of Indian spirituality, but there is so much more to India than its religious aspect. But all the different religions are such a central part of Indian culture and it makes it so attractive to people in the west. Lots of young people in the 70s came looking here to answers to their questions, just as there were other answers to other questions in America. Yea I find India fascinating. and it is kind of fascinating to see these modern values superimposed on ancient traditions. India comes up with its own unique solutions to its problems.
As a Buddhist it is really important for me to come to India, but it's also funny because most Hindus see Buddhism as a side branch of Hinduism. The basic ideas of Hinduism and Buddhism are very similar. Like the teachings of karma are the same in both the religions.
Any favourite city in India? Mumbai or Delhi?
No, not really. I have lived in big cities when I was younger. I have loved cities when I was younger. I do like Mumbai, it changes every time I have come here. But Mumbai is too big. When I was young, it used to be, yes I want to be in Bombay, London, Paris whatever but now I want to be in the mountains and villages. It's also to do with how old you are. Now I just want to have some peace.
Any favourite Indian musicians and Bollywood films?
Ravi Shankar is a part of my life. I also love Ghulam Ali and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
Films, not really, sometimes I watch Bollywood films for fun. I love the end of the film where the lead pair hold hands and everyone's like 'awww' and there's no kissing. That's so Indian.