Sam Cutler looks pretty good this morning as he sits, dressed top to bottom in black, in a Toronto coffee shop. The face is lined and creased, for sure, the hair messy and greying under a cap that reads "The Wrecking Crew." The 'stache is not as piratical as in days of yore.
Still, for a 67-year-old who lives in a bus when at home in Australia, the physique is admirably trim, the eyes clear and focused and - impressively for an orphan born in Britain before the advent of the National Health Service, and whose working-class adoptive parents were devout communists - he has his own set of teeth. In short, and Cutler is short, he seems very much the spry senior.
There was a time, though, when Sam Cutler might as well have had horns on his forehead, methane spewing from his nostrils, and a big, red tail - such was the man's notoriety.
That would have been in 1969, when he was serving at the request of their satanic majesties, the Rolling Stones, managing the group's historic 17-date tour of the United States. It was Cutler who, show after show that fall, introduced Mick, Keith & Co. as "the greatest rock-'n'-roll band in the world" - a handle Cutler had coined earlier at a concert in London's Hyde Park. It was Cutler, too, who was the nominal MC of the group's free final show, a hastily organized outdoor gig at the desolate Altamont Speedway east of San Francisco.
Altamont was supposed to be "the greatest party of 1969," as Cutler himself told the crowd of 300,000 that December day. With scheduled appearances by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Santana, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, the Flying Burrito Brothers and, for the finale, the Stones, on paper Altamont looked like a condensed Woodstock. Instead, it became a Boschian swarm of bad vibes, bad drugs, freak-outs and unchecked violence, with aggressive Hells Angels meting out pool-cue justice to passive hippies. Altamont and the documentary about it, 1970's Gimme Shelter, marked the figurative end of all the hopes, idealism and pretensions embodied in the term "the Sixties."
Unsurprisingly, the Stones - and by extension, Sam Cutler - were deeply implicated in the debacle. After all, it was Cutler who functioned as the Stones' liaison with the San Francisco music scene, the band's blowhard lawyer, Melvin Belli, and the Angels, who were ostensibly brought in to work security. It was Cutler's $500 (about $3,000 in today's currency) that paid for the beer that kept the Angels lubricated by the Altamont stage. It was Cutler who later claimed that the Stones performed after sunset not because they wanted a dramatic closer but because they were waiting for bassist Bill Wyman to return from a San Francisco shopping trip with his wife.
It was while Mick Jagger sang Down to me/The change has come from Under My Thumb that an 18-year-old African-American named Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death by an Angel.
All this is included in Cutler's newly published memoir - new, that is, in North America. You Can't Always Get What You Want actually surfaced two years ago in Australia, where Cutler, now a citizen, has lived since 1998, and where he has two sons, age 12 and 15. Subtitled My Life with the Rolling Stones, the Grateful Dead and Other Wonderful Reprobates, it is the first in a projected series of five autobiographical yarns, the last of which he expects to call Sex for the Over-80s and Other Improbable Tales.
Senior citizen though he is - and a practising Buddhist, too - there remains a touch of the "wheeler-dealer bad boy," as a Grateful Dead insider once put it, that must have endeared Cutler to the Stones, and then the Dead, with whom he served as "executive nanny" from 1970 to 1974 and established the blueprint, he says, that "took them from earning nothing to earning a fortune." Indeed, one of the two silver skull rings on Cutler's right hand bears the Dead's famous lightning logo - a sign of membership in the fabled Dead "family."
If 40 years seems a long time for Cutler to have waited before having his say, it's because the novice author is aiming for the ages. "In years to come, when people say, 'What were the Sixties?' they'll gain their impressions from a series of vignettes, from books, different perspectives. If you look at it as a 360-degree thing, I want to be one of the degrees in that circle."
Besides, he says, "People who write their story of their life when they're 23 really don't have that much to say. Me, I always wanted to have this rich, mad, full, crazy life and then, when I finally grew up, like at age 55 or 60, sit down and write about it."
Cutler certainly has lots to say in You Can't Always Get What You Want. Much of it is predictable: Altamont, for instance, wasn't organized by the Stones or Cutler, but by "irresponsible people" from San Francisco's rock community. If the stage had been higher, there wouldn't have been the Molotov-cocktail crush of fans, bikers, musicians, space cadets and hangers-on. Yes, the Angels were a mean bunch - but killing Hunter was "an act of self-defence": Dude was a drug dealer wired on methamphetamines and waving a gun.
Cutler says he himself had a small .32-calibre pistol in one of his boots that day (in contradiction to what he is quoted as saying in Dennis McNally's 2002 book, A Long, Strange Trip: The Inside History of the Grateful Dead: "I have NEVER carried a weapon in my life other than a sharp and incisive mind.").
"It was a nightmare possessing the bloody thing, and the thought of using it made me feel sick," he told me. "Would I have used it? I don't know, but if I had thought that Mick's or Keith's life was being directly threatened, then almost certainly I would have."
At the same time, his book is rife with provocative passages, most notably the suggestion that minions of the Nixon administration freely distributed thousands of tablets of superstrong LSD at Altamont. "The White House was very concerned about a confluence of pop music with the radical left, as represented by groups like the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society," he reasons. If Richard Nixon and FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover couldn't prevent a Woodstock or an Altamont, they could discredit it. "When thousands of people needed medical treatment and four people died [one murder, one drowning, two in a car accident]" he asks, "why is it there never was any enquiry on any level, none whatsoever?"
Cutler, who started smoking at 11 and embraces nicotine to this day, claims that although he's been around a lot of drugs and taken his share, he is "very lucky that they've never impaired my long-term memory. …Basically, I'm a pot smoker. I wasn't a Syd Barrett or Brian Jones. I never took drugs to excess, because I was too busy working: A tour manager has to stay on top of things, mate. It's like being an admiral: The whole crew is relying on you to turn to port even if they're in no condition to do so!"
Cutler last saw the Stones in 2003, when they were touring Australia. More precisely, he saw Keith, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood. "Mick don't see anyone. Mick's too busy being Mick. That's a full-time job, y' know wot I mean?"
It's true, says Cutler, that the Stones have never paid him for services rendered in 1969. It's true, too, that he felt abandoned by them after they fled America for England right after Altamont. Nonetheless, he insists he bears them no ill will. Nor should his memoir be seen as a settling of scores. All, it seems, is semi-guruvy.
"I've always accepted whatever happens to me, including what people may write about me," he says. "…You have a choice of bringing a skillful attitude to your own experiences or an unskillful one - the skillful one is conducive to contentedness, calmness, serenity; the unskillful one to ulcers, bitterness, resentment."