‘Let it Bleed’ (12/27/69)

Let It Bleed is the last album from the Rolling Stones we’ll see before the sixties, already gone really, become the seventies; it has the crummiest cover art since Flowers and a credit sheet that looks like it was designed by a government printing office. The tones of the music are at once dark and perfectly clear; the words are slurred and often buried. The Stones as a band, and Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Merry Clayton, Nanette Newman, Doris Troy, Madeline Bell, and the London Bach Choir as singers sometimes carry the songs far past their lyrics. There’s a glimpse of a story—not much more.

With “Live With Me,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “Let It Bleed,” the Stones prance through familiar roles with their masks on. On “Monkey Man” they submit grandly to the image they’ve carried for almost the whole of the decade: “All my friends are junkies! (That’s not really true…).” Hidden between the flashier cuts are tunes waiting for a listener to catch up with them: a revival of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” Keith Richards’s “You Got the Silver.” But it’s the first and last of Let It Bleed that tell what story there is.

“Gimme Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” give the lie to the brutalism of “Midnight Rambler” and the easy riches of “Live With Me.” Years kick in: it’s a long way from “Get Off My Cloud” to “Gimme Shelter,” from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” A new map is being drawn; the old stance of arrogance and contempt isn’t erased, but it is blurred. Once the Stones were known as the group that would always take a good old-fashioned piss against a good old-fashioned gas station. Now Jagger sings it this way: “I went down to the demonstration/To get my fair share of abuse…”

“Gimme Shelter” is a song about fear; it probably serves better than anything else as a passageway straight into the next decade. The band builds on the best melody they’ve ever found, slowly adding instruments and sounds until explosions of bass and drums ride on over the first crest of the song into howls from Jagger and Merry Clayton, a black session singer from Los Angeles. It’s a full-faced meeting with all the terror the mind can summon, moving fast and never breaking, so that men and women have to beat the terror at its own pace. When Clayton sings alone, so loudly and with so much force you think her lungs are bursting, Richards frames her with measured, pressured riffs that blaze past her emotionalism and toss the song back to Jagger’s distanced judgment: “It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away… It’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away.” You know a kiss won’t be enough.You remember the Stones’ girls—say, the common, flirty (or was it “dirty”?) machine operator in “The Spider and the Fly,” or for that matter the girl back home who told the singer “When you’ve done your show go to bed”? They’re still around for Let It Bleed, with their own masks on—all the cooks and maids, upstairs and downstairs, all the Crazy Horse strippers and London socialites in “Live With Me,” or the mangled victims of the Midnight Rambler. But the true women in this music seem to be people who can shout like Merry Clayton—tougher than any of the skirts jumping out of the old Stones orgy, knowing something the rakes don’t know. That’s what makes “Gimme Shelter” so shocking—it hits from both sides, with no laughs, no innuendo, nothing held back. It’s a search for the future contained in the present; the Stones have never done anything better.

Meanwhile, as the band closes out the decade, a book of pictures by David Bailey (once the Stones’ photographer) has arrived in the stores, a panorama of the celebrities who meant something in London these past ten years: Goodbye Baby & Amen: A Saraband for the Sixties. In words and staged portraits it tries to capture the liberation London found when the last symbols of empire were jettisoned, when Christine Keeler cut the boards out from under the British establishment, when John Lennon, Pete Townshend, and Mick Jagger drove out old speech with new noise, when movie stars, directors, models, photographers, architects, painters, playwrights, and poets took art out of museums and took their clothes off at the same time. With a tombstone on its jacket, the book reaches for a sense of freedom already past, urging images of one long party lasting through the years, some still looking for it.

There’s a strange quote from filmmaker Bryan Forbes, pictured with his wife, actress and Let It Bleed backup singer Nanette Newman: “The curious thing is that ideas float in the air and a lot of us explored the same territory; there was no collusion. We weren’t committing adultery with each other’s permission. We never knew, in fact, that we were sleeping with the same girl.” Forbes calls up an excitement and a creativity that were unconsciously shared, and the sex that pervades his talk merely adds realism to his utopianism. In London, in the sixties, when styles on Carnaby Street changed by the day, when each new group was thrilling, when America looked to London with envy, joy, and, really, wonder, what one saw was a mad pursuit of every next day, and what one saw looked like the most complete freedom the world had ever known.

Yet as you stare at the pictures in Goodbye Baby & Amen—Marianne Faithfull pure against the sunset, Susannah York falling out of her dress, the Beatles and the Stones posing as kings, and the weird, scary spread of Christine Keeler vamping the book to a close—you see that the book cannot really bring the era into focus. It’s as if these people and the years they lived through were never there at all, like the fantasy of an American writer, Gerard van der Leun, of rock ‘n’ roll London at its peak:

Tonight, to the consternation of the duly delegated authorities, an unkempt mob of anarchists clad in body paint and fright wigs stormed the Houses of Parliament following their frenzied participation in the Intergalactic Sonic Sit-In at the Royal Albert Hall. After laying siege to the speaker’s podium, they used their cigarette lighters to fuse the works of Big Ben into a bronze statue of Smokey Robinson…

But following that fantasy—rather, as it happened: van der Leun was writing in the summer of 1968—America’s own six­ties, the final sixties of assassination, riot, war, and the cold gloom of Richard Nixon, caught up with London’s party, foreshadowing its end, exposing its hometown marvelousness. The French rising of 1968 gave the very idea of Carnaby Street a ludicrous tinge—even if, in some way, the freedoms of Carnaby Street might have been what the French students and workers were fighting for—while those same Paris street fights pushed the Rolling Stones into “Street Fighting Man,” their admission that they were no longer where it’s at, that Swinging London was now Sleepy London Town. Then Jean-Luc Godard tossed out Weekend, proof British directors were second-rate. It was all over. It was no fun.

It became hard for Americans to think of London as a city, as a circuit of possibilities—for most it was simply where pop stars lived. Not long before, when Michelangelo Antonioni came to town to make his London movie, he made his hero a photographer—and though Blow-Up was a lousy movie, Antonioni’s argument that the photographer’s picture was more real than the thing itself was at the heart of both the movie’s lousiness and, for the moment, its truth. As an era faded Godard made his own English film—with the Rolling Stones. He tried to undercut their status, to demystify their power, and, interestingly, he failed. The Rolling Stones and a few more have lasted, and if the rest have lost whatever they had, that is why Goodbye Baby & Amen, and David Bailey’s own self-dating style of photography—heavy black and white, focus pressed down to the pores, opening them, taking off the clothes of even his most stylishly dressed subjects—carries such a pathetic message. “We were there! We were! And it was a grand time…”This era and the collapse of its bright and flimsy liberation are what the Rolling Stones leave behind with the last song of Let It Bleed. Dreams of having everything, right now, are gone; the record ends with a song about compromise with what you want, with a celebration of learning to take what you can get, maybe even what you deserve, because time has passed, and the rules have changed. Back a few years, London’s new working-class, middle-class pop aristocracy were out for just what they wanted, and they got it—but no one can live off a memory, a memory of that sense of mastery of, when was it, ’65, ’66? If “Gimme Shelter” is a song about terror, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” looks for satisfaction in resignation. That sort of goal isn’t what made “Satisfaction” the unanimous nationwide poll-winning choice as the greatest song of all time a few years ago—but then radio stations don’t hold those sort of polls anymore. Today the comforts of unanimity are missing. You have to reach for this song yourself.

It is one of the most extreme productions ever staged by a rock ‘n’ roll band, and every note of it works: the stately, virginal introduction by the Bach Choir; the slow movement of sessionman Al Kooper’s French horn and organ, a reminder of his push in Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” (four years ago, but it seems like eons); a strum from Keith Richards; then the first verse and chorus from Jagger, singing almost unaccompanied. From there the music dissolves and builds again in surges, begins over and over in a mood of tragedy and fatigue, and ends with complete optimism and exuberance. It’s as much a movie as Blow- Up—beginning and ending with a party in a Chelsea mansion, the singer meeting a strung-out woman he apparently knows from earlier times, when things were different all around. The tune moves from there to street fighting, to street fighting and political revolt as just another show, and then to the strangest scene of all. The singer is in the Chelsea drugstore, waiting in line for his prescription. He strikes up a conversation with a man much older—it sounds as if it’s someone he’s seen around but never really spoken to. The older man is nervous, in bad shape. He could be sixty years old, or he could be thirty-five. The singer tries to be nice, to be polite; maybe he sees himself in the old man’s face, maybe he doesn’t. But the old man wants something from the singer. He whispers. You can’t tell if he’s said “bed” or “death,” but suddenly there’s a smile in Jagger’s voice, as if he’s waited years for this moment. The singer turns to the old man with a lift that summons one more chorus: “I said, you can’t always get what you want—”

From there, of course, it’s back to the party.

On Let It Bleed you can find every role the Rolling Stones have ever played—swaggering studs, rebel criminals, harem keepers, fast-life riders—a decade’s worth of poses. But at the beginning and the end there is an opening into the seventies—harder to take, and stronger wine. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” echoes back into “Gimme Shelter”; these songs no longer reach for mastery over other people, but for an uncertain mastery over the more desperate situations the coming years are about to enforce.

Note: this version of the review is the one reprinted in Ranters & Crowd Pleasers (a.k.a. In the Fascist Bathroom), which is a lightly edited version of the review that originally ran in Rolling Stone. This version corrects “Merry” Clayton (“Mary” in both previous versions) and “‘Gimme’ Shelter” (previously “Gimmie”).

Rolling Stone, December 27, 1969
— cf. GM’s “A Singer and a Rock and Roll Band” (1969)


2 thoughts on “‘Let it Bleed’ (12/27/69)

  1. Pingback: Exile on Main St turns 50: how The Rolling Stones' critically divisive album became rock folklore

  2. Pingback: how The Rolling Stones' critically divisive album became rock folklore - arthritis healing book

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