January 1970. One of the top ten albums was the Rolling Stones Let It Bleed. Another was the Beatles Abbey Road. Then there was The Doors and Creedence Clearwater. It was the winter of 1970. The Chicago 8 minus 1 trial was coming to an end. There were lots of rumors about a new Beatles album. Local radio stations in the DC area played “Let It Be” and other cuts from it. The John Lennon//Yoko Ono exercise in opiate withdrawal known as “Cold Turkey” was on the radio. So was “A Boy Named Sue” and “Give Peace A Chance.” A police state apocalypse was considered a real possibility among the people I knew. The Stones-headlined fest known as Altamont only encouraged this fear. For those who were paying attention, so did the police hit on Black Panthers Mark Clark and Fred Hampton. So, of course, did the recent election of Richard Nixon apparatus.
The opening bars of the first song on Let it Be titled “Gimme Shelter” makes this sentiment clear. Menace. Fear. Death. This was darkness at the break of noon kind of stuff. War. Killing. Rape. Murder. Little hope for redemption except in love. Just a kiss away. The Stones’ journey had already taken a member in the summer of 1969 when Brian Jones died at the bottom of his pool. Another casualty of the experience. One record before they sang praises to the salt of the earth and the battles in the streets while acknowledging that evil provided the impetus for so much that was so hard to understand. Hope you guess it’s name.
“Gimme Shelter” is the natural sequel to “Sympathy For the Devil.” Perhaps, too, “Midnight Rambler” is the sequel to “Stray Cat Blues.” Both songs assume a certain perception of the sexual interaction between male and female, after all. In between the sheets or under a parachute, there are no madonnas or sugar magnolias in Rolling Stones songs. Indeed, there are very few Angies. In Rolling Stones songs, like their blues godfathers, there are only rough and tumble women who are either with the band or working girls. Any woman who isn’t working class is almost guaranteed to be met with derision well beyond the ken.
If “Midnight Rambler” is the sequel to “Stray Cat Blues,” then the Stones’ version of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” might very well be an unfortunate acknowledgment that the love the Beatles said was all we needed was actually all in vain. In January 1970 it certainly looked that way. By May 1970, it was clear. Police massacres of students and more black men dead in the US of A. Another country invaded by Washington’s military. The devil was most certainly on the loose. Hell, he was in control. In 2011, his efforts continue to succeed.
Let It Bleed featured Keith Richards on most of the guitar work. Mick Taylor had recently joined the band after Brian Jones’ death and may have pushed Richards to greater virtuosity than his usual playing. Rock critic Robert Palmer noted that Richards should join the list of greatest rock guitarists based solely on his work on Let It Bleed. As noted above, his opening licks on the album’s first song “Gimme Shelter” are what make the song by providing the aura of menace the lyrics demand. His acoustic work on “Country Tonk” is underlines the song’s sound so reminiscent of a lazy jam in the American South. Furthermore, the album featured Richards’ first recorded vocals on the song “You Got the Silver.”
This album was the second of an incredible run of four albums released by the Stones that not only define the band for most of its listeners; they also are among those rock music works that define the period of transition from the 1960s to the 1970s. Some of the others that belong are The Beatles’ Abbey Road and Bob Dylan’s countrified and introspective material from John Wesley Harding to New Morning; the Grateful Dead’s Live/Dead, Workingmans’s Dead and American Beauty. In each of these transitions–whether one is talking about just one album like Abbey Road or multiple albums like those of Dylan, the Stones and the Dead, thoughtful listeners become aware that they are listening to the songs of a culture pushed to the edge through its own excesses and the evils of the world it existed in. The bizarre lyrics and beats of “Come Together” to the closing lines of “Maggie May.” Bob Dylan’s two riders approaching to the retreat in the mountains described in “Time Passes Slowly.” The Dead’s mindsplitting psychedelic blues that defines almost the entire show Live/Dead is taken from to the river that just ro-oo-olls in American Beauty’s “Brokedown Palace.” Retreat seemed to be the only way to insure we would not die. For some this meant suicide (often slowly through drugs and drink), a place in the country or a permanent home on the road. For some, there was event the option of joining the corporation one despised or a religion full of lies.
Perhaps that edge was not a precipice but a portal. Perhaps the Doors were right. Perhaps we should have broken on through to the other side. The current situation of the planet makes me wonder even more.
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available in print and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org