In doing my research for this post, I was pleased to learn that upon its release, Let It Bleed temporarily knocked Abbey Road out of the #1 spot on the U.K. charts. These little bursts of human sanity are tiny treasures I cherish to temper my general skepticism about the aesthetic perceptions of the species. Let It Bleed is clearly the better album once you throw sentiment to the wind.
Many listeners consider Let It Bleed a rather dark album, in part due to content, in part due to its association with Altamont (more a matter of bad timing than anything else) and in part due to Martin Scorsese including “Gimme Shelter” in three of his cinematic bloodbaths. While “Midnight Rambler” is about as dark and creepy as it gets, I think the overall impression of “apocalyptic” is overstating the case. Except for their brief detour into the flower power scene in 1967, The Stones had always been more realistic about the world as is, and some of their best songs contain insightful social commentary. To me, the fundamental message of Let It Bleed is, “Get off your cloud and get real. The world isn’t as pretty as you’d like it to be.”
Let It Bleed also reflects the band’s growing belief in their renewal and in their future direction. There is no question in my mind that the decreasing presence and mid-recording departure of Brian Jones significantly improved group dynamics, as by this point he was an unreliable distraction. Jones only appears on two tracks, and neither contribution is particularly significant. When The Stones asked him to leave shortly before his death, they were simply giving in to the evidence that the relationship wasn’t working anymore. Making a break with the past is always an act of liberation, and much of Let It Bleed is infused with a breezy confidence that balances the occasional forays into darkness and realism (and some poor choices here and there).
“Gimme Shelter,” with its marvelously arranged introduction calling up images of the moonless nights and whistling winds that heighten human anxiety before a gathering storm, is fundamentally existentialist at heart. What I mean by that is that Jagger and Richards present the human race with a stark choice: we can live in a world where rape, murder and war are just a shot away, or where love is just a kiss away. What kind of world do you want? The lyrics lean strongly towards the violent aspect of the choice at first, in part because of the violence of the times and in part to shock people out of naive idealism. Producer Jimmy Miller’s insistence that the song called for female vocal support resulted in the brilliant decision to bring in Merry Clayton, whose vocal adds even more fire to the throbbing rhythms that drive the track. “Gimme Shelter” has lost none of its relevance over the years; the same stark choice stands before the human race today. Lately, with all the gun violence in America and the transformation of war into a sick video game, I find myself feeling more than ever the need for shelter from all the craziness that surrounds us. “Gimme Shelter” is really resonating with me right now.
If they hadn’t floored me with “Gimme Shelter,” they certainly would have accomplished that with the best cover of a Robert Johnson song I’ve ever heard, the mournful “Love in Vain.” They handle this song as gently as a mother handles a newborn baby, something rare and precious. The arrangement is simple and supportive; the urge to add a few frills that would ruin some of their later efforts in this genre is completely suppressed. It’s a moment of love and respect for a simple and beautiful sliver of poetry and for the man who wrote it.
“Country Honk” follows, a hillbilly version of the recent hit, “Honky Tonk Women.” While it’s not bad, they would have been better going with the original version, because this song crosses a line into the region of “cute,” a place where no serious musicians should go, and certainly not The Rolling Stones. Fortunately, they snap out of it with the sharp cuts, hard rhythms and chaotic lyrics of “Live with Me.” This song features Bobby Keys on tenor saxophone, providing a touch that works well here and will work later on “Brown Sugar,” but also opens the door to the overindulgence in horns of all shapes and sizes that would mark much of Exile on Main Street.
But I’m getting ahead of my story. Next up is “Let It Bleed,” a fun and boozy tune where Jagger takes his vocals to the edge of silliness but restrains himself from crossing the line, remaining light and playful throughout. This is followed by the aforementioned “Midnight Rambler,” a dark song indeed. It’s also another piece of evidence feminists present to prove that the Stones have a fetish for violence against women. Do feminists ever have any fun? My take on “Midnight Rambler” is that its darkness is more campy than serious, sort of like the current obsessions with zombies and vampires. It’s designed to be a show tune where Jagger can use his acting skills on stage to play off the common human paranoia about the boogieman.
One of my favorite songs on Let It Bleed is Keith Richards’ first full-time bit as lead singer, “You Got the Silver.” Featuring Brian Jones’ final contribution on autoharp, Keith’s vocal is both sweet and understated, mingling nicely with the acoustic-dominated mix. I love it when he goes into belt-it-out mode in the last two verses as if he was just dipping his toe in the pool during the first few verses before deciding, “Fuck it,” and doing a cannonball in the cold water. On the other hand, I’m not particularly fond of “Monkey Man,” which seems stylistically out of place with the other songs on the album.
One subtext of the story of The Rolling Stones is the constant battle between discipline and overindulgence. Let It Bleed provides excellent examples of both tendencies: “Love in Vain” is discipline; “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is shameless overindulgence, one of the few songs in The Stones catalog that I loathe, for several reasons. For one, I hate that fucking choir, a terrible choice reeking of celestial pomposity. Two, the song isn’t that good to deserve the excessive length or the over-the-top layering of vocals and instrumentation: it features a boring and unsurprising melody supporting awkward lyrics wrought with fake significance. Finally, I will always associate the song with that awful movie The Big Chill, which featured Baby Boomers at their self-important worst. Didn’t think you were going to die, fuckheads? Get over it!
Despite the pffft at the end, Let It Bleed is a pretty solid effort, not as holistically strong as Beggars Banquet, but more than enough to keep the faith alive, as my beloved Baby Boomer father always likes to say.