Let It Bleed is the last album by the Stones we’ll see before the Sixties, already gone really, become the Seventies; it has the crummiest cover art since Flowers, with a credit sheet that looks like it was designed by the United States Government Printing Office (all courtesy of the inflated Robert Brownjohn), and the best production since, well, “Honky Tonk Women.” The music has tones that are at once dark and perfectly clear, while the words are slurred and often buried for a stronger musical effect. The Stones as a band and Jagger and Mary Clayton and Keith Richards and Nanette Newman and Doris Troy and Madelaine Bell and the London Bach Choir as singers carry the songs past “lyrics” into pure emotion. There’s a glimpse of a story — not much more. And like Beggars’ Banquet, Let It Bleed has the feel of Highway 61 Revisited.
On songs like “Live With Me,” “Midnight Rambler,” and “Let It Bleed,” the Stones prance through all their familiar roles, with their Rolling Stones masks on, full of lurking evil, garish sexuality, and the hilarious and exciting posturing of rock and roll Don Juans. On “Monkey Man” they grandly submit to the image they’ve carried for almost the whole decade, and then crack up digging it: “All my friends are junkies! (That’s not really true…)” And there are other songs, hidden between the flashier cuts, waiting for the listener to catch up with them: the brilliant revival of Robert Johnson’s exquisite “Love In Vain,” and Keith Richards’ haunting ride through the diamond mines, “You Got the Silver.”
And yet it’s the first and last of Let It Bleed that seem to matter most. The frightening desperation of “Gimmie Shelter” and the confused frustation of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” give the lie to the bravado of “Midnight Rambler” or “Live With Me.” Not that those songs don’t work — they do, of course, as crunching, soaring dreams of conquest and pop supremacy. They’re great numbers. But “Gimmie Shelter” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” both reach for reality and end up confronting it, almost mastering what’s real, or what reality will feel like as the years fade in. It’s a long way from “Get Off My Cloud” to “Gimmie Shelter,” a long way from “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
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That’s not to say the Stones can’t move fast and play all their roles at once — they can, right on stage — but the force of the new vulnerability blurs the old stance of arrogance and contempt. The music of these two songs is just that much stronger than anything else on the album — they can’t be ignored, and the images and moods they raise blur the old stance of arrogance and contempt. Once the Stones were known, someone’s said, as the group that would always take a good old-fashioned piss against a good old-fashioned gas station attendant. And now Mick sings it this way too: “I went down to the demonstration/ To get my fair share of abuse …”
“Gimmie Shelter” is a song about fear; it probably serves better than anything written this year as a passageway straight into the next few years. The band builds on the dark beauty of the finest melody Mick and Keith have ever written, slowly adding instruments and sounds until an explosively full presence of bass and drums rides on over the first crest of the song into the howls of Mick and a woman, Mary Clayton. 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 that terror at the game’s own pace. When Mary Clayton sings alone, so loudly and with so much force you think her lungs are bursting, Richard’s frames her with jolting riffs that blaze past her and take it back to Mick. Their answer and their way out matches the power of the threat: “It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away … it’s just a kiss away, it’s just a kiss away.” The truly fearful omen of the music is that you know just a kiss won’t be enough. This song, caught up in its own momentum, says you need the other too.
You remember the Stones’ girls, the common, flirty (or was it “dirty”?) machine operator of “The Spider and the Fly,” or for that matter the poor girl back home who said “when you’ve done your show go to bed”? They’re all still here on Let It Bleed, with their masks on so you can use them — all the cooks and maids, upstairs and downstairs, in “Live With Me,” or the presumably well-mangled victims of The Midnight Rambler. But the real women of this album seem to be women who can shout like Mary Clayton — gutty, strong, and tougher than any of the delightful leering figures that are jumping out of the old Stones’ orgy. She can stand up to Mick and match him, and in fact, she steals the song. That’s what makes “Gimmie Shelter” such an overwhelming recording — it hits from both sides, with no laughs, no innuendoes, and nothing held back. The Stones have never done anything better.
That’s not a pace to maintain, obviously.
Meanwhile, as the Rolling Stones close out the Sixties and move into the Seventies with Let It Bleed, a new book’s been published, photographs by David Bailey (once the Stones’ photographer) of the celebrities who meant something in London these last ten years. It’s called Goodbye Baby & Amen — to translate the subtitle, “A Wild Dance for the Sixties.” It attempts to capture, in pictures and print, the liberation London found when the Empire was jettisoned, when Christine Keeler cut the boards out from under the platform of the British Establishment, when John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Peter Townshend drove out the old with the noise of the new music, when movie stars and directors and models took art out of the museums and took their clothes off at the same time. The book reaches for that 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 Bryan Forbes, pictured with Nanette Newman, who sings on two tracks of Let It Bleed: “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 grasps a sense of excitement and creativity that was unconsciously shared, and the sexuality that pervades his talk only heightens its impact. In London, in the Sixties, when styles on Carnaby Street changed by the day, when each new group was exciting, hen America looked to London with envy, joy, and, really, wonder, one could see a mad pursuit of every next day. They really seeemd to be building some kind of flimsy freedom, those English.
Yet as you stare at the sometimes striking pictures of Goodbye — Marianne Faithful pure against the sunset, Susannah York projecting and restraining sex, i the Beatles and the Stones looking like ‘ kings of it all, and the weird, scary double-page of Christine Keeler vamping it 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 an American friend’s vision of rock-and-roll-London at its finest peak of frenzy:
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 seige to the speaker’s podium, they used their cigarette lighters to fuse the works of Big Ben into a bronze statue of Smokey Robinson …
—Gerard Van Der Leun
America’s own Sixties — assassination, riot, war and the cold gloom of Richard Nixon — caught up with London’s party: The mad, heroic student revolution of Paris gave the very idea of Carnaby Street a ludicrous tinge, while those same street-fights pushed the Stones into a new disenchantment with “sleepy Lon-don town.” You mean swinging London? Then the blinding eye of Godard suddenly revealed the directors of English films as second-rate.
It became hard for Americans to think of London as a city — for most of us, it became the place where the Beatles, the Stones, and the Who all lived. A few years before when Antonioni came to town, he made his movie about a photographer. That seemed to say it all. As the era faded Godard made his first English film — with the Rolling Stones. They and a few others have lasted, and if the rest have lost their meaning, at least to America, that is why Bailey’s book, and really his own dated, stylized way of taking pictures, carries a truly pathetic message: “We were there! We really were! It was a grand time …”
This era and the collapse of its bright and flimsy liberation are what the Stones leave behind with the last song of Let It Bleed. The dreams of having it all are gone, and the album ends with a song about compromises with what you want — learning to take what you can get, because the rules have changed with the death of the Sixties. Back a few years, all of London’s new lower-class middle-class aristocracy were out for just what they wanted and they damned well got it. But no one can live off a memory that vanished sense of mastery felt in, when was it, ’65, ’66? If “Gimmie Shelter” is the Stones’ song of terror, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” looks for satisfaction in resignation. And that sort of goal isn’t what made “Satisfaction” the unanimous nation-wide poll-winning choice for the greatest rock and roll song of all time. But then the radio stations don’t hold those polls anymore. You have to reach for this song yourself.
This is one of the most outrageous productions ever staged by a rock and roll band, and every note of it works to perfection: the slow, virginal choral introduction; the intensely moving, really despairing sounds of Kooper’s horn and Keith’s slow strain; and then the first verse and first chorus by Mick, singing almost unaccompanied. From there it dissolves and builds again with surges of organ, lovely piano ripples, long lead electric runs by Richards, drumming that carries the song over every crescendo — music that begins in a mood of complete tragedy and fatigue and ends with optimism and complete exuberance.; The song, in a way, is as much a movie as Blow-Up — beginning and ending with a party in a Chelsea mansion, the singer meeting a strung-out, vicious girl, he apparently knew from some years before, when things were different all around. It moves from there into street-fighting and frustration, and then to the strangest scene of all, a young man trying to strike up some sort of friendship with an old man who’s past it. The results are much grimmer than anything out of “Midnight Rambler.”
I went down to the Chelsea drugstore
To get your prescription filled
I was standing in line with Mr. Jitters
And man, did he look pretty ill
We decided that we would have a soda
My favorite flavor’s cherry red
I sang my song to Mr. Jitters
And he said one word to me
And that was death
From there, of course, it’s back to the party.
So in Let It Bleed we can find every role the Stones have ever played for us — swaggering studs, evil demons, harem keepers and fast life riders — what the Stones meant in the Sixties, what they know very well they’ve meant to us. But at the beginning and the end you’ll find an opening into the Seventies — harder to take, and stronger wine. They have women with them this time, and these two magnificent 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.