THE ROLLING STONES: LET IT BLEED (1969)
1) Gimme Shelter; 2) Love In Vain; 3) Country Honk; 4) Live With Me; 5) Let It Bleed; 6) Midnight Rambler; 7) You Got The Silver; 8) Monkey Man; 9) You Can't Always Get What You Want.
Keith Richards. Most of us are probably quite fond of the guy, whose mixture of brutality and tenderness, ugliness and beauty, toughness and vulnerability, seriousness and humor might be the most perfectly balanced mixture in all of pop culture. For all of that, we can also recognize and pardon his flaws — such as a certain obstinacy when it comes to expanding one's musical horizons, and, perhaps, a certain neglect of musicianship in favor of showmanship over the years (a process that, ironically, began around the same time that the man began to clean up his act). But there was a brief moment in time, back in 1969, when Keith Richards happened to be more than Keith Richards: dare I say it, for a brief while he became music incarnate. The greatest Guitar-Oriented album of 1969 was not made by Jimi Hendrix (who, perhaps driven by fate, did not record any albums at all in 1969), not by the Who, not by Led Zeppelin: it was created, almost in its entirety, by this one man, Keith Richards, and it has, for almost thirty years, remained my favorite guitar-oriented album of all time.
By «guitar-oriented» I mean, of course, not that the songs are simply written for / driven by electric and acoustic guitars (from that point of view, Abbey Road would count as well), but that the guitar sound of the songs — the tones, the effects, the mixing, the weaving, the careful selection of the appropriate chords for the counter-melodies and instrumental breaks — actually matters more than the skeletal structures of the songs themselves. Herein lies the big misunderstanding that I often have with people who are amazed how it is at all possible to mention a record like Let It Bleed in the same sentence with Abbey Road or Pet Sounds: and indeed, composition-wise the album shows little progression compared with Beggar's Banquet, and perhaps even a bit of re-gression compared with the 1966-67 period. Yet we are not talking Mozart or Beethoven here: we are talking a distinctly different medium where one note can sometimes matter more than a beautifully resolved musical sentence, provided you can find just the right instrument, just the right pitch, just the right effect, and just the right sound engineer for whatever it was that you wanted it to mean. And I am still amazed at how many perfect moments of this type are scattered throughout the material on Let It Bleed.
Keith was still largely clean at the time, not yet a victim of strong heroin addiction (if I remember correctly, that did not really kick in with full force until after Altamont) — and as Brian's journey into the secret life of vegetables accelerated tremendously towards the end of 1968, it became Keith's responsibility to ensure the Stones' survival as a relevant musical force. Although, funny enough, Let It Bleed credits both the Stones' original second guitarist (for, ahem, congas on ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ and autoharp on ʽYou Got The Silverʼ: multi-instrumentalist until the end!) and his replacement (Mick Taylor came in just in time to play on ʽCountry Honkʼ and ʽLive With Meʼ), the absolute majority of guitar parts that you hear is just Keith — Keith on acoustic, Keith on electric, Keith on slide, even Keith on bass for the single best bass line on the record! Naturally, Mick should not be underestimated, either, but now that I think of it, Let It Bleed lacks such over-the-top, theatrical, iconic character impersonations from him as we'd heard the year before on ʽSympathy For The Devilʼ and ʽStray Cat Bluesʼ: the obvious choice would have been ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ, but the studio version features an unexpectedly subtle, understated performance — which I like just fine, yet the character of the song would not really burst out in flames until they'd taken it to the stage.
Much like Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed is also conceived and executed in the «shock rock» paradigm, and since the stakes for «shock» had to be doubled each year, we now progress from singing about the Devil to singing about the end of the world (ʽGimme Shelterʼ), from singing about parachute women blowing Mick out to singing about women menstruating on him (ʽLet It Bleedʼ), from singing about dirty perverts hunting for 15-year olds to singing about serial killers running in the night (ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ), and even good old sunny psychedelia has by now turned into something far more disturbing and potentially dangerous (ʽMonkey Manʼ). However, no matter how embarrassingly cheap it may have seemed to certain types of prudes at the time, I would opine that in retrospect Let It Bleed remains the last Stones album that is completely free of any noticeable lapses of taste — a line that would be crossed, lyrics- and attitude-wise, with Sticky Fingers, and music-wise with Goats' Head Soup. Here, Mick's lyrics remain firmly dependent on dirty, but inventive metaphors and insinuations; and Keith's music makes even the most straightforwardly «gruesome» subjects come to life in subtle ways that would somehow all be eventually forgotten over their next decade in the record studio.
For one thing, they never again did — and neither did anybody else — anything that would come even remotely close to the foreboding terror of ʽGimme Shelterʼ. I even remember, upon first hearing the song on a cassette tape copy, that my initial reaction was — "hey, this can't be the Stones! they never have it that dense!" But it was the Stones all right, and I am still not sure how they make it that dense. There's some sort of bass echo wobbling around, covering the entire song in a dark, scary cloud; and there's some sort of effect placed on Mick's harp that makes it truly sound like a "mad bull lost its way", and then, of course, there's Merry Clayton whom they got out of bed late at night and who, in a matter of something like half an hour of recording, made herself more famous than over the rest of her entire career (further proof that great things can be meticulously planned and organized, but transcendental things can only be improvised).
I mean, legions of people have sung about rape and murder over the years — it's not difficult to do — but how difficult is it to write a song about rape and murder that can still chill you to the bone after decades of listening to all sorts of music? ʽGimme Shelterʼ is the rare type of song that accidentally (again, all true greatness is to some degree the result of blessed accident) hits that one particular nerve out of a million — and it is also a song that is bound to remain relevant and vital for as long as humanity continues on its mad self-exterminating spree: play it in the era of Vietnam, play it after 9/11, play it in a world torn apart by crazy leftists and rightists alike — that dragon-breath harp, that Walkyrian backing vocal, those razor-sharp licks from Keith's lead guitar, and even that final doomed attempt to show you a way out at the last moment (so "love is just a kiss away" in the exact same world where "murder is just a shot away") will retain their full power and meaning in any place, at any time, under any circumstances.
For another thing, Let It Bleed marks a particularly high point in the history of the Rolling Stones generating heavy atmosphere with light means. At this date, Keith remains a stark believer in the possibilities of the acoustic backdrop, and the ponderous, aggressive feel of the title track is not generated by a lot of fuzz or distortion, but simply by having an acoustic rhythm accompanied by some overloud drumming and a few carefully selected slide notes — in fact, as far as I'm concerned, the song does not properly begin to climax until Keith enters with his guitar break, possibly the single fuckin' best break he ever had in his lifetime. A few brutal power chords, each of which is given ample time to dissipate and make a deeper impact — three slashes of the knife, maybe? — and then the sticky red stuff begins to flow, slowly and gloppily, over the next few bars, as the lead player, with the efficacy and accuracy of a well-trained Fleet Street barber, collects every last drop into the little basin and resolves the procedure with a perfect flourish. Uh, okay, got a little carried away there, I guess. But I do love how Charlie gets so deeply into the proceedings — towards the end of the song, he is pounding away at the cymbals like crazy, which does not happen all that often with him. Alas, none of these things could be remembered and reproduced once they began playing the song live in the Eighties, when it became a fairly ordinary country-rock number. Which it is, if you only pay attention to the base acoustic and the vocal melodies — but it is the «little things» that make it so much more, a sort of Freudian tale of sexual understatements and suppressed viciousness.
Another night-and-day contrast between studio incarnation and stage realization is ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ, here present in its «properly midnight» phase, with suspensefully downtuned guitars, cockrel-crowing harps, echoes, whispers, sublimations, and arch-innuendos. Is Mick really singing about a psychopathic killer, or is he merely using the image as a metaphor for his ever-growing sexual appetites? The good news is that you can take it either way — or invent a third and a fourth interpretation all for yourself. Or just forget about any interpretations and enjoy the two or three Keiths weaving licks in between themselves on the extended instrumental sections. And how, pray tell, do you handle an extended instrumental section if your band is called the Rolling Stones and you only have one valid guitarist at hand and his name is not Eric Clapton? Simple — turn your jam into a bit of a musical game of hide-and-seek, where you begin at regular speed, then accelerate for a while as if running away from pursuers, then bring everything to a hiding-in-the-bushes halt, then hit 'em with a few well-placed shots, then accelerate and bring it all back home... they sure have come a long way from ʽGoin' Homeʼ, replacing inspired, but risky improvisation with a gradually unfurling musical drama in several movements. Some people still see this as generic blues-rock with cheap shock content — I say there's never been a single moment in the history of blues-rock when it came closer to the level of high dramatic art, both innovative in form and possessed by the spirit.
There may be no better example to show the level to which these guys had elevated the blues in 1969 than their «cover» of Robert Johnson's ʽLove In Vainʼ — a song they'd only heard recently on a bootleg LP, since Johnson's legacy had not yet been completely reintroduced by 1969 — and I do mean those quotation marks, because this is a cover in name only. Keith had always marveled at the stark, lonesome beauty of Johnson's original, but truth is, that stripped, minimalistic arrangement really only hints at the potential of the material rather than discloses it for the average listener, and the genius of the Stones is that they went a step ahead of the average listener and then rendered it accessible for everyone, including schmucks like your humble servant. The thing is not done in the Stones' usual «dirty» blues style, but neither does it have anything in common with the bland «reverential» style in which slow Delta and Chicago blues are often played by polite white performers — this here is reverence with a flair, aimed at laying bare all the pain and aimlessness of life that remained implied in Johnson's old blues. The three key ingredients are: (a) Keith's acoustic riff, plucked so that you can actually taste every single string ping (kudos to Glyn Johns for engineering that sound) and having more in common with Fifties' soul and doo-wop than with Delta blues — but also introducing a harsh breaking «chop» at the end of each verse that is all pure Keith; this is the breath of the protagonist, interrupted by the occasional choke; (b) Keith's slide overdubs — the most ethereal, transcendental part of the song, a barrage of emotional drops-and-surges that could seriously compete, in terms of harmonic accents, with the best of George Harrison's lead work; these are the pangs of desperation, or the silent suppressions of unbearable pain by the protagonist; (c) Ry Cooder's mandolin break — the perfect icing on the cake to represent an outburst of subdued crying (to be replaced with Mick Taylor's soaring electric solos in concert — as perfect as perfect blueswailing is concerned, yet less original and evocative than Cooder's part). Throw in Mick's vocal, intentionally avoiding any signs of sentimentality but attempting to convey that abandoned-and-broken feel through a sort of self-resigned intonation, and you got yourself what might be the single most unconventionally beautiful song in the Stones catalog (where by «unconventionally» I mean «avoiding predictable means such as strings, harpsichords, and falsettos»).
The perfection of the other songs will be commented upon only briefly, so as not to turn this review into a mini-novel, but here goes: ʽLive With Meʼ — single most memorable bass line in Stones history (and played by Keith, too!), particularly since it holds together the entire song and provides Keith and Mick Taylor with their first opportunity to weave left- and right-channel licks around each other, plus featuring the album's most hilarious lyrics, satirizing British nobility (was it for the line "the meat I eat for dinner must be hung up for a week" that Sir Mick Jagger ended up knighted, I wonder?); ʽYou Got The Silverʼ — the first and greatest of Keith's country ballads, if only because he could still sing at the time and still retained a good sense for form and structure that would later prove to be incompatible with heroin; ʽMonkey Manʼ — Nicky Hopkins' opening piano flourish alone would suffice to proclaim it a classic, yet it also goes on to feature not one, but two of the album's greatest guitar riffs, while lyrically, you could construe it as Mick's answer to ʽI Am The Walrusʼ, the hero gleefully wallowing in his self-absurdization. (On second thought, maybe it's not that absurd: certainly Mick Jagger as a "monkey man" makes more sense than John Lennon as The Eggman... or does it?). Even ʽCountry Honkʼ, the original vision of ʽHonky Tonk Womenʼ before Mick Taylor took it into the much more familiar barroom-rock direction, is redeemed by the inimitable fiddle of Byron Berline, though I would not break the consensus on the track being the most expendable one here — still, it's much more fun than ʽDear Doctorʼ, and there's always something to be said for a brief moment of lighthearted catchy fun on a heavyweight record like this one.
And so, nothing less than the London Bach Choir to finish off the Rolling Stones' finest forty five minutes in the studio — I do agree that ʽYou Can't Always Get What You Wantʼ might be trying a bit too hard to give the album a ʽHey Judeʼ-like epic conclusion (personally, I've never much liked the verse about the mysterious Mr. Jimmy and never understood why it was so important for us to learn that he and Mick decided to get a soda), but the song's main advantage is in how it seamlessly sews together anthemic gospel elation with the Stones' usual earthiness, bitterness, and cynicism, both of these sides already symbolically represented in the opening French horn solo as played by Al Kooper, where he first goes high up to Heaven and then plunges back to Earth — and then mirrored in reverse by the chorus, which begins cynically ("you can't always get what you want") but ends with a firm promise of hope ("but if you try sometimes..."). On the whole, the song offers a more uplifting finale than ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ, even if technically, both of them end the same way — with the entire band galloping away from the listener at top speed, Nicky Hopkins its temporary commander-in-piano; but the tonality of the ʽSalt Of The Earthʼ finale was ambiguous, mixing exuberance with anxiety, whereas ʽYou Can't...ʼ pretends to be convincing us that even after all our love was in vain, even after all the storms and fires swept over our streets, even after all the midnight ramblers and monkey men occupied our dirty filthy basements, there's still some terrific hope ahead. Heads up for Altamont! Never ever again would they dare end a record on an anthemic optimistic note like that one, because look what's happened the last time we did it.
And finally, returning to the opening theme of the review: it does seem a bit ironic that the best (in my opinion, of course) Stones album ever is the only Stones album to prominently feature only one Stones guitarist, what with the band having always been so dependent on guitar interplay between two of them. But there is, perhaps, a certain internal — and humorous — logic to this as well: the best «weaving» partner for Keith that there ever was turns out to be... Keith himself. I mean, in a series of calls-and-responses, who'd be the more likely partner to provide you with a perfect answer to your question and to correctly predict the next one than yourself? The only additional necessary condition would be to keep your mind open to suggestions and perspectives — and no time was more ripe for that than 1968-1969, when the not-yet-greatest-rock'n'roll-band-in-the-world still had something left to prove.
And even more importantly than proving their God-like status and their readiness to take over the world in the dawning era of rock deities, jet planes, and coke parties, they had to prove how much — and how purely, genuinely, committedly — they loved the very spirit of the music they were playing, the individual and collective textures of each single overtone. I could, perhaps, concede that there are Stones records out there that feature, purely quantitatively, a larger number of great songs, from Between The Buttons all the way to Sticky Fingers, but no single Stones album really has a more juicy, velvety, sonically seductive feel to it than Let It Bleed, with Keith's instincts somehow sharpened to an all-time high. No electric guitar, not even Tony Iommi's, has ever sounded more sinister than the one on ʽMidnight Ramblerʼ; and no acoustic guitar, not even Jimmy Page's, has ever sounded more intimate than the one on ʽLove In Vainʼ — all right, so this is a personal opinion that you can take or leave, but you should at least definitely take note of it if you've reached this far down. So let this thumbs up rating bleed all over you as you are slowly intimidated into agreeing that this is, in fact, one of the three or four greatest rock records of all time. I mean, how could it not be, with that fantastic album cover and all?