Tag Archive: Let It Bleed


Let It Bleed follows the same general musical pattern as Beggars Banquet, having been released only 13 months later. The best song is first, and it’s powerful and in a minor key. Then comes two acoustic-based, country-style numbers, followed by an up-tempo song with a dirty groove. True to the pattern, the fourth song on Let It Bleed is the stomping “Live With Me.” Jagger uses irony here to display the lifestyle of English country folk who are on the edge of civilization. His tone is dismissive and more than a little insulting, as if he’s completely comfortable with only knowing this lifestyle as a cliché. Musically, this style would be explored to greater effect on Sticky Fingers a few years later.

Just as “Live With Me” fills the place of and has a similar emotional color as the Beggars Banquet track “Parachute Woman,” “Midnight Rambler” does a similar thing for “Jigsaw Puzzle.” They share a similiar length, and both have an aimless and meandering quality, but “Rambler” is much bluesier than “Puzzle,” and is more Bo Diddley that Bob Dylan. While the Stones do a very convincing black-American-blues-guitarist impression with “Rambler,” it goes on a little too long for my taste.

Don’t get me wrong; length is not a problem for me. One of my favorite songs is “Octavarium” by Dream Theater, which is almost 24 minutes long. But if you make a really long song, it goes over much better with the listener if it’s really leading somewhere; “Midnight Rambler” isn’t. Heck, the Stones almost stop in the middle of the song.

(Paranthetical: a long song needing to lead somewhere doesn’t apply if you’re the Velvet Underground; just sayin’.)

“Midnight Rambler” is almost 7 minutes long, but it’s followed by the shortest song on the record, “You Got the Silver.” Keith Richards’ previous vocal contributions have been pretty dismal affairs; his lead vocal in “Salt of the Earth” was so bad that Mick took the microphone from him after four lines, and “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” ranks among the Stones absolute worst songs (though I’m not sure that’s really Keith’s fault). Regardless, when Keith started singing “You Got the Silver,” I was ready to just write it off; I was pleasantly surprised. Keith sounds like a different person here, especially considering how bloody awful his voice sounded on “Salt of the Earth” a mere 13 months earlier. He may be no Plácido Domingo, but he’s impassioned and honest, both of which go a long way.

Finally comes the cap, which is the choir boy extravaganza “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” From the London Bach Choir intro to the French horn solo right down to the soaring fade out, everything about this song is gloriously epic and ridiculously over-the-top. It started as a simple idea that Mick had in a hotel room one night with nothing but an acoustic guitar and his voice. Layer upon layer is added by producer Jimmy Miller until it’s bloated almost beyond recognition. I simply can’t explain why “Get What You Want” works; it really shouldn’t. By all rights, the song should topple over with all the extra weight added to it by over-production. But quite astoundingly, it’s one of the Stones’ most enduring songs, and ranks just behind “Gimme Shelter” as Let It Bleed’s best offering.

What follows is almost certainly untrue and apocryphal, but it made me laugh out loud. Mick Jagger was in a drug store in Excelsior, Minnesota to fill a prescription. In line right in front of him was a man named Jimmy Hutmaker, a locally known figure with unspecified developmental disabilities but an outgoing personality. He was affectionately called Mister Jimmy by Excelsior residents. He was telling Mick about how much he loved Cherry Coke, but that they served him a different flavor at the home that morning. Apparently, he said, “y’know, Mr. Jagger, you can’t always get what you want…”

Even to this day, whenever someone says “you can’t always get what you want,” I respond with “well, you know what the Rolling Stones have to say about the matter.” That elicits either a smile or a confused expression.

Advertisements

Let It Bleed – The Rolling Stones – 12/5/1969

With Beggars Banquet, the Stones stripped down their music until they were left with a basic, elemental sound. With Let It Bleed, they continued that reductionism with their lyrics. While the lyrics of Beggars Banquet deal with much more mature topics than previously touched upon, that album still hides behind contrivance in some places. Let It Bleed, on the other hand drops the walls a little and starts to let the listener know what it’s like to be a Rolling Stone. And what’s it like to be a Rolling Stone? Well, you do a lot of drugs.

Drugs, too, are laid bare on Let It Bleed, though not completely. It wouldn’t be a Stones record if it weren’t filled with layers of subtext and innuendo, and this time it’s directed towards powders and pills of all kinds instead of sex. At this point in their career, drugs probably took up more of their attention than girls; the shine and glamor of both things wear off fairly quickly, but drugs has a killer hangover. I think the Rolling Stones were just entering that hangover in late ’69.

The first place the drug lifestyle’s weariness can be heard is “Love In Vain.” Written and first made famous by bluesman Robert Johnson (whose deal with the devil is now a piece of rock and roll mythos), the Stones’ interpretation staggers and sways like a drunken bum. It bears more resemblances to classic country western than the blues. The fact that this comes so early in the album should ring a tiny bell in the listener’s head; the Stones have aged a little, and time has not been kind.

forget the bogeyman; if you really want to frighten children, tell them about Keith Richards

Consider this: if they started aging in 1969, how old must they be by 2012? No wonder Keith Richards looks like a corpse that’s been reanimated about 7 times.

Then comes “Country Honk,” a version of “Honky Tonk Women,” a single from a few months before. “Honky Tonk Women” is a rock and roll stomper, but “Country Honk” takes a more acoustic and country western tack (there’s that term again). Mick sings it with a slight wink to it, and the listener buys the song both at face value and with the wink. “Country Honk” is just a small piece of the evidence of Mick being one of the most charismatic lead singers of all time. He’s like a mega-church preacher in his complete sway over his audience.

“Honk” (both versions), talk about a tried and true image of the rock lifestyle: whores. Speaking about them fondly and non-judgmentally, I find its drunken, you’re-so-awesome aesthetic kinda charming. “This foxy broad gives me sex and drugs, and her words are kind and cheerful. What’s not to love?”

Later in the record comes “Monkey Man,” which takes a pretty direct approach to drugs and the social effects they have. “A monkey on my back” has long been a common term for an addiction. Most of the time it’s drugs of any kind, but a monkey doesn’t care exactly what addiction gets it on your back. Mick works that image and manipulates it like a good poet does. In this song, the narrator is celebrating his unhealthy, co-dependent relationship to his subject; he has a monkey on his back (drugs), while he becomes a monkey on her back. Don’t they make a cute couple?

However, the best song that follows this theme is the title track. The swaying, drunken happiness of the vocals, the quivering guitar and the sloppy, relaxed drumming make a perfect drinking song for seedy bar in the poorest segment of London at 3am. “Let It Bleed” also features the simultaneous hopelessness and ecstasy of addiction to the strongest degree in the Stones’ entire catalog.

The Rolling Stones’ legal troubles with drugs (they are actually illegal, after all) are well documented, but at the turn of the decade, they would only get worse – a lot worse. I heard an unsubstantiated story that by the time of Exile on Main St. in late 1972, when the Stones wanted to go out on tour, Keith Richards went to a clinic in Switzerland first, paid them a boatload of money, and had his entire blood supply completely replaced. His blood was so filled with heroin and cocaine that he was literally incapable of doing a tour; he was barely capable of leaving the house. Getting all new blood was the most efficient option. This story is almost definitely false, though I haven’t read Keith Richards’ autobiography to find out. But the fact remains that Richards and the rest of the Stones were headed for a very dark place. Let It Bleed isn’t the first indicator; it isn’t even the most glaring. But it is one of the best records of the entire 60s.

I went to a Christian college, one where chapel was semi-required – you had to accrue a certain amount of “Christian Life and Service” credits during the school year or pay a fine, and chapel was the easiest way to get CLS credits. Three mornings a week, most of the school would gather at the church on campus for about 45 minutes. The “good” kids sat up front and got into the worship; the “bad” kids sat in the back with their headphones in or homework for the next class; the “really bad” kids didn’t show up at all.

Once a year for about a week, we had Revival. It was a scheduled event where chapel was every day (including the weekend), and where the tone of chapel was turned towards holiness, conviction, and getting right with God, in order to create a sweeping-up of people to get “on fire” for God. For me, it was a good opportunity to get caught up on chapels I had missed, but little more. Truth be told, it always seemed very strange to me. The idea that you could schedule a revival (for a certain week and not another) was contradictory to the very concept of revival. When there’s true revival, things change, the Holy Spirit moves, and everyone feels God’s presence to a radical degree. But it can’t be manufactured on a week of the college administration’s choosing.

That desire to re-create something spiritual and unknowable reminds me of the Altamont Free Concert. The promoters of Altamont tried to repeat the magic that happened at Woodstock and Monterey Pop. While they should have known that those events were unrepeatable, there was no way they could foresee the horrible way things would end.

Be warned; what follows is the lowest point in the life of the Rolling Stones, and one of the darkest moments in all of rock and roll history. Brian Jones’s death was just an indicator, a warning shot from God to the Stones that things were about to get really bad.

Like most badly-remembered points in history, Altamont started with the best of intentions. When you plan a concert, make it outdoors on a huge site, include a bunch of very famous bands on the bill, and don’t charge admission, profits probably aren’t your main concern. That leaves creating an event where music is celebrated, which is pretty pure in the scope of things. From the time the Stones announced the free concert, which they would headline, the press touted it as “Woodstock West.” It came less than a year after that “Festival of Peace, Love and Music,” and involved a few of the same people at the organizational level. But the romance and perfection of Woodstock couldn’t be manufactured at will.

the Hells Angels didn’t have guns – they had pool cues

The first mistake the promoters made was hiring the Hells Angels, a motorcycle gang, to handle security (if you hire a biker gang, what do you think is gonna happen?). Their second mistake was having the agreement with them be so loose as to make no mention of the word “security” at all. The terms, as the Angels understood them, were “we keep people away from the generators, and we get free beer.” No money exchanged, no contracts, no paperwork, no nothin’. It was kind of a gentlemen’s agreement, but the Hells Angels are no gentlemen. I’m not much for red tape, but I think in this case it would have not only have made things go more smoothly, but would have maybe prevented tragedy.

Things didn’t go well. There was an incident in the afternoon where Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin jumped off the stage in the middle of a song to help a fan who was getting the crap kicked out of him by a Hells Angel. The Grateful Dead (who had suggested the Hells Angels in the first place because they had used them before with success) were scheduled to go on after Jefferson Airplane, but decided not to perform in protest. Then evening came, darkness fell, and the Rolling Stones took the stage. After fighting broke out during “Sympathy For the Devil,” Mick Jagger implored the crowd to calm down and be cool. He then performed a somber rendition of “Under My Thumb.” It was during that song that Stones fan Meredith Hunter, after pulling a long-barreled pistol from his coat, was murdered by a Hells Angel.

A documentary film crew was present; they had filmed the Rolling Stones in the studio, and were on hand for the entire Altamont experience. When the murder happened, they caught the whole thing on film. The movie they made, Gimme Shelter, included footage of a very sad Mick Jagger looking at the concert tapes. The most poignant moment is when he’s watching the performance of “Under My Thumb” and freezes the frame right when the knife that killed Meredith Hunter connected.

Let It Bleed had already been released at this point, and Altamont was the Stones’ big opportunity to promote it. “Gimme Shelter,” the lead-off track, had likewise already been recorded several months before. The music is eerie and unsettling; not a new thing for the Stones by any means, but the eeriness was escalated by the tragic events that took place only a week later. It’s freaky how prophetic this song is. The lyrics speak of an insidious force threatening the life of the singer, and an atmosphere of gloom and death. In the bridge, there is even talk of “rape” and “murder.” However, the song ends on a hopeful note: “I tell ya love, sister – it’s just a kiss away.”

“Gimme Shelter” features Merry Clayton on backing vocals. She sings the bridge with such emotional power that it even takes Mick Jagger aback, as he can be heard saying “Whoo!” in the background after her voice cracks for the second time. Merry was pregnant at the time of recording, and suffered a miscarriage later that day; the strain of hitting the highest notes was a little too much.

The Rolling Stones are one of the only bands to ever have a murder happen during one of its live performances. “Gimme Shelter” is an unthinkably awesome song just by itself, but when it’s viewed in light of the giant debacle that is Altamont, its greatness rises to about 3 times its original level. Many critics call Altamont the point in history where the romance and glittering sheen of the hippie movement not only wore off, but was killed with devastating prejudice. To me, it was a turning point. It was a time when a large group of people said, “this isn’t true for us anymore,” and they went in search of another truth.

More about Let It Bleed tomorrow!

A Downward Spiral

The Rolling Stones, beyond all else, are a personality-based band. A lot of the best bands and artists are – The Beatles, David Bowie, U2, the Smashing Pumpkins in their heyday – and it’s something marketing executives and image creators know all too well. It’s not just the music that people hear – it’s who’s making the music, too. People connect so much more with a song if they know the name and see the face of person singing it.

Brian Jones

Left without a connecting face, the Rolling Stones would still have been successful, but I think that over half of their fame came from Mick Jagger and his mind-blowing stage presence. The Stones were one of the innovators of image and personality in rock music. Not only Mick, but Keith and the others had distinctiveness as well, including Brian Jones.

Brian was unique within the Stones for his blonde hair compared to the sandy to dark brown of the others. His teardrop-shaped guitar stuck in listeners’ minds, too. But the capstone of his fame was in the form of his tragic death. He died at age 27, but at that time, he was only the 2nd super-famous musician to die at that age. The real notability of his demise came from the manner of his death: drowning in a swimming pool.

Let’s back up a bit. The story arguably starts with the arrival in the Stones’ lives of Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager. He recognized early on that Jagger had stage presence coming out his ears, and also that the most successful bands (meaning the Beatles and the Beach Boys) wrote their own songs. Thus, he directed the career of the band in those directions.

Brian Jones started the band (and came up with the name) only a few years earlier, and was the de facto leader. His original idea for the Rolling Stones was to cover the blues and boogie numbers by black American musicians he so loved. The novelty of white British guys playing soulful American classics was enough to get them a name. Brian was the top dog until Andrew started shaking things up by having Mick take the lead in their shows, and by encouraging Mick and Keith to start writing songs together. Brian, unfortunately, was slowly being left out in the cold.

By 1968, Brian Jones was only in the band because he hadn’t been kicked out yet. He contributed almost nothing to the music; the other band members even turned off his guitar sometimes. When he interacted with them, he was distant at best, hostile and sniping at worst. Even so, his friendships were increasing outside the band with people like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Burdon. He was the unofficial emcee at the famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, along with his then-girlfriend, Velvet Underground collaborator Nico.

Jones’s last significant contribution to the Stones was playing slide guitar on “No Expectations,” though he also played little parts on the Let It Bleed tracks “Midnight Rambler” and “You Got the Silver.” Preceding the production of Let It Bleed, he had numerous troubles with the law over drugs. A judge had mercy on him after a jury found him guilty of possession, and gave him a fine instead of jail time, and there were also rumors of a conspiracy against Jones and the rest of the Rolling Stones. The unsubstantiated theory goes that the police wanted to make an example of all the Stones in order to deter the British public from drugs.

The final straw came when the Stones were going to tour America again in support of Let It Bleed (slated for a July 1969 release) and Brian was denied a work visa. At that point, Jagger and company had had enough; they hired Mick Taylor to replace Jones on guitar, and Jones moved into a mansion in East Sussex where he descended in a wild downward spiral of drugs, sex, and misadventure that was his eventual undoing.

“Elvis didn’t expectorate on his fans!”

Let that be a lesson to you, kids: don’t do drugs. But don’t take my word for it; ask Brian Jones. Oh, that’s right, you can’t. ‘Cause he’s dead.

Hey, do you like my impression of the dad on Freaks and Geeks?

Monday: The death of the 1960s.