‘Let It Bleed’ Turns 50: Anthony DeCurtis on the Rolling Stones’ Requiem for the Sixties

‘Let It Bleed’ Turns 50: Anthony DeCurtis on the Rolling Stones’ Requiem for the Sixties

A sense of dread pervades the Rolling Stones’ 1969 masterpiece, Let It Bleed, and it’s evident from the first seconds of the album’s opening track, “Gimme Shelter.” Guitarist Keith Richards’ haunting, bluesy phrases, producer Jimmy Miller’s eerie güiro percussion and Merry Clayton’s chilling background vocal evoke menace before a single word is sung. Richards conceived the song while strumming Jimmy Reed chords on an acoustic guitar and looking out the window of a friend’s apartment as panicked Londoners raced for cover during a violent rainstorm. The dread he felt, however, derived from a more personal source. His girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, had been cast in a starring role opposite Mick Jagger in the erotically charged film Performance, and Richards feared that the two might be having an affair.

When Jagger got hold of the song, it moved beyond the personal and became a chronicle of cultural crisis. “War, children, it’s just a shot away,” he sings. The Vietnam War was raging, and the protests against it — in London, in Paris, on campuses across the United States — were shaking the very foundations of government. Revolution was in the air, but the powers that be were not about to yield without a fight. Within months of Let It Bleed’s release in November (U.S.) and December (U.K.) of 1969, college students would be shot and killed on American campuses, and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young would mourn the “four dead in Ohio.”

The counterculture had its own violence to answer for. The brutal Manson Family murders occurred in August 1969, the same month as the Woodstock festival. And Let It Bleed went on sale in the States just days before the Rolling Stones’ free concert at the Altamont Speedway, during which four people died, including a young black man who was stabbed to death in front of the stage as the Stones played “Under My Thumb.”

It may seem presumptuous to read all that grim history into one album, let alone one song, but half a century after it came out, Let It Bleed more than holds up under the weight. The Stones made their greatest albums between 1968 and 1972: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. That’s no accident. The flower-power utopianism of the ’60s confused the band, whose musical impulses were rooted far more deeply in the rawness and realism of black American blues and R&B. As the ’60s collapsed into the ’70s — the so-called Me Decade, with its emphasis on self, sex and survival — the Stones, for better or worse, were fully in their element.

Guitarist Brian Jones, a founding member of the Stones, had died from drug-related causes as the band was working on Let It Bleed. He’d been asked to leave the group shortly before his death, and was replaced by 20-year-old blues guitarist Mick Taylor. Along with his drug problems, Jones had grown interested in more exotic musical approaches, just as the Stones were intent on getting back to basics. Even though Taylor appears on only two tracks on Let It Bleed (Richards plays nearly all the guitars on the album), the more elemental quality of the group’s focus is evident throughout. The band was planning its first American tour in three years — a month of dates culminating with the album’s U.S. release. During those shows, captured on the live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out! and in the documentary Gimme Shelter, the Stones earned the title that would stand as their onstage introduction for years to come: “Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world!”

By the time the Stones headlined Madison Square Garden over Thanksgiving weekend — their first shows ever at that storied New York City venue — they were on fire. The Stones, the Beatles and Bob Dylan had all stopped touring the States by the fall of 1966, and three years was an eternity back then. It seemed impossible to believe, even after buying a ticket, and even after opening sets by B.B. King and Ike and Tina Turner, that the Rolling Stones were going to perform. It didn’t become fully comprehensible to me until the house went dark, and all I could see was the red lights of the band’s amps.

They opened with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” a steady, propulsive version that demonstrated the band’s command and control. I had seen the Stones twice in theaters in 1965, when I was barely a teenager, and it was impossible to hear them for all the chaos and screaming. Just four years later, everything had changed. Everyone had gotten older — both the fans and the Stones, then in their mid-20s — and everything meant something now. The band had accrued immense musical and cultural significance. Among many other things, the Stones were symbols of generational rebellion; that became especially clear when they closed the show with a roaring version of “Street Fighting Man” and ecstatic audience members pumped their fists in time. It may seem naïve all these years later, but I felt like part of the soundtrack to a revolution.

The Stones played a smattering of songs from the soon-to-be-released Let It Bleed on the tour, and they seemed as suffused with American music as all the band’s best previous work. On the album, the band digs into a soulful reading of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” and serves up the rough-edged, original acoustic version of “Honky Tonk Women,” titled “Country Honk.” “Monkey Man” and “Live With Me” blend humor (“I got nasty habits/I take tea at 3”) with hard-hitting Chicago blues. “You Got the Silver” (on which Richards delivers his first unaccompanied lead vocal on a Stones track) rocks with a country swagger, while the title song finds Jagger toying with the Stones’ sex-and-drugs reputation: “And there will always be a space in my parking lot/If you need a little coke and sympathy.” They return to themes of sex and violence in “Midnight Rambler,” a searing track partly based on the crimes of the serial killer known as the Boston Strangler, a “hit-and-run raper in anger.” Let It Bleed ends with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” a song whose title alone stands as a rebuke to the pastel fantasies of the ’60s, a requiem for a decade’s wide-eyed hopes.

As it happens, the 50th anniversary of Let It Bleed comes at a time at least as foreboding, as divided and as potentially revolutionary as the tumultuous end of the ’60s. (Donald Trump has used “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” at his rallies, despite the band’s insistence that he stop doing so.) No doubt, the album is a strong tonic for tough times. But in its own cold-eyed way, it offers something like encouragement, as the truth always does. Like the song says, with the Stones’ characteristic lack of sentimentality, “you get what you need.”

Anthony DeCurtis is a contributing editor for Rolling Stone and the author, most recently, of Lou Reed: A Life. He teaches creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania.

Image: The Stones onstage at Madison Square Garden in New York City; November 28, 1969. Credit: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images.

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