It begins with 40 ominous seconds, dangerous seconds; 40 instantly intriguing seconds that capture the imagination of listeners desperate to find out what happens. It begins with 40 seconds that are more warning than music and the sense of danger is real. When Mick Jagger sings of fire sweeping through the streets “like a red coal carpet” and Merry Clayton’s amazing background vocals crack on the words “rape” and “murder” two-thirds of the way through “Gimme Shelter” the danger seems very real. That’s what makes The Rolling Stones’ 1969 masterpiece Let It Bleed so riveting. Every note of it sounds so damn real.
In 1968, with the release of Beggar’s Banquet, The Stones proved that they were not just another rock band; they were masters of the form. Beggar’s Banquet was the first of what could quite possibly be the four best successive rock albums released by any band in the history of rock and roll. The album was a work of startling simplicity, a collection of songs built around American blues and roots music that invented the concept of what it meant to be “The Stones”. With 1969’s amazing follow up, Let It Bleed, The Stones began to add to this concept. If Beggar’s Banquet is a masterpiece of simplicity then Let It Bleed is a masterpiece of authenticity.
Let It Bleed is as much a description as a title. It is 12” of vinyl with a pulse. It breathed, moved, hissed, growled, laughed, cried, it lusted and it seemed to sit right beside its listeners as it spun on the turntable. “We all need someone we can lean on” Mick sings in the title track over an arrangement that is so simple and spare that he sounds as though he’s offering his shoulder from the next chair. The fact that the rest of the tale, and much of the album, is so raunchy merely adds to its authenticity. A story about a dream involving a stabbing and a junkie nurse is exactly the type of story one would imagine the lead singer of The Rolling Stones telling and the song’s offer of “coke and sympathy” is as natural as the invitation to climb “in between the sheets” from “Live With Me”. In fact, throughout the album there is a sense that Mick Jagger was keenly aware that he was in fact “Mick Jagger” of “the Rolling Stones”, and the image of “the Stones” is as much a part of the album as the music. Lyrically, Jagger never tries to make himself sound like a real guy. Nothing would have been faker than that and there is nothing fake about Let It Bleed.
A British band playing blues music was certainly nothing new by the end of 1969, but on Let It Bleed the Stones surpassed their contemporaries. Their cover of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” isn’t the work of a band that loves blues music but one that has immersed itself in it. The track is so authentic that it doesn’t sound like a cover at all. The entire song flinches as the tale of lost love unfolds through Jagger’s incomparable vocal which howls with loss in falsetto near the end of the track. The music seems to flinch as well. It sounds as broken hearted and worn out as the weathered wooden floorboards of the old Mississippi porch the track sounds like it was recorded on. Similarly, “Country Honk” sounds as though it’s still trying to kick the sawdust off of its boots as it downs one last beer before last call like a recording by a bunch of buddies at any honkey tonk bar in America.
Let It Bleed offered more than roots music though. “Midnight Rambler” slides out of the speakers riding a wave of harp and its own slide guitar. What begins as standard blues is transformed into something more than blues in its frantic middle section. With Mick warning “Don’t do that,” the song becomes part rockabilly rave up and part spoken word performance and it accomplishes both organically from what are essentially blues parts. Musically the song becomes as scattered as the mind of the killer its lyrics describe. Only the swagger of The Stones could have pulled off that song or “Monkey Man” which moves seamlessly from the soul piano flourishes that open the song into a melding of blues and funk that finds Jagger copping to both the band’s messianic and satanic complexes in a schizophrenic blend of something that sounded brand new.
The album ends in as moving a fashion as it began with one of the most beautiful songs The Stones have ever recorded. “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is a miracle of music. The song’s opening choir sets it apart dramatically from the rest of the album, but as soon as it gives way to the effortless beauty of the first verse the song fits perfectly. Part elegy and part hymn of hope it examines the death of love and friends while looking forward to a future that will hopefully be better. If “Gimme Shelter” ends on a note of hope with love being just a kiss away, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is the kiss itself and with it, The Stones ended the best album they’d ever recorded. They still hadn’t recorded Sticky Fingers though . . .