Counterbalance No. 36: The Rolling Stones’ ‘Let It Bleed’

The Rolling Stones
Let It Bleed

Mendelsohn: Klinger, Let It Bleed might be my favorite Rolling Stones album. If you had asked me last week if I had a favorite Rolling Stones album, I probably would have changed the subject. But this week, I might have found the Rolling Stones record I can love. Let It Bleed is a bit of a departure from the more upbeat Beggars Banquet or the sprawling genius of Exile on Main St. Let It Bleed is dirty and decidedly dark and I like it. There is something earthier and finite about this record, like the band finally came upon their own mortality laying in the gutter, picked it up, brushed it off, and dragged into the nearest bar for a round and a jam session.

Klinger: Mortality. You got that right, Mendelsohn. Mortality was about to become a permanent fixture for the Stones, as perennial third party spoiler Brian Jones died just a few months prior to the release of this album. Plus Keith Richards had apparently put in with Sweet Lady H around this time, and the fallout from that was only just beginning.

Still and all, this is very much Keith’s show. Jones is barely a presence here, and Mick Taylor had barely settled in. You are correct that death is all over this album—personally, I put it down to that slide guitar that’s all over this album. Every time you think you’re settling in with a jaunty little number (“Let It Bleed”) or a country bear jamboree (“Country Honk”), there’s that slide guitar snaking its way up the back of your neck.

There’s bad hoodoo all over Let It Bleed. There have been plenty of times over the last 25 years when I’ve wanted to wash my hands after listening to this album.

Mendelsohn: Nothing wrong with good personal hygiene, but I like the dirt the Stones are dishing out—it feels right, like sinking your hands into good potting soil. This album really represents a turning point for the band as well as popular culture. Let It Bleed is the last album of the 1960s. The Stones were teetering on the edge between the past—the ’60s with all the psychedelia, free-love happiness, and hippies—and the future—the new decade full of uncertainty, war, and disco. But they somehow found a middle point to carve out this very grounded, very human exercise in the blues and honky-tonk tradition. After this, as you alluded to, came the dark, formative events that would change the band—Brian Jones’ death, Keith’s affair with Lady H, all the ugliness of Altamont. The summer of love had turned into the winter of discontent and this album provided the soundtrack.

Klinger: Curious, since we’ve intimated that the Stones’ last album, Beggars Banquet, marked the beginning of 1970s rock. Clearly the Stones were transformative figures in rock history. Only a handful of artists can really claim to usher a musical form into its next iteration, and the run of albums from Beggars Banquet to Exile on Main St. did just that.

But in order to get from point A to point B, you have to cross through Let It Bleed. And as much as I love this album it’s not exactly a walk in the gentle spring rain. Beggars Banquet had “Salt of the Earth”, which while we might question its sincerity, it at least put on airs of optimism. Let It Bleed’s closer is “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”—similar concept, but an execution that makes the difference clear. Once the London Bach Choir drifts off (sent away with a lovely French horn figure by Al Kooper, the Leonard Zelig of rock), the song is a tour of human wreckage, of bored debutantes and apathetic dilettantes all looking for a fix. Jagger’s resignation as he meanders through this crowd would be heartbreaking if we thought he actually cared.

And yet the music provides uplift enough for everyone. The build-up throughout its seven-plus minutes might have been a nod to the Beatles’ “Hey Jude”, and the chords might be a straight lift from Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright”, but “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” shows the beauty in the bleak.

Mendelsohn: I think it was David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust that I had offered as the beginning of 1970s rock, with the glam trappings and what not, or maybe it was Led Zeppelin IV. I don’t feel like tracking down the link or flipping back a couple pages (if this ever makes it into book form—lucrative publishing contract here we come!). [Note: It’s here and here—Ed.] Regardless, I wouldn’t categorize Let It Bleed as either ’60s rock or ’70s rock. It inhabits that gray area between the demise of the hippie fiefdom and the rise of the feudal glam era.

I think the song that may best sum up this album and the times in general would be “Monkey Man”. It’s not a hard charging song, but you get the requisite Stones swagger and a little bit of slide guitar as Mick opines about the abuse he has received over the passed decade and reaffirms his place in the world as just a monkey trying to make it through the day.

The key here is that the Rolling Stones knew, consciously or unconsciously, that change was coming. There’s a feeling of resignation that runs through this album, from “Gimme Shelter” all the way to “Monkey Man”. Maybe it was the obvious coming departure of Jones and the band’s changing dynamic or some sort of subconscious fin de siècle-like fear as the ’60s came to a close. Whatever it was, the undercurrents are serious until you get to the light in the darkness with “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”. And as the Stones found out, the new band dynamic and the ’70s weren’t all that bad.

Klinger: Ah, but “Monkey Man” also has some deliriously silly lyrics about leap-at-peanut monkeys and cold Italian pizzas. There’s wordplay in there that might almost come across as fun if weren’t surrounded by swirling dread. And Let It Bleed is sequenced so that whiffs of sulfur are never far away in the listener’s memory. Both sides of the LP begin with exercises in fear. The first is more existential, as “Gimme Shelter” warns of storms and floods and fires that get disconcertingly close to the Book of Revelation.

“Midnight Rambler” is a lot less theoretical, and it comes as close as rock music gets to being genuinely frightening. Not creepy, not anxious-making, actually scary. Part of that, I think, stems from the interplay between the matter-of-fact lyrics and the organic nature of the music. You can hear at about two and half minutes in where Charlie Watts and Richards shift the tempo from the shuffle tempo into high gear. There’s no great fanfare, but you’re subtly reminded that this is all real. And when it slams you into the wall with “Well, you heard about the Boston . . .”, you feel it.

Mendelsohn: That’s it the ticket, Klinger. This album is real—in the literal and some sort quasi-metaphysical, southern gothic, blues sense, and that’s why I like it. For those 40 minutes, its as if the Rolling Stones were able to transcend time and space to create a very human record. It’s also just good blues–really, really good blues, and that’s saying something when every other band at the time was mining the genre for licks.

Klinger: But there’s not much on Let It Bleed that’s explicitly blues in the 12-bar, “woke up this morning” variety. Sure, they cover Robert Johnson’s “Love In Vain”, but their treatment of that song goes well beyond the traditional format. “Midnight Rambler” has a John Lee Hooker vibe to it, but it never sounds specifically like homage.

And that might be the point of the shift from the ’60s to the ’70s. With each generation of music, you get one step further from its roots. Of course, that’s not to say that great music hasn’t been made generations past the R&B/blues roots, but it’s a distinct change that had clearly been in the air for quite some time during the waning days of the Beatle administration. The Rolling Stones led the charge starting in 1968, and Led Zeppelin and Bowie took the two distinct threads that are at work here—the grit and the glamo(u)r (with plenty of overlap among them)—and brought it to full fruition. And if you ask me, it’s watching this tapestry weave itself that makes this all so fascinating.