I have raved to many about that essential 60’s documentary Gimme Shelter, and anyone who ever romanticized the Hippies needs to see it. The film is an antidote to the untruths that fueled the movement, in my opinion. But in this post I want to present another facet of the title song itself. Most of us know Gimme Shelter; some consider it profound, to others perhaps it is only Rock’n Roll. I have always been transfixed by the ominous and overpowering mood of the song. The guiro (that scratchy rhythm which comes in after the drums with the vocal) and the siren-like harmonica enhance its dreadful quality…
Merry Clayton’s wailing vocal harmonies and her cracking voice are mesmerizing. Recently, I found a video of her recalling the recording session. I also learned that she suffered a miscarriage some hours after laying down her vocal track.
Despite giving what would become the most famous performance of her career, it turned out to be a tragic night for Clayton. Shortly after leaving the studio, she lost her baby in a miscarriage. It has generally been assumed that the stress from the emotional intensity of her performance and the lateness of the hour caused the miscarriage. For many years Clayton found the song too painful to hear, let alone sing. “That was a dark, dark period for me,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1986, “but God gave me the strength to overcome it. I turned it around. I took it as life, love and energy and directed it in another direction, so it doesn’t really bother me to sing ‘Gimme Shelter’ now. Life is short as it is and I can’t live on yesterday.”
Somehow, for me, knowing this intensifies the haunting violence of the song—and I realize that the unearthly anguish of the Furies themselves is heard in her transcendent solo. It is interesting to hear the different versions/degrees of this song as they laid down the tracks, and it makes me appreciate the final result even more. She sang with many other well-known artists, and hers is one of the back-up voices on Sweet Home Alabama by Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yes, it’s only Rock’n Roll… but incredibly profound and powerful Rock’n Roll. And Merry Clayton was the catalyst.
NPR interview with Clayton: