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:
Drums in the darkness – a jungle clearing
fetish masks and gibbering lips
grass skirts, headdresses, face-paint leering
nocturnal trances, gyrating hips.
A medicine man, by spirits possessed,
grunts while the powers invade his mind;
the dancers shriek, as if distressed
by a presence in shadow not yet defined.
It’s only Rock’n’Roll…
IMAGES: 4.bp.blogspot.com (album art: Santana #1)
catwalkqueen.tv (Hans Silvester)
Reading SCARRIET’s Top 100 Rock Songs of All Time forced me to finally publish this draft I’ve had sitting around:
Up against the wall, burn all it down girl, smash the state, armed love, light my fire, here comes the new order, impending chaos, a new dawn, when all is one and one is all, etc, etc.
Oh yeah, man. Rock’n’Roll is so REVOLUSHUNARY ! It’s all about, like, Freedom … and Change… and – uh…
But let us pause for a moment and consider: spoiled sons and daughters of the upper and middle classes, children of the land of plenty gyrating in the psychedelic sun or cavorting in nocturnal cavern-clubs; masses of stoned teens chanting in arenas, banging their heads to guttural nonsense – raving narcissistic drugged-out youth, flaunting their rebellion and paying good money to confuse their brains while they do it in the road, mocking the sexual standards of anterior generations while projecting bad attitude and donning costumes of calculated shock-value – self-anointed anarchist prophets, metal-head barbarian wannabees and metro-queer Gothic prettyboys… these are certainly interesting cultural phenomena (symptoms?) to study. But PLEASE don’t call it revolutionary change. Revolutionary change would mow down these bourgeois decadents and ridiculously-attired hipsters with machine-gun fire and then herd the rest into reeducation camps. Revolution is organized death at the hands of tyrants, thugs, and bureaucracies… Rock n’Roll is about – uh… downloading tunes to your i-pod, getting high and disobeying authority figures. To hell with Rock and Roll. It’s just a lot of syncopated slave music at its “get your groove on” heart. (I mean “slave” in the greater Greco-Roman and Nietzschean sense of the word – not in the recent context only. Think Hellenistically for a moment). Rock’n’Roll and all of it’s “shock the bourgeoisie/anti-patrician” offshoots is music of the lower chakras, gut-music, 3 or 4 chord fuzzed-up anthems to carnality punctuated by bestial grunts, plebeian hoots, hillbilly yells, pimp-strutting shrieks, lecherous leering slavering animality, and undulating serpentine harlotry. Ooooooh – how revolting it truly is – because it commodifies revolt, repackages the same old inarticulate teenage rebellion OVER & OVER & OVER, intensifying it slightly each time, tweaking it for each distinct youth subculture and acting as if it actually had more significance than it does (remember – I also love the music – bear with me -we’re analyzing here…). Rock music is an opportunistic infection – and a power-aggrandizing freak show. It monopolizes your attention with its pounding adrenaline-rushing excitement but then can’t figure out what it wants to say to you. You mistake its verses for Wisdom and Truth – especially when you’re high or drunk or tripping. But in the end, it’s just words and rhythms with a lot of “ooh yeah” and “woah baybeh” and “c’mon now child” – or worse. It messes up your diastolic cardiac-rhythms and induces slight panic and disorientation that you mistake for liberation and enlightenment. Then you go out and BUY the GOODS ! Lucifer is reliving his glory days as the instigator of an abortive coup attempt against Heaven and God Almighty. He is mumbling in the vomit-blocked tracheae of dead false prophets and departed drummers. He is strutting on the glittering stage amidst cheap pyrotechnics at a show where no one gets in for free – and no one gets out alive. The Prince of this World is bringing out his new product line next spring. The tawdry androgynous freak – the glowering little dictator (the ghost of a dead insect) tries to convince himself that he is alive by cultivating the adoration of godless youth who salute him in unison like a bunch of Nazi faithful at a fascist rally. Rock and Roll is stupid when you think about it. I’m ashamed I like it so much.
Classical music is probably better for your mind in the long run.