Thursday, August 7, 2014

DB's Song of the Day (day 219): "LET IT BLEED" (1969) The Rolling Stones

We all need someone we can lean on / And if you want it, you can lean on me. The opening lines of Mick and Keith’s major anthem, “Let It Bleed” sound so generous, and, indeed, the song continues in that vein, as Mick offers the opportunity to cream on him, feed on him, bleed on him, and finally “cum all over me.” It’s a song about sharing bodily fluids, we might say, but it’s also about the complete offertory that comes with any full-blooded, hardcore, physical relationship. Never been bled on or cummed upon? Well, then you just haven’t lived.

The song is in many ways the definitive Stones song from what is their definitive era—1968 to 1972. That was the period when they put away the modishness of their early days, complete with psychedelia, and developed their lean blues sound into a fully worked-up metier, combined with country and a bit of bluegrass, and even some Cajun vibes here and there, to create the unique blend known as The Rolling Stones. Let It Bleed is the last album with input from Brian Jones, who got dismissed then died before the album got released, and the first with input from the new guitarist Mick Taylor; it’s also the album that hit the charts as the band played their tour-ending—and for many, Woodstock-era-ending—concert at Altamont Raceway in CA. The darkness of that event seemed to extend to the album, for many listeners. And indeed it does have that aura, with “Gimme Shelter” seemingly fully cognizant of the Vietnam situation that underlay all the “peace, love and flowers” vibe of the times, while “Midnight Rambler” is an acting-out of rape and murder in a very theatrical manner.  Then there’s the steeped-in-sadness blues of Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain,” the ribald fun of “Live With Me” and “Monkey Man,” and the anthemic lift and philosophical shrug of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” to say nothing of Keith’s first-ever full-fledged vocal with the bluesy beauty of “You Got the Silver.” So, yeah, I could’ve picked any of those. But today’s song pulls in slide and mouth-harp and Stu’s honky-tonk piano, Charlie's slipping beat, and Jagger’s breezy, slack-mouth delivery to give us a song of transcendence—not from the body but of the body.

The woman in the song is rather giving, and we could assume that it’s she and not Mick who is making all the offers here. She said, “my breasts, they will always be open / Baby, you can rest your weary head right on me / And there will always be a space in my parking lot / When you need a little coke and sympathy.” What a gal! Some might say we have here woman as doormat, but I give Mick more credit. This woman is the great succorer of her hero. She’s there when he needs her, and “coke and sympathy” is a nice variation on “tea and sympathy,” which, in Brit society, is the best anyone can ask for. Then comes the verse about dreaming and creaming—I tend to take this as non-specific, genderwise, since Mick keeps insisting “we all need” that, men and women alike.

He then takes on the first person pose, “I was dreaming of a steel-guitar engagement / When you drunk my health in scented jasmine tea”—so, maybe it was tea and sympathy after all, while the idea of an engagement to play steel-guitar or becoming engaged via steel-guitar floats through the scene (and there’s much tasty guitar from Richards all over this thing—you might say he’s bleeding or creaming all over the song). Then comes the twist: “But you knifed me in that dirty, filthy basement / With that jaded, faded, junkie nurse / Oh, what pleasant company!” So maybe this gal, if it’s the same one, isn’t so “open” and nurturing. Maybe shooting and shacking up with the junkie nurse was just going too far. Regardless, the imagery pinpoints something about the Stones. We easily believe they hang out in grimy drug dens, when the mood suits. There are some rockers who, for all their image of being badasses, just seem too clean for such things. Not Mick and the Boys. Slumming seems to seep from their pores, at times. Particularly Keith.

After the knifing (et tu, Brute?) comes the feeding—a veritable sparagmos—and the bleeding. Our Mick is quite the brazen scapegoat or sacrificial or Luciferian lamb. If it’s a Mass it’s probably a black one, but mainly it’s just attesting to the meat of the body. Feel like getting ethereal about yourself? Well, don’t forget you feed and excrete and bleed and sweat and stink and stew. And the Stones aren’t here to rub your face in that so much as to celebrate it with their always inspiring bonhomie. It takes someone like Jagger—particularly in white rock of the Sixties—to put it on the table that way. And he exults in it. Even winking at us as he offers his babe an arm, a leg, then seems to balk—“aw baby, don’t you take my head”—letting us wonder which head he’s talking about.

The way the song jells is also much more, to my mind, definitive of the Stones' loose and ramshackle sound than such records as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Honky Tonk Women,” though those are the hits of the era that help to define the “fuck me, I’m having fun” attitude of the mature Stones. And if anyone, of a certain age, can strut sex appeal and make it stick, the Stones had a way of making that appeal seem still “a trifle too satanic,” as though, just maybe, they risked something by being so blatant. I mean, besides drug busts.

For those of us looking on from the cheap seats, the Stones were the spectacle of rock’n’roll before it became such a big business affair. Everything exploded—big bozo bucks-wise—after the era we’re talking about, but in 1969 things were still tangible as the first rock generation was pushing into 30 and what comes after. Let it bleed, indeed.

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