Friday, December 11, 2015

Gimme Shelter






The Rolling Stones have many great songs in their catalog, but 'Gimme Shelter" is one that qualifies as a masterpiece. The stunning, foreboding weave of simple guitar lines at the outset, slow, cautious, stealthy, suggest two kinds of apprehension about the world outside the walls one lives in, both that of the stalker creeping up on a prey, and the stalked, shivering, rained on, seeking something to provide at least a moment's respite from the unpredictable, the nasty, the brutish possibilities of being alone. The thunder guitar lines, swooping bass and the short, simple, shank edge harmonica riff are then all around you, a house collapsing, a cliff falling into the sea, rockets bombing your home town, an earthquake. It is that crushing, smashing, lacerated feeling that the truth gas denied is about to enter and take center stage and proceed to uproot everything fastened down and not. Think of the feeling when you haven't enough money to pay the rent, when there is no more dope and the sickness is tearing you apart from the inside out, when a loved one dies, when you're confronted with someone with a bat with a nail through it, or a gun , or a knife. No solace, no quarter. The Stones dealt obsessively with life on the edge in their songs, inspired by a lifestyle they could afford in their off time , and anyone with a more than an glancing familiarity of the aftermath of having gone on an extended drug run, whether heroin, speed, cocaine, there is the phenomenon that the world has ceased to be anything else than a mere rumor of something that was attractive or worth fighting horrible wars to preserve order in. Not all of this was approached from the stance of panic or fear that is the spirit of "Gimme Shelter". "Moonlight Mile", a fragile, beautiful evocation of coming down from a needle-point, catches the half-conscious figure in mid-nod, addressing the drift he finds himself on as though it were a wonderfully calm and foreseen ascent to the next life, a transcendence of a sort. 

There are other roles that are played out in this theme of decadence, decline, and degradation, with the Stones, and Jagger especially, playing along with the age-old cliche of the romantic artist, the poet, the seer, pushing their senses to the limit to attain experience and to gain something of that fleeting, elusive knowledge that senses reveal only when they are placed drugged out duress. Most, though, wind up a wallow, a boast, a casual nod to the audience that it was either a put on or they survived the worse the drugs had to offer and walked out of the other side of the experience, ragged, battered, damaged, but alive to write more poems. "Gimme Shelter" differs, though,  because it really is one of the few songs where the voice doesn't sound like a well-constructed pose maintained with a professional distance from the subject.

 The ennui sounds not just real, but nearly fatal, Jagger plays the perfect role here, abandoning the poses, the personas, the macho -libertine man of destiny and expresses the naked fear that nothing quite suddenly and brutally makes the sense it used to; everything falls apart. There is the remarkable effect of the singer admitting that there is only the unknown forces of a world that have slid off the rails. Jagger's vocal and the lyrics sound like a man who is coming to the uncontested eventuality of his demise. Merry Clayton offers the defiant cry, a brilliant, rail-splitting wail that says that the worse of everything we can imagine is about to happen. She is the hard truth overshadowing Jagger's fatalistic admission. Mood, atmosphere, texture, a hook that comes in at the right time like a badly constructed car hitting every pothole on a troubled, abandoned road, this song remains foreboding, menacing, a song that continues to resonate and will always do so, I think, as long as we contain the imagination to devise our specialized means of insanity. It's an interesting set of perspectives that are represented by the presence of both white and black vocalists. Clayton, we may say, comes from a particular set of cultural conditions of racism, slavery, poverty, institutionalized and normalized violence, that makes the Hellhound- on -My- Trail not a poetic device for yet another woe-begone tale, but rather an allegorical representation of what is a fact of their existence. Mailer insists that black Americans have a knowledge unknown to most whites that violence can be visited on them for any reason at anytime precisely because they are black and "other". Jagger is the character, the young man, who enters into a Life on the edge and entertains his senses with the expectation that nothing matters and that this state of bliss, or the naive arrogance of thinking that one's pleasure is all that actually matters. Jagger's horror is that of the sudden, brutal and blunt realization that there are prices to pay for the indulgence, the excessive use of self-seeking. It is a knowledge that comes too late and the singer here trembles when there is a crushing sense that he is near the end of his tether. This fits in with what I think has been Jagger's real genius as an artist since he wrested command of the Rolling Stones away from Brian Jones, his ability, in conjunction with Richard's uniquely primitivist approach to rock and roll roots music, to assume several personas--droogy punk, drug addict,revolutionary, Satanist, hedonist, Sadist, bluesman, troubadour--without overburdening the songs with so much detail and contrived attitude that the music collapses under so many layers of baloney. He's been someone who has pretended to be many things but who, himself, is not pretentious, a distinction in that Jagger's interest is in the emotion, the sensation, the real stuff of experience. The emotional range he's been able to write from over the decades is extraordinary, far broader than his contemporaries, say, Lou Reed, Dylan, Lennon. Only Bowie, from what I think of at the moment, comes close to the variety of attitudes he's been able to inhabit, but even there-there is something always a little calculated in Bowie's keep--them-guessing stance. Jagger, in his best work, which I believe is a big part of his total ouvre (discounting the solo albums), is more fluid in his transitions from one voice to another. 

Jagger has the ability to create from a constructed identity and convince you of his empathy with the plight and drama of antagonist and protagonists; he has the instincts of a good short story writer, no less than Hemingway, O'Conner, Cheever. Fundamental to all this is Keith Richard, who's music contributions keep Jagger focused, believable, credible, relevant to the loud and soft noises that occupy a listener's life. Jagger is in awe of the sheer magnitude of a universe and existence that could make his life less than the sum of a box of burnt matches, but along with the fear is the attraction to the foul powers that lurk outside. There is a going back in forth through the song, while that persistent, descending chord progression hammers away, like a pounding at the door from a debtor claiming what's due him, the short blues riffs and the wailing, two note harmonica screeches that seem nothing other than a hard, cold wind blowing against the windows. It's a tension that builds and won't build, panic and exhilaration, extinction and transcendence felt in an overwhelming rush until Merry Clayton's unyielding exhortation of the chorus gives you release; the iconic cracking of voice on her final reading of the lyric is powerful enough to suggest that a door you've been pounding on for the shelter you've been demanding, praying for finally opens and you collapse, relieved, shivering, twitching under the might of the storm that seeks to extinguish you. It is a brilliant song, a masterful performance, a musical masterpiece, all that. This is one of these tracks where one needs to confront the raw phenomenology is experience and rethink any all certainties one has about what life owes them.

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