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.
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