The 1960’s was an era of contrasts and contractions. It was a time of peace; we were involved in a long, strange, sad, and unwinnable Asian war. It was a period of equality and civil rights; yet segregation remained a part of life for many. It was an era of science, knowledge, and enlightenment; it also was a time marked by ignorance, hysteria, and paranoia. It was a decade where blood stained the pavements in the cities and the vegetation in the jungles. It was a time when we simply “Let It Bleed.”
The decade of the “60’s” ended on December 5, 1969; the date that “Let It Bleed” was officially released. Toward the end of the 60’s, the potent force that had been the Beatles disintegrated into pretentious, pointless ditties. The Beatles had to “Carry that Weight” in an “Octopus’s Garden” while fruitlessly harmonizing about “Mean Mr. Mustard” and his sister, “Polythene Pam.” The four Liverpudlian lads that had captured the hearts of a grieving America some five years before had the pompous audacity to sing the refrain “Love You” ad nauseam, some two dozen times, before giving us a hollow and shallow statement that closed out that turbulent decade: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
While “Abbey Road” represents a continuation of dysfunctional 1960’s sunshine, rainbows, and lollipops, “Let It Bleed” is its sinister, foreboding twin. “Let It Bleed” represents the end of the tumultuous “60’s” and the uncertainty – the anxiety – that engulfed the nation at the start of the “70’s.”
The 1960’s gave the nation a bitter wake-up call. For the country, it was the end of innocence. The dreams of “Camelot” were shattered in Dallas on a late November day, a man of peace who had a beautiful dream died from an assassin’s bullet in Memphis, Sirhan Sirhan crushed the emerging hopes of a distressed nation at the LA Ambassador Hotel, and the number of “Homeward Bound,” flag draped caskets escalated as the costly war in Viet Nam continued to rage on. What a bloody decade!
Even before you listen to the first track of “Let It Bleed,” the album cover delivers a powerful message of prophetic doom, destruction, and chaos. The front cover shows The Rolling Stones record being played on an old phonograph. Above the record, on the spindle, there are a film canister, a clock, a pizza, a tire, and a cake. On top of the cake are figurines representing The Rolling Stones. The back of the album cover paints a grim picture. The rear cover presents the LP broken into pieces, a slice of pizza sloppily resting on top of the shattered record, the phonograph’s “arm” turned on its side, a slice of the cake removed, and the figurines disarrayed and lying on their sides as if they were dead.
Coincidentally, the release of “Let It Bleed” is draped in violence. The infamous free rock concert at Altamont Speedway occurred on December 6, 1969, a day after “Let It Bleed” was released. The Rolling Stones performed at that concert. A documentary, “Gimme Shelter,” was filmed to record the event. The Altamont concert was supposed to have been another “Woodstock.” Instead, that event is best known for its violence – to include a murder that was captured on film.
Contrary to the popular music heard on “AM radio” in 1969 – music that predominantly featured themes about love and peace – “Let It Bleed” is a collection of provocative, hard hitting songs about the dark side of society: Violence, murder, rape, sex, meaningless love, and drugs. Sure, those topics were covered by other artists. For example, Bobby Darin sang about a gangster, “Mack the Knife” and how “scarlet billows began to spread.” The Rolling Stones painted a darker picture with lyrics such as “You knifed me in my dirty filthy basement . . .” and “I’ll stick my knife right down your throat.”
On “Gimme Shelter,” Mick Jagger sings about the palpable “threatening storm” that was hanging over the nation toward the end of the 1960’s. “Gimme Shelter” tells us that war, rape, and murder are “just a shot away.” That, essentially, is how The Rolling Stones introduced the 1970’s – the new decade – to the world. In the last verse, you hear Mick sing “I tell you love, sister, it’s just a kiss away.” Basically, with that verse, The Rolling Stones denounced the various messages of the “60’s” – “Flower Power,” “Make love not war,” “Peace,” and so forth – as futile attempts that yielded negligible results.
The Rolling Stones addressed the struggle for civil rights that overwhelmed the nation in the 1960’s. The “. . . Fire is sweepin’ our very street. . .” lyric refers to the riots that had inflamed the country during a decade where bands preferred to put on their optimistic rosy colored glasses to sing about peace, love, and understanding. Instead, The Rolling Stones brutally took us by the shirt collar and forcefully shook us into a very harsh reality. Not only was there death and destruction overseas (i.e., Viet Nam); the nation had experienced turmoil, chaos, and the loss of life in some of its largest cities. Indeed, “. . . [L]ove. . . it’s just a kiss away.”
“Let It Bleed” is a musical time capsule that chronicles the 1960’s. It captures the need for society to be dependent on someone to lean, dream, feed, and bleed on. Society has created emotional, passionate ties to heroes – and villains. By 1969, heroes, such as The Beatles, were exposed as mere mortals. They were just as confused – just as human – as the rest of us. At the start of the new decade – the 1970’s – society was searching for new superstars and scapegoats.
The Rolling Stones slapped us “out of the trance;” they slapped us wake. “Let It Bleed” made us realize that the dream was over.
Then again, a nightmare is also a dream. “Let It Bleed” reminded us that there always has been a more clandestine and an even darker part of society where some turned to sinister activities for support, comfort, and sympathy.
John Di Genio