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Don’t Forget the Songs-365: Mach Dos: Day 307
Sat, Nov 17, 2012

“Gimme Shelter”
The Rolling Stones

1969

“♫ I tell
you Love,
sister/ it’s
just a kiss
away/ it’s
just a kiss
away
♫”

I still can’t listen to “Gimme Shelter” without imagining the nefarious circumstances that brought this classic cut to light. That legendary guitar riff wailing throughout “Shelter” is the sound and fury of Keith Richards waiting for his paramour Anita Pallenberg to finish filming a Ménage à trios movie scene with his best friend and band member Mick Jagger and Michele Breton.

You don’t really have to attempt to picture the kind of anguish Keef is going through while waiting for his lover in bed with your creative partner. Those guitar sounds are riffs of agony as Keith explained in his bestselling biography Life when he wrote, “I wrote Gimme Shelter on a stormy day, sitting in Robert Fraser’s apartment in Mount Street. Anita was shooting Performance at the time, not far away… It was just a terrible fucking day and it was storming out there. I was sitting there in Mount Street and there was this incredible storm over London, so I got into that mode, just looking out of Robert’s window and looking at all these people with their umbrellas being blown out of their grasp and running like hell. And the idea came to me… My thought was storms on other people’s minds, not mine. It just happened to hit the moment.”

Jagger has a different recollection about making of “Gimme Shelter” when he said, “That song was written during the Vietnam War and so it’s very much about the awareness that war is always present; it was very present in life at that point. Mary Clayton who did the backing vocals was a background singer who was known to one of the producers. Suddenly, we wanted someone to sing in the middle of the night. And she was around. She came with her curlers in, straight from bed, and had to sing this really odd lyric. For her it was a little odd – for anyone, in the middle of the night, to sing this one verse I would have been odd. She was great.”

Mick is right, sometimes in the middle of a song storm like “Gimme Shelter” comes a revitalizing sound of guiding light. That sound was brought to life by the majestic vocals of Mary Clayton; a former singer for Ray Charles was called up to sing with The Rolling Stones. Clayton didn’t hold back singing harmonies with Mick and Keith.

You can hear how Clayton gave all her voice during the vocal take of “Gimme Shelter” when you can hear Mary’s voice crack twice once during the second refrain after singing “shot” and the last one on after the third and final refrain on the word “Murder.” Mary reflected her time recording with The Stones when she explained, “That was a dark, dark period for me, but God gave me the strength to overcome it.” It wasn’t just Mick and Keith you experienced the dark cloud while recording “Gimme Shelter.” Still through that darkness The Stones managed to create the song that officially waved goodbye to the peace and love mentality of the nineteen sixties.

I cannot seem to separate the act of infidelity that stirred the conflicted emotions which created “Gimme Shelter.” How do you walk back from that type of betrayal? Can you blame the way Richards responded to Jagger and Pallenberg’s unfaithful disloyalty by spending the seventies trying to numb his pain with heroin? “Gimme Shelter” is Keith Richard’s personal crossfire hurricane that he set ablaze with his guitar of fury.

The Rolling Stones would be forever changed by Jagger’s cinematic indiscretion with Pallenberg. Although the Stones would continue making music, I don’t think Richards ever forgave Mick because no matter what success the band experienced, “Gimme Shelter” would always reflect the lyrical snapshot of reasons why The Glimmer Twins could never be this close, ever again.

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