My two favorite Rolling Stones songs are “Gimme Shelter” and “Midnight Rambler,” in that order, so I have always been partial to Let It Bleed, their 1969 album that houses both tracks (at the start of each side, in fact). Surprisingly, neither was released as a single. Released instead was the excellent non-album track “Honky Tonk Women,” which appeared on Let It Bleed in an acoustic-and-fiddle version appropriately titled “Country Honk.” The classic album closer “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was its B-side, which didn’t chart until 1973. Frankly, Let It Bleed is absolutely loaded with greatness and the Stones were cooking with gas by this point; Let It Bleed is the second album in a four-album stretch that most consider their peak. After the band’s polarizing foray into full-blown psychedelia, 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, it got back to its roots with the classic Beggars Banquet (1968), and followed that up with three more all-time greats, Let It Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile on Main St. (1972).
Beggars Banquet is famous for the songs that start both of its sides, “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man,” but its real strength lies in the non-hits, which the band use to provide a bedding of dirt, sweat and whatever other textures have formed the terrain of the Mississippi delta over the past few centuries. Suddenly these young British lads weren’t just a bunch of blues wannabes who copped their name from a Muddy Waters tune. They hadn’t just developed a working vocabulary, they were speaking the language, and they were doing so with an accent that was entirely their own. They pushed the blues’ trademark sexual innuendo to a more explicit level, that’s for sure. Let It Bleed is all of that and more, as they run a play from Eric Clapton’s playbook and cover a Robert Johnson song, “Love in Vain.”
What makes the cover all the more impressive is that “Love in Vain,” if I’m not mistaken, wasn’t made widely available until the release of the compilation King of the Delta Blues Singers, Vol. 2 in 1970. (The first volume, which is arguably the most important compilation in the history of popular music, was released back in 1961.) Robert Johnson was only 27 when he died in 1938 (legend has it he sold his soul to the devil), but he was the most important blues man to ever grace the planet, contributing more to popular music in just five total days in the recording studio than any other single person has in history. (The dates: 11/23/36, 11/26/36 and 11/27/36 in San Antonio, Texas; and 6/19/37 and 6/20/37 in Dallas, Texas.) Johnson recorded two takes of “Love in Vain” during the June 20, 1937 session, the second of which found its way to the Stones somehow despite not appearing on the first volume of King of the Delta Blues Singers.
I could be wrong about this, but I sort of doubt that Robert Johnson singles were in high demand, like, ever. The original 78s sold poorly when he was alive, and though the release of King of the Delta Blues Singers sparked a blues revival in the early ’60s, it’s hard to imagine that Johnson’s non-comp singles were widely available. Props to Richards, Jagger and co. for tracking that one down. What’s interesting about their “Love in Vain” cover is that you wouldn’t know it’s a Robert Johnson cover unless you looked it up. They absorb it into their sound that thoroughly. I have always found it fascinating that Let It Bleed begins with this apocalyptic, traumatic song (“Gimme Shelter”) and ends with an equally powerful, cathartic song (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). They are different songs, to be sure, but they carry out a meta-call and response in the way they characterize urgency and restraint, even violence and self-examination.
“Gimme Shelter” definitely houses a chaotic energy that perfectly characterizes the turbulence of its time, and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is an appropriate bookend, providing an answer of sorts, but it’s what lies between them that ultimately gives Let It Bleed its grace and candor. They never have a better grasp of the roots of their art than they do here, but more importantly, they have mastered the technique of rendering it in real time during a time of considerable unrest. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated the previous year, American troop levels in the Vietnam reached over 500,000, and we had just elected Richard Nixon into office. Leave it to a bunch of Brits playing American music to keep things in perspective for everyone.