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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"Gimme Shelter" from... a lot of things

A selection made in the wake of on-campus protests, as well as in tribute to a masterful drummer.

When you start a playlist with Nina Simone's rapturous take on "Feeling Good," there's really nowhere to go but down. The question, then, is how far down do you go? For me, the answer is pretty far down, but in a way that still fits the environment in which I begin my senior year at Cal.

I walked onto campus yesterday full of optimism, having already made “Feeling Good” the start of my playlist and my anthem for the day — only to be jolted into a different mindset by masses of protestors on Sproul Plaza. Sather Gate was blocked by defenders of People’s Park, setting thousands of students back as they attempted to beat the Berkeley-time clock. Fake blood filled the fountain and spilled down the Savio Steps in front of Sproul Hall, placed there by an anti-factory farm group.

Now I’m plenty familiar with the history of activism at UC Berkeley — “bodies upon the gears,” anti-Vietnam, the more recent protests against Yiannopoulos and Coulter — but I guess I was naïve to think that we wouldn’t see such big protests right away. On a day that should have been a bit celebratory for the return to in-person instruction, it instead felt like the student and city communities were already on edge.

As I went back through the events of yesterday in my mind and saw the cleaning up that continued through today (love to the University maintenance staff), the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” played in my head. The opener of their 1969 album Let It Bleed, “Gimme Shelter” talks of a world on edge, reminding listeners that conflict is “just a shot away.” In the context of yesterday’s protests, as well as in tribute to the late Charlie Watts, who laid down the track’s rock-solid drum groove, it seemed right to make the song the second entry in my Senior Soundtrack.

As if Keith Richards' guitar opening isn't haunting enough, session musician Jimmy Miller's güiro turns up the foreboding feeling even more as it begins alongside Watts' drumming. Merry Clayton's "oohs" give me the sense of an empty, windswept plain — and don't worry, I'll talk plenty more about Clayton's role on the track in a bit. The low D-flat on the piano cranks up the eerie feeling even further as the track approaches the first statement of its main progression and riff.

When that four-bar statement does kick in, it contains my two favorite instrumental qualities of the track. The first of those is how Richards' two guitar tracks interlock. You can hear one line giving the other space, and it makes for the formation of three melodic lines: the two lines from the two individual parts, as well as the combined line between them, all beautiful in their own ways. Richards' bends during the second and third of the four bars also keep up the eerie feeling from before. The second quality is the overall sound of the fourth bar of the progression, a stark departure everything heard prior to it. Rather than the tonic D-flat drone the intro or the one-bar chords in the three preceding measures, the fourth bar is all eighth notes, alternating between three chords: E on the downbeats, A on the first two upbeats, and B on the last two upbeats. The other big difference is the block of sound behind Richards' lead line. Whereas in the rest of the song, each instrument can clearly be heard in its own space, in this fourth bar Richards' other guitar line, Bill Wyman's bass, and studio musician Nicky Hopkins' piano combine into a Spector-like wall which always makes me think there's a trombone or two in it because of its warmth and fullness.

At last — after 49 seconds of music and way too many sentences of me nerding out about it — we reach the first verse, and at last we hear Mick Jagger as he sings eight bars of classic minor blues, with vocal bends and blue notes abound. Jagger’s lyrics speak of needing shelter from the storm threatening his life, which can be interpreted as a reference to the violence of the Vietnam War and how it hit home. The lyrical conflation of a war with a natural disaster has always intrigued me, as it blurs the line of agency and the control the common people have over the battles they’ve been told to fight.

Instrumentally, the most interesting feature of the verses is Wyman's bass line. The line is a four-bar pattern; in the first and third bars, Wyman plays only the tonic D-flat, but in the second, he mimics Jagger's vocal delivery, while in the fourth, he plays a chromatic eighth-note figure similar to the second bar, hitting the tritone in his ascent before dropping down to the tonic. The line adds to the song's bluesy feeling while propelling it forward, ultimately into the chorus.

And what a chorus it is, buoyed by the gospel stylings of the legendary Merry Clayton. The fact that Clayton even sang on the record is crazy enough; she was called in the middle of the night while heavily pregnant, showed up with curlers still in her hair, and miscarried when she got back home, likely in part owing to the effort she exerted while recording her part. Clayton’s vocals embody the desperation of the song’s shelter-seeking narrator, attempting to save their life when “war… is just a shot away.” Yes, Mick Jagger is singing in the chorus as well, but any time Merry Clayton sings on “Gimme Shelter,” it’s her moment.

The verse-chorus form then repeats, with the second verse’s lyrics evoking protest imagery. The “fire… sweeping / Our very street today” leaves an impression of the anti-war fervor on American and British streets alike in the years surrounding the song’s release. With Berkeley being an activist center, this verse speaks more than the others as to the context for my choice of the song for my playlist.

Keith Richards’ guitar solo fits the tune well, but once again, Clayton is the star in the break before the third verse. Her delivery of “Rape, murder / It’s just a shot away…” is raw, forceful to the point of her voice cracking twice… but the cracks only add to the desperation and give the take an unapologetic honesty. Mick Jagger clearly enjoyed it too, as his exclamation of “Woo!” can be heard after the second voice crack, which on the word “murder” has the air of a bloodcurdling scream, pleading to hold onto life.

The solo and break also introduce higher-pitched lines and chord voicings from Hopkins’ piano, which continue through the rest of the track. It’s a part I doubt people hear straight away, but it’s a great addition to keep things sounding fresh into the final verse and chorus.

The final section of the song turns the chorus, and the rest of the track with it, on its head. As Jagger and Clayton sing that “love, sister, [is] just a kiss away,” it reminds the listener that the violence of armed conflict only sows more division; as Marvin Gaye sang on “What’s Going On,” “War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.” Of course, in today’s climate, it’s difficult to see how such lines can in fact be true. From protests on the local level to the recall election on the state level, to the response to COVID and Afghanistan on the national and global level, various levels of divide dominate all aspects of our lives. Personally, I’m someone who seeks to bridge these divides by valuing others as being more than a list of their beliefs, while being willing to civilly discuss those divisive topics. At the same time, I know I can’t always succeed in my efforts, and so I find myself ready to take shelter all the same. When it came to the protesters on Sproul yesterday, I knew that engaging them would only lead to further conflict, so I walked on by and carried on with my day, taking shelter in the masses who did the same. As I left campus and returned to my residence, the throng faded like the sound of Jagger's siren-like two-note harmonica line.


As I discussed near the beginning of the article, I also chose "Gimme Shelter" in honor of Stones drummer Charlie Watts. The suit-clad percussionist and backbone of the group died two days ago at age 80, and news of his passing elicited widespread grief and tributes. Among the many articles and videos on Watts I've perused over the past couple days, I found a video of Watts' isolated drums on "Gimme Shelter." The isolated track demonstrates Watt's mastery, laying down the bedrock of the tune as mediated through his jazz background. His flourishes and fills never distract from the heart of the track, and as the track became more intense and a bit faster, Watts did the same behind the kit. He was the perfect man for the role he filled in the band, and he will be sorely missed and irreplaceable.


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