On “Gimme Shelter”

It’s 1969, and the Beatles perform together for the last time on the roof of Apple headquarters in London as the US military begins a clandestine bombing campaign in Cambodia. It’s four years since the US officially entered Vietnam, and President Richard Nixon vows to begin withdrawing ground troops by September. Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon. Members of the Manson Family murder Sharon Tate and friends at the Benedict Canyon mansion she shares with husband Roman Polanski, as the US National Guard contains anti-war demonstrators with rubber bullets and skin stinging spray following the arrest of the Chicago Eight. Moratorium marches erupt across the US. Journalist Seymour Hersh publishes details of the My Lai massacre and the Rolling Stones record Gimme Shelter with Meryl Clayton singing a last-minute backing track that lifts the song through the roof.

gimmeshelter 1 imagesMick Jagger called Gimme Shelter an end of days song, a bleak and foreboding mirror to the insanity of the Vietnam War, race riots, anti-war riots, activists and anarchists and revolutionaries of all persuasions clashing with police from Chicago to Paris to New York. It’s a slow build, with Keith Richards picking a careful path through the overture before Meryl Clayton’s haunted vocal sweeps in like a fog, a mist, a darkening of something, a brewing, the helicopters in that scene from Apocalypse Now backlit by the sunrise, the moment before a scare, an explosion, a gunshot, the sound cranked out of old Triumph speakers to give it a bit more grunge, like something put together on the fly, the run, fleeing from something with good reason because they’re coming and they’re coming for you! Then Charlie Watts steps in with two snap reports on the tom and away we go.

Oh, a storm is threat’ning

My very life today

If I don’t get some shelter

Oh yeah, I’m gonna fade away

War, children, it’s just a shot away

It’s just a shot away

 

MansonAltamontKeith Richards, who actually wrote the song, doesn’t recall being infused with the same social outrage or conscience as Jagger, but it’s sure as hell infused with something. Gimme Shelter packs all the heft of an anti-war song, but unlike Sunday Bloody Sunday or Edwin Starr’s War, it’s rarely pulled out by filmmakers to soundtrack peace rallies or brand a sentiment. There’s something about Gimme Shelter, a menace, that lends itself equally to a helicopter gunship flying low over the Mekong Delta or the fall of Saigon in 1975 to the post-war diaspora of Vietnamese refugees that literally took to the sea. Seeking shelter. And many of those refuges travelled south down the Indonesian archipelago to Australia, where they were resettled without being interned in detention camps or issued with Temporary Protection Visas. The then Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser died in March 2015. At his funeral, members of the Vietnamese community attended to pay their respects carrying banners and placards applauding him as a champion of humanity. Their appeal for shelter has not been answered in the same way since.

AltamontGimme Shelter appeared on the 1969 album Let It Bleed. On December 6 of that year, during a promotional tour of the US, the Rolling Stones held a free concert at the Altamont Speedway in San Francisco. The local chapter of the Hells Angels was asked to provide security. They were reportedly paid in beer. In a documentary of the event, aptly named Gimme Shelter, Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old arts student from Berkeley, is seen lunging towards the stage with what appears to be a gun. He is stopped by members of the Hells Angels armed with weighted pool cues and motorcycle chains, then beaten to the ground, and stabbed five times in the upper back. Meredith Hunter died at the scene. He was one of four to die that day at Altamont, an event promoters tried to sell as an alternative Woodstock but is now viewed by many as the symbolic end of an era. The Sixties. However the Sixties is seen, lost and remote to some, remembered by others as the most colourful, violent, ground-breaking decade of the century, it was the first time in history where the universe seemed to align in such a way as to create a space for thousands of people across the globe to stand up and in one voice say: What binds us is stronger and more valuable than what divides us. The anti-war movement. Feminism. Civil Rights. Gay Pride. In some ways, the anti-establishment movements of today have their roots in the Sixties. And behind every banner, every charge at the barricades, every Molotov cocktail and upturned car, what motivates the anger and passion and theatre and violence can be found in the last refrain of Gimme Shelter sung loud from the rooftops and pavements of Chicago, Paris, New York.

I said love, sister,

It’s just a kiss away

It’s just a kiss away….

Sean Macgillicuddy

On “Strange Fruit”

punksingerThe Punk Singer is a 2013 documentary about iconoclastic singer/songwriter Kathleen Hanna. The movie charts her brilliant, sad, radical, and sometimes violent trajectory across the musical landscape of the American Northwest in the ‘90s. Her limelight began in 1990 fronting the hard core 4-piece Bikini Kill. When criticised for not being able to play their instruments, the band’s response was simply ‘And?’ They  were part of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along ethic of politics, fashion, music and art that owed as much to the Punk vanguards of the ‘70s as it did to the Beats and Dada. Kathleen Hanna was Punk as Kathy Acker was Punk. Barbara Kruger. Her music was the Revolution Rock revived from its reggae roots by the Clash. With Kathleen Hanna, the protest song was taken to a new velocity, with new levels of impact and immediacy, but her musical and political genealogy ran deep, beyond Punk and the protest movement of the ‘60s, to Blues, and Jazz, and perhaps one of the most beautifully haunting protest songs of all time. Billy Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”.

strangefruitsmall“Strange Fruit” was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish high school teacher and member of the Communist Party in New York. It was first sung by Holiday in 1939, 15 years before Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat on a bus to a white person inadvertently kicking off what history remembers as the Civil Rights Movement. The song is a simple, poetic, and deeply evocative protest against lynching in the South, where, amidst the fresh scent of magnolias in the breeze, black bodies swing from the poplar trees.

“Strange Fruit” was considered so hot at the time, so incendiary, Billie Holiday’s record company Columbia actually released her from contract, for one day, to record it. (It became her largest selling album.) When she first performed it at Café Society in New York’s Greenwich Village, it closed her set. The manager had all the waiters stop serving, threw the entire room into darkness with a single spot illuminating Holiday’s face, and she sang the entire number with eyes closed, as if in prayer, lamenting:

The bulging eyes and the twisting mouth

Here is the fruit for the crows to pluck

For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck

For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop

Here is a strange and bitter crop…

(Meeropol, 1937)

Billie HolidayBilly Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is a very different scream to Kathleen Hanna’s bullet vocals trashing the hypocritical mores of sexuality and violence and celebrating the wild autonomy of feminism, but the punk girl’s anger grows from the same soil as the blood soaked poplar trees of the American South. In “Strange Fruit”, as Billy Holiday reaches the final word of the final phrase, her voice lifts. Like the opening of a window. Because within every hard core protest song is also a song about freedom and possibility.  As Kathleen Hanna points out in The Punk Singer, there’s no point singing about revolution unless you can dance to it.

Sean Macgillicuddy

Meeropol, Abel. (1937). As “Bitter Fruit”. The New York Teacher (ed. unknown). New York.