Rolling Stones’ harrowing ‘Gimme Shelter’ is still revealing new depths

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I have a strange relationship with song lyrics that is well-documented. Google “not a lyrics guy” and “Saleski” and you will find a surprising amount of evidence.

The thing is, I do occasionally pay attention to the words, though I’d be hard-pressed to say when, specifically. Generally speaking, I’m more apt to be listening when dealing with folk-ish material, or music that is sparse. I mean, the whole point of a singer-songwriter is to deliver the story. Yeah, it’s true in other forms too, but my ears become so attached to the sound waves that the lyrics take a back seat.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. For example, “bad” lyrics can’t ruin a song for me. I’ve seen so many complaints about lyrics being cheesy, containing bad rhyming decisions, or what have you. With me? Not a problem!

Obviously, I have internalized some lyrics over the years because when I hear a familiar song the lyrics pop right into my head. Just don’t ask me to recite them. Heck, I can hardly do that on Bruce Springsteen songs! Apparently, I have also internalized the wrong words to a few tunes. Sure, everybody is familiar with those “‘scuse me while I kiss this guy” kinds of things. But I’m talking about a really strong lyric, absolutely belted out — and I missed it.

I heard a radio segment on the documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, about pop music’s typically anonymous backup singers. At one point they were speaking with Merry Clayton, who sang that incredible vocal on the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” released on December 5, 1969 as part of Let It Bleed.

I didn’t even know that story! She was summoned to the studio late one night by the Rolling Stones to sing on the track, came in and delivered what is now an iconic performance. She went home and the strain of the session (check out her isolated vocals during the film) caused her to have a miscarriage. Stunning.

And so all of these years I’ve been enjoying hearing her sing “War, children — it’s just a shot away,” because I thought that was repeated throughout the Rolling Stones song. Somehow, I managed to miss the order of magnitude more powerful, “Rape, murder — it’s just a shot away.”

I heard that on the radio and instantly liked the song more. Hmmm … maybe I should pay more attention to the lyrics? Nah!

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