Thursday, May 31, 2012

(22nd in a series of) Stepping Stones "Gaining New Perspectives"

Song: Gimme Shelter
Album: Let it Bleed
Released:  April, 1969

The world has its fair share of opinionated, stubborn, set-in-their-ways types.  And although these traits can be seen as a sign of commitment and strength (nobody wants to be viewed as ‘wishy-washy’), they can also, on occasion, be major obstacles to the truth.  So, a little wiggle room for evolving and new perspectives is important.  Keep that curmudgeon at bay, at least until the age of 80.  At that point, I suppose you’ve earned the right to dig in your heels on most any subject.

Sorry, I kicked into my role as Dad there.  That’s proven difficult to overcome in writing this week’s Stepping Stone entry, because this past Memorial Day weekend was a four-day father/daughter adventure; a trek to Maine and beyond to explore the campuses of a handful of universities.  In the process, Charlotte and I got a taste, however briefly, of that next phase in both of our lives.  For Charlotte, it was obviously an opportunity to get a peek into life away from home.  For me, the early stages of letting go.  In each case, I believe it was a needed step since the alternative, abrupt change, is much harder to deal with.

But back to that opening paragraph.

Setting aside the fatherly advice, there are numerous reasons this week for starting with those comments.  Some of these reasons were already clear to me as Charlotte and I headed Northeast this past Friday morning, but others did not come into focus until our travels unfolded. Indeed, this past weekend was all about gaining new perspectives on a whole variety of things.

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Memorial Day is most importantly a time to reflect on lost loved ones, especially those who served in the military during wartime.  With several uncles who did just that and who are now buried in military cemeteries, along with my maternal grandfather who also served in wartime, and a plethora of reading and studies over time on the major battles this country has been involved in this past century, I did a fair share of reflecting this weekend.

In the past three decades or so, Memorial Day weekend has also become known, for those in my generation and beyond, as a “top” list weekend on FM radio.  Top 500, 1000 (or whatever) songs of all time, often played from that Friday afternoon to a countdown-to-number-one crescendo late into Monday evening.  I’m rarely in agreement with the top-of-the-list choices.  Who is?  I’ve stated before that choosing a ‘best’ list of rock songs is an impossible task.  I remember one year back in the mid 80s when WBCN put David Bowie’s Young Americans at the top of the list.  Young Americans?  A great song, yes, but number one all time? The funny thing was that as the countdown hit the top 10, I predicted it, along with most of the other songs at the top of the list.  I was listening to WBCN a lot that year, and so was familiar with their bias at that time.

The good thing about these ‘top’ lists is that, most songs are very familiar, and so over a lifetime, you can accumulate all sorts of insights about them; some good, some not so.  This can put you in a position to educate the younger crowd.  The songs on these lists are so common, even the current up-and-coming generation recognize many.  Yet there is much room for broadening their perspective.  And so as one of the several stations we listened to made way through its countdown while Charlotte and I drove across Maine, I took it upon myself to elucidate a bit when the opportunity presented itself.  There was King of Pain (“about clinical depression”…“the best Police song”); Glory Days (“the endurance of the E-Street Band is captured in the closing jam session”); Sweet Home Alabama (“the female backing vocals make this song”…”part of the lyrics are a reaction to Neil Young’s Southern Man”) Rockin’ in the Free World (“an anti-Bush 1 era anthem”); and Another Brick in the Wall (hmmm, ok, let’s talk a bit about ‘The Wall’) along with many others.  For her part, Charlotte continued to nail down the decade of any song that played, an uncanny ability of hers (More than a Feeling “that’s a 70s song” Hungry Like the Wolf “that’s a 80s thing”).

A never-fail song in any FM ‘top’ list is Gimme Shelter, this week’s Stepping Stone ( ).  This is where my own broadening perspective kicked in this week.  I’ve always appreciated this song, but honing in on it gave me a new depth of appreciation for this all-time classic.  It may have had something to do with Memorial Day and my own interest in past events, as that sense of war and history factored big time while I listened.  And this is one heavy Vietnam War-centric song, focusing on the victims of it, empathetic with their fear, their desperation, and their pain.  One of my biggest insights this week:  Music becomes history like anything else eventually, and my fascination in both has actually been a complimentary process over the years; the one feeding the other.  Charlotte’s interest in history reaffirmed this.

Gimme Shelter hits you in waves and each of those waves raises the ante: The eerie guitar work, the brilliant harmonica playing, the lyrics.  And then there is the singing of Merry Clayton, vulnerable, not over confident.  Her voice actually cracks on several occasions, but sounds extremely powerful, nonetheless.  It all works. The Stones needed this hired gun to compliment Mick Jagger's vocals on Gimme Shelter.  Jagger just can’t emit these emotions in his singing.  He’s the opposite of Paul Simon in this respect.  The only risk for the Stones is that Clayton comes very close to stealing the show. The only other times I can think of when a non-Stone almost stole the show are Nicky Hopkins piano playing on She’s a Rainbow and The London Symphony Orchestra on You Can’t Always Get What You Want.  ** By the way, can anyone name another Stones song that includes female vocals? **

Gimme Shelter is so strong in conveying a sense of desperation, dread and pain, that much of the rest of the album ‘Let It Bleed’ tackles coping mechanisms.  Four songs in particular have the feel of retreating somewhere, anywhere, be it loving (the album's title track), reasoning (You Can’t Always Get What you Want), rebelling (Monkey Man) or snapping (Midnight Rambler), making this perhaps the only Rolling Stones album that delved into the world of the conceptual.  Whether intentional or not, I’m not sure it matters.

Although I find it impossible to put together a ‘top’ list of my own, there are a few ‘chill down your spine’ songs out there, though you need to be in the mood for them to take that effect.  The ones that come to mind:  Hey Jude (McCartney written, Lennon inspired), Good Vibrations, Holiday, What’s the Frequency Kenneth, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Kashmir and Not Dark Yet. In all these cases, the musicians somehow transcended their own limitations for at least a moment to preserve a magnificent snapshot in time.

Gimme Shelter is right in there with that short list.

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Along with the music and the reality settling in of a not-to-distant future for Charlotte, there was much more this weekend that broadened our perspectives.  Mt. Katahdin was a truly physical one, viewing it from many different angles as we trekked through Baxter State Park for as many vantage points as possible:  Knife’s Edge, Baxter Peak, the Owl, the Tablelands, the snow.  It was all there in clear blue skies.  There was Maine in general, having thought I’d seen a vast majority of it, but then discovering Mount Blue State Park near U Maine Farmington, including Tumbledown, Webb Lake and Mount Blue: Just spectacular. There was Fredericton New Brunswick, a capital we usually drove straight through with nary a thought as we made past treks to Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  But in broadening our horizons this weekend we discovered a wonderful city with an incredible university (UNB) at its core.

Keep those windows to new perspectives alive.  You never know when it’s that time to be a student again.

   - Pete


  1. Not being a big Stones aficionado I had to carouse wikiP a little on this question of female vocalists, it got me curious as there were so few. Anita Pallenberg apparently being the first, on Their Satanic Majesty's Request, although individual songs weren't listed. And then several on Exile on Main St.

    1. Hey jeffdontknow! Good answer. I was thinking about a song off Emotional Rescue myself: "Where the Boys Go"


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