Let me say straightaway that though the song in question, the Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter,” which first introduced me to the voice of a sweet angel named Merry Clayton, is often considered among Stones fanatics a career pinnacle, and is deemed by the sort of pretentious rock journalist who tends to forget what Keith Richards himself said about rock & roll—that it starts from the neck down—to be a fin-de-siècle (italics theirs) anthem, and is sometimes described with adjectives such as “ominous,” “eerie,” “apocalyptic”; I don’t even really consider it a part of the Stones’ oeuvre. Merry Clayton pulls off the unfathomable: She steals a song—not just a song, but one so powerful that it is routinely, rightly or not, credited with pronouncing the death of the flower-power Sixties—from Mick bloody Jagger.
I first heard this song nearly forty years ago, on my older brother’s copy of Let It Bleed. I can still hear the record dropping, the snap, crackle, pop of the needle in the groove, followed by those wispy opening chords, rumored to have been lifted from a Chuck Berry song by Keith, who always knew how to steal from the rich and make it his own. Of course, the Stones made a habit of borrowing from the richness of black American music, or, if you believe the worst about them, exploiting blues and soul singers, churning out covers of Robert Johnson and Marvin Gaye and Otis Redding for Brits and Americans too ignorant to recognize the antecedents. “Gimme Shelter” is no cover, and it doesn't borrow nearly as much from basic blues structure as many of their other songs. But there is an edgy authenticity, a deeply anxious sense of loss, implicit less in the song’s lyrics than in its build.
Keith’s nimble opening riff reverberates with warm, tube-amp fuzz; Mick Taylor snakes a lead line around him and then we hear the chilling, wordless chorus, followed by Jagger’s hoarse howl. But the song seems to hover until Merry turns up to take it away. For seconds, she lingers in the chorus, but after Richards’s solo, it happens: She opens her mouth and heart and out pours truthful, beautiful fire. When she sings her last “it’s just a shot away,” her voice cracks slightly on the “shot,” and on the final “murder,” her highest note breaks so painfully that someone in the background—sounds like Mick to me—salutes this moment with a congratulatory “Woo!” What we hear in that highest crack is something I heard growing up, when jets—and the world—were slower: the sonic boom of the sound barrier being broken. What we hear are the heavens opening and light pouring through the rent as we are ushered into the astral plane. Merry Clayton’s failure to pull that note off cleanly only emphasizes the unfulfilled desire that could allow for such a sound in the first place. Every time I hear it—every single time—my heart murmurs, for Merry Clayton’s controlled scream is an orderly evocation of emotional, if not cultural, chaos.
In the thirty-nine years since the song was recorded Merry Clayton’s legendary performance has spawned many rumors. The first was that, in order to hit those highest notes—and even though they rise up from some place obviously subterranean and full of fear and trembling, they travel to another galaxy, they rattle windows and hum the steel doors of a Ford F-150, they might well have taken down Skylab, and I wouldn’t doubt it if some diligent scientist, in decades to come, singles out these notes as the beginning of global warming—Jagger and Richards, or one or the other (and I’d be putting my money here on Keith) stuck her in the arse with a safety pin. The second, and most disturbing: She was so spent after the session that she suffered a miscarriage. The third: She was summoned to an L.A. studio in the middle of the night, her hair in curlers, and told to sing theunsettling line “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away,” which she did with consummate studio-session alacrity. The fourth, that she wasn’t their first choice—Bonnie Bramlett was slated to take her shot, but her husband, Delaney, miffed over the lack of a contract, kept her home.
Even if I were the type to track down the veracity of the above statements, I believe I’d leave it the hell alone, for—aside from the miscarriagerumor, which, if true, is truly frightening largely because, listening to her crescendo, you can believe it happened—none of it finally matters. We have the song, and we have facts we can verify about Merry Clayton: that she was born on Christmas Day, 1948, in Gert Town, New Orleans, daughter of a Baptist preacher; that she sang backup for Ray Charles, Bobby Darin, and Joe Cocker; that she is the sister of Little Feat member Sam Clayton; that those close to her know her as “Baby Sister”; that she is still performing but has returned, like so many fine soul singers of the ’60s and ’70s, to the gospel music she grew up singing. I know she recorded her own version of “Gimme Shelter” in 1970 and released it on an album by the same name, but I have not heard it and don’t plan to since, as I said, to my mind she did not sing on a Stones song but instead turned what back in the day we liked to think was the greatest rock & roll band in the world into session players.
Once, I heard them play it live, in a sterile coliseum here in Greensboro, North Carolina, where I now live. Their tour was sponsored by Jovan, makers of a loathsome cologne called Musk Oil, favored in my small Eastern N.C. town by blown-dry boys who wore bell-sleeved, leafy-collared polyester shirts and waxed their Monte Carlos in downtown parking lots while blaring Boz Scaggs's Silk Degrees. This might have been the first instance of corporate sponsorship that I was aware of, and though I did not think of it as selling out exactly—that term wasn’t in my lexicon—it struck me as suspect. I expected a note-for-note replay of Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!, surely the greatest live album of all time, but the sound, from the beginning, was tinny and ragged. Jagger, late in the show, climbed aboard a giant inflatable penis and rode it above the crowd. Keith, I could tell even from the nosebleed seats, was on the nod, and my beloved Mick Taylor, who would within weeks be replaced by the affable if uneven Ron Wood, who seemed to have been chosen for his cock-a-doodle-hairdo, seemed equally detached. For an encore, they launched into “Gimme Shelter”: The song, without Merry, was tepid, nearly unrecognizable. I tapped my Wallabees against the concrete floor and thought, Yeah, well, so what? Mick sang that he was going to fade away if he didn’t get some shelter, and without Merry there to lift the song to the rafters and beyond, he sounded shelterless and faded from the get-go.
The meaning of a song, for me, is rarely found in lyrics, but in the mood it evokes and the memories it elicits. In my youth, I barely listened to the words of the songs I loved, and often found out later, with the advent of Google, that I got them all wrong. (“I take tea for three,” Jagger sings in “Live With Me,” but in my desperate need to be down with druggy references I would have sworn on a copy of Let It Bleed he was shouting, “I take T.H.C.”) In music, meaning enters the body through the bloodstream, traveling—in the case of Merry Clayton’s vocals—like a clot to the heart. Every time I hear her sing those rapturous notes, I remember what I felt the first time I heard it: that I finally understood where music came from, and where, in a single, blemished note, it might take me.