I learned to play piano on an upright my Mother’s Aunt gave her. It had the same honky-tonk tone as the one in my Grandmother’s country church.
At their Sunday services, the song leader would stand to announce the number of the hymn while the pianist played a couple of bars in the background. Then, in a futile attempt to motivate a congregation of languid farmers, she’d cheerfully call out, “Y’all sing!”
I studied classical music but it didn’t stop me from trying to play along with Stones records. Their chord sequences were too complicated, I couldn’t keep up. So I just picked at the bass line which was pretty easy to follow.
The bass on Gimme Shelter was odd because during the verses it seemed to hammer away on only one note, C#. Then in the chorus the line moved.
But C#? Nobody wrote in that key except Rachmaninoff. I thought it was probably a C or a D and that my old piano was way out of tune.
Forty years later in Keith’s autobiography he talks about writing Gimme Shelter. He says “the funny thing is it’s in C# which is really a piano key, not guitar.” The upright didn’t need tuning after all.
When the song was released I was in college and listened to it daily. Several times.
In one course I watched a video of Leonard Bernstein on Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. He highlighted the confusing opening of the first movement. The music is all over the place as the orchestra searches for a motif. Bernstein said Ludwig was just toying with the audience, creating a little tension. The theme soon becomes readily apparent.
I thought the same about the intro to Gimme Shelter. Keith seems to be plucking randomly, meandering to find the right notes for his song. Then Wham! The downbeat hits and the riff comes full force.
Again, his autobiography clarifies. It was raining as he wrote, the intro is nothing more than the patter of the drops. Talk about over analyzing.
Despite the inclimate weather, the real storm was in his personal life. His girlfriend Anita was filming Performance with Mick Jagger and it had sex scenes that were not simulated. Nor were the ones that happened after the filming stopped.
Keith knew from the outset his relationship with Anita would not be monogamous. She could not be contained sexually. But it stung that she was carrying on with his best friend and business partner. He felt betrayed and uncertain. It took him 20 minutes to write Gimme Shelter.
Anita was always an enigma. There was a frightening quality to her, she seemed capable of doing anything for fun or mischief. And this was before she became a junkie. The callous life of fixating on the next rig made her one tough cookie.
But you don’t attain the inner sanctum of the Rolling Stones by being a milquetoast. Her profound effect on the group and the way people spoke of her in such awe was intriguing.
Her first Stones boyfriend, Brian Jones, was physically abusive though Anita was no victim. She fought back and Brian was often the worse of the two after one of their rows.
On a motor trip to Morocco, Brian was dropped off at a hospital in Spain. Keith and Anita boinked in the backseat of the Bentley the rest of the way
In an interview with Keith at their villa in the south of France, a journalist described the exotic surroundings and mentioned how Anita let their toddler son, Marlon, frolic naked on the grass while they talked. As necessary, urine flowed and poop plopped on the garden lawn. No one paid any heed.
In the late sixties I was obsessed with Keith’s gender bending look. The shark’s tooth earring, the pastel pants, the kohl on his eyes, and, in particular, the jeweled red bolero sweater.
It’s hard to imagine a band hitting the market today without being focus grouped and stylized to death. Under Anita’s influence, he just took whatever looked good from the communal pile of clothing at the foot of the bed.
Ten years ago there was a profile piece about her life in Manhattan. The writer accompanied Anita on her daily rounds which included hopping on and off city buses. She knew the drivers by name and chatted them up during the ride. She never paid the fare.
My friend Dale loathed the Stones in college as much as he loathes them today. Their crass commercialism, the ridiculous pop idolatry, and the sexist hedonism offended him. He’s right, but to me their music is too good to let major concerns like that get in the way.
Once in Bloomington at an overcrowded, sweltering summer party we were dancing to Gimme Shelter. The music was blaring and Dale yelled in my ear, “this song is perfect.”
All from an afternoon of anguishing over Anita.