This article is adapted from Just Around Midnight: Rock and Roll and the Racial Imagination.
In January of 1973—the same month that the Rolling Stones were banned from touring Japan due to prior drug convictions, the same month that a band called Kiss played its first gig in Queens, and the same month that a young New Jerseyan named Bruce Springsteen released his debut album on Columbia Records—Harper’s magazine published an essay by future Pulitzer Prize winner Margo Jefferson titled “Ripping Off Black Music.” The piece was partly a broad historical overview of white appropriations of black musical forms, from blackface minstrel pioneer T.D. Rice through the current day, and partly a more personal lament over what Jefferson, a black critic, had come to see as an endless cycle of cultural plunder. The article’s most striking moment arrived in its penultimate paragraph:
The night Jimi died I dreamed this was the latest step in a plot being designed to eliminate blacks from rock music so that it may be recorded in history as a creation of whites. Future generations, my dream ran, will be taught that while rock may have had its beginnings among blacks, it had its true flowering among whites. The best black artists will thus be studied as remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed future developments.
That Jefferson’s “dream” came true is so obvious it seems self-evident. According to anthropologist Maureen Mahon, by the mid-1970s young black musicians who wanted to play songs by Led Zeppelin and Grand Funk Railroad recalled being ridiculed by white and black peers. In July 1979 thousands of white rock fans rioted at Chicago’s Comiskey Park at the now legendary Disco Demolition Night, burning disco records in what many since have described as an anti-black, anti-gay, anti-woman, reactionary uprising. In 1985, Back to the Future featured a climactic sequence in which history is altered so that Chuck Berry’s “sound” is retroactively invented by a Van Halen–obsessed white teenager. By 2011, when a popular New York “classic rock” radio station held a listener poll to determine the “Top 1,043” songs of all time, only 22—roughly 2 percent—were recordings by black artists, and 16 of those 22 were by the late Jimi Hendrix (the “Jimi” of Jefferson’s dream), the lone black performer whose place in rock music hagiography is entirely secure.
Jefferson’s words were accurate, and it’s tempting to call them prophetic, but they weren’t: Jefferson’s nightmare had in fact come true before she wrote her article, even before “the night Jimi died.” When Hendrix died in 1970, one prominent obituary pointedly described him as “a black man in the alien world of rock,” and throughout Hendrix’s tragically brief stardom the guitarist’s race had been an incessant topic of fascination among fans of the music that had once been known as rock and roll. Even in the late 1960s, the exceptional nature of Hendrix’s race confirmed a view of rock music that was quickly rendering blackness definitively other, so much so that at the time of his death, the idea of a black man playing electric lead guitar was literally remarkable—“alien”—in a way that would have been inconceivable for Chuck Berry only a short while earlier.
How did rock-and-roll music—a genre rooted in black traditions, and many of whose earliest stars were black—come to be understood as the natural province of whites? And why did this happen during a decade generally understood to be marked by unprecedented levels of interracial aesthetic exchange, musical collaboration, and commercial crossover more broadly? Many of the most famous moments of 1960s music are marked by interracial fluidity: a young Bob Dylan’s transformation of a 19th-century anti-slavery anthem, “No More Auction Block for Me,” into the basis for “Blowin’ in the Wind,” a song that would become one of the most indelible musical works of the American civil rights era; or the revolution of Motown Records, in which a black American entrepreneur bet against the racism of white America and won, and in doing so created the most successful black-owned business in the country. Or the previously unimaginable inundation of groups from England, most notably a quartet from Liverpool called the Beatles and a quintet from London called the Rolling Stones, both of whom were tireless evangelists for black American music and would soon hear their own songs performed, frequently, by the very musicians they once idolized. If, by the time of Hendrix’s death, rock-and-roll music had in fact “become white,” how did this happen, and why?
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Criticism, historiography, and popular discourse generally have accepted a view of popular music in the 1960s as split according to genre and, more tacitly, race: on one hand is rock music, which is white; on the other, soul music, which is black. We hear Creedence Clearwater Revival’s 1970 version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” as classic rock—the 662nd greatest classic rock song of all time, according to the aforementioned radio-station poll—and we hear Marvin Gaye’s slightly earlier version as something else, even though Gaye’s version spent seven weeks atop the charts in 1968 and 1969 and was far more popular in its day among white and black listeners. These divisions didn’t happen as naturally as we’re often inclined to think: They took work. Rock and roll became white in large part because of stories people told themselves about it, stories that have come to structure the way we listen to an entire era of sound.
These stories have taken various and diffuse shapes, and the “whitening” of rock-and-roll music is a subject that has been approached by critics, historians, and commentators in a number of ways. One of these is casting the music’s re-racialization as just one more iteration of a broad historical phenomenon of white-on-black cultural theft. In this telling, the performance of black music by artists ranging from Pat Boone to John Lennon to Janis Joplin is held as contiguous with a tradition of cultural plunder stretching at least as far back as antebellum blackface minstrelsy. In its most reductive versions—the recurrent “Elvis stole rock and roll” accusation, for instance—this formulation relies on hard-and-fast notions of cultural ownership and racial hermeticism, an ahistorical belief that there is a clear and definable boundary between black music and white music in America that is fundamentally impermeable. This belief does not hold up under basic scrutiny: All musicians are influenced by other musicians, and throughout American history most musicians worth hearing have been influenced by musicians whose skin is a different color than their own.
Another way that the whitening of rock-and-roll music has been addressed has been to place the onus of separation on black performers by arguing that, as the 1960s progressed, black music effectively self-segregated. In this narrative, the trajectory of black popular music is often directly linked to the trajectory of the civil rights movement, where rhetoric of self-determination and, in more extreme cases, outright separatism became more pronounced in the later part of the decade. This is an intriguing argument with some amount of truth, but it tends to conflate music and activism when the specifics of musicians’ political commitments were often hazier. The self-segregation narrative also excuses the majority (white) side for any responsibility for the disappearance of black artists from rock music.
But by far the most common way that the whitening of rock-and-roll music has been discussed is simply not at all. The history of rock discourse is marked by a profound aversion toward discussions of race, and attempts to reckon the music’s racial exclusivity have often been met with hostility, particularly at the level of fandom. When Lester Bangs wrote an infamous cover story titled “The White Noise Supremacists” for the Village Voice in 1979 about the racism of New York’s punk and new wave scenes, he was met with outrage and accusations of betrayal; when Sasha Frere-Jones wrote a similarly controversial piece for the New Yorker on the whiteness of indie rock in 2007, he was widely pilloried in the rock blogosphere. Neither of these essays are perfect works, but the dismissiveness and outright vitriol with which they were met speak to the extent of rock’s peculiar racial denialism.
In historiography this denialism conceals itself more subtly. In particular, there is a tendency toward stories of individual rock “genius” that foreclose discussions of race by celebrating individual artistry and intellect. While many black performers of the 1960s have been relegated to book-length histories of black music generally, white artists like Bob Dylan or the Beatles receive increasingly lavish biographies and isolated critical treatments of musical output. Recognizing white people as individuals while acknowledging nonwhite people only in relation to collectives is a hallmark of racism across all areas of culture: You could argue that the entire history of white supremacy rests upon it.
An alternative to this “Great Man” tendency is a sort of nostalgic populism that glorifies rock-and-roll music for its democratizing “folk” elements. In these formulations rock music is often folded into a quasi-mythic lineage of American proletarian expression, with class trumping race in narratives that claim rock-and-roll music as an inherently and nobly working-class form. The fantasy of rock music as a fundamentally proletarian (and hence subtly raceless) genre has long haunted certain writing on the music. A perennial example of this is the case of Bruce Springsteen, a figure whose salt-of-the-earth persona has helped him carve out a niche as rock’s “everyman.” Springsteen’s populist heroism is cited in terms of everything from his progressive politics to his geographical origins to his class background to his grueling performance style, all while his whiteness remains generally undiscussed.
And yet race and racial fantasy did reveal itself in Springsteen fandom, obliquely yet powerfully, after the 2011 death of his longtime saxophone player, Clarence Clemons, the lone black member of the E Street Band. Eulogizing Clemons for the New Yorker, editor and Springsteen fan David Remnick described him as “a vessel of many great soul, gospel, and R&B players who came before him” and “an absolutely essential, and soulful, ingredient in both the sound of Springsteen and the spirit of the group.” In this passage, language like “soulful ingredient” ascribes a sort of black musical magic to the figure of Clemons, a magic in turn transferred to Springsteen by association, through some mystical “spirit of the group.” It’s a move that subtly strips Clemons of agency (“a vessel”) in order to enfold him into a fantastical rhetorical lineage—there is no real gospel saxophone tradition to speak of—that in turn confirms Springsteen’s white heroism. Clemons’s presence (or, now, his absence) affirms the centrality of Springsteen’s whiteness while foreclosing discussion of racial inequality, rock music’s equivalent of the “but some of my best friends … ” argument.
The enormously powerful and enormously vague conceptual engine that powers all of the various omissions, fallacies, and obfuscations described above is authenticity. Rock ideology is first and foremost an ideology of authenticity: It delineates what constitutes “real” rock music, including who is authorized to play that music and who is authorized to listen to and talk about it. Since the 1960s playing and consuming rock music has offered new ways into being a “real” white person—most often a white man—and in many quarters being a white man became a precondition for making “real” rock music.
The fact that this new brand of musical whiteness so depended on white performers’ proximity to and fluency within black musical styles left black musicians themselves in a precarious position. Whereas artists like Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, and Janis Joplin were lauded for casting off the shackles of racial conformity, artists like those at Detroit’s Motown Records, whose R&B-to-pop crossover formula was the most significant American musical achievement of the decade, were often derided for being insufficiently black. As the 1960s wore on, cosmopolitan versatility among black artists was not heard as identity transcendence but rather as racial betrayal, in accusations that were frequently lobbed by white critics. Again, perhaps the most tortuous example of this was Jimi Hendrix, who during his career was judged by many as a fraud or sellout, his blackness rendering his music as inauthentically rock at the same time that his music rendered his person as inauthentically black. By contrast, the very act of imaginatively engaging with historically black musical forms while keeping black bodies at arm’s length became a newly powerful way of being white.
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For an object lesson in the roiling, complicated, and rapidly hardening racial realignment of rock music in the late 1960s, there are few better cases than the Rolling Stones. The band’s five-year run from 1968 to 1972—a period that opened with the career-reviving single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and lasted through their shambling, double-album masterpiece Exile on Main St.—is one of the great sustained creative peaks in all of popular music, and no rock band since has wielded more powerful and far-reaching influence over the music’s self-conception.
Crucial to the ascendant mythology of the Rolling Stones throughout the 1960s was the band’s purported connection to blackness and racial transgression, both in a musical sense and a more vague, imaginative one. From their earliest coverage in both the British and American presses the Stones were characterized as harboring a preternatural fluency within black music and a prodigious knowledge of blues and R&B traditions. One of the band’s earliest Decca Records press releases wrote of their “fanatic interest in R&B” and stated that the band learned their “uninhibited blues” from obsessive practice and “a record player on which they constantly played discs by artists like Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Little Walter and Jimmy Reed.” The Rolling Stones were also described as a public menace, scourges to society, the embodiment of all the fears of generational overthrow and cultural disruption that the cuter and cuddlier Beatles had so effectively managed to sublimate.
Hysteria around the band, particularly in their early, formative years, was keyed in barely veiled tones of racial threat. And yet as the 1960s progressed, the Rolling Stones’ ongoing proximity to black music and musicians increasingly left them as outliers in a rock-music landscape rapidly distancing itself from black people, their musical-cum–racial mixings further validating the air of general transgression that the band and its handlers had long cultivated.
The Rolling Stones’ relationship to black music, and to race itself, is among the most complex and controversial of any white artists in the history of rock and roll. Over the long course of their stardom, the band has weathered accusations of minstrelsy, from Black Arts Movement poets and white academics alike. Yet for all of the long-standing controversies over the ethics and particulars of the Rolling Stones’ relationship to black music, the band was fiercely committed to a future for rock-and-roll music in which black music and musicians continued to matter, deeply. The Rolling Stones, a white British R&B band, presented a vision of the music obsessively rooted in tradition, and a black musical tradition specifically. As such they embraced a peculiar role of conservators of a musical past that they had borrowed by their own admission and doggedly tried to make their own.
The Rolling Stones’ paradoxically backward-looking avant-gardism was also marked by a fascination with violence, exemplified in songs such as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Gimme Shelter,” and, most spectacularly and shockingly, “Brown Sugar.” The Stones’ experimentations with musical violence during this period were creatively invigorating but ultimately brushed up against reality in catastrophic fashion. The murder of Meredith Hunter at their free concert in Altamont, California, in December of 1969 remains one of the more storied nightmares of the 1960s, and it irrevocably altered the band’s position within the public imagination.
In the aftermath of the 1960s the Stones would become arguably the archetypal rock band for all time, Jagger’s and Richards’ performance styles so naturalized that it would soon be notable when a rock star didn’t sneer, slur, and strut. The Stones’ obsession with black music and black musicians simply became part of the Rolling Stones, the band that wanted to be Muddy Waters now surrounded by a world of rock musicians who wanted to be them. This transition—from the Rolling Stones being heard as a white band authenticated by their reverence for and fluency within black music, to the Rolling Stones simply being heard as a new sort of authentic themselves—is among the most significant turns in the history of rock.
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One of the many ironies of the Rolling Stones is that a band that has existed for more than 50 years and has been touring under the mantel of “the world’s greatest rock-and-roll band” for more than 40 of them, never set out to be a rock-and-roll band at all. The Rolling Stones were born from the subcultural cauldron of British blues, an ersatz folk revival in which young British men developed obsessive relationships with black music and the doorway to mystical authenticity and escape from postwar British whiteness that it provided. Early press coverage of the band went out of its way to emphasize that the group was strictly a blues or R&B band: “They are, they claim, first and foremost a rhythm-and-blues group,” noted one 1963 profile. “If you refer to them as a beat outfit, they frown. If you venture to suggest that they play rock ‘n’ roll, they positively glower.” From the beginning of their careers in England, the Stones were linked to black music, always going out of their way to name-drop influences. Mick Jagger told Melody Maker in early 1964, “We have always favoured the music of what we consider the R&B greats—Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, and so on—and we would like to think that we are helping to give the fans of these artists what they want,” and in an accompanying feature the rest of band listed its favorite artists as Reed, Waters, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Ray Charles, and John Lee Hooker.
To their credit the Rolling Stones did not take their own success as naïve evidence of colorblindness among their fans and often expressed frustration that their own performances of R&B were more popular among their countrymen than the original versions they so revered. Some of the most pointed of these remarks came in an article written “by” the Stones for Melody Maker in 1964, when Jagger acknowledged that “it’s the system that’s sometimes wrong. Girl fans, particularly, would rather have a copy by a British group than the original American version—mainly, I suppose, because they like the British blokes’ faces.” Sexism aside, Jagger’s suggestion that the fans “like the British blokes’ faces” implies that the singer recognized that the Stones’ skin color had given them an undue advantage among audiences.
The Rolling Stones, particularly early on, were many things—controversial, musically erratic, image-obsessed—but they did not avoid the topic of race or its salience to their own commercial success. This may explain an underexplored aspect of the early career of the Rolling Stones: namely, the unusual enthusiasm with which the band was received by the black American press. In 1964 the Los Angeles Sentinel called the group “wonderful” and wrote that “each [member] has enough talent to take him well beyond the capabilities of the group.” A column in the Chicago Defender wrote that “the Stones are worth everyone’s attention. Many of us are ardent R&B followers and believe me, the Stones are no less ardent. They love and feel this music and if the money was taken away, you would still find them playing and singing R&B. … [T]he Stones are R&B men in the truest sense.”
Such notices are more remarkable in light of the fact that a large portion of white press attention directed at the band was scathing. In February of 1964, the Rolling Stones released their third single, a cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away;” it reached No. 3 on the U.K. singles charts and turned the group into full-fledged stars. That month also marked the first time that a writer named Ray Coleman profiled the band for Melody Maker, and over the coming months no journalist would wield more influence in shaping media coverage of the band.
Coleman’s most notorious piece of Melody Maker Stones coverage came in the March 14, 1964, issue, adorned with the headline “Would You Let Your Sister Go Out With a Rolling Stone?” The piece itself was fairly tame and by this point formulaic, each attempt at generating controversy vague and suspiciously undersourced. There was a claim that “elders groan with horror at the Rolling Stones” to go along with the rumored existence of a letter from an unnamed fan whose parents had barred her from attending a Stones concert. The “Would You Let Your” question would become iconic, though, appearing in various iterations in both the American and British presses, “sister” and “daughter” often substituted interchangeably.
The scandal-driven discourse followed the band to the United States. When the Stones arrived in the United States in June of 1964 for their first American tour, the Chicago Tribune declared: “Thank you, Rolling Stones. You have been able to convince the world that no one, not even the Beatles, could be more repulsive than you.” Huge swaths of American coverage focused on their physical appearance, particularly their hair. The Los Angeles Times compared the band to cavemen, chimpanzees, and “very ugly Radcliffe girls.” The New York Times ran two lengthy articles on “androgynous” hairstyles and reported that Cleveland, citing destructive effects on “the community’s culture,” would soon prohibit rock-and-roll performances at that city’s Public Hall: “The ban goes into effect after tonight’s Public Hall appearance of the Rolling Stones, another group of shaggy-haired English singers.”
A common aspect of nearly all the negative attention paid to the Rolling Stones by the American and British presses is the degree to which it traffics in the language and imagery of racial threat. The obsessions with physical appearance, the dehumanizing comparisons to Neanderthals and animals, the vague moral phobia, the miscegenation implications distinctly embedded in the headline about sisters and daughters: All of these were ways of marking the Stones’ appearance and foreignness as indices of moral degeneracy and social danger. This is not to suggest that the Rolling Stones were rendered as black, but rather that they were rendered something other than properly white.
The Stones were seen as curiously obsessed with black American music and culture to degrees most American youths were not, and this in turn was met by moral conservatism and xenophobia. The Beatles had encountered wary hostility in some corners, but the Stones were seen as far more dangerous. “Rolling Stones Lacking in Beatle-Like Finesse,” declared the Washington Post in 1965, then went on to describe the band as “morbid and pathetic,” even rendering Jagger’s speech in dialect.
As the Rolling Stones became more successful, this opprobrium continued to cling to them, and as the band shifted away from playing covers to playing mostly original material, their transgressive image and the content of their music grew more and more intertwined. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Let’s Spend the Night Together” were censored or banned from radio and television; “Mother’s Little Helper” was one of the earliest rock-and-roll hits about drug abuse; songs like “Get Off of My Cloud,” “Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown,” and “Paint It Black” were anthems of nonconformity.
Coming off a disastrous 1967 flirtation with psychedelia titled Their Satanic Majesties Request, in the spring of 1968 the Rolling Stones roared back onto the charts with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” a lean and gnashing work that was their best song since “Satisfaction.” The song’s lyrics were sparse and apocalyptic (“I was born in a crossfire hurricane/ and I howled at my ma in the drivin’ rain,” was its opening couplet), like some violent rebuttal to the receding Summer of Love. In late 1968 the band released Beggars Banquet, a work whose 10 songs presented the Stones in a state of renewed energy and versatility. Perhaps the album’s most notorious track was its opener, a six-minute-plus opus titled “Sympathy for the Devil.” “Sympathy” was essentially a tour through history guided by Lucifer, one that began with the crucifixion, wound through the Russian revolution, and continued all the way up to the recent assassination of Robert Kennedy.
“Sympathy for the Devil” furthered the notion of the Stones as diabolic and evil: When the Chicago Tribune ran an article on the rise of satanic imagery in rock music in September of 1968, the paper cited the band as central progenitors. The Washington Post described the group as “satanic” and “demonic,” while the New York Times soon wrote that Jagger “combines bitterness, much hate, frustration, and defiance. … He adores his evil.” The Stones’ embrace of satanic imagery was itself, of course, partly inspired by the blues tradition, where songs about the devil constitute a robust subgenre, although this lineage was often left out of mainstream press coverage that sought to portray the band as uniquely sinister. While the Stones had flirted with occult imagery before, “Sympathy for the Devil” raised this theme to new heights.
Concurrent to this fixation on the band’s evilness was a growing association with the Rolling Stones and violence, fueled by the lead single from Beggars Banquet, a raucous piece of music titled “Street Fighting Man.” “Street Fighting Man” was released as a single in late August 1968 and would reach No. 48 on the American charts, an impressively high showing given that, once again, many American radio stations refused to play it out of fears that it would be an incitement to violence. Released within a week of the 1968 Democratic National Convention into a summer already thick with unrest on both sides of the Atlantic, its “picture sleeve” boasted a graphic image of police brutality taken from Los Angeles’ Sunset Strip curfew riots of 1966. (The image was quickly withdrawn and would become a valuable collector’s item.)
“Street Fighting Man” was the follow-up single to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and was similar to its predecessor in energy and arrangement. It’s an angry and relentless piece of music, a call to rebellion and an excoriation of conformity. “I think the time is right for a palace revolution/ but where I live the game to play is compromise solution,” shouts Jagger in the song’s second verse. Its lyrical content is pointedly vague, and there are no references to any specific political concerns; it’s an exploration of rebellion on its own terms, and with rapt attention to the traditions that preceded it. Most notably, the phrase “summer’s here, and the time is right” is a direct homage to Martha and the Vandellas’ 1964 Motown hit “Dancing in the Street,” a song that had itself already been speculated as being indirectly about urban unrest. “Street Fighting Man” took “Dancing in the Street” and made its allegorical uprising far more explicit, forcibly resituating the Vandellas and Motown into London, four years later, a thoughtful and serious homage that imaginatively repurposes its object for a vastly different political context.
Here and elsewhere the Rolling Stones remained devoted to surrounding themselves with contemporary black music and black musicians in ways that were becoming increasingly uncommon in late 1960s rock. While the cultural mythology of Woodstock trumpets the notion of the festival as a peaceful, multiracial utopia, the fact is that only one band on the festival’s lineup had spent any significant time on the R&B charts (Sly and the Family Stone), and the festival’s remote location pointedly discouraged more urban demographics from attending. The Rolling Stones did not play Woodstock. The band’s own 1969 tour boasted Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King as opening acts, and the band also frequently played alongside black performers onstage and in the studio, most notably singer Merry Clayton.
The Stones released their follow-up to Beggars Banquet, the evocatively titled LP Let It Bleed, in late 1969. Its most striking moment was “Gimme Shelter,” which found the Stones venturing even deeper into the dark recesses they’d explored in “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Street Fighting Man.” It’s an explicitly violent piece of music. The song begins with a quiet, tremolo-laden guitar intro, playing a straight-eighth-note figure that’s little more than a decelerated version of the propulsive guitar introductions made famous by Chuck Berry in the 1950s on hits such as “Roll over Beethoven” and “Johnny B. Goode.” After the opening four bars of guitar introduction, more instruments layer on. Light percussion begins to creep through and a second guitar enters, playing sparse melodic fills. In the background we hear vocals, the falsetto voices of Jagger and Richards singing wordless “oooohs” in a sort of occult rendering of street-corner doo-wop. After eight more bars an electric bass enters, lightly plucking the root, and four bars later a piano crashes on the downbeat, striking an ominous octave in the low register. Charlie Watts cracks his snare twice, and the full band enters like an explosion into a quagmire.
The text of “Gimme Shelter” is an apocalyptic flood blues. The song reads like a hybrid of Delta bluesman Charley Patton’s 1929 classic “High Water Everywhere” and William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming,” the lyrics’ description of a “mad bull, lost its way” bearing distinct echoes of Yeats’s “rough beast” that “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”
After the first verse, “Gimme Shelter” enters its chorus. Here a second voice arrives, that of Merry Clayton, who belts the song’s refrain in harmony with Jagger: “War, children/ It’s just a shot away/ It’s just a shot away.” The chorus’s utilization of “children” carries a double edge, invoking both the gospel tradition of referring to one’s audience as “children” and late-1960s images of Vietnamese children slaughtered in villages and fleeing napalm strikes: children as victims of war, children as ourselves.
Perhaps the most indelible moment of “Gimme Shelter” comes after its second verse and on the heels of a Richards guitar solo, when Clayton moves through four repetitions of the chorus, this time without the accompaniment of Jagger. The text shifts from “War, children/ It’s just a shot away” to “Rape, murder/ It’s just a shot away,” and Clayton’s voice teeters between a song and a shout, producing the unsettling experience of hearing a woman repeatedly cry the word rape on a rock-and-roll record.
The song finds the Rolling Stones straying even deeper into musical history: the Chuck Berry intro, the knowing nods to various traditions such as flood blues, gospel, and doo-wop. Clayton’s presence on the track also heightens the notion of racialized violence surrounding the band, five white men and a black woman in the recording studio, performing a song about rape and murder. “Gimme Shelter” remains one of the most iconic musical markers of violence in all of popular culture, appearing repeatedly in films, television shows, and other media. Its power has long since exceeded the specifics of its original recording, however, due to its associations with a particular historical incident and the film that came out of it.
On Dec. 6, 1969, the Rolling Stones arrived at the Altamont Speedway, located a little more than 50 miles east of San Francisco between the towns of Tracy and Livermore, to perform a free concert before a crowd estimated at 300,000 people. During their performance of “Under My Thumb,” a black teenager, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by a Hells Angel, his murder captured on film by the crew of Gimme Shelter.
The Altamont tragedy and its aftermath seemed to fulfill an imaginative connection between the Rolling Stones, racial transgression, and violence. Hunter’s race—and his involvement in an interracial relationship—was mentioned incessantly in media accounts. The symbolic and tragic irony of Altamont was hard to ignore: a young black man, framed as an outsider, murdered at a rock concert at the end of the 1960s, a concert headlined by a white band who had mined black musical traditions with unprecedented creative energy.
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The Rolling Stones’ insistence on the continued relevance of black music to rock and roll was never fully heard; like Hendrix, they became exceptional figures, their curious obsessions with blues and R&B simply becoming another way of being white rock stars. The clattering R&B of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” the reworked Motown of “Street Fighting Man,” the tumultuous blues of “Gimme Shelter”: Songs like these could be heard as whole musical histories, works whose lives depended on a continual and conscious interaction with the music that came before them, much of which was black in origin. The problem was that the music the Stones were hearing as both a living past and something still present—“Summer’s here, and the time is right”—was increasingly heard by its listeners solely as a past, and a distant one. To rock audiences, black music and musicians were abstracted into a racial-cum-musical monolith, rapidly reimagined as the “remarkable primitives who unconsciously foreshadowed future developments” that Margo Jefferson wrote of in early 1973.
For their part, the Rolling Stones were never entirely able to separate their relationship to black music from a fantastical fetishization of that music, a fetishization present from the band’s beginnings. The roots of the band’s dangerous, outsider image sprang from the belief that for a white band to play black music was a transgressive and titillating act. The Rolling Stones themselves were by no means innocent in the construction of this image, and to no small degree it has lurked beneath the surface of nearly all of their work: Look no further than the band’s first post-Altamont hit, 1971’s “Brown Sugar,” a song about slave rape that’s either the most outrageously subversive or outrageously offensive rock-and-roll song ever made (and quite possibly both).
But the flirtations with violence that marked the music of the Rolling Stones in this period were also simply absorbed into rock ideology as affirmations of the music’s own white authenticity, alchemized from iconoclasm into archetype. Instead of resounding as challengers to rock’s hardening racial orthodoxy and increasingly overwhelming whiteness, the Rolling Stones were gradually recast as the original, the real, and—finally, and most ironically—the Establishment. As rock continued into the 1970s an endless litany of bands made the musical violence pioneered by the Stones during this period of relentless racial boundary-crossing into just another marker of white male hegemony; this violence often served no political purpose and little imaginative purpose either. It simply became another way of being white, which was one thing that, for better and worse, the Rolling Stones were never interested in being.
Adapted from Just Around Midnight by Jack Hamilton. Copyright © 2016 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.