The Bolt of the Sublime: The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” (1969)

Invariably what inspires wonder casts a spell upon us and is always superior to what is merely convincing and pleasing.
—Longinus, On the Sublime[1]

“Gimme Shelter” is the greatest rock piece and the hardest to write about. Partly because it is so imposing as an integral whole that in picking out this or that ingredient to appreciate one feels like a jackal nipping at an elephant. Partly because it buzzes you so strongly that you don’t want to do anything but receive it. But maybe it’s more that you don’t dare make a critical move, because it’s fully sublime, tremendous, wonder- and even fear-inspiring; it looms like  . . . something that might spear and snag you, hooking you to the infinite.

The passion caused by the great and sublime . . . is astonishment, and astonishment is that state of the soul in which all its motions are suspended, with some degree of horror. The mind is so entirely filled with its object that it cannot entertain any other, nor reason on that object which fills it.
—Edmund Burke[2]

“Gimme Shelter”

Something . . . is just a shot or a kiss away, doom or bliss, but meanwhile I don’t have shelter from the storm building up in Keith Richards’ tightly circling 4th-inflected chords, the deliberate scratch of Jimmy Miller’s guiro, the headsman’s thump of Charley Watts’ drum part at the main theme’s turnarounds. The music is full of portent in an unreadable way; it’s emotionally evocative without hitting the usual sad or happy buttons. The C-sharp/B/A/B chord progression (I/bVII/bVI/bVII) cuts a channel deeper than the Grand Canyon, dark at the bottom. The falling notes of the lead guitar part are being pushed down as if under supernatural pressure. The howling verse is serious but abstract. What’s it really about? We wait for help in the chorus, but . . . don’t you feel funny calling the high melody phase of “Gimme Shelter” a “chorus”? It’s something much more primal and challenging than a singalong.

A well-timed flash of sublimity scatters everything before it like a bolt of lightning and reveals the full power of the speaker at a single stroke.

We do get to a moment we can designate as the supreme hook. Though “Gimme Shelter” shimmers with high voltage all through, there’s a searing bolt of lightning in Merry Clayton’s high notes on the chorus starting at 2:44:  “Rape! Murder!”

“Gimme Shelter” when Merry Clayton takes over

When I first heard this song I didn’t know there could be such a thing as a guest artist with the Rolling Stones. I assumed Mick or Keith was somehow managing to go way up high. After I’d learned about the girl singer (still without knowing her story),[4] I came to think of her as a background figure in a charged mythic sense of “background,” like a goddess in Greek tragedy who speaks piercing truth or shrieks for revenge at the critical moment in the play.

Rape? Murder? Heroin withdrawal? Terminal loneliness? Merry Clayton’s part transcends all reference. It’s eternal essence of urgency. It can’t override the storm, but will always ride it.

If you haven’t seen this yet, I invite you to behold the goddess in a live performance of 1995. This time it’s Lisa Fischer, who makes a fantastic goddess, and you’ll see her front and center when the time is right. You should watch this only if the original studio recording of “Gimme Shelter” is already burned into you (use the second youtube first if necessary). Only if you have some sense of the mythic background will the eventual appearance of the goddess be fully tremendous.

Original recording:


[1] On the Sublime, trans. W. Hamilton Fyfe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard U., 1927), 179r4.

[2] A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, 2nd ed. (London: Dodsley, 1759), Part 2, Section 1, pp. 95-96.

[3] On the Sublime 179r4.

[4] See the Wikipedia entry on Merry Clayton. On Clayton, Lisa Fischer, and some other not-so-secret-weapon backup singers see the Oscar-winning 2013 documentary 20 Feet from Stardom.


About Steve Smith

Professor of Philosophy & Religious Studies and Director of Film Studies at Millsaps College
This entry was posted in Passions & Attitudes, Rock Aesthetics and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Bolt of the Sublime: The Rolling Stones, “Gimme Shelter” (1969)

  1. Eric Griffin says:

    Terrific piece, Steve. Sublime rock ‘n’ roll indeed. I love the nod to Jimmy Miller (can it be an accident that the four greatest Stones albums are Miller produced?). His cowbell on Honky-tonk Woman is another of the “greatest little things in rock.” And your riff on Merry Clayton’s thrillingly (orgasmically?) chilling vocal is spot on. The only thing I would add to this is a little tremolo…

  2. vick2sky says:

    Sometimes a sublime bolt is enough to turn the river clear!
    [audio src="" /]

  3. Steve Smith says:

    When the river turns clear, and you can see everything, is there anything worth seeing?
    Oh! I just saw you included a link to the Woodpecker Street song! Thanks so much. Your check will be in tomorrow’s mail.

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