Calling 1969’s Let It Bleed the end of the 1960s ignored the obvious: If you’d been listening to The Rolling Stones, you knew that the ’60s—that mythical, innocent time of sexual liberation and social equity—had been over for years, if it’d existed at all. Yes, the free concert at Altamont Speedway in December—a day after the album’s release—was tragic: four dead, more injured, a moment of collective elation ruptured by panic, violence, and fear. But trace a line from “19th Nervous Breakdown” and “Paint It Black” through “Gimme Shelter” and you could already see a cultural order crumbling: the alienated youth (“Satisfaction”) and their duly alienated parents (“Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?”), the retreat into fantasy (Their Satanic Majesties Request) and the harsh boomerang back to earth (Beggars Banquet). As the writer Robert Christgau put it in 1972, people didn’t talk about Altamont because it ended the era, but because it offered a perfect metaphor for how that era’s end played out.
For as much as Let It Bleed is tied to “Gimme Shelter”—the brewing storms, the streets on fire, the portrait of a world at the edge of chaos—the album’s overall mood was sanguine and reassuring. Need someone to bleed on? Bleed on them. Didn’t get what you want? You might just get what you need. The confusion was clear: You could hear it in the sprawling arrangements (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), the violent visions (“Midnight Rambler”), in the way Jagger’s slurred voice roiled under the mix, an incoherent guide for incoherent times. Four years earlier, the band had become an emblem for rebellion, for hard stances, for “Satisfaction.” Time moved fast, and broke a few bones in the exchange—leave the real apocalypse to MC5 or The Stooges. You can’t control the ocean, Let It Bleed seemed to say. But you can have a pretty good time if you learn to ride the waves.