Ethan Russell’s “Let It Bleed” Is Superb

Santa came a little early, and dropped off the coffee-table book entitled Let It Bleed by Ethan Russell.  Russell is important as a photographer both for the Rolling Stones and Rolling Stone, having  served the Stones as staff photographer on the ’69 tour, and shot album covers for the Beatles (Let It Be), Who (Who’s Next), and Stones (Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out).  All that’s missing from his resume is that Dylan album, you know what I mean?

As a narrative, Let It Bleed is missing the comprehensiveness of Stanley Booth’s Dance With The Devil, which would have been called No One Here Gets Out Alive if it hadn’t already been taken.  Because he’s a photographer (and Grammy-award winning video director) he’s not primarily a writer, and thus Russell’s book relies on the memories of Booth, and Michael Lydon (whose Rock/Folk was a superb early ’70s series of features on the likes of the Stones), as well Jo Bergman, and Ronnie Schneider, and others on what later (in Robert Greenfield’s chronicle of the ’72 tour) would be called STP — the Stones Touring Party.

What’s revelatory about this book is the way it shows the incredibly ad hoc nature of the Stones’ 1969 tour.  Here was possibly the single greatest tour in the history of rock and it was kind of thrown together with Allen Klein’s nephew (Schneider) managing it, with a single Vietnam vet running security, and a total of 16 people in the bubble, including Bill Wyman’s girlfriend Astrid, and the famous Cathy and Mary — groupies pressed into action as drivers of cars provided by the conman John Jaymes who told the Stones he worked for Chrysler,  and Chrysler he worked for the Stones.

The ’72 tour was better musically, as the Stones effloresced with Nicky Hopkins and the Bobby Keys-Jim Price horn section, and of course, by then — post Sticky Fingers, with Exile in the bag — they had all the songs they’d ever need to work with.  But the ’69 tour was more important, because it changed the entire context of rock music, by bringing to the sprawl of  late ’60s expectations an incredibly tight combo as happy to play Chuck Berry songs (in 3:47, not 29 minutes) as their own compositions.  There was no noodling or messin’ around, they just came, conquered, played a seriously great set that kids actually listened to and were out the building before the audience had screwed their heads back on.  Iggy Pop said it was the greatest concert he ever saw, and we’re not going to argue, even though we didn’t pick up the thread for three more years.

As Russell makes clear, the Stones’ ’69 tour was the epochal event that put the capper on the ’60s, and we haven’t even mentioned Altamont, which in the context of his book, really does take on its epic bad trip aura in a shambling, accidental fashion as the Stones just fumbled their way into it.  Political correctness and the bad vibes attendant to the high ticket prices ($7.50 being the highest price – clearly the Stones got over their squeamishness about being capitalists soon thereafter) led to Mick’s declaring they’d do a free concert, with San Francisco the locale, and the rest is a Maysle Brothers documentary.

We know from the incredible Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out 40th Anniversary package — Russell did the photographs, and the liner notes — that the Stones made a grand total of $600,000 for the tour.  Since at least the 1980s, they’ve made more than that for a single show, and even their most loyal defenders will admit the kids got a better value back then.

Russell’s on-stage photos of the band are great, and some of his backstage photos are pretty good — some are amazing —  but it’s a relief, as a photographer, to see the images he took that were blurred, and even when he was focusing accurately, there’s a really soft look to everything — fast film, not great lenses — that was corrected by the time he photographed the ’72 tour.

It’s a great book.  I’m glad he published it.  Not too late to ask Santa for it. Provided you’ve been nice, not naughty.

One Response to “Ethan Russell’s “Let It Bleed” Is Superb”

  1. […] Jim Marshall was a tough, Leica-wielding pro on an assignment for Life, and he was embedded in the early hours, the pre-tour studio wrap up, the West Coast swing.  The only pictures he took from this period that really ever saw the day were what was in that Life published right around the end of the tour.  To see the remaining 80-plus pictures, in one place at one time, you had to wait until now, as The Rolling Stones 1972 was published by Chronicle Books.  Though in the text there is a swipe taken at the great Ethan Russell — they dismiss him as an amateur who hooked up with the Stones for the ’69 tour — this is a nice companion piece to Russell’s fantastic photographic chronicle of that period. […]

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