News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

It's just a shot away

In 1968, the world was falling apart.

The Vietnam War was at the height of its intensity; the Tet Offensive launched in January was a disaster for the Viet Cong, which was badly mauled in weeks of fighting — but it proved to be a political victory, because Americans were shocked that a nationwide uprising of that scale could even happen after General William Westmoreland assured the nation in November 1967 that the U.S. and South Vietnamese were making great progress and that there was “light at the end of the tunnel.”

Civil unrest was roiling both the United States and Europe; France had exploded in riots in May, and the Democratic National Convention was beset by mayhem in the streets of Chicago. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated, and race riots broke out in American cities.

In London, a rock-and-roll guitar player of some note was brooding. It wasn’t the state of the world that had him in a bleak place; his girlfriend was off filming a dark crime movie titled “Performance” with the front man of his band, and rumor had it that they were applying “method acting” to the (very) racy bits.

The guitarist was named Keith Richards and he played with an outfit called The Rolling Stones. As a storm broke over London, he began to work a riff on the guitar, and a first verse began to take shape:

Yes, a storm is threat’ning

My very life today

If I don’t get some shelter

Lord, I’m gonna fade away

He recalled the moment in a magazine interview with Harper’s Bazaar many years later.

“I had been sitting by the window of my friend Robert Fraser’s apartment on Mount Street in London with an acoustic guitar when suddenly the sky went completely black and an incredible monsoon came down. It was just people running about looking for shelter – that was the germ of the idea.”

When his songwriting partner, Mick Jagger, finished filming — and whatever he was up to with Richards’ girlfriend, model and actress Anita Pallenberg — the pair, often referred to as the Glimmer Twins, sat down to flesh out the song. It became a dark, driving anthem of an apocalypse.

War, children

It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away

Rape, murder

It’s just a shot away, it’s just a shot away

The song led off 1969’s “Let It Bleed” album, and it was thematic for a year that saw the Manson murders in Los Angeles, and closed with a spate of deaths, including a fatal stabbing by the Hell’s Angels at the disastrous Stones-headlined Altamont Free Concert near San Francisco in December.

Last Wednesday in Seattle, The Rolling Stones delivered this 55-year-old anthem to 68,000 people at Lumen Field. Its power is undiminished, propelled by showcase vocals by Chanel Haynes, who took on the wailing clarion originally recorded by Merry Clayton.

Sure, it’s rock-and-roll spectacle — made all the more remarkable because the two men who wrote “Gimme Shelter” are 80 years old and can still deliver it. But beneath the flash lurks the realization that the ominous sense of a storm building and breaking over us remains relevant today. Perhaps more relevant than it has been at any time since 1969.

Oh, see the fire sweepin’

Our very street today

Burns like a red coal carpet

Mad bull lost its way

Times are unsettled, and we all feel it: Economic pressure, social tensions, wars and rumors of war, the turmoil of a presidential election choice a majority of Americans don’t want.

It’s all still just a shot away.

Author Bio

Jim Cornelius, Editor in Chief

Author photo

Jim Cornelius is editor in chief of The Nugget and author of “Warriors of the Wildlands: True Tales of the Frontier Partisans.” A history buff, he explores frontier history across three centuries and several continents on his podcast, The Frontier Partisans. For more information visit


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