The basic gist of the Stanley Booth book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is that when the Rolling Stones toured America in 1969, it meant something. Booth is vague about what exactly it meant- but it was clear that by '69, the Stones represented a kind of dynamism which had a political edge for a large group of young Americans. Mick Jagger, in particular, was seen as a figurehead, channeling the psycho-sexual energies of his audience and giving them a direction. The Rolling Stones were a potent symbol of just that- psycho-sexual energies, loosened by generational conflict and aroused by new freedoms. But songs like "Street Fighting Man" and the then-current "Gimme Shelter" had made the Stones political, and with the Beatles and Dylan off the road or inactive (enough of a rock master narrative was already in place then to invest in Dylan oracular powers), young Americans looked to the Stones to help them blow off some steam. When fans and critics reminisce about the tour, they tend to linger on Altamont- the free concert at the tour's end at which several spectators were killed and about which a documentary was made by the Maysles brothers. Americans who castigate the Stones for procuring the Hell's Angels to provide security at Altamont tend not to know the back-story- that the English Hell's Angels successfully provided security at a free concert the Stones had given five months before in London.
The Stones' credulity as to the reliability of the American Hell's Angels is part of the story of those times- the "we are all one" rhetoric affeted them too, and two young musicians (Jagger and Richards both turned twenty-six in '69) had no disinclination to trust the San Francisco "heads" who assured them of the American Hell's Angels capabilities. If ever a band were not to be taken in, it was the Stones; but they were here. So that the violence of the Altamont concert in December '69 became a freighted symbol in the rock master narrative- here's where the Sixties dream ends, here's where we are no longer one. It, we are told, shot down the possibilities which Woodstock had opened four months before. If it all seems too neat and clean to see things this way, it's because too many Sixties "heads" saw through the ostensible Sixties dream even as it was unfolding- not just Jagger but Lennon, Morrison, Davies, and the rest. But the Stones in '69 were bellwhethers, and what happened to them in that year was indicative. Their founding member Brian Jones was found drowned in his swimming pool in July, having just been forced from the band a month earlier. The Stones turned their free concert in Hyde Park, London, into a memorial show, and Mick Jagger read a portion of Percy Bysshe Shelley's elegy for John Keats, "Adonais," to the crowd.
There's very little Romantic which can be said of the person Brian Jones was- a rampant misogynist who fathered innumerable children, an alcoholic and a drug addict who was always eager to bite the various hands which fed him, and (eventually) a parasite on the group he created. Jones, unlike the other members of the band, was raised in a respectable environment- middle-class Cheltenham, to which he seldom returned once the Stones' adventures were underway. Jones' promiscuity was symptomatic of the times he lived in- by the end of his life, he was besotted. His death gave rock fans a taste of what was to come. By the time they landed in America, they had broken in a new member- blues-guitar wunderkind Mick Taylor. With his virtuosity in tow, they sounded better then they ever had before. Their mid-'69 single, "Honky Tonk Women," eschewed dealing with issues and encouraged their audience just to dance and enjoy the music. Their '69 album Let it Bleed was another kettle of fish- if less cohesive than Satanic Majesties, it's still a magnum opus. Undercurrents of violence are audible in "Gimme Shelter," "Midnight Rambler," and "You Can't Always Get What You Want." "Midnight Rambler" is particularly outre; the lyrics narrate from inside the mind of a serial killer in the act of rape and murder. America had been sensitized to this by Charles Manson and his henchmen; if Jagger touched a nerve (and "Midnight Rambler" was prominently featured in their '69 shows), it's because by '69 America had come to the realization that these were violent times.
The Stones looked especially relevant because the Beatles' '69 release, Abbey Road, was musically sharp but ("You Never Give Me Your Money" notwithstanding) lyrically weak- John Lennon chose to make his political statement with "Bed-Ins," undertaken with his spouse, conceptual artist Yoko Ono. In '69, Lennon was earnest (and ridiculous) where Jagger was darkly ironic (though the song "Gimme Shelter" was a direct statement and apparently made in earnest). How many of Jagger's fans noticed his ironies? "Live with Me," from Let it Bleed, riffs on Jagger's status as a nouveau aristocrat. In the English upper classes, the servants often wind up having a better time than the masters. That's the basic gist of the lyrics, and the Stones sound as taut and forceful here as they do anywhere else. "Monkey Man" is a riff in another direction- because of their musical roots, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were often accused not only of stealing from black musicians but of wanting to be black themselves. In the hip parlance of the day, they were perceived as "White Negroes." The irony here is that Jagger does have a sense of irony- blues lyrics usually don't. To make a long story short, Jagger noticed a wide gulf between how the Stones were perceived and who they actually were. The strange thing about Let in Bleed in '69 was that there were two love songs on it ("Love in Vain," "You Got the Silver") but, uncharacteristically for the Stones, no songs just about sex (as there had been on Aftermath, Beggar's Banquet, etc). Let it Bleed is hardly platonic, but it's about humanity and the full range of human emotions, rather than just the ins and outs of expressed sexuality. As such, it dwarfs Abbey Road and makes an interesting companion to the Kinks' Arthur, also released in '69. Arthur is a narrative song-cycle about a sympathetic English Everyman and his travails as he attempts to rise in society. As usual, Ray Davies makes no concessions to the topical and the counterculture, and focuses on the quotidian, and the processes of aging. Jagger's ironies reinforce that he's aging too, and simple expressions of lust no longer suffice. If Jagger, by '69, was "on the hook" as a public figure (which Ray Davies wasn't), he was also (along with Keith Richards) making sure the Stones' growth was present and accounted for. As no other band in rock history, the Rolling Stones took death and made it creative.