I saw the fantastic 20 Feet From Stardom last night. I have no time nor space to enthuse at length about the film, which is about so many things, the foremost being that graceful, humble place of creating--in this case, singing a wondrous gift--for only the love of it, and the immaterial joy of being part of a harmonious whole.
But I will mention its most affecting--gutting, really--passage, which illustrates the impact of the egoless, identity-less voice--just a voice, not a personality--in music (which, of course, is the point of backup singing): the recounting of Merry Clayton's recording of the backing vocals on the Stones' "Gimme Shelter," you know, that passionate howling in what's more or less the bridge of the song. First of all, I didn't know that the lyric was actually "Rape...murder...it's just a shot away." Second, well--Merry, summoned from bed, shows up in curlers in the dead of night to yowl this lyric for some English boys she's never met (nor claims to have heard of, really, which is kind of hard to believe), and delivers more than anyone expected. We know what the song is about, or, at least, the ravaged ground in which it's rooted. In a the briefest time and with less than ten words, Merry's voice, ablaze, conveys what 1969 must have felt like to many. She's an oracle.
And I couldn't like her more as she seems to be as a human being and artist, a champion combination of guts and humility. "I was kicking ass and taking names every time I opened my mouth."
It's a stunning scene in the film, watching her listen to that moment some forty-plus years before. Mick does, too. Listen to the isolated track embedded in this story of that night.
I'm digging into Merry's solo albums (she recorded a few in the early 70s, prior to raising a family and falling on harder times) today, and wishing I could find the video clip of her gut-ripping performance of Neil Young's "Southern Man" as shown in the film.
Instead, listen to this, and imagine the woman who arrived after midnight, pregnant and in curlers, to shred the Sixties with her voice.
All she set out to do is simply sing, and by doing so, did so much more. As she says in the film, "Stay cool, stay humble, stay beautiful, and just do the work."