Monday, March 26, 2012

Blame it on the Stones

I've always been a little ambivalent about the Rolling Stones. And it isn't just because my ex-wife liked them so much.

First took notice of 'em when I heard the intro to "Honky Tonk Women" oozing out of a transistor radio the summer when I was 12, the cowbell followed by drums, then that taut, tense, droning chord on an open-tuned guitar. (Did Mick Taylor really scare Keef that badly? Or did he just like the sound of an open G when he heard Ry Cooder play it? _You_ decide!) Later that year, when I read Michael Lydon's account of the Stones' '69 tour and the debacle that was Altamont in Ramparts, there was a picture on the cover of Mick looking fey and kind of jive in his omega superhero costume and Uncle Sam top hat, but when I saw this picture of Keef in his psychedelic matador suit, Perspex Dan Armstrong on his hip, I thought he looked exactly like that intro sounded: a little lazy, a little menacing, like a coiled snake ready to strike.

Reading Ian McLagan's description of seeing the early Stones in All the Rage reminded me that they weren't always a tourist destination, like Disneyland. ("My Grandma went to see the Rolling Stones and all I got was this lousy T-shirt.") When they were scruffy bohemian squatters in thrall to Chess Records, with lantern-jawed regular bloke Ian Stewart laying down the barrelhouse boogie woogie as a full member, Brian and Keef _sitting down_ to weave the perfect guitar tapestry, they carried real excitement and danger, which you can still hear on their first album (called England's Newest Hitmakers here in the States). Their records got better when they started touring America, which allowed them to cut at Chess in Chicago and RCA in L.A. (cf. The Rolling Stones, Now!, their early magnum opus). While I liked the Yardbirds, the Animals, and the Pretty Things better, objectively, the Stones were more prolific and had the best track record of any Brit R&B band except the Kinks -- who by '66 had worked their way into a league of their own (but that's another story). And their versions of "Down Home Girl" and "Talkin' About You" were the sexiest music I'd ever heard, back when I was 14.

Fifty years (!) after the Brit R&B boom, it's unsurprising the affinity baby boomer Brits had for the music of disenfranchised African-Americans, given how much tougher they generally had it than their European-American cousins. Even those who lacked memories of sleeping in the Tube or being evacuated to the countryside grew up playing in the rubble of the Blitz, and got to experience wartime rationing which, in Britain, was still in limited effect when Elvis was recording for Sam Phillips.

Stones manager/Svengali Andrew Loog Oldham told them they needed original material to make more money, and so Mick and Keef elbowed Brian Jones out of his position as "undisputed leader," although he continued to add instrumental color to their sound and was probably more responsible than anybody for making a generation of American teenage boys think it was cool to look effeminate. As a single, "Satisfaction" was as era-defining as "Like A Rolling Stone" (although I preferred "Get Off My Cloud," which was sloppier and a blatant Dylan cop) and at the end of 1965, chasing Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited and the Beatles' Rubber Soul, they cut Aftermath, an explosion of creativity that was 50 minutes long in its UK version, which didn't even contain all the songs they'd recorded.

Some of those unreleased songs would turn up on the '67 holding-action "mop tape" album Flowers -- a fave of mine, along with its thrown-together-"product" cousins December's Children and Tattoo You. Disparities between the Stones 'Meercun and Brit '60s discographies, which made them (like the Beatles) a collector's wet dream/nightmare, are attributable to the fact that '60s Britain was a poorer country than the U.S., which meant that in the interest of giving the consumer more value for their hard-earned pence and shillings, more EPs were released there, the average Brit LP had 14 tracks (vice 12 in the States, where Nashville-based music publishers were opposed to "giving away" too many songs), and songs that had been released as singles rarely showed up on albums. But those kloodged-together Stones albums make a convincing case that their floor sweepings were as good as some other bands' diamonds.

Flowers became a necessary expedient after drug busts and associated legal hassles kept the Stones off the road for a couple of years, during which time they disappeared up their asses in the studio, chasing the Beatles ("We Love You," Their Satanic Majesties Request), before coming back hard with Beggar's Banquet, an album full of country and blues influences that was more to the point (although one could argue they were still chasing Dylan, who'd come back after his motorcycle accident with John Wesley Harding and sent everyone rushing off to get it together out in the country). Brian Jones disappeared in a drugged-out haze, becoming progressively more unreliable until he drowned in a swimming pool after they'd hired another guitar player to replace him.

To these feedback-scorched ears, a lot of their musical direction during their four-album hot streak (Beggar's Banquet through Exile On Main St.) was cribbed from Ry Cooder (who'd done session work on Let It Bleed -- his scathing account in a Captain Beefheart piece Langdon Winner penned for Rolling Stone was pretty revealing) -- and Gram Parsons (a familiar of Keef's around that time). Mick and Keef managed to pull out a couple of songs ("Gimme Shelter," "You Can't Always Get What You Want") that, for a lot of people, seemed to sum up the dashed hopes and shattered dreams of the ass-end of the '60s. And "Sympathy for the Devil" inspired the collective hipis and rockcrits of the world to mistake Jagger for Lucifer, an image which I 'spect he even began to buy into for a minute, before Altamont scared the bejeezus out of him.

Myself, I found "Street Fighting Man" -- the sound of one guy strumming an acoustic guitar while another bangs on a cardboard box, over which Jagger regards the turmoil in the streets, shrugs, and lights another joint -- more reflective of the Zeitgeist at the turn of the decades. A couple of years later, Pete Townshend, bless his cotton socks, essayed the same point at much greater length in "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Listening again to Sticky Fingers, which back in '71 was so ubiquitous that I never felt the need to own a copy, one is reminded what a great year for music that was, when you couldn't turn on the radio without hearing "Brown Sugar," "Maggie May," or the aforementioned "Won't Get Fooled Again." Or perhaps my memory of it is colored by the age I was then and my, um, awakening consciousness. One is also struck now by the fact that among the songs on Fingers, only three are full-on rockers, along with one song that's 50% rocker, 50% Latin jazz jam; a C&W-_ish_ ballad; a country blues; a soul ballad; a joke country song; a minor key folk ballad a la "Play With Fire;" and an Asian-sounding lament with strings. Big Mike Richardson knows, and I agree, that the Stones' hidden strength was their "slow" songs, going back to "As Tears Go By" and "Blue Turns To Grey" on December's Children. (One of the reasons I dig Tattoo You so much is it's divided into "rockin'" and "mellow" sides, and guess which one is my fave?)

Exile On Main St. was unprecedented among Stones albums in the way that it's like a sonic bath in which one immerses oneself -- like the best albums by Hendrix, Pink Floyd, Miles Davis -- rather than a mere collection o' tunes. That Keef Richards was so wasted during its creation that he couldn't remember recording some of the songs afterward is even more remarkable in light of the fact that following its release, the Stones embarked on what was probably the strongest tour of their career.

After that? Sound and fury, signifying nothing: With each new release, the Stones' music became more generic (although we could argue about Some Girls). Sure, Mick Taylor was a brilliant soloist, but what has that to do with being a Rolling Stone? Ron Wood, who played fantastic bass with Jeff Beck and displayed a distinctive and idiosyncratic (albeit highly Stones-influenced) musical persona with the Faces and on Rod Stewart's solo records, was a better fit, but wound up morphing into a sort of extension of Keef. Am I the only one who's creeped out by this?

When I was learning to play, the Stones of Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out had become such an archetype that their influence was often transparent. From the beginning, audacious upstarts had been poaching on their preserve. The Pretty Things, founded by original Stones bassist Dick Taylor, were arguably more outrageous, but definitely (and intentionally) in the same mold. On a certain level, like Allen Lowe, I'd rather listen to the Chocolate Watch Band than the Stones. Sure, to paraphrase Martin Balsam in Breakfast At Tiffany's, the Watch Band were fakes, but they were _real_ fakes. The Flamin' Groovies ripped off everything they could from Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed on their '71 release Teenage Head and wound up getting bigger hugs from Rolling Stone than that rag's namesakes. The New York Dolls and, um, Aerosmith at least had the same configuration (two guitars, bass, drums, and ugly mug frontguy), although the former were more self-consciously cartoonish and the latter more lowest-common-denominator. And what were the Clash -- those poor misguided souls -- shooting for on London Calling, if not their own Exile?

For me, the Stones finally lost their magic boots forever when I saw them (with my future ex-wife) at the Cotton Bowl in '81, right before we moved to Memphis. We heard the opening notes of "Let's Spend the Night Together" from the parking lot, and hauled ass to get to our seats, laughing like idiots. The Stones played in the piss-pouring rain; thank goodness for cordless mics. You had to squint at a Jumbotron to see them, and they were _tiny_ there. It was very professional entertainment, and very boring. The scale of the Event really worked against feeling any connection whatsoever with the performers. It was the other shoe I'd been waiting to hear drop since I'd seen Mott the Hoople on Broadway in '74, realized how _old_ Ian Hunter looked (he was 35 at the time), and how artificial all the staging and spectacle seemed. Since that Stones show at the Cotton Bowl, I've only been to one other Big Rock Concert: the Who in Y2K, which surprised me by being better than I expected, but the exception proves the rule.

Then again, who gives a shit what I think? It's not the Stones' fault that they're megasuccessful, and I'm an elitist obscurantist asshole-for-life. When they were young, they looked like drunk old women. In their maturity, they look like beef jerky with hair. But better that than botox, no? Time for another spin of Sticky Fingers...


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