A column about history, culture, policy, and things in between.
Life has milestones; events that make us stop and wonder, "Where has the time gone"? September Eleventh, graduations, anniversaries, dates on a calendar that mark freedom from cancer or addiction. Time seems elastic, expanding or contracting with events, and our assimilation of them. This piece asks the question, "where have the last fifty years gone", prompted by the fact that this month of April marks the 50th Anniversary of the world's greatest rock 'n roll band.
1965 - the eye of my memory can still see my oldest sister grooving on the pier of that ramshackle cottage my parents rented on Okauchee Lake. I see her movement to the singular opening of Satisfaction; notes that cut through the pop charts like a chain saw through soft pine. The sound was pure Keith Richards, and the clever, provocative lyrics were pure Mick Jagger. Carved on rock 'n roll's Mt. Rushmore, Satisfaction was their first number one single; its message the very tap root of that genre's seminal pull.
Their staggering longevity in a carniverously fickle business is unique. They were to modern music what Brando and Dean were to Hollywood: brash, unapologetic, and transforming. What are they today - the former bad boys of rock? Aging denialists who don't know when to leave well enough alone, little more than fossilized caricatures of their youth? Or senior rockers barely on the right side of seventy; superbly talented musicians who keep doing what they do because it's who they ARE? The answer to both queries is probably - yes. The Stones came of age in the era of Vietnam, Nixon, the sexual revolution, and the counter culture; a period that left much of America's social fabric, in the title words of one of their great songs, Torn and Frayed. Were they a cause of that dissolution, or just a reflection of the times in which they lived? Again I would answer - yes. Most of the changes wrought by the '60's were for the worse; years ago I wrote a lengthy essay on their culturally debilitating impact, an exerpt of which I posted on this site titled, The Summer of Self-Love. But my intent in this piece is to reflect on the musical abilities and impact of the band; for if you believe as I do that music is part of our broader cultural experience, then there can be no denying the place held by the Rolling Stones.
They began in 1962, and after a few years of local gigs, it was the success of Satisfaction that convinced them they could earn a living as a band; a notion that "absolutely dumbfounded us", said Richards. They would bring an unprecedented array of instruments into the studio; from harpshichords to harps, harmonicas to sitars, mirimbas to pianos, saxaphones, violins and guiros; and wove them into equally unprecedented fabrics of sound. Hit after iconic smash hit poured out of London's Decca Studios, and swept over the beach heads of European and American pop culture.
So many songs remain encoded on the musical DNA of a generation: Paint it Black, its fabulous sitar and darkening theme a distinct departure from the pop sounds of the day. The bouncing bass and marimba of Under My Thumb, the roiled fury of Jumpin Jack Flash; the incendiary accoustical opening of Street Fighting Man, its on the fly, mid-song key change one of the great moments in all of guitar-dom; the simmering, layered chords of Gimme Shelter, rising off Richards' Fender like heat waves off highway ashpalt; the languid, brooding debauchery of Honky Tonk Women's distinctive cow bell and guitar prelude; Brown Sugar, Richards hurling the opening notes at us like so many lightning bolts from Olympus, and Charlie Watts' drums rolling like spring thunder down the Appalachian Trail. And my choice for the greatest rock song ever recorded - Tumbling Dice - its cascading chords, interrogative and responsive guitars, and richly harmonized chorus still serve to cleanse my musical veins from the impurity of today's more synthetic sounds. The singular tracks just kept coming, all riding on the magic carpet of Richards' rhythm guitar and Watts' incomparably tight percussion.
The late '60's were an incredibly rich and productive period for music; Apple Computer's Steve Jobs commenting, "It was like being alive at the time of Bach and Beethoven". Despite the plethora of great artists, the Beatles and Stones stood astride the scene like twin Colossae. But even as the Stones' creative currents reached full confluence, the Sixties ground to a halt and the Fab Four imploded. From 1968 to 1971 they released four of the period's greatest albums: Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. The circumstances of Exile's recording were surreal; half reality and half apocryphal. Literally exiled from England by that country's punitive tax codes; they fled their homeland penniless, and descended into the basement of a rented villa on the French Riviera - Somerset Maugham's "sunny place for shady people" - to record the album. Said Jagger of Exile, "it was so ecclectic and sprawling.......we made it a double album and just put it out there". An array of rock, soul, blues, and gospel, critics did not know what to make of it, and heavily panned it. But it stands today as an almost mythological tribute to the era; its re-issue in 2010 prompting contemporary artists from Green Day to The Killers to issue covers of its forty year old tracks.
But the Stones didn't just make great music; they changed what modern music sounded like. They were swept away by their first trip to America; captivated by the pull of its wide open spaces and by its music, country and the blues. They listened to black artists like Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, and John Lee Hooker, and regularly ventured into America's small, urban clubs to play with local purveyors of the blues. They brought those influences back to their London studios, applied a manic regimen of practice and experimentation, built upon the ground-breaking work of The Beatles, and in an act of musical alchemy, fused it all together on the necks of Richards' guitars; his incomparable technique of five string, Open-G tuning coaxing theretofore unheard of sounds from his Fenders like poetry from a lover's heart.
In addition to the songs, it was their ceaseless live performing that defined the band, separating it from its contemporaries, and cementing its reputation and imagery into the fabric of America's pop culture. The '72 Tour was a musical version of Hemingway's moveable feast; a Bachnalian fest that featured The Glimmer Twins at their exaggerated worst and best, and introduced broader American audiences to a young artist known then as "Little" Stevie Wonder. Jagger - the Machiaveli of music; preening, strutting, prancing, and leaping his way across America's stages, his frenetic, impossibly thin frame bathed in sweat as he single handedly redefined the delivery and performance of live music. I can see him slapping the stage with his belt to the resounding chords of Midnight Rambler, then quickly dropping it to play its hauntingly evocative harmonica. And across the platform stood his partner Keith Richards - the very personification of rock's unfettered spirit; maintaining the writing, recording, and touring even as he descended into the sewer of heroin addiction. And so the partnership: Jagger the chamelion; the most cunningly shrewd front man in the history of modern show business. And Richards; his gypsy-camp fashions, egg-beater haircuts, and languidly dissipated life style forming the silouhette of a soul baked clean in the kiln of the blues.
The following years brought the all but inevitable decay and dissipation. Jagger's fervid pursuit of his own fame, Richards' odious descent into addiction, and the sheer weight of being the Rolling Stones, rotted and sullied the creative engine of the tandem. No longer spending endless hours collaborating with their accoustic guitars and cassette players, their output declined in volume and quality, and by the mid-'70's critics and emerging groups like The Sex Pistols and The Clash openly scorned them.
And then came 1978.
Again - the passage of time. I simply cannot believe it has been thirty four years since the album Some Girls was released. Stung by the critics, Richards shook off the besotted lethargy of his addiction and Jagger forsook his inveterate jet-setting, to produce one of their finest albums, and certainly their most triumphant. Hit after multi-platinum hit poured off it; Beast of Burden, Shattered, Some Girls, and the driving rocker, When the Whip Comes Down. The number one single Miss You showcased their versatility, as rock's bad boys laid down the disco era's most tightly grooved track. Beast of Burden, a lilting blend of pop and ballad; its lyrics revealing the introspective angst of middle-age, and its opening riff standing up to the best of Richards' prior work. And that inspired cover of an already iconic song, their fabulous rendition of The Temptations classic, Just My Imagination; its up-tempoed, edgier sound a tip of the hat tribute to the Mo Town legends. Some Girls forever silenced their critics, and they've not stopped rolling since. The future held several solid if not brilliant albums, and massive stadium shows that re-wrote box office records. The mega-tours, combined with Jagger's business acumen, morphed the band into a branded product. But their blues roots kept them playing smaller, more intimate venues, where they played and performed just a few feet from the audience. Clubs and theaters like New York's Beacon, Detroit's Fox, Paris' Olympic, London's Marquee, and the legendary gigs at Tornonto's El Mocambo.
But to fully consider their musical legacy, one recalls Oscar Wilde's quip, "familiarity breeds contempt". Despite the noteriety of those epic songs, our ears have grown all but contemptuous of them. Endless repetition has dulled their impact, and we cannot recapture the times in which they were first played. Given today's standards it is hard to remember how controversial they were. They were equal opportunity agitators, enraging everyone from the "establishment" to the gay community, from feminists to Jesse Jackson. The apocolyptic sounds of Gimme Shelter were first heard as Walter Cronkite read tallies of Vietnam body bags on the CBS Evening News; and Street Fighting Man was released as America's urban centers erupted in violence. True appreciation of their musical legacy requires familiarity with their complete body of work; hundreds of songs, now freshened by emerging troves of previously unreleased music. Tracks like Can't You Hear Me Knockin, its extended jazz coda sounding more like Chic Korea than the world's greatest rock band. The harpsichorded heart-break of New Faces, the wistful confluence of harp, guitar, and historicity in Blinded by Love, the exquisite interplay of accoustic and folk guitars in Prodigal Son and Factory Girl, the sweetly evocative country strands of Dead Flowers, Country Honk, You Got the Silver and Sweet Virginia, the soaring piano of Loving Cup, or the jazz soaked, ethereal one in Monkey Man and Waitin on a Friend; the urgent romance of Almost Hear You Sigh, the dragging, jazzy falsetto of Worried 'Bout You, the haunting harmonies of Ain't No Use in Crying, the island-grooved, reggae strains of Luxury and Sweethearts Together, the Moorish and hypnotic Continental Drift, recorded in a Moroccan bazaar because, per Richards, "that's the only place we could get the sound right". No one has brought a greater assembly of instruments and influences into the studio, and no one has forged them into such a sustained legacy of commercial and critical success.
Titanic feuds have marked their relationship, strained by egos as large as their image. But despite their solo ventures they are inexorably joined, always repairing the breaches; each seeming to understand that their whole was greater than the sum of their parts. Irrelevant today? Perhaps. But tell that to Martin Scorcese, one of the most celebrated film directors of this generation who can't seem to make a film without their music in it. Tell that to Johnny Depp, who made tens of millions for himself and Disney by modeling the fictional character of Captain Jack Sparrow upon Richards' real life persona. Tell that to Adam Levine of Maroon 5, whose smash hit Moves Like Jagger sling-shotted his band to the top of the charts less than a year ago. Tell that to the world's most wildly successful sports machine - the National Football League - which still uses the anthem-like opening of Start Me Up, for the beginning of its football games. And tell that to the millions who will buy their new CD, or attend a show in the what is now the probable tour to celebrate their landmark year.
Fifty years of exploring, writing, and performing music from the blues to disco, from reggae to soul, from country to ballads, from jazz to the greatest rock 'n roll ever recorded. They've done it better and longer than anyone in the history of their business.
I know - it's only rock 'n roll.
But I still like it.