Showing posts with label The Rolling Stones. Show all posts
Showing posts with label The Rolling Stones. Show all posts

Friday, March 22, 2013

SALT OF THE EARTH by The Rolling Stones

Ambivalence is a quality that is regarded in general as a gutless affectation of those with money who cannot muster a concerned moan or a sigh about the plight and fate of those less well endowed. Sometimes, though, it is a tale that must be told at times by poets, novelists, playwrights. The undecided experience is an experience none the less.  There are those, of course, in this class who at least have what they consider the decency to feign a concern, the very subject of  "Salt of the Earth" by the Rolling Stones from their 1968  Beggars Banquet album. An amazing song; Jagger's lyrics does not the very neat and difficult trick of commenting on its own expression with a verse, late in the song, we have the admission 
 "...when I look in the faceless crowd /A swirling mass of grays and Black and white /They don't look real to me/Or don't they look so strange..." 
It's worth noting that if this song didn't have this qualifying, confessional side note where the well financed liberal admits his inability to empathize with the plight of the poor and oppressed, it would have been a first-rate Lefty/Wobbly/Pro-Labor protest song geared to rally the base and convince the still apathetic. This is statement is remarkable not so much because it displays the easy, that is to say lazy irony of an erstwhile progressive being self-aware enough to realize his own absurdity, the rich man continuing to make use of limitless resources while the poor remain poor and subsisting on a pittance; Jagger is honest enough to tell us, as though confessing to a confidante late night, over drinks in the back of a limo that he does not relate at all to the plight of the poor, nor could care at all for their dignity as human beings . This phrase, in the middle of a song that begins as a Socialist Anthem, gives the lie to the whole enterprise. This a moment that reveals a crack in the narrator's otherwise politically -tuned persona; this is about appearances, not progress. Those rankled by the middle verse are, I think, being prodded to think and meditate deeper on their claims of commitment to social justice. Some prefer to act like Jagger's admission were never written, never sung, never recorded. Joan Baez must have noted this as well and changed the lyrics when she covered the song to words sympathetic to the proletariat. It is one of the best inside jokes of the Sixties.
 From the Rolling Stones original, however, we have a profound and  rare admission from 60s pop-star that the causes and the suffering outside their privileged bubble were alien, "other", and that dealing with them was another pose to strike for the cameras. The Stones were always ambivalent when it came to the politics of the period, but I do admire the way they never shied away from their inability to pick a side. 

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Mick Jagger has amassed a troublesome track record with his non-Rolling Stones projects, the aged rock icon turning out intermittent and indifferent solo albums, film performances, duets, the whole shot. Even to the most ardent Jagger partisan, the obvious is now clear that the good man's musical instincts have found best expressions in his partnership with fellow Rolling Stone Keith Richard. Richard seems the real musical genius behind this band's amazingly resilient body of blistery, wickedly cynical rock and roll, and it's due to him, I think, that they continue to release strong albums decades after their supposed "peak"; 2005's A Bigger Bang caught me by surprise when I first played it. The trademarked weave of cranky, thundering guitar work by Richards and second guitarist Ron Wood fused quite ably, brilliantly even around a set of riffs assembled with a jeweler's touch, Jagger's vocals, a signature mix of whimpering sobs and bull-moose roars, underscore the album's unifying tone of hard-knocks hindsight and pampered fatalism. Charlie Watts' drum work kept it simple, hard, steady. This album is the sound the Stones have been famous for, turned into a refined signature art, the sense that there is a huge apparatus of attitude and consequences teetering and about to fall forward, the sheer weight of gathering gravity picking up speed, velocity, undeniability. Jagger, though, did have one album, from all his years of attempting to create a musical style independent of the Stones, where his instincts find a comparable format; as with the case with Richard, the disc's success has to do with who he partnered up with. In this case, it's Lenny Kravitz on Jagger's 2001 album Goddess in the Doorway. 

What makes I Goddess In the Doorwayworth the purchase is the fact that Jagger is singing better than he has in quite a spell; gone is the bellowing that characterized the corporate feeling of the last two decades of Stones releases, replaced with performances that underline the fact that while Jagger may be technically a poor singer, he is a supremely gifted I vocalist. The distinction is key if only to say that a singer is someone who can hit the notes of a melody with trained technicians, and maybe, just maybe manage something of a human personality, punchy and unpredictable, to come through the purely rounded tones. Jagger, with fellow mewlers Dylan, Bowie, and Tom Waits, among others, work brilliantly within their shredded, imperfect limits as frontmen. Jagger again sounds alive and tuned to the screwy grooves of the tunes. Musically, too, the album is strong, with the electro-vibe of "Gun" percolating nicely under Jagger's faux-sinister snarl and grunt. The riff-happy "God Gave Me Everything I Want" is a slam-dunk of a hard rocker, with all the crashing guitars from Lenny Kravitz bringing several generations of attitude-fueled chord bashing to bear against a four-square drumbeat. Jagger's vocal quite literally howls and twirls a keen elbow to the rib and offers a brief, blasting, well-situated harmonica riff toward the end that manages more impact than any number of witless John Popper solos. Sorry to say that the effect of all the good sounds here wither when one confronts the lyric sheet, wherein Rock's supreme ironist and cryptic cynic par excel lance sinks below the surface as he struggles to come with something resembling real, genuine, heartfelt emotion. It's a tedious assortment of a greeting card, web-page poetry where every unexceptional expression of love and its fractured derivatives finds room in these otherwise agreeable tunes. Jagger hasn't a talent for reflection or writing about others who are dear to him; his stylized narcissism is too entrenched.

Friday, January 11, 2008


It's been a week for visiting old albums, and the Stones were the band in the spin cycle. Specifically, their monumental efforts Let It Bleed and Exile on Main Street. One could wax poetic and vaguely in the style of Greil Marcus about how these songs form a moment in time when so much of the invisible stuff that holds reality together would come undone unless we seized the moment, listened to the records, and acted on the philosophical irony our millionaire visionaries were laying out, but that is another round of binge daydreaming. What's important now is a realization, a reminder, of the particular genius of singer Mick Jagger's way of articulating, mumbling, 
growling, mewling lyrics. Mick Jagger is a vocalist who learned to work brilliantly with the little singing ability God deigned to give him: knowing that he didn't have the basic equipment to even come close to simulating Muddy Waters or Wilson Pickett, he did something else instead of trying to sing black and black informed music-- talk-singing, the whiny, mewling purr, the bull moose grunt, the roar, the grunts and groans, the slurs and little noises, all of which he could orchestrate into amazing, memorable performances. One Plus One(Sympathy for the Devil)Godard's film of the Stones writing, rehearsing, and finally recording the song of the title, is perfect because it captures the irresolute tedium of studio existence (in between Godard's didactic absurdist sketches attempting to address the conundrum of leftist media figures being used by invisible powers to squelch true revolutionary change). More than that, we see Jagger piecing together his vocal, his mewling reading of the lyrics from the lyric sheet; his voice is awful, in its natural state. But we do witness Jagger getting bolder as the song progresses through the endless stoned jamming, a grunt added here, a raised syllable here, a wavering croon there. Finally, at the last take, Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone. At the same time, the instrumental playback pours forth in what is presumably the final take. Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting. For all time with the marginal instrument, he was born with and is part of what I think is a grand tradition of white performers who haven't a prayer of sounding actually black who none the less molded a style of black-nuanced singing that's perfectly credible: Mose Allison, Van Morrison, Felix Cavalari (Rascals), Eric Burdon (early Animals), Peter Wolf, late of the underappreciated J.Geils Band. We cannot underestimate Keith Richard's contribution to Jagger's success as a vocalist. Someone had to know how to write tunes Jagger could handle, and Keith was just the man to do it. Richard's guitar work, as well, riffs and attacks and staggers in ways that match Jagger's strutting and mincing. Writing is everything, as always. Fogarty is obviously influenced by black music, and his voice does simulate an idealized style of southern black patois, but it's the tunes that make CCR's music matter. Fogarty is in the same tradition as Chuck Berry in his ability to write short, punchy tunes with a story to tell instead of philosophy to impose or depression to share.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Exile on Main Street

“Happy”, included on the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street is one of their great songs, and Keith Richards does a superb job singing. Richards, in fact, is very much the credible singer, having a hoarse, whispering croak of a voice that marries his blues and country influences. There is a measure of palpable emotion as the guitarist’s haggard voice stretches for a note that might not be his to possess, something like the battered working stiff who finds new reserves of inspiration when inspiration makes him forget the weight of his day and declare what there is in his life that’s worth standing up for. This is a singer whose talents would have blended to excellent effect with the rustic tones of the Bands' Levon Helm and Richard Manual. I've been listening to Exile on Main Street lately, and it's spectacular how these albums just seems to deepen with the years: it's one of those great releases whose basic roots-music emphasis places it in the considerable company such the early Band records or Moby Grape.

It's a tough call because both Exile On Main Street and The White Album have unique strengths. Preference, though, falls with The Beatles, since it's an unusually strong double disc of songs, featuring Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison at their zenith. The variety and quality clenches it. Exile has the appeal of mood, atmosphere, the ennui that the bands’ world-weariness had caught up with them, to which the response is an inspired re-investigation of their roots in American southern music. I believe that this as honest a music Jagger and Richards have ever made together (or as honest as Jagger has ever been), but whether the two discs are real emotion or skilled posing, the tone, and mood of the album can't be denied. It is their last great album. I'd say Electric Ladyland needs to be in the top five best double-albums ever released (rock/pop division) for the consistent genius in all areas, start to finish: Hendrix was hitting what might have been a long stride as a major songwriter, his guitar work had never been more inventive and searing than it was here, and the production is near-flawless, with the guitars and such adding something of a grand religiosity to the proceedings.

The point , though compressed, isn't mysterious, nor coded in arcane jargon: after the wide-ranging and successful experimentation with sundry styles that reached a slick , professional peak with Sticky Fingers, Exile on Mainstreet was a re-examination of some of the forms that were the basis of their music, namely rhythm and blues, straight up blues, gospel, country. It's all there, I do believe. The mix was muddy, not clear, creating what one perceptive writer called an air of "audio noir", and the band sounded tired but fully invigorated by some spark of energy, some keen sense of mission that made their grooves and beats sound fateful. The additional layer on Exiles' re-imagining of the foundations of the bands' sounds was the experience and cogency they applied to the subject, the splintery, inane and unchanging truths that fairly inform the lyrics.

Beggar’s Banquet, the album which was their best expression of how drugs and other excesses might lead to worldly wisdom (or at least an artful cynicism) was l in line with the general hedonism that was the hallmark of the hippie-movement, wherein one trusted the resilience of youth to bring them back from the edge they danced very close to: gross consumption and gratification of ones' senses was the by-word, and Banquet handily defined the period, albeit its dark, mean-humored side. Exile had the sound of a band whose high-living had caught up with them. This feeling, this sound, is a large part of what distinguishes this album from the albums that came before it. You might try actually listening to the album.” Torn and Frayed", "Stop Breaking Down", "Sweet Virginia", "Ventilator Blues", "Shine a Light", "Soul Survivor", even the bouncy and rocking "Happy" all, in their manner, reflect a sense of pausing, getting a breath, contemplating the ache at the end of long cycle of over-extension. These are not the same kinds of songs as earlier ones, ala "Satisfaction”,” Get off My Cloud", "Play With Fire", "Stupid Girl" or "Street Fighting' Man", potent rock and roll numbers that match a younger, more impatient and more arrogant psychology: the songs on Exile work so well precisely because the mood of the band was more somber, reflective, wizened with wear. Jagger and Richards were at the peak of their craft on this set, and the songs have a tangible moodiness, a real set of expressions that add up to a more cautious, and increasingly wised-up world view that tacitly, and explicitly comprehends the fleeting quality of mortal life.

It’s not far to suggest that this album is the best album regarding the extended effect of decadence on a Bohemian community , along with Lou Reed’s blisteringly and cluster phobic Berlin. The production of Berlin fits the ideas: the characters are decadent, the city, and the period were decadent over all, and the production is, I think, suitable for the terrain Reed covers here. A big, thick wall-of-sound, Phil Spector filtered through Bertolt Brecht. Reed was writing about his own popular culture indirectly in the way he wrote of his fictional wastrels on Berlin, but the music and lyrics are etched from what he's done and witnessed. The production works, and this album is an underrated masterpiece from the Seventies. Berlin was controversial in my circle and resulted in heated debates and a couple of estranged friendships (and eventual reconciliations). It would provoke similar response today if it were dropped, brand new, on the younger generations that is too sensitive, too incurious , too smug and fatally lacking any sense of irony . Everything that gets said by anyone in the arts gets subjected to so many slanted qualifying exams that both Reed and this album would have been crucified, metaphorically at least, for daring to write about what he has actually seen and done and to use his gifts as narrator to present us with scenarios that presents the underworld as grim, sad, lonely, tragic and fatal. No one who considers themselves as part of the marginal classes wants to be discussed in terms that don't line up with the heroic folk lore currently in fashion. I think the record is a masterpiece and that it is literature in the vane of Burroughs, Brecht, Le Roi Jones, John Rechy, Harry Crews. There are no heroics the characters along this long dark road can resort to; it's life under the weight of the Leviathan.