Some time ago, in the early internet days, I remarked on a music forum over in Salon’s old Table Talk readers comment section that I thought Mick Jagger was a horrible singer, but he was a vocalist of great genius. Stalwart Jaggernauts attacked me outright while I tried to make myself understood, but this was no use and really an event I should have seen coming. In fact, I wanted to stir up the conversation that was underway, which was a droning exchange of the usual accolades heaped on the Rolling Stones. The topic was sealed finally by forum moderators who tired of trying to control an angry mob of netizen Jagger fans poised to supply more poison posts. I ought to have clarified because my point is that there are white singers who have technically awful voices who brandish blues influences all the same and who have managed to fashion vocal styles that are instantly distinct, unique, recognizable. 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 in 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 especially good 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 vocals, 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, we are at the last take, and Jagger is seen with headphones on, isolated from the others, screaming his head off into a microphone while the instrumental playback pours forth, in what is presumably the final take. Jagger, all irony and self-awareness, created something riveting and 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 nonetheless 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 under appreciated 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.
Still, the lack of black musicians is inexcusable and reveals a conspicuous , egregious choice by the editors to remain loyal to their skin hue. Where was Sugar Blue? Lucky Peterson? The Eric Gale Band?Shemekia Copeland? Alvin Hart? Sapphire?Gary Clark Jr? Keb Mo? These players deserve wider recognition no less than the ones who made the list; I have a strong, strong suspicions that an inexcusable laziness directed the selection process, formed, no doubt, by a profound lack of curiosity on the part of the "critics" who, by the definition of their job, are supposed to knowledgeable and curious about things that fall outside their comfort zone. I suspect also that those making the selection were entirely white; as such,they stuck with the skin color they are most comfortable with.
Jefferson Airplane was a side of psychedelic rock I found most appealing, being in their short-lived prime a volatile and imaginative forced marriage of folk tradition, jazzy "mystery chords", Joycean/Eliot/Huxlyian versifying, and piercing harmonies provided by the bulldozing Grace Slick and Balin's soaring, bittersweet tenor. Their albums were a fascinating, eclectic mess, indulgent and snotty and harsh; I would put them, along with the Stooges, MC5 and the Velvets, as stylistic forerunners of the punk rock anti-aesthetic. Balin was the ballast for the band, a balladeer, a genuine folk singer, a romantic who never abandoned his tendency for the oddly effective lyric that emphasized an actual relationship rather than a worldview. I liked this band up to Volunteers album.Afterward, the devolution set in, when Paul Kanter's sci-fi libertarian fantasizes turned JA into a plodding monstrosity of ego and half-measured music.
Those among the readership who followed the career arc of this band through the 60s and the 70s will recall, perhaps stifling a gag reflex, the slew of Jefferson Starship albums that evolved from the original band. It will suffice to say for this short note that the best thing the Starship ever did was recording and releasing Marty Balin's fabulous song "Miracles", a sensuous, radiant paen to making love with a partner. Alluring melody, a vocal aching with a combination of passion and a more primal lust, all of it buffeted by swirling guitar lyricism from the able-fingered Craig Chaquico. It was the best thing Jefferson Starship ever did, a masterpiece of pop-rock sexuality that rose to canonical heights over the increasing vapidity and knuckleheaded irrelevance. The band, or at least the management and record company, hung their heads in shame all the way to the bank, and it remains, I suppose, the supreme irony of things that a band beginning as Jefferson Airplane, counterculture revolutionaries singing of a society without pretense, class structure, false morality and , by implication, cash, evolved into the Jefferson Starship, a cash cow for corporate interests. So yes, money changes everything. That said, it should be mentioned that the guitar work of Jorma and Jack Cassidy's basslines were among the best teams of the era. And Balin was a fine musician, singer, and songwriter who might have done better if he had a less dicey means to bring his music to the public.