Archive for April, 2012


I went to a Christian college, one where chapel was semi-required – you had to accrue a certain amount of “Christian Life and Service” credits during the school year or pay a fine, and chapel was the easiest way to get CLS credits. Three mornings a week, most of the school would gather at the church on campus for about 45 minutes. The “good” kids sat up front and got into the worship; the “bad” kids sat in the back with their headphones in or homework for the next class; the “really bad” kids didn’t show up at all.

Once a year for about a week, we had Revival. It was a scheduled event where chapel was every day (including the weekend), and where the tone of chapel was turned towards holiness, conviction, and getting right with God, in order to create a sweeping-up of people to get “on fire” for God. For me, it was a good opportunity to get caught up on chapels I had missed, but little more. Truth be told, it always seemed very strange to me. The idea that you could schedule a revival (for a certain week and not another) was contradictory to the very concept of revival. When there’s true revival, things change, the Holy Spirit moves, and everyone feels God’s presence to a radical degree. But it can’t be manufactured on a week of the college administration’s choosing.

That desire to re-create something spiritual and unknowable reminds me of the Altamont Free Concert. The promoters of Altamont tried to repeat the magic that happened at Woodstock and Monterey Pop. While they should have known that those events were unrepeatable, there was no way they could foresee the horrible way things would end.

Be warned; what follows is the lowest point in the life of the Rolling Stones, and one of the darkest moments in all of rock and roll history. Brian Jones’s death was just an indicator, a warning shot from God to the Stones that things were about to get really bad.

Like most badly-remembered points in history, Altamont started with the best of intentions. When you plan a concert, make it outdoors on a huge site, include a bunch of very famous bands on the bill, and don’t charge admission, profits probably aren’t your main concern. That leaves creating an event where music is celebrated, which is pretty pure in the scope of things. From the time the Stones announced the free concert, which they would headline, the press touted it as “Woodstock West.” It came less than a year after that “Festival of Peace, Love and Music,” and involved a few of the same people at the organizational level. But the romance and perfection of Woodstock couldn’t be manufactured at will.

the Hells Angels didn’t have guns – they had pool cues

The first mistake the promoters made was hiring the Hells Angels, a motorcycle gang, to handle security (if you hire a biker gang, what do you think is gonna happen?). Their second mistake was having the agreement with them be so loose as to make no mention of the word “security” at all. The terms, as the Angels understood them, were “we keep people away from the generators, and we get free beer.” No money exchanged, no contracts, no paperwork, no nothin’. It was kind of a gentlemen’s agreement, but the Hells Angels are no gentlemen. I’m not much for red tape, but I think in this case it would have not only have made things go more smoothly, but would have maybe prevented tragedy.

Things didn’t go well. There was an incident in the afternoon where Jefferson Airplane’s Marty Balin jumped off the stage in the middle of a song to help a fan who was getting the crap kicked out of him by a Hells Angel. The Grateful Dead (who had suggested the Hells Angels in the first place because they had used them before with success) were scheduled to go on after Jefferson Airplane, but decided not to perform in protest. Then evening came, darkness fell, and the Rolling Stones took the stage. After fighting broke out during “Sympathy For the Devil,” Mick Jagger implored the crowd to calm down and be cool. He then performed a somber rendition of “Under My Thumb.” It was during that song that Stones fan Meredith Hunter, after pulling a long-barreled pistol from his coat, was murdered by a Hells Angel.

A documentary film crew was present; they had filmed the Rolling Stones in the studio, and were on hand for the entire Altamont experience. When the murder happened, they caught the whole thing on film. The movie they made, Gimme Shelter, included footage of a very sad Mick Jagger looking at the concert tapes. The most poignant moment is when he’s watching the performance of “Under My Thumb” and freezes the frame right when the knife that killed Meredith Hunter connected.

Let It Bleed had already been released at this point, and Altamont was the Stones’ big opportunity to promote it. “Gimme Shelter,” the lead-off track, had likewise already been recorded several months before. The music is eerie and unsettling; not a new thing for the Stones by any means, but the eeriness was escalated by the tragic events that took place only a week later. It’s freaky how prophetic this song is. The lyrics speak of an insidious force threatening the life of the singer, and an atmosphere of gloom and death. In the bridge, there is even talk of “rape” and “murder.” However, the song ends on a hopeful note: “I tell ya love, sister – it’s just a kiss away.”

“Gimme Shelter” features Merry Clayton on backing vocals. She sings the bridge with such emotional power that it even takes Mick Jagger aback, as he can be heard saying “Whoo!” in the background after her voice cracks for the second time. Merry was pregnant at the time of recording, and suffered a miscarriage later that day; the strain of hitting the highest notes was a little too much.

The Rolling Stones are one of the only bands to ever have a murder happen during one of its live performances. “Gimme Shelter” is an unthinkably awesome song just by itself, but when it’s viewed in light of the giant debacle that is Altamont, its greatness rises to about 3 times its original level. Many critics call Altamont the point in history where the romance and glittering sheen of the hippie movement not only wore off, but was killed with devastating prejudice. To me, it was a turning point. It was a time when a large group of people said, “this isn’t true for us anymore,” and they went in search of another truth.

More about Let It Bleed tomorrow!

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A Downward Spiral

The Rolling Stones, beyond all else, are a personality-based band. A lot of the best bands and artists are – The Beatles, David Bowie, U2, the Smashing Pumpkins in their heyday – and it’s something marketing executives and image creators know all too well. It’s not just the music that people hear – it’s who’s making the music, too. People connect so much more with a song if they know the name and see the face of person singing it.

Brian Jones

Left without a connecting face, the Rolling Stones would still have been successful, but I think that over half of their fame came from Mick Jagger and his mind-blowing stage presence. The Stones were one of the innovators of image and personality in rock music. Not only Mick, but Keith and the others had distinctiveness as well, including Brian Jones.

Brian was unique within the Stones for his blonde hair compared to the sandy to dark brown of the others. His teardrop-shaped guitar stuck in listeners’ minds, too. But the capstone of his fame was in the form of his tragic death. He died at age 27, but at that time, he was only the 2nd super-famous musician to die at that age. The real notability of his demise came from the manner of his death: drowning in a swimming pool.

Let’s back up a bit. The story arguably starts with the arrival in the Stones’ lives of Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager. He recognized early on that Jagger had stage presence coming out his ears, and also that the most successful bands (meaning the Beatles and the Beach Boys) wrote their own songs. Thus, he directed the career of the band in those directions.

Brian Jones started the band (and came up with the name) only a few years earlier, and was the de facto leader. His original idea for the Rolling Stones was to cover the blues and boogie numbers by black American musicians he so loved. The novelty of white British guys playing soulful American classics was enough to get them a name. Brian was the top dog until Andrew started shaking things up by having Mick take the lead in their shows, and by encouraging Mick and Keith to start writing songs together. Brian, unfortunately, was slowly being left out in the cold.

By 1968, Brian Jones was only in the band because he hadn’t been kicked out yet. He contributed almost nothing to the music; the other band members even turned off his guitar sometimes. When he interacted with them, he was distant at best, hostile and sniping at worst. Even so, his friendships were increasing outside the band with people like Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney, Jimi Hendrix, and Eric Burdon. He was the unofficial emcee at the famous Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, along with his then-girlfriend, Velvet Underground collaborator Nico.

Jones’s last significant contribution to the Stones was playing slide guitar on “No Expectations,” though he also played little parts on the Let It Bleed tracks “Midnight Rambler” and “You Got the Silver.” Preceding the production of Let It Bleed, he had numerous troubles with the law over drugs. A judge had mercy on him after a jury found him guilty of possession, and gave him a fine instead of jail time, and there were also rumors of a conspiracy against Jones and the rest of the Rolling Stones. The unsubstantiated theory goes that the police wanted to make an example of all the Stones in order to deter the British public from drugs.

The final straw came when the Stones were going to tour America again in support of Let It Bleed (slated for a July 1969 release) and Brian was denied a work visa. At that point, Jagger and company had had enough; they hired Mick Taylor to replace Jones on guitar, and Jones moved into a mansion in East Sussex where he descended in a wild downward spiral of drugs, sex, and misadventure that was his eventual undoing.

“Elvis didn’t expectorate on his fans!”

Let that be a lesson to you, kids: don’t do drugs. But don’t take my word for it; ask Brian Jones. Oh, that’s right, you can’t. ‘Cause he’s dead.

Hey, do you like my impression of the dad on Freaks and Geeks?

Monday: The death of the 1960s.

Crystal Moments

When my parents gave me my first electric guitar (a used Hohner Les Paul) for Christmas, it was a turning point in my life. I started hearing music for not just a song or a melody, but for the individual instruments; the way the guitar plays off the bass, the way the drums vary in tonal quality, how a singer’s voice modulates to fit the emotional color of a particular song. But most of all, I noticed the vast number of sounds the electric guitar could make, the subtle differences between them, and how every single guitarist had the ability to create a sound all his own through combinations of different effects. It seemed limitless to me.

Before I started playing guitar, I didn’t really take Jimmy Page or Led Zeppelin seriously. Even then, I was only aware of Jimmy as a distant icon until I met Mike in college. But there was a moment of glorious realization when I was about 15, and I heard “Heartbreaker” on the radio in a friend’s car. I call instances like that “crystal moments”: times when you are truly listening to music, and something just clicks and you “get it.” When I first heard the guitar solo in “Heartbreaker,” that was a crystal moment. It was when I realized that I had only taken one bite of the first appetizer in an infinitely huge buffet of guitar delights.

For whatever reason God has divined, I no longer have access to those delights. The stroke I had when I was 21 left me with limited use of my right arm, making guitar-playing impossible. I could have gotten the arm back, but it just wasn’t in me; at the time, I had bigger things on my mind (like plowing through 2 bone marrow transplants to deal with the leukemia that my stroke tipped the doctors off to). But it remains that I used to play guitar, but now I don’t. And I still hear music in terms of the separate sounds coming together to make the soup of a song. Disparate parts making a unified whole; sound familiar?

John “Bonzo” Bonham

Back to II. “Moby Dick,” besides being a simple 12 bar blues, is a showcase for drummer John Bonham to let it fly. Maybe it’s just me, but the drum solos from the 60s and 70s seem rather unimpressive. When I look at drummers from the modern age, like Mike Portnoy of Dream Theater or Taylor Hawkins of the Foo Fighters, they seem so much more proficient than some drummers from earlier years. The godlike bands from the rock renaissance of the 70s had mostly mediocre drummers. At the very least, the recorded drum solos from that era were very unimpressive even if the drummers themselves aren’t. The exception to the rule is Ginger Baker from Cream; he was awesome.

John Bonham is a whole lot better than “Moby Dick” makes it seem. With juggernauts like Plant and Page in the same band, it’s easy to overlook the massive contributions Bonham made. I think Led Zep’s overall sound is as much a result of Bonham’s inspired drumming and Page’s guitar work or Plant’s vocal histrionics. It’s a shame that the only drum solo in Led Zep’s catalogue is sub-par.

At the cap, there is “Bring It On Home.” It starts as a soft, bluesy stomp powered by nothing but a simple guitar and a harmonica. The vocals sound like they’re underwater. Then a roaring to life, and the band pulls out the stops for the most aggressive and charging song on the album. The guitar takes a 180 from soothing and smooth to distorted and crackling. And the main riff encapsulates the entire quest of Led Zeppelin: blues music shifted into a heavy and aggressive form, turning it on its head.

With the arrival of Led Zeppelin, the landscape of the music world changed. That type of thing tends to happen around the turning of a decade. It happened in 1980 when punk music ceased being a revolution and became a corporate brand. It happened in 1991 when Nirvana made us all rediscover that rock and roll comes from our guts, not our wallets. It happened just before the new millennium when the boy bands took over the airwaves. And it’s happening even now with the meteoric rise of alternative folk bands like the Decemberists, Bon Iver and The Civil Wars. But the difference is this: all those other shifts at the decades existed on a pendulum – Led Zeppelin broke the pendulum. When they changed things, they stayed changed.

Tomorrow: the descent and demise of Brian Jones, a rolling stone.

Mystique

Led Zeppelin had mystique. They rarely gave interviews, released no radio singles, and had almost no direct media presence. The way it goes today, famous people need to get out in front of an issue to spin it the way they want it spun, before someone spins it for them. Led Zeppelin didn’t do any of that. People were (and are) fascinated with them because they weren’t told how to think about them. While that allowed people to think about them in whatever way they wanted (as they will anyhow), it also forced them to say that they didn’t really know.

There were stories, though. When concrete information on a band is so scant, the public is bound to fill in the holes themselves. Most often, this will constitute just making stuff up. The stories about Led Zep, true or not, have been around long enough that they’re now legend, like Santa Claus. Some said they were Satanists. Some claim there are hidden back-masked messages in their songs. There is even a hotel tale about an incident in Florida involving a groupie, chocolate syrup, and a giant marlin (hint: they didn’t cook and eat it).

The one I want to focus on is their preoccupation with J.R.R. Tolkien and Lord of the Rings. While this is mostly in their later albums (“Battle of Evermore” is said to have at least 6 references to the book in its lyrics), the only time it’s completely confirmed is in the song “Ramble On” from II.

For the most part, “Ramble On” walks a well-travelled path of a guy who loves his woman but loves the road more. He inevitably leaves one lover for another, reveling in the glory of going from place to place.

Then the third verse. What’s this talk of “the darkest depths of Mordor,” and “Gollum?” It appears that a blues band is combining a very common, people-oriented form of music with scholarly and erudite literature.

You might think it’s not so scholarly; who doesn’t know about Return of the King and the boatload of Oscars it won? But the fact is II was released in 1969, which is 32 years before the Peter Jackson-directed epic movies first started coming out. Led Zeppelin thought it was cool waaaay before everyone and their brother in this generation liked it. We in our American temporality often forget this, but Lord of the Rings was popular long before digital filming even existed. Indeed, they were a hit on first being published. J.R.R. Tolkien, despite that he was a stuffy Oxford professor, was kind of a rock star.

J.R.R. Tolkien

Led Zep’s combining of those two apparent opposites (high literature and fantasy with down-and-out blues music) creates something new. They brought an English sensibility to an American form of music, also creating something new. The presence of Middle-earth language signals that delta blues and Oxford higher learning are opposites only in our own minds, and the rift between them is smaller than imagined.

Machismo

I went to Dictionary.com and looked up machismo and this is what I found:

ma∙chis∙mo (noun) – a strong or exaggerated sense of manliness; an assumptive attitude that virility, courage, strength, and entitlement to dominate are attributes or concomitants of masculinity.

I was wondering how that differed from chauvinism, and discovered that chauvinism doesn’t actually involve maleness as part of its definition; it’s merely devotion to any group, particularly one’s country or military. I think what nearly everyone calls chauvinism (or male chauvinism) could much more accurately be called machismo.

I’m not a very macho guy. I think a lot of bluster and posturing very often hides insecurity or fear, and guys who are preoccupied with their power and dominance fall harder when they can’t have it. It reveals their true nature, that they’re not men but boys, crying over a toy being taken away from them. True manhood comes from the releasing of power, from recognizing that certain things have priority over even the self; things like your spouse, your kids, your family, and the things all those people love. True manhood comes from love.

At first glance, Led Zeppelin seems to be all about the machismo. The opening song on II is a charged-up burst of sexual inevitability, a dominating force that insists upon a submissive party. But after that, it takes a subtle turn. “The Lemon Song,” which probably still wouldn’t be approved by the PMRC, actually involves a guy having his manhood trampled on by his woman. Not only is she cheating on him, but he is entirely sexually beholden to her. In that scenario, she has all the power. Not so much machismo here.

But if “The Lemon Song” is machismo on the run, “Thank You” is the complete absence of it. Instead of posturing and puffed-out chests, “Thank You” has gratitude and selfless love as its centerpieces. Not only is this the opposite of machismo, but I think it’s one of the manliest songs of the entire 70s. The singer of “Thank You” is man enough to admit and be proud of the fact that he loves, and that he relies on the person he loves.

You’ll notice in the definition of machismo that it not only doesn’t mention love, but that it doesn’t have anything to do with love in any form. In fact, were the transcendent and divine power of love to take hold of us, we would find that machismo (and the female equivalent) becomes meaningless and inconsequential. Jesus talked about it; Martin Luther King Jr. talked about it. Love, in its most grand and perfect form, is not about power; it’s about oneness. When we are one, there is no power to be had.

Tomorrow: J.R.R. Tolkien the rock star, and Jimmy Page the literary scholar.

EXPLOSIVO!!!

This is a glorious day for rock fans everywhere. Why, you ask? It’s nothing less than Tenacious D coming out with a new album!! At last, maximum rockage will cover the land with awesomeness as JB and Rage Kage shoot their juice into every last groupie’s caboose. Check out this article for more details.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/26/tenacious-d-to-be-the-best-music-video-celeb-cameos_n_1381157.html?ref=fb&src=sp&comm_ref=false#sb=840577,b=facebook

LONG LIVE THE D!!!!!!

Every Inch

Led Zeppelin I

Led Zeppelin’s first album carved out a name for them and let the world know that things would be different from here on out. Led Zeppelin was about taking blues music and giving it a hard, modern edge. Nearly every song takes a standard blues formula and spins it to a different angle so it’s almost unrecognizable. “Dazed and Confused” is a good example. It was technically released long before the Altamont Free Concert, largely agreed upon to be “the death of the 60s.” But it heralded changes in the sound, stability, and mindset of rock and roll. It was getting nastier, darker, and more sexual. Led Zeppelin and Beggars Banquet prepared people for it; II made it a reality.

I’ve heard II described as the template for heavy metal. Most metal artists at the birth of the genre looked at II and thought, “we’ll just do that.” In that way, all metal artists from Stryper to Mayhem, Twisted Sister to Slipknot, owe Led Zeppelin big time. Without them, there would be no heavy metal, and that’s just the truth.

Led Zeppelin - II - 10/22/1969

The opening guitar strain of “Whole Lotta Love” is, without a doubt, the heaviest thing the world had heard thus far. Every time I hear this track, it only takes a few seconds before it captures my attention and I think, “wow; this is some serious business.” As plodding and unmerciful as the guitar part is, the vocals are serpentine and smooth, a feat Robert Plant was the first to pull off in this setting. But beware, Plant isn’t a wilting flower or a lovesick puppy – he’s dangerous. Mothers, lock up your daughters.

I once heard Robert Plant say in an interview something to the effect of this song letting the world know that Led Zeppelin “possessed sex.” Each time I listen to this song, I get it. The music is very sexual, but not like a horny teenager. No, it’s more like an experienced womanizer, a lion who hunts prey. The lyrics appear innocent enough, but have an undercurrent of male libido that is almost overwhelming. “I’m gonna give you my love” could be taken at face value, but I think the listener is intended to take it one step further.

Let’s be blunt: every instance of the word “love” in this song could be replaced with “penis.” Near the end, Plant even modifies the lyric to “I’m gonna give you every inch of my love!” It would take football fields full of naivety to miss that meaning. I could do without Plant having an orgasm into the microphone half way into the song, though; it’s not very manly to finish early.

After that burst of aggressive male sexuality, things slow down for a moment with “What Is and What Should Never Be.” The song has soft-on-the-verse, hard-on-the-chorus cycle; this is just one piece of II’s influence on not just heavy metal, but rock and roll in general. I think the concept is supposed to be the contrast between the extremes of hard and soft, like sleeping and waking. The verses are almost dreamlike, while the chorus is hard-driving and intense. Despite that, the melody in the chorus isn’t very compelling, and the verses aren’t formed enough. I understand that that’s the point of the song, but it just doesn’t do it for me.

“The Lemon Song,” on the other hand, really does. This song is full of sexual innuendo; Robert Plant saying “the way you squeeze my lemon, I’m gonna fall right outta bed” is more deliciously bawdy than all the modern sitcoms, rap songs and stand-up comedians combined. Sexual humor is always funnier when it’s presented with a wink. “If you know what I mean…”

“The Lemon Song” is arguably Led Zep’s most blues-influenced song; that’s saying a lot for a band that makes its name on updating the blues for the changing times. It borrows from Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf, and John Paul Jones’ bass track has funkiness that simply defies his age. Best of all is Robert Plant’s splendid and perfectly timed delivery. I feel I would have a lot of people on my side if I said that Plant is the greatest lead singer of all time.

On Monday: Being a man is more than what’s between your legs.

Get the Led Out

The first time I met my friend Mike, I was standing in line at the Dugout, the fast food joint run by my college that was in the Student Center. In line in front of me was my friend Colin, and he was engaged in conversation with a short, thick-bodied guy with a Fonzie hairstyle and a bomber jacket. I don’t remember any of the details of their conversation, save one: at some point, Mike said, “Tom Waits is a fucking genius!” Colin then noticed my presence and said, “Hey Neal. This is Mike.” We exchanged nods and heys.

Friendship is a strange thing. Some friendships are like popcorn chicken; you gobble them up quick as a flash and don’t expect to get much out of them. Others are like cigarettes; they give you a high, but are ultimately really bad for you. Still others are like breathing; you take them for granted about 95% of the time, but you have a few moments when you realize if you didn’t have them, even for a short time, you would die. When they’re not there, something is definitely wrong.

You could probably tell already, but my friendship with Mike is like breathing.

I imagine every music enthusiast (or film buff, or television expert, or literary scholar) has a friend like Mike: someone who, no matter your amazing depth of knowledge about a particular subject, makes you look like a blathering idiot. Seriously, when Mike starts talking about the socio-economic context of Black Sabbath or the sexuality inherent in Judas Priest, I feel like my entire musical scholarship amounts to “duuuuuh, I like Jimmy Eat World.” And I’ll tell you this: I wouldn’t trade him for 600 kajillion dollars.

L to R: John Bonham, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, John Paul Jones

It was under Mike’s tutelage that I first got the Led out. Sure, I’d heard of Led Zeppelin since I was little, but they, like so many other bands, were nothing more than a historical fact. When I first heard “Stairway to Heaven” when I was 7, I thought it was pretty boring. But Mike opened my eyes soon after we met. This is just one of the things he did for me, showed me, and brought to the forefront of my mind. I owe him the biggest debt of anyone for my musical education.

A lot has been said about Led Zeppelin over the years. They’re almost mythical figures, untouchable and ineffable to mere mortals. Even so, they have rather humble beginnings. Their roots are in another group called the Yardbirds, which saw a literal host of great British guitarists go through it. Strangely and perfectly enough, the Yardbirds saw those guitarists when they were young and green, just beginning to do great things, and they would do even greater things once they left that band. Jeff Beck would go on to create the Jeff Beck Group, which in turn launched the careers of Rod Stewart as well as Ronnie Wood, later of the Rolling Stones. Eric Clapton went on to fame and godhood with Cream, then Blind Faith, then Derek and the Dominos, then solo. But perhaps even greater was a bass player turned lead guitarist, a young hotshot named Jimmy Page.

Jimmy was known from the beginning of his stint in the Yardbirds for his showy and lacy dress, but more for his guitar antics. They included playing his Telecaster with the bow of a violin. Alas, Jimmy was a member of the Yardbirds in their last configuration. Their disintegration left Jimmy without a job, so he started thinking about a supergroup; the likes of Steve Winwood, Ginger Baker, Ansley Dunbar and The Who’s rhythm section were considered for it, but in the end he recruited session bass player John Paul Jones and near-unknown drummer John Bonham. The suggestion of Bonham had come from Page’s chosen singer, a 20 year-old swaggering peacock named Robert Plant. Jimmy Page said this about Plant:

“When I auditioned him and heard him sing, I immediately thought there must be something wrong with him personality-wise or that he had to be impossible to work with because I just could not understand why, after he told me he’d been singing for a few years already, he hadn’t become a big name yet.”

Jimmy’s amazement was warranted, and Plant was just as pleasant and polite as a guy can be. All that remained was the name.

The most popular story about the name is also unconfirmed. Keith Moon and John Entwistle of the Who once said that a supergroup including them and Jimmy Page would go down like a lead balloon. Jimmy was amused, and dubbed his new group Led Zeppelin. “Lead” was purposely misspelled, at the suggestion of Led Zep manager Peter Grant, to prevent stupid Americans from saying “Leed Zeppelin.”

And thusly, one of the most important and influential bands in the history of rock and roll was born.

Tomorrow: Mothers, lock up your daughters.

I’ve said before that the hallmark of Beggars Banquet is the sound being stripped down like a flying gas can. Producer Jimmy Miller does an exceptional job of making this record organic and gut-based rather than contrived. The Stones are honest here, but not the emo kind of honest that makes you squirm in your seat. The honesty here is more brutal and cold, but delivered with a breezy, sleazy smile. With Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Rolling Stones had ceased their teen heartthrob aesthetic, but with Beggars Banquet, they replaced it with no-frills free will. Doing that, they became a fully fleshed out, fully adult band.

Rev. Robert Wilkins

“Prodigal Son” reveals that they’re no longer playing to a teenage crowd; teens wouldn’t have any interest in a blues guitar piece originally performed by a preacher that draws its lyrics straight from the Bible. If you want to talk about stripped-down, “Prodigal Son” is quintessential. There’s really nothing more to this song than a quickly strummed acoustic guitar and a straight-up recital of the story of (you guessed it) the prodigal son. If you’re not familiar with it, read Luke 15.

Written by Robert Wilkins in the 1920s, it was originally called “That’s No Way to Get Along.” When Wilkins found religion in the ‘30s and became an ordained minister, he changed the “unholy” lyrics of the song to the similarly themed parable from Luke’s gospel, and changed the name to “Prodigal Son.” “Unholy” seems like the Rolling Stones’ stock in trade, but the cleaned-up, Biblical version is the one the Stones cover. I listened to the original, and I honestly don’t know what’s so unholy about it, but mostly because the recording is so bad that I can’t understand a blessed word of it except the refrain of “that’s no way for me to get along.”

“Factory Girl” continues the stripped-down theme; it’s an honest-to-God country Appalachian ballad. I appreciate the homey, community-based setting that generated it. It features guest musicians Dave Mason of Traffic, Ric Grech of Family, and frequent Stones percussionist Rocky Dijon. I can imagine all of them sitting in a circle, all very laid-back and mellow, playing their instruments laconically while groupies and hangers-on pass around a joint, the sweet smell of marijuana clouding the air. In truth, it’s a pretty groovy image.

The cap is “Salt of the Earth,” which has all the elements of a final flourish before bedding down for the night. In it, Keith Richards – who has an atrocious turn at lead vocals before turning it over to Jagger – proposes that the listeners “raise a glass” to the common folk who live ordinary lives every day. As the song progresses, it becomes clear that the tone of the entire song is derisive and sarcastic. It’s disarming because the music and vocal delivery is played relatively straight. Whether he’s doing it intentionally or not, Jagger reveals here that he’s really out of touch. He’s looking down from an ivory tower on the masses assembled at his feet; from his lofty perch, they all blur together and become meaningless, no longer human individuals. But there is a self-awareness in this song, too. Use of clichés like “two thousand million,” “till the earth,” and even “salt of the earth” let you know that Jagger knows full well that the reason he looks on those people with derision is that has to crane his neck down to even see them. He knows this, but the question is whether he has the motivation to change his view.

It reminds me of an episode early in the first season of The Big Bang Theory, when super-genius Sheldon goes with Penny to the supermarket. He has just lost his job as a prestigious researcher at Cal Tech, and until now has never worried himself with such mundane matters as grocery shopping. Interacting with people at the market, he looks on them with fond condescension. “And thank you, ordinary person!”

The Rolling Stones make a very good case here for becoming the best band in the world. That promise is more than lived up to in the next few years. They’d been held up from the beginning as a contrast to the Beatles; that band was already showing signs of tearing at the seams, so it’s only natural that the Stones would swoop in. Beggars Banquet puts them in swooping position; sloughing off the dead weight of Brian Jones (another bad pun…)served them well, even if the sloughing had a tragic end.  But they would only stay there until they themselves started to break down. By 1980, they stopped significantly contributing to rock and roll and became a parody of it. But for a few years, the Rolling Stones were actually residing in that ivory tower “Salt of the Earth” said they were.

“hey baby… wanna see my guitar pick?”

Beggars Banquet starts with a narrative from Satan, sort of an invocation of the devil. Then there’s a song about “fighting in the streets,” just the type of violent chaos that would tickle Lucifer pink. A little later, we get what I think is one of the places you can see the influence of Satan most clearly, or at least is one of the human enterprises that most makes him quiver with delight.

“Stray Cat Blues” is a deliciously sleazy song, crawling with decadence and sexual debauchery. It’s about a rock musician who has sex with an admittedly underage groupie, and considers it “no hanging matter” and “no capital crime.” It’s spoken in the second person from the rock star to the girl. Now, it’s not a story of the two having sex, and then the rock star finding out after the fact that the girl lied about her age, the rocker regretful that he’s landed in jail. The fact that the girl is only 15 is out in the open. It ups the sleaze to about five times its normal amount.

Mick Jagger, while no doubt having had a very similar experience (probably multiple times), was writing this song as a reaction to all the puritanical parents who were sure that the Rolling Stones were a bad influence on their impressionable teenage daughters. He was going, “yeah, well how ‘bout this?”

He might also have been making a comment on the true nature of those teenage girls, which was very different that the picture their parents had of them (“I bet your mama don’t know you can scream like that!”). According to the theory, teenager’s hormones are spewing all over the place in a confused, chaotic mess; all it takes is the tiniest catalyst to make a girl completely ditch all her morals (if she even had any). Enter Mick. She goes to a show, she meets him, and stuff just happens. According to the narrator, whose fault is it really?

Here’s my position. If you want to have sex with someone, that’s human. If you’re not in a very committed relationship with them (i.e. married), that’s unwise. If you’re both underage, that’s normal, but still unwise. If she’s underage and you’re not, that’s Creepy McCreeperson! If you actually have sex with that underage girl, then congratulations; you’re a child molester. And if you don’t already, you should know that it’s punishable by law.

“Stray Cat Blues” is nothing more (and doesn’t pretend to be anything more) than an example of a child molester molesting a child. It’s a down-and-dirty blues song about a down-and-dirty subject, one blues music has explored before. The lyric “it’s no hanging matter” proves that he really is a pedophile in the diagnosable, “something is psychologically wrong” way. Not only does he regularly do something that any rational person would consider morally wrong, but he doesn’t see the wrong in it.

Alternatively, he may be saying the “it’s no capital crime” thing to the girl herself. It fits right in with the all-too-common cliché of talking circles ‘round the girl ‘til she’s too confused to resist. “C’mon, baby, I know you want to” and “you love me, don’t you?” become “she was begging for it” and “she got what she deserved” after the fact. It’s all there in “Stray Cat Blues.”

For the live performance on Get Yer Ya-Yas Out!, Mick makes it even more provocative by changing the groupie’s age to 13. The tune rocks hard and has a better groove than most of the Stones material over 4 decades, but you sometimes feel like you need a shower after listening to it.

Tomorrow the conclusion of Beggars Banquet.