Archive for June, 2012


Strawberry Fields

The Washington Arch at WSP

For those 23 months I lived in New York City, I often found myself walking, enjoying the various parts and seeable sights that Manhattan had to offer. I had several favorite places to go. Washington Square Park was an obvious and easy destination; just a block and a half from our apartment, I could just take little stroll and be there instantly.

During the summers, there were two street performers there who were there at least three afternoons a week. They were called Tic and Tac; identical twin brothers from Harlem, the only way you could tell them apart was one of them always wore an American flag bandanna on his head. They often finished each other’s sentences, though I’m pretty sure that was just a script. They did a mostly acrobatic show with lots of audience participation, and witty repartee was a huge part of their act.

Rockefeller Center was another common destination. Besides loving the architecture and design of the outside and the spectacle of the shops, there was the TODAY Show. I had started watching Matt, Meredith, Ann and Al in the mornings on TV shortly after arriving in New York, and once I got my bearings in the city (and the willingness to get my carcass out of bed, dressed and up to 48th St.), I watched the show live on the plaza many times. I even appeared on camera once; it was raining that day, so I got to be right behind where the hosts film the 8:30 segment. Meredith even recognized me when I came back, probably because I proudly wore my Red Sox hat in enemy territory (Meredith is a huge Sox fan). I’ll admit it – I fanboyed a little.

But without question, my favorite spot in Manhattan is a park bench in Central Park, on the east side at the 72nd St. entrance. There’s a circular flagstone mosaic on the ground flanked by several park benches; it simply says IMAGINE in the middle. This is Strawberry Fields, a memorial to John Lennon, right across the street from the Dakota, the posh apartment building where he lived for the last part of his life, and where he was murdered.

I went there on Lennon’s birthday, and on the anniversary of his death, but I would also just go there, just because. I found myself drawn there sometimes. Some magnetic force compelled me. It could have been Lennon’s spirit, but I think it was something bigger – music in general , maybe.

I have great respect for John Lennon, perhaps more than any other rock star. Even the term “rock star” conjures up images that Lennon seems somehow above. He lived his life as a warrior for peace and a living example of the power of love. His zeitgeist is one of enduring hope for millions of people.

That is not to say I agree with everything he said, or even match up with him in thought and deed. He is someone I greatly admire and respect, but not someone I seek to emulate. His life was filled with turmoil, and he spent most of it hurting the people closest to him. For a long time, he allowed the demons of his past to affect his present, thus determining his future. He broke away from his demons when he married Yoko Ono, but in that he proved himself even more un-emulation worthy by cheating on his wife.

Imagine – John Lennon – 9/9/1971

The biggest bone I have with his mindset is expressed in the title song of his 1971 solo album, Imagine. It’s the most popular and iconic song of his solo career, and it has become a totem and a symbol for anyone who seeks to create harmony out of discord. My own experience with it has been different, though, and my perception of “Imagine” comes a little out of left field.

I first heard the song when I was about 7 years old. I was not supposed to be watching MTV (my parents had disallowed it for me and my sister) when I saw the music video. Besides what I instantly thought was an excessively pretty piano riff at the beginning, the first lyric is “Imagine there’s no heaven.” As a 7 year-old Christian with Christian parents, I couldn’t imagine there not being a heaven. When he followed with “It’s easy if you try,” I did actually try. And you know what? It bummed me out. If there was no heaven, there was no God. Even my immature brain could make that connection. And to my young mind, an existence without God was no existence at all. That’s still true for me.

Now that I’m a grown-up (whatever that means…), I understand that the heart of John’s message in “Imagine” is tearing down all the walls that divide people and eliminating all the things people use as weapons against each other. In order to have peace, we must no longer think in a singular way, but instead have the best interests of all people at the forefront of our minds. Things like religion, country and possessions force us to focus on what is only our own and not care about anyone else. We can also use those things for purposes they weren’t intended for, to hurt one another.

So John’s approach is this: if those things cause us to be like that, then why don’t we just get rid of them? What would happen if we did get rid of them? Can you just imagine??? That, in and of itself, is a pretty positive message.

I’ve taken quite some time to come to this, but my own approach is different. John wants to get rid of those things, but I think they’re essential parts of who we are. In particular, religion is woven into our human fabric; it’s our way of understanding God. There can’t be God without there being religion, because he would have no way of talking to us, and that’s not the kind of God he is. We can’t get rid of religion anymore than we can get rid of oxygen.

So what, then? Are we doomed to a selfish, destructive cycle we can’t break out of, repeating the same mistakes over and over? Well, no. Evil things have been done by people in the name of religion, but that doesn’t make religion evil – it makes the people evil. But even people can’t be truly and completely evil. They still have a God spark somewhere inside them, and that gives hope to each one of us.

Sermon over.

I spent the first 10 to 15 years of my life with a pretty black and white idea of Christianity and the world in which it exists. Christianity was completely true and all other religions, paths, practices and philosophies were completely false. In high school, I started to perceive a few shades of grey; my mind started wandering into things that ended in question marks and ellipses rather than periods. That made me curious but uncomfortable, so I confined my search for answers to my own internal logic, what I could figure out on my own. It was a bad move.

When I got to college, the number of my questions just exploded. Uncertainties were coming at me from all sides and I couldn’t keep it to myself anymore. My only recourse was to dispense with the uncomfortable feeling and barrel on ahead. It got to the point where I was questioning just about everything. When I was young, all things were certain; now, very few things were.

A couple of things stayed true: God was real, love was real, and God loved me. I’ve always been certain of that. But every other thing was up in the air, and they’ve slowly been coming down to a more graspable height ever since college. They still fly away sometimes, but I know I’ve got a firm hold on the really important stuff.

The most important thing I’ve learned since high school is that there’s not a lot of difference between Christians and non-Christians. I used to think there was this thick black line dividing them, and that line ran along who treated you well and who didn’t. What, little Ben cut in front of me in the line for the drinking fountain? He must be going to hell! But who treats you well has to do with their own battle with their sin nature, not whether or not they carry the label “Christian.” Christians can be just as vile as other people, and they even have a corner on the market of certain types of vileness. And quite often some deep truths about God, love and the nature of both come from seemingly “heathen” sources.

Since their first record and for about 10 years after, Black Sabbath had been fighting against insinuations and outright statements that they were Satanists. Every time the question came up in an interview, they flatly denied it. Ozzy Osbourne and Geezer Butler made no secret of the fact that they were brought up Catholic. The image was brought on by their dark, doomy music and references to Satan in their lyrics, but the public took it several steps further. Sabbath eventually learned to live with it, and then to use it to their own advantage, but it had to be frustrating. And around the time of their third album, they decided to fire back.

Master of Reality contains some pretty bold statements about the goodness of God, the evils of Satan, and some unabashed references to love. The songs “After Forever” and “Lord of This World” lay the groundwork for Christian metal, even if no Christian artist under the sun will admit that it’s true. “After Forever” takes an incredibly direct approach to God and the question of his existence, even having the narrator (which would most likely be Geezer himself) say “I’ve seen the light and I’ve changed my ways.” Furthermore, he warns the person he’s addressing against denying God in front of their friends, and  says “God is the only way to love.” Gospel message? Maybe. Something a Satanist would say? Definitely not.

“Lord of This World” takes the opposite tack, being a letter from Satan to a hapless victim whom he deceived. But rather than laughing in victory, Satan seems a little sad, like taking the person’s soul was a little too easy. There’s no longer any need for deception on Satan’s part, so he just lays it bare. His victim chose “evil ways instead of love” and made him the “master of the world where [he] exist[s].” Satan might as well be saying, “Why did you follow me instead of God? I’m freakin’ evil, dude! Get a clue!” Christian ministers who preach hellfire and damnation can’t even do it as effectively as this.

At the cap there’s “Into the Void,” a futuristic account of the few people who know the truth leaving the earth in spaceships forever because it’s too corrupt, and searching the galaxy for a place to start anew. The earth is filled with hatred, evil, misery and death, and it’s all Satan’s fault. I have a feeling those who left the planet did so because they were looking for heaven, and Earth too closely resembled hell.

There is a very important distinction to draw here, one that could make or break your decision on Black Sabbath, if you haven’t already made up your mind. Sabbath’s message on Master of Reality is pro-God and pro-love, but not necessarily pro-Christianity. Jesus is never mentioned explicitly, though God is. The principles Sabbath presents here are found in an undiluted form in Christianity, but they’re careful to avoid throwing their hat in with the Christian crowd (or any crowd).

And I can’t talk about Master of Reality and its Christian themes without also talking about a track from their very next album Vol. 4, called “Under the Sun.” It’s a cover, but it captures BS’s spirit very well. It’s a call to not let anyone’s philosophy intrude on your own, to make your own path. This is stupid, of course; everyone’s philosophy is a collection of things they’ve heard and have chosen to hang onto. The reason I mention it is that they make a reference to “Jesus freaks” in the first line, where the narrator is laying out all the people groups he doesn’t want telling him what to believe. That list also includes “black magicians,” but the slap in the face to Christians remains. “Under the Sun” basically says the singer already has it all figured out, and doesn’t want anybody telling him what’s what; a revelation of arrogance, naivety, and plain old stupidity.

Black Sabbath eventually came to accept their slightly demonic image, and in 1980 they started fostering it. Ozzy had been fired, and an essential part of Black Sabbath’s image was gone. Nature abhors a vacuum, but rather than replace Ozzy, they shifted their image and musical direction, hiring Ronnie James Dio as the new lead belter. With the addition of Dio, they started leaning into the suggestions of Satanism, or at least started embracing the devilish side of their public face.

Ronnie James Dio

The Dio Sabbath always made me uncomfortable. With Ozzy, the suggestions of Satanism were a hysterical joke, made tragic by that some people took the joke seriously. With Dio, though, they seemed somehow authentic. I fear they started dabbling with things they shouldn’t. All in all, Black Sabbath’s Lucifer influences are a lot of bluster without any substance, but they came dangerously close to making them real in the early 80s. For that reason, I’ve always preferred the Ozzy years to Dio. After Dio… well, it’s not worth mentioning.

I’m sure you can visualize the scene: two long-haired gadabouts clad in dirty black cargo pants and Slayer t-shirts go to the home of one of them to smoke a bag of weed they just scored. They go to the tool shed in the backyard, converted to a drug haven for the two potheads, with metal posters on the walls, a lava lamp and an old, smelly couch with the upholstery spilling out of the cushions. The only thing needed to complete the scene before the two wastoids light up is some groovy, crunchy tunes. One of them goes to the CD player and very ironically puts on Master of Reality, and the first sounds of Tony Iommi coughing (presumably from marijuana smoke) starts in, and the other one nods and says “niiiiice.”

There; how’s that for completely unqualified knowledge from a guy who’s never done an illegal drug in his life?

A lot of people point to Master of Reality as the birth of what’s called “stoner rock.” It usually involves very distorted guitars, minor keys and simple, repetitive figures. An entire song can consist of one riff of two measures repeated for 4 minutes.

If you ask me, I’m not sure “stoner rock” really exists; it might be no more than music scholars having too much time on their hands but needing to validate their choice of career, and thus creating sub-sub-sub-subcategories for everything under the sun. I shouldn’t speak too ill of them, though, since I definitely wouldn’t turn down someone offering to pay me actual money to invent terms like “stoner rock.” The more I think about it, the more it’s sounding like a really good gig.

Here’s my argument. In my mind, stoner rock is music that provides a good soundtrack for getting high, and it helps if there is a positive reference to the uses and powers of drugs. Under that definition, Phish would be stoner rock. So would the Black Crowes. And Cypress Hill. So would Bob Marley, Enya, the Spin Doctors and Enigma. In fact, a case could be made for almost any band having at least one song that qualifies as stoner rock, which is what makes the label so problematic.

The questionable status of stoner rock aside, Master of Reality does have plodding guitars and lazy approach to musicality (simple and bluesy, not a lot of adornment), both of which make it particularly suited to leaning back and getting wasted. That combined with the opening track being a romantic ode to marijuana and it’s easy to see why Master of Reality gets associated with the drug culture. If there is such a thing as stoner rock, “Sweet Leaf” is the quintessential song of the genre, but it’s really the only qualifying one on the entirety of Master of Reality, and arguably in Sabbath’s entire catalog.

Hippies were really ancestors of modern-day stoners, and Black Sabbath shares some lyrical commonality with them on this album, if not musically. In 1971, The music culture was reacting to the hippie movement, and acts like Black Sabbath, the Stooges and David Bowie had an opposite aesthetic to hippie bands like Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead, even if they sometimes had matching lyrical themes.

“Children of the Grave” is a breath away from being a protest song, very in line with the hippie movement. While it has very dark and doomy music, it promotes revolution through non-violence and passive resistance. The title is a little deceiving; it makes you think it’s about zombies or something, and it takes a slightly more sardonic and fatalistic tone. You might not expect it from a band so often associated with Satanism, but “Children of the Grave” is quite positive. It centers on love.

Love, believe it or not, is a big theme of Master of Reality. Metal bands nowadays have a huge aversion to themes like love, forgiveness, joy and positivity. Instead, they myopically focus on suffering, evil, torture, self-loathing and chaos. Love is uncool. Yet here, on what is largely agreed upon to be one of the bedrock albums of heavy metal, Black Sabbath are talking about not only love, but (gasp!) God.

Next up: Black Sabbath says “God is the only way to love…” wait, what???

Master of Reality – Black Sabbath – 7/21/1971

You’ve probably already had an inkling that I’m a Christian. While I’m very much aggrieved at the misunderstanding the use of that term causes (people assume all sorts of stuff they shouldn’t…), I’m also not ashamed of it, and I can’t change that I’m a Christian any more than a bumblebee can change that it makes honey. So of course, my Christianity plays a big role in what I see through my Coke bottle glasses.

Everybody has Coke bottle glasses. They’re why two people can get completely different things out of a piece of art, why there’s such a thing as political parties, and why historical events look different the more time that’s passed. Some things look the same through everyone’s, but art isn’t one of them. Art, in some cases, can have as many interpretations as there are people interacting with it.

Suffice to say, my own Coke bottle glasses usually look at a thing and see God reflected in it, however he may be disguised. So what do they see when I look at the Black Sabbath song “Sweet Leaf?”

“Sweet Leaf” is an ode to the wonders and miracles of the ganja, though you might not know it at first due to the sappy sentiments the lyrics put forth. They’re downright gushing, like a teenage girl in love with her first boyfriend. Its squishy romanticism would be touching were the love it portrays not for an inanimate object, and an illegal one at that. As such, it’s pretty unabashed. It stops just short of actually mentioning marijuana by name.

The music is in deep contrast to the lyrics, however. Ozzy sings about his romance with weed with the same snarling intensity he would have if he were describing a witches’ coven. The guitars are slow, sludgy, unyielding and repetitive; the perfect soundtrack for getting completely stoned.

There is, however, an alternate interpretation (my own), one that doesn’t involve pot at all. Keep in mind this is absolutely not what the author intended when he wrote “Sweet Leaf.” There are few songs that are more obviously about a thing (and likewise not another), but I can’t help but think about Jesus when I hear it, just like I can’t help but chuckle at that thought.

That’s right, I said Jesus. Why couldn’t “Sweet Leaf” be about how much the singer loves Jesus? The rhetoric in the song is strikingly similar to what new believers say about their new-found love of Christ (“my life is free now” and “you gave to me a new belief”). The gushing adoration “Sweet Leaf” shows could easily be transferred to Christ. Heck, it even has biblical support. Consider this line:

You introduced me to my mind

 Hebrews 8 says, “I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.” Also, consider this:

 Straight people don’t know what you’re about / they put you down and shut you out

 In Acts 19, some of the people Paul was telling about God “became obstinate,” “refused to believe,” and “maligned the Way.” Then there’s this:

 You gave to me a new belief / And soon the world will love you, sweet leaf

 God had this to say, speaking through the prophet Isaiah: “Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will confess.”

Remember what I said awhile ago about Christians who use the bible as a means to support what they already think, and how you shouldn’t do it? Pretty ironic, huh? It’s okay, though; I’m wearing my self-awareness hat.

It’s almost silly how blinding and obvious the parallels are between the love of pot and the love of Christ. Or at least, they’re obvious to someone with my Coke bottle glasses. So why not? Why can’t “Sweet Leaf” be about Jesus?

I’ll answer my own question, if you don’t mind. There are some very glaring inconsistencies within the text of “Sweet Leaf,” things that simply don’t make sense under this interpretation. Here they are:

You introduced me to my mind / and left me wanting you and your kind

I love you, sweet leaf / though you can’t hear

hey, don’t let me stop ya

The “you and your kind” line is enough to kill it right there. There’s no way for that to make any sense if the song is about Christ. “Your kind” would be who? Buddah? Mohammad? Vishnu? The Flying Spaghetti Monster? In addition, the “you can’t hear” line doesn’t even make sense if the song’s about pot. Of course marijuana can’t hear; it’s a plant. The most intelligent thing I can come up with is, “duh.”

Of course, I’m not saying “Sweet Leaf” is really about Jesus Christ. I’m only saying, “Wouldn’t it be weird/ironic/hysterical if it was?” I do this to illustrate two things. The first is that with art, truly nothing is off-limits. The second is this: where’s the fun in art if you’re not allowed to come up with outlandish and indefensible  theories from time to time?

Tomorrow: what is “stoner rock?”

I’ve never done a drug that wasn’t prescribed to me. While I realize that doesn’t really reduce my chances of death from drugs (just ask Michael Jackson…), it indicates my lack of reference points about drugs. I never did pot as a kid, even though some friends of mine and people I knew definitely did. I don’t even know where you’d get pot. They don’t sell it at Target, and no stores have signs out that say “we have pot,” so I’m at a loss.

The same is true for other, harder drugs. Being into rock and roll for a while, I know that drugs are simply rampant in that culture, but I have no idea where they come from. How do people get them? I’ve seen pictures of ecstasy tablets with little smiley faces on them, or stars, or question marks, even doves. That means they’re manufactured, but they’re illegal in the US. Is there some ecstasy factory in Bolivia or something? What the heck?

Suffice to say, my understanding of the drug culture is pretty small. I’ve never been tempted to try them, and I’ve never even had the opportunity. I guess I just wasn’t cool enough as a teenager. The Rolling Stones do a lot of songs about drugs, more than any other band I’m into next to Velvet Underground. As such, I’m only able to enter into a song like “Sister Morphine” so far before I’m in foreign territory.

Marianne Faithfull

“Sister Morphine” was first recorded in 1969 by British pop singer Marianne Faithfull, who was another of Mick Jagger’s romantic entanglements during the late 60s. That guy just couldn’t keep his pecker in his pants. Faithfull was a smalltime singer who rode the Rolling Stones wave until it hit the shore. She was part of the London social scene in ’66, at latched herself onto the Stones after being “discovered” by Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones’ manager. Her version of “Sister Morphine” sold drearily, not helped by that only 500 copies of the single were pressed. Its writing was credited to the Jagger/Richards team, though Marianne helped pen the lyrics, receiving no credit until 1994. The Stones did their own version in 1971 on Sticky Fingers.

It’s a pretty haunting song, though I didn’t think much of it the first few times I heard it. But when I actually paid attention to the lyrics, I found it to be fairly terrifying. Particularly creepy is the way the narrator refers to drugs as “sister” and “cousin.” Other songs about cocaine and the like that are cautionary tales tell their stories from a high and mighty perspective, accidental though it may be. This is different because the terror of drug addiction feels lived in.

At the cap is “Moonlight Mile,” a hidden gem in the Stones’ discography. After all the posturing of songs like “Under My Thumb” and “Miss Amanda Jones,” the raunchy philandering of “Honky Tonk Women” and “Stray Cat Blues,” and the plastic emotion of “Ruby Tuesday” and “As Tears Go By,” we’ve come to expect a certain character from the Rolling Stones. We think we know them, but they surprise us here on Sticky Fingers. It starts on “Wild Horses,” but “Moonlight Mile is where we truly meet them, and find out they have throbbing hearts and actual vulnerability.

“Moonlight Mile,” unlike any Stones song to come before it, is free of any contrivance, sexuality, or smirking humor. It comes from a place of naked honesty. Through the lyrics, we see that the singer may be a rock and roll superstar, having all the sex and drugs a guy could want, but he’s still, at the end of the day, just lonely. But there’s more. The song is not mired in melancholy and despair, but instead gives a hint of steadfast hope. That hope exists because there’s a girl, and the singer’s “just about a moonlight mile on down the road” from her. He’ll get to her soon, and things will be better.

While Sticky Fingers might have been preparation for the glorious blast of blues, drugs and freedom that is the winner-take-all opus Exile On Main St., to think of it as a mere intro for something greater is to do Sticky Fingers a disservice. It’s a great achievement just on its own merits, and has a definition and form that not many albums have anymore. You can see the Stones letting down the walls here. While they would be completely gone with the next album, Sticky Fingers is a very important step on the journey, one that makes the trip complete.

From their genesis, the Rolling Stones have been putting a white spin on a very black form of music, almost a parody were it not for their complete earnestness about themselves. They developed a tongue-in-cheek approach to the music they played later, but as much as they made fun of different genres, there was always a bit of admiration and tribute in their spoofs.

In “Dead Flowers,” that sense of spoofing is at its highest, and the source material is ripe for ridicule. The song is a send-up of the country-western genre from fingertips to toes, dripping with subtle sarcasm. Mick even tries to imitate an American cowboy accent, sounding like Johnny Cash if he were doing an impression of himself. “Dead Flowers” is supposed to make you laugh, but it ends up sounding strangely authentic. It proves that the Stones’ wicked sense of humor is still intact, even if the weariness of sex, drugs and rock and roll are taking their toll.

“You Gotta Move,” in the opposite way, isn’t even close to being meant as a joke, yet I can’t listen to it without it seeming like a plastic, showroom parody of the blues and gospel. Every element of the song is played completely straight, or at least that’s what the Stones were going for. But by the time it gets to Mick singing in a near-falsetto to match the guitar riff, my laughter breaks. Maybe it’s the fact that Mick tries to do another voice imitation, this time of a black Southern Baptist preacher. Since I find southern people (particularly Christians) to be slightly ridiculous, it’s hard for me to get completely serious about a song like “You Gotta Move.”

these are hillbillies, and not exactly representative of southerners…

Southern Americans have a particular mindset and package of social standards. But being a New Englander through and through, I often forget that I have my own mindset and package of social standards. Too much I think of myself as the default, and anyone different is just weird. This is one of the problems with being human. The biggest place I face this is in my thought process about those from the American south. I’ve tried to combat this (to little or no avail), but one of my hang-ups is that when a person talks in a southern accent, I automatically assume they are of extremely substandard intelligence. “Yoo shoor doo gaat purty teeth…”

Combine that with my high-minded, northern sensibilities about Christianity, and you get some dangerous snobbery on my part. The fact that I am a Christian and yet am comfortable with women in the ministry, am open to ideas about the sin status of homosexuality, and think evolution is a million times more plausible than 7-day-creationism puts me at odds with a lot of Christians that live in the south. But at all times I need to remember (and they do, too…) that no matter the size of our disagreements and differences in mindset, we still have the most important thing in common, and that is that we are children of the Most Holy God. That trumps everything else.

Sticky Fingers enjoys a dual nature, as do other Stones albums before and after it. It shifts between hard and soft, though some albums do it more gracefully than others. That’s why you have a song like “Wild Horses” right next to “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’.” While “Wild Horses” is a sedate and kinda weepy number, “Knockin’” segues from it beautifully with a bluesy distorted guitar and Keith playing a monster of a riff. The song itself is fairly standard except for that savage riff, but the real gem starts halfway through.

Guitarist Mick Taylor says that the band finished the song after 3 and a half minutes and started putting down their instruments, but Taylor kept right on playing. I imagine he was in a sort of blues trance, subconsciously wanting the haze to go on longer. The rest of the band followed suit and started playing again, including Bobby Keys on saxophone. They didn’t even know the tape was still rolling, but they got another 4 minutes of footage. It’s pure blues gold.

After the slight pause of “You Gotta Move,” the vinyl flips and we start the second side with “Bitch.” Like Led Zep’s “The Lemon Song,” it details how a man is entirely sexually beholden to a woman. At the mere sound of her voice, he “salivate[s] like a Pavolv dog.” It’s ironic that most of human history has seen the subjugation of women, sometimes being crushed on the male boot. Yet women, I think, have always had this avenue of power over men.

Lysistrata is a play by classical Greek playwright Aristophanes, first performed in Athens in 411 BC, and the plot of this comedy revolves around a group of women who withhold sexual privileges to their husbands in an effort to get them to negotiate an end to the Peloponnesian War. This careful wielding of the power of sex by women can’t sit well with men, who are used to being top dog. This might be why it’s described as a “bitch” in this song.

It makes me wonder: as women are gaining more of an equal share in the arenas of the workplace, the home and politics, will they find that their trump card of sex is decreasing in value? Might men eventually no longer view sex as the most important thing in the universe?

Ba-dum-bum! Thanks, folks, you’ve been great! I’ll be here all week!

The Rolling Stones were riding high (in more ways than one) in 1969, despite the unfortunate death of Brian Jones. In a print ad for “Honky Tonk Women,” model and stage actress Marsha Hunt was asked to pose. She turned the Stones down saying, “I don’t want to look like I’d just been had by all the Rolling Stones.” That sass must have been appreciated by Jagger, because he immediately called her up and asked for a date. A ten-month fling started, the results of which are the birth of a child and a song. That song is “Brown Sugar.”

Hunt, quite obviously, is black. Her silhouette appears in the famous first-run poster for the Broadway show Hair, and she appeared as Dionne in the London production. “Brown Sugar,” likewise, is about a black girl, but not one with great sexual prowess or skill as one might expect from a Rolling Stones song.

It’s actually pretty similar to “Stray Cat Blues” in that the male of the story sexually dominates the woman, he being of greater social standing than her and able to simply take what he wants. “Brown Sugar” starts from a different place, however; it’s a narrative about a slave girl brought to America from Africa, sold to a rich, married cotton farmer, and used for sexual gratification. In another similarity to “Stray Cat Blues,” the song dispenses with any sense of morality in a sociopathic manner. The fact that she’s black and being used in a sub-human and exploitive way is unimportant; all that is said is that she “taste[s] so good.” The narrator doesn’t know he’s a sexual animal guilty of at least three deadly sins; he just knows he loves screwing black girls.

“Brown Sugar” reveals something about Mick Jagger, too. He can’t help himself when it comes to chocolate women. Like Thomas Jefferson and his famous cross-racial, cross-economincal relationship with slave Sally Hemings, Mick has a fetish for women of African descent. This only says to me that love, lust and everything in between have zero regard for our societal and cultural boundaries. The heart wants what it wants.

Sticky Fingers breaks from the pattern of the previous two Stones albums (is two really enough to be a pattern?) in that it doesn’t have the minor key first track and the country-tinged second track. “Brown Sugar” is a very celebratory and jubilant song, and it’s followed by “Sway,” a slower number that’s nevertheless loud and bombastic. Where “Brown Sugar” has a tightness to it, “Sway” is sloppy and drunken, reminiscent of “Let It Bleed” but crunchier. Though the writing credit goes to Jagger/Richards, Mick Taylor claims he wrote “Sway” with Jagger, and Richards wasn’t even involved. Taylor also plays a killer solo, one of the best of the Stones’ entire catalog.

“Wild Horses” is after that, one of the Stones’ more famous songs, and definitely their best ballad. And as ballads go, this one fills in every cliché there is. Listeners were used to this kind of thing from the Stones, but it never had this kind of honesty. Other ballads like “As Tears Go By” and “Lady Jane” had a sneaking contrivance that made them ring false. “Wild Horses” delivers twice the emotional punch because all contrivance is dropped.

The Sundays

It’s also one of the Rolling Stones’ most covered songs. The Flying Burrito Brothers (yes, that’s an actual band name) covered it before it was released on Sticky Fingers. Others as prominent as Guns N’ Roses, Neil Young, The Black Crowes, Iron & Wine, Elvis Costello and Dave Matthews have done it, as well as women the likes of Jewel, Sheryl Crow, Kelly Clarkson, Deborah Harry, Alicia Keys and the Indigo Girls, just to name a few. But perhaps the most famous version is by the Sundays, back in 1992. “Wild Horses” was their only hit, and what a hit it was. The song lends itself extremely well to a woman’s voice, perhaps even better than Mick himself singing it.

Sticky Fingers – The Rolling Stones – 4/23/1971

Mick Jagger (and the rest of the Rolling Stones), to use a bit of British slang, is a cheeky little bastard. Society has unspoken rules and regulations about what you do and what you don’t do, but he casually bites his thumb at them when it suits him. Mind you, he’s not so shallow or immature to purposefully break social codes for the simple sake of breaking them. Instead, he has a smirking disregard for societal laws, a trailblazing mentality that I sometimes wish I could emulate.

With originality will of course come some ruffled feathers. An example is the artwork for the Rolling Stones’ 1971 album Sticky Fingers. It features a picture of a man’s jean clad crotch – belly button to thighs. His jeans are so tight that his features (particularly the male ones) are unable to be mistaken. The photograph is fairly grainy, but if you’re paying attention, it’s pretty clear that he has a raging hard-on. But wait, there’s more! In a very avant-garde move, the cover is more than just a picture. It also has an actual zipper that can be moved up and down, letting you dignify and un-dignify the male model at will. The kicker, though (as if that wasn’t enough), is the back cover. It has the same model in the same pose, but instead of skin-tight black jeans, he’s clad only in tighty-whiteys. His erection is even more pronounced.

Andy Warhol, silver screen, can’t tell them apart at all…

The Sticky Fingers cover was designed by Andy Warhol, that guru of all things alternative culture in the 1960s. In addition to producing the first album from the Velvet Underground, he also designed that album cover: a simple white background with a plastic peel-off banana in the center that revealed a pink peeled banana underneath; nudity, phallic symbols and potassium all in one. He’s just starting his decline in 1971, the cover for Sticky Fingers being his last significant statement.

Even the name Sticky Fingers is loaded with innuendo. Back when I was a kid, KFC had the slogan “It’s finger-lickin’ good!” I thought “sticky fingers” meant something similar ‘til I was about 12. I won’t bother to explain the double-entendre of the album title; I think you’ll be able to figure it out. Hint: it’s not about barbecued chicken.

Other album covers had ruffled feathers with their suggestiveness, but Sticky Fingers takes the cake. It’s pretty much the pinnacle of a sly nudge in the ribs, and goes as far as art can go before tipping over into gross overstatement and crass genitalia jokes, the domain of 12 year-old boys. The statement the Sticky Fingers cover seems to make is that men are purely sexual objects to be done with as the user sees fit. On a deeper level, that’s a criticism of the sexual objectification of women, turning the gender bias on it head; sometimes we can’t see a thing until we see its opposite. If the mishandling of males for the sole use of sexual gratification strikes us as ridiculous, why is the use of females that way any less ridiculous?

липкие пальцы

Some international versions of the cover are different; the Russian version features the same type of photograph, but the belt buckle is a five-point star with a hammer and sickle inside. Also, there’s no zipper, and the model is female; it misses the point, I think. The Spanish version had me recoiling the first time I saw it. It’s a picture of a can opener lying next to an opened can of treacle with actual human fingers coming out of it. It’s like something from a 70s foreign horror film. I guess they’re going for the single entendre there.

Sticky Fingers is the first album to be released under Rolling Stones Records, their brand spankin’ new label. Decca, the label they had their previous contract with, claimed they were owed one more single, so the Stones submitted a tracked called “Cocksucker Blues,” knowing full well it would be soundly rejected. See what I mean about cheeky?

Dedos Pegajosos

It’s also the first Stones record of the 70s, a new age where sex has a changing definition, drugs are more available and more stigmatized, and social activism is becoming a thing of the past. For their part, the Stones are settling into a niche. With their last two albums, they’ve set themselves up as the naughty boys of rock and roll. If you’re a parent in the early 70s, you don’t want your impressionable young son or daughter hanging around with kids who listen to the Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers does nothing to dispel that image. I think Mick, Keith and company are actually enjoying it.

A word of caution: what follows is how I remember things, but not necessarily how they actually happened. An event can happen, but if it doesn’t happen to someone, did it really happen? To a certain extent, the meaning of a thing is assigned to it by the person describing it. So bear in mind that what follows is my version, which is probably different from other people who were there.

The high school I went to (7th-12th) was very small – 15-20 students in the entire school. It was a little private school in Amherst, MA that’s not there anymore, called Harkness Road High School, or HRHS. My older sister went to HRHS, too. I was still in 6th grade, not yet old enough for HRHS, when I first laid eyes on Debbie. HRHS was holding its annual prom-like event (not a dance, but rather a themed dinner). I was there, since families of students were invited. Debbie was one year older than me, and was close to finishing her first year at HRHS. I remember I was struck dumb that first time seeing her.

Debbie was incredibly quiet, passive and introspective. She didn’t talk very much, and probably wasn’t noticed a lot in her family of 8 siblings, her being the youngest. She wasn’t unusually good-looking, but she had a killer smile. It was probably so powerful ‘cause she didn’t use it very much. Seriously, she could level mountains with that smile; she leveled me.

There’s just something about girls like Debbie; a lot more is hidden from view than is shown. Most guys just pass them by, but I’m intrigued by a girl that doesn’t just give her gold away to any passing stranger. For me, though, intrigue lead to attachment which lead to kinda creepy behavior. Being a teenager, everything was a big deal for me, and thus my infatuation with Debbie became all-encompassing, 10 times larger than the vessel that held it.

For her part, Debbie viewed me as an annoyance, an unfortunate bug in her ear she couldn’t get rid of. But as irritating as my unrequited affections were, it’s regrettable that she didn’t respond with more grace, or even more temperance. Because of the people we both were (she wasn’t very direct and I wasn’t able to take a hint), things got messy. Instead of just telling me flat-out that she would never date me, she withdrew further inward, hoping I would just go away. In such close quarters – and in a school of only 20 students, everything is close quarters – I couldn’t; not completely.

Throughout my 7th grade year, Debbie and I pretty much ignored each other, though my feelings were still lightly simmering. But in my 8th grade year, they started boiling over. Everybody knew – granted, “everybody” is relatively few – including Debbie.

If the story had gone on like that, it probably would have been fine. My feelings would have eventually faded (a fire that hot can’t burn for long), and Debbie would have relaxed about me. But around a month into my 8th grade year, Debbie started dating a friend of mine, named Nick. Nick was my “bad” friend, the one friend your parents think is a “bad influence.” He was into some stuff I wasn’t, like gangsta rap and weed and smashing mailboxes. I went over to his house after school sometimes, and we spent the summer after 7th grade working for the same guy, doing random manual labor jobs around his property – if I never see another post-hole digger as long as I live, it will be a-okay with me. I didn’t really understand Nick, though I thought I did. His life was a lot harder than mine had been, and he had a large will to rebel.

But obviously, Nick didn’t value our friendship very much, at least not enough to keep him from saying yes to Debbie’s advances. Debbie might have just started dating Nick, a friend of mine, to get me to leave her alone, but it pained me for more than just the obvious reason. Other than the blatant scorn that I felt, there was that Nick didn’t view women as human beings who had actual thoughts and feelings. Instead, he thought of them as walking sets of tits, objects to be used and discarded. Or at least that’s the big talk he advertised to me, anyway.

So there you have a real-life soap opera-like love triangle, rife with teenage stupidity and groan-inducing melodrama. It seems like a much smaller thing 17 years later, but back in 8th grade, it was the literal destruction of the universe.

So I can totally understand Clapton’s wailing, moaning and sobbing over a woman he loves that just doesn’t love him back. When he sings in “Layla” to the title character, “you got me on my knees,” I get it. ”Layla” and the rest of the album it’s on mean so much to so many people because his pain is our pain. And nobody that album touches hasn’t felt that pain in some form or another.

Sometimes a musician presents his pain so honestly that it’s like watching someone committing suicide. But when you share a little empathy with the musician, it changes. His pain is your pain, so his catharsis becomes your catharsis. Art is therapeutic, but not just for the artist; it works for the spectator as well.

Tomorrow: oh, the damage a simple zipper can do…

Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs – Polydor Records – 11/21/1970

In a nutshell, most of Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs is about Pattie Boyd. While the wailing and gnashing of teeth of Eric Clapton over his unrequited love for Pattie is the centerpiece, that’s not the only thing going on. After all, Clapton wasn’t the only songwriter in Derek & the Dominos; Bobby Whitlock lends a bit of order to Eric’s barely controlled chaos.

“Tell the Truth” is an excellent rocker with country elements to it, loud and aggressive while still retaining a consistent groove. Whitlock wrote most of the lyrics, with Clapton only contributing the last verse. Whitlock’s voice, which takes more of a front seat here than on most other songs, is deep and sonorous. It lacks the desperate tone of Clapton’s, but it serves him well because he uses it in appropriate arenas.

Another song with hard-driving force yet beautiful grace, “Keep On Growing” has victory and joy in its melody. Clapton and Whitlock combine their songwriting forces here to make the most awesome song of their collaboration. It could also be noted that this song, as great as it is, was one of the few recorded before Duane Allman joined the band, so he doesn’t appear on it.

In a little switch for the cap (though it logically follows the long instrumental section of “Layla”), “Thorn Tree In the Garden,” is sweet and gentle. Whitlock’s voice switches modes to a sad and mournful tone. The band all sat in a circle on the floor with a single mic in the center for this one, a more chill method than usual.

Bobby Whitlock

Now, Whitlock has explained that “Thorn Tree” is about when he was forced by his landlord to get rid of his dog and cat. He brought the cat to Delaney Bramlett’s mom, but when he got back, he found his landlord had given the dog away without his permission. According to Whitlock himself, the song is about that event (his landlord being the “thorn tree”), but I have a different interpretation. Keep in mind that it’s not true; if it was, though, it be so much cooler that it being about a dog.

I imagine that “Thorn Tree In the Garden” is about the whole Eric/Pattie/George fiasco, 9 years in the future after Pattie has left George and Eric’s dreams of having Pattie for his own are fulfilled. But it’s from George’s perspective. The sadness and passive melancholy make sense in the context of a woman’s former lover, the woman having gone off to greener pastures. While George doesn’t understand why she left, he does understand that Pattie will be happier once she’s in the arms of another man. But that doesn’t stop George from missing her terribly. The “thorn tree” would of course be the man who stole his lover away; Eric, in this case. But the focus of the song is the garden (the girl), not the thorn tree.

Jimi Hendrix

Then there’s a piece that stands out from the rest of the album, a Jimi Hendrix cover called “Little Wing.” Hendrix was another one of Eric’s close friends. They had bonded back in Eric’s days with Cream, and Eric was one of the first musicians to make prominent use of the wah-wah pedal, an item he had been tipped off to by Jimi. “Little Wing,” at the time of the Dominos recording, was only 3 and a half years old, being the centerpiece of Axis: Bold As Love by the Jimi Hendrix Experience. It’s a spacey and mystical slow-blues song, showing off Jimi’s distinctive guitar style. The Dominos’ take on it is significantly different, being loud and epic while losing none of the original’s beauty or cosmic wonder.

In a ridiculously eerie twist, “Little Wing” was recorded by the Dominos as a tribute to Jimi Hendrix about a week before he died. About two months before this record was released, Jimi died from choking on his own vomit after ODing on sleeping pills. Musicians and fans world over were shocked and saddened, not the least of which was Eric Clapton. “Little Wing” was one of the last songs recorded for Layla, and the bizarreness of the prophetic tribute could not have been lost on Clapton and the others.

On Monday: my own personal Layla.