Tag Archive: Keith Richards


American Stones

In the ‘60s, rock and roll that was completely American was… kinda lame. After the Day the Music Died and the Chuck Berry/Jerry Lee Lewis pedophilia scandals (thanks, you two for RUINING everything…) America dropped the rock and roll ball. Luckily, the U.K. was ready to swoop in after not too long with the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and the Who. Those bands were all so huge that America spent the next 5 years making carbon copies of British originals. The Beach Boys and other surf rock bands were the only originality the States had to offer. That should tell you something…

the corner of Haight & Ashbury

the corner of Haight & Ashbury

Then came the explosion of the Haight-Ashbury culture, which saw bands like the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane coming to the front, and the dark drug culture of the Doors, opposite of the happy pot-smokers in San Francisco. Creedence Clearwater Revival offered a little southern-fried jangle and drawl, but they were too short-lived. And then there was Jimi Hendrix, an American trying to convince all of Europe he was one of them. His backup band was British, and he behaved like a Brit, so who was to say (other than his parents) that he was really American?

It’s ironic but true – rock and roll may have been started by black American blues musicians, but by the ‘60s, it was the domain of British white guys.

In the early ‘70s, things started to heat back up in America, but only slightly. The first few years saw a glut of bands like Kansas, Foreigner, Journey and Styx. But little did the world know that they would soon see the unleashing of a Boston juggernaut: Aerosmith.

Aerosmith

Aerosmith

When Aerosmith slithered on the scene, their eponymous first album was released at the same time and on the same label as another savior of American rock and roll, Bruce Springsteen. Because of that, they didn’t get their proper acknowledgement until a few years later. It also meant they had time to actually earn it. By their third album, Toys In the Attic, they were not only the tightest band making music, but they were ready to be hoisted up as America’s answer to all those great British groups.

It wasn’t an accident that Aerosmith reminded the public of the Rolling Stones. Steven Tyler had a swagger, style and physical profile very similar to those of Mick Jagger, just like Joe Perry was akin to Keith Richards in both appearance and guitar style. Steven and Joe even had a similar dynamic to Mick and Keith; one was the flamboyant and crowd-pleasing frontman, while the other was quieter and more unobtrusive, providing mystique.

I’m not saying there was anything insidious or contrived going on here. Record execs didn’t generate the idea of emulating the Stones in the hope of making more money. Rather, this was a simple matter of Steven and Joe admiring the Stones so damn much. Aerosmith probably made a conscious decision to look like Mick and Keith (long dark hair, skinny, colorful dress), but the similar stage relationship between the two had to be instinctual. To Aerosmith, the Rolling Stones were just “how it was done.” Why wouldn’t they be similar?

Next: the Big Three of rock stardom – can you guess what they are?

I’ve already established that Mick Jagger is one cheeky bastard. Here’s a case in point. The Rolling Stones’ relationship with Decca Records had become downright toxic. It was mostly Decca’s fault, though Mick and Keith’s youthful screw-authority attitude didn’t help. In 1970 they were nearing the end of their contract, but they needed to submit one more single. The Stones dutifully recorded it, but as a final act of passive aggressive defiance, they titled the song “Cocksucker Blues,” knowing with certainty that it would be rejected by the label. Reject it they did, though they did finally release it in 1983 as “Schoolboy Blues.”

I’m just gonna roll right past the equating of “schoolboy” with “cocksucker.” Life’s too short.

The tendency to give a middle finger to anybody who tries to tell you what to do has never made complete sense to me. Some sense, mind you, but the logic breaks down. Determining whether my middle finger is an appropriate gesture involves analyzing what they’re telling me to do. Let’s say they’re commanding me to eat chocolate. “You’re gonna eat these Lindt truffles, young man, and you’re gonna LIKE it!” No argument here. But say that to someone like Mick Jagger, or Johnny Rotten, or Abbie Hoffman, and they might respond with a “fight the power!” or a “no forcible truffles!” or a “hell no, we won’t go!” Meanwhile, I’m going, “It’s chocolate; I was gonna eat it anyway.”

mmmmmm…..

Granted, I don’t like someone taking a rude or dismissive tone with me, regardless of what their requesting. Courtesy and politeness never hurt, ever. It’s at least metaphorically true that you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. While I’m always found that phrase to be pretty stupid – what fly likes vinegar? I mean, come on! – it’s generally true.

Mick knows all about honey. He has a gift for sweetening his words and charming people into illogical acts. He’s probably had enough sex to tide over 10 men for their whole lives, despite the fact that he’s monstrously ugly. Keith, on the other hand, never quite got the concept of charming the masses. He always had more mystique that Mick; he was the enigma behind Mick’s obviousness. When Keith took the lead, it was normally to put forth some truth that had evaded Mick, and it was always interesting, if not always good.

“Happy” is a Keith song, mostly recorded without Mick even in the room. Mick intrudes on the proceedings for a few lines in the chorus, but this is really Keith’s song, and probably his best. While the music is rockabilly style, excited and intense, Keith’s words are laced with melancholy and longing. He wails “I need a love to keep me happy,” suggesting his happiness is a fleeting thing at best. One thing Keith has always been is self-aware and wise. It’s wisdom born out of a long and uninterrupted string of colossal mistakes, but wisdom nonetheless.

“Turd On the Run,” icky title notwithstanding, is another excited blues rock song. It’s seething with nervous energy, like it really is on the run. In the tradition of Hendrix’s “Hey Joe,” it’s about a man who punishes his woman for her wayward ways. “Ventilator Blues” follows, slowing things down considerably. Like the transition earlier in the album from “Rip This Joint” to “Shake Your Hips,” this one has the exact same change from arms-in-the-air wildness to stalking-jungle-cat menace.

The double album caps off with one last rock tune, the stomping “Soul Survivor.” This song spells out that even though they’re clearly self-destructive and rushing headlong into danger, the Stones are going to live on. They’re like cockroaches, stubbornly surviving the rise and fall of the ages. Near their 70s now, they’ve toured mercilessly and remained one of the most popular concert acts for the last 10 years, despite only releasing one new album with 2005’s A Bigger Bang. That’s both a testament to the state of modern music and the incredible staying power that the Stones have.

It’s kinda not fair, really. They’ve exhibited such bad behavior basically ever since they first became famous. Why has karma not caught up to them yet? Will it ever? My one consolation is that their faces all look like old leather shoes on the verge of being chucked in the garbage.

Next: Angela Davis and the political bandwagon.

Let It Bleed follows the same general musical pattern as Beggars Banquet, having been released only 13 months later. The best song is first, and it’s powerful and in a minor key. Then comes two acoustic-based, country-style numbers, followed by an up-tempo song with a dirty groove. True to the pattern, the fourth song on Let It Bleed is the stomping “Live With Me.” Jagger uses irony here to display the lifestyle of English country folk who are on the edge of civilization. His tone is dismissive and more than a little insulting, as if he’s completely comfortable with only knowing this lifestyle as a cliché. Musically, this style would be explored to greater effect on Sticky Fingers a few years later.

Just as “Live With Me” fills the place of and has a similar emotional color as the Beggars Banquet track “Parachute Woman,” “Midnight Rambler” does a similar thing for “Jigsaw Puzzle.” They share a similiar length, and both have an aimless and meandering quality, but “Rambler” is much bluesier than “Puzzle,” and is more Bo Diddley that Bob Dylan. While the Stones do a very convincing black-American-blues-guitarist impression with “Rambler,” it goes on a little too long for my taste.

Don’t get me wrong; length is not a problem for me. One of my favorite songs is “Octavarium” by Dream Theater, which is almost 24 minutes long. But if you make a really long song, it goes over much better with the listener if it’s really leading somewhere; “Midnight Rambler” isn’t. Heck, the Stones almost stop in the middle of the song.

(Paranthetical: a long song needing to lead somewhere doesn’t apply if you’re the Velvet Underground; just sayin’.)

“Midnight Rambler” is almost 7 minutes long, but it’s followed by the shortest song on the record, “You Got the Silver.” Keith Richards’ previous vocal contributions have been pretty dismal affairs; his lead vocal in “Salt of the Earth” was so bad that Mick took the microphone from him after four lines, and “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” ranks among the Stones absolute worst songs (though I’m not sure that’s really Keith’s fault). Regardless, when Keith started singing “You Got the Silver,” I was ready to just write it off; I was pleasantly surprised. Keith sounds like a different person here, especially considering how bloody awful his voice sounded on “Salt of the Earth” a mere 13 months earlier. He may be no Plácido Domingo, but he’s impassioned and honest, both of which go a long way.

Finally comes the cap, which is the choir boy extravaganza “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” From the London Bach Choir intro to the French horn solo right down to the soaring fade out, everything about this song is gloriously epic and ridiculously over-the-top. It started as a simple idea that Mick had in a hotel room one night with nothing but an acoustic guitar and his voice. Layer upon layer is added by producer Jimmy Miller until it’s bloated almost beyond recognition. I simply can’t explain why “Get What You Want” works; it really shouldn’t. By all rights, the song should topple over with all the extra weight added to it by over-production. But quite astoundingly, it’s one of the Stones’ most enduring songs, and ranks just behind “Gimme Shelter” as Let It Bleed’s best offering.

What follows is almost certainly untrue and apocryphal, but it made me laugh out loud. Mick Jagger was in a drug store in Excelsior, Minnesota to fill a prescription. In line right in front of him was a man named Jimmy Hutmaker, a locally known figure with unspecified developmental disabilities but an outgoing personality. He was affectionately called Mister Jimmy by Excelsior residents. He was telling Mick about how much he loved Cherry Coke, but that they served him a different flavor at the home that morning. Apparently, he said, “y’know, Mr. Jagger, you can’t always get what you want…”

Even to this day, whenever someone says “you can’t always get what you want,” I respond with “well, you know what the Rolling Stones have to say about the matter.” That elicits either a smile or a confused expression.

Facebook has a feature that notifies you when today is the birthday of one of your friends. In the morning, if there’s anyone who’s celebrating the anniversary of their entering into the world, I post on their wall a link to a YouTube video that I have bookmarked. It’s a silly, ridiculous Flash music video to the Beatles song “Birthday.” I’ve become rather dissatisfied with just posting the words “happy birthday” on someone’s wall and leaving it at that; my reasoning is “everybody does that, and I wanna be different.” Here’s a place where my desire to be different merely for the sake of it has good results, because it will almost assuredly bring a smile to someone else’s face.

Right after the exuberant burst that is “Birthday,” the second half of The White Album goes into the second true blues John offering, aptly called “Yer Blues.” John wails that he’s lonely and that he wants to die like any blues singer should. It doesn’t end there, though. The song also has an extra beat during one measure of the chorus, setting it just slightly off-balance.

The Dirty Mac

It’s worth mentioning the Dirty Mac here. That’s a supergroup that formed for one night only to perform “Yer Blues” and a jam called “Whole Lotta Yoko.” It consisted of John Lennon on vocals and guitar, Eric Clapton on lead, Keith Richards on bass, and Mitch Mitchell on drums. John put them together for the celebrity-studded Rolling Stones TV special Rock and Roll Circus. The Dirty Mac is an example of a philosophy I try to live my life by: be aware of moments, enjoy them, and let them pass. Some moments are like wild birds that can’t be caged – they’re feather are just too bright. (shout-out to my boy Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption)

“Mother Nature’s Son” is about a lecture the Maharishi gave while the Beatles were in India. The whole song boils down to “Paul likes nature;” it is pretty, though.

Then comes “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey.” This wins the award for the Beatles song with the longest title. I was recently at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by my wife’s parents. Franz, one of their friends, told me a story of a professor he had in college who was obsessed with the Beatles, and defied his students to ask a Beatles-related question that would stump him. If they succeeded, he would give them some reward, like changing their lowest quiz score to a 100% or something. Anyway, Franz did it with the longest Beatles song title. He was very impressed that I guessed right with “Monkey.” If I was that professor’s student, it would be really cool if he taught something I’m horrible at so I could coast through on my Beatles knowledge alone.

The Beatles with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi

In “Sexy Sadie,” originally titled “Maharishi,” John unleashes all his vitriol from the India experience, namely his disillusionment with the Maharishi himself. Sometimes I think their trip to Rishikesh was less of a spiritual awakening and more of a soap opera.  The main beef was that John believed (at the time) that Yogi had made sexual advances to more than one woman at the retreat. John even confronted the Maharashi about it, to which he responded simply, “I am only human.” Not exactly damning evidence, but not a denial either. “Maharishi” was written right when John got back to England. He demoed it for the other Beatles, apparently with different and much angrier lyrics. George insisted that if it was included on the album, it have a different title, to which John agreed.

The next song, “Helter Skelter,” is another pinnacle for the Beatles, being their hardest and most metal-like song. It stands out very starkly not only on The White Album, but in Paul’s songwriting altogether. Just think about other Paul songs on the White Album: “Martha My Dear,” “Honey Pie,” “I Will,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” “Rocky Raccoon.” They’re all cutesy and upbeat. Then, factor in some of Paul’s other work: “Hold Me Tight,” “All My Loving,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “Hello, Goodbye,” “P.S. I Love You,” “The Long and Winding Road.” Seeing a pattern? Paul wanted to prove (not sure to whom, but probably to himself, chiefly) that he could write a song outside the scope of a ballad, a song that was the utter opposite of a “silly love song.”

Helter skelter” means in British slang “confused” or “confusedly,” and is also a falling from a high place to a low. The fall of the Roman Empire is a good example. It’s also a popular British spiraling slide amusement park ride. I think Paul did a pretty good job; “Helter Skelter” adds a new dimension to an otherwise pretty tame band volume-wise.

We’re on the third side, so a George song is nearly perfunctory. Also perfunctory is the actual third George song, called “Long, Long, Long.” Too quiet in the beginning, too inconsistent throughout, and tuneless on the whole, it’s a wholly forgettable moment.

I imagine you’re spitting out your drinks that I haven’t mentioned Charles Manson yet. Don’t worry, I will.

Get it? I will? “I Will?” …Anybody? Is this thing on?