Tag Archive: Robert Johnson


No matter the different areas they wander into, the Rolling Stones will always be a rock and roll band. As the decades march on, the Stones have become even more of a bastion of rock. Their records get progressively more rock and blues oriented, and have a simpler structure with each one. Their live show is centered on the resurrection of rock and roll. Their like Christian fundamentalists in that regard; while the rest of the world is evolving, they’re holding on to the past with an iron grip.

The past can be a glorious thing. There’s so much rich history from which the Rolling Stones can draw, and there has been for a long time. That’s one of the central ideas Brian Jones had when he formed the group: covering old blues tunes. As far as Jones was concerned, the Rolling Stones were supposed to be a cover band. I wonder what he would think of the band nowadays if he weren’t pushing up daisies.

Just like they never lost that rock and roll centering, they also have never stopped looking to the past for inspiration. That’s all over Exile On Main St. They don’t just look to the blues masters like Robert Johnson and Slim Harpo, but they’re also drawing in soul, funk, R&B, and a healthy dose of gospel music.

Some Girls

Using forms of music other than blues and rock is nothing new to the Stones (“Dead Flowers,” “Factory Girl”), but Exile is set apart from other Stones records is that it never sounds as authentic or heartfelt; not even close. For you Stones aficionados, take a second and compare “Torn and Frayed” to “Far Away Eyes” from Some Girls. One uses country music to create a sense of empathy, emotionalism at its best, and the other is a parody of country music, pointing out its most ridiculous aspects. You might not even notice “Torn and Frayed” is in the country vein because of its exposed-nerve rawness; “Far Away Eyes” is just silly.

But rock and roll is their forte, and they prove it on Exile. The albums starts of with a dirty “oh yeah!” that is only an indication of the entire album. “Rocks Off,” for all its fun and abandon, has harrowing lyrics. The Stones were very aware that they were doing a lot of drugs. In “Rocks Off,” lyricist Keith is talking in very candid terms about the exact cost of the drugs he’s taking. By his own admission, they leave him “splattered on a dirty road.”

“Rocks Off” also features a brass section. This is something that is all over Exile. Sticky Fingers started the trend, “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” both having saxophone solos and “Bitch” using brass right up front to play the main riff. But on Exile, over half of the songs feature some brass instrument. It worked beautifully for them on Sticky Fingers so there’s no reason to think it won’t have excellent results on their next album. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Speaking of sax solos, “Rip This Joint” has a blazing one. Everything else about this song is blazing, as well. It wins the award for Fastest Tempo of any Stones song, before or after. It’s like a Route 66 trip through America, but that of an illegal immigrant being hunted down by customs.

Slim Harpo

The most recent Stones albums have shifted down to slower gears by the 2nd or 3rd track (“Love In Vain,” “Wild Horses,” “No Expectations”), but Exile just barrels on. The 3rd track here is “Shake Your Hips,” originally done by Slim Harpo. The Slim version drips with sexuality, hinting at naughtiness but still with a sense of fun. When put in the hands of Mick Jagger, though, it’s all naughtiness. I imagine Mick’s serpentine movements and effortless groove, and I almost think he’s singing this song to himself. “Shake Your Hips” has gobs of danger and sin to it, something I think Mr. Harpo would have approved of.

Things finally take a downturn tempo-wise, but “Casino Boogie” is no lilting, sentimental ballad. It has a certain singability, encouraged by the drunken sway of the music, even though I still don’t know what the words are; Mick and Keith, as they sometimes do, seem more interested in the way words sound than the actual words. And it is actually a boogie, in the classical, music theory definition of the word. I always thought “boogie” just meant a general style of blues-type music, but there’s actually a technical, objective definition. My 3 semesters of Music Theory in college didn’t teach me that, either; I learned it from Wikipedia.

Exile is a double album, despite that it fits on one CD and is sold as such. If you first experienced it on CD, as I did, it seemed weird that it had 18 songs when every other Stones album has at most 13; most merely 9 or 10. The fact that it’s really 9 and 9, rather than 18, was a well-kept secret from the younger generation – or at least from me, anyway.

Next: Person Who Applies Suction Over the Male Appendage… Blues

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The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main St. – 5/12/1972

A breaking point came for the Rolling Stones in 1970, when they finally broke free from Decca Records and label bigwig Allen Klein. The severing of that business relationship was messy, both parties fighting tooth and nail for what they considered “mine.” It was like a divorce and the push-and-pull over custody rights for the kids.

They followed in the footsteps of the Beatles, forming their own record label, conveniently called Rolling Stones Records. Sticky Fingers was released under their new label, but the freedom that brought would soon turn to license as they fled England under the threat of the British government turning their liberty into prison time. The British police didn’t try to bust them on drugs, their tactic in the 60s, but unpaid taxes. It licked Al Capone, but not the Rolling Stones.

They relocated to Paris, and Keith rented a villa near Nice called Nellcôte. There they sank into drugs, chaos, and all sorts of debauchery. Bassist Bill Wyman recalls this as the most frustrating period of his entire time with the Stones. They couldn’t find the right studio space, so they recorded in Nellcôte’s basement, as well as the Rolling Stones’ mobile studio parked outside. Not everyone would show up most days, no one listened to long-time producer Jimmy Miller who had earned his stripes, and there was an attitude of frenetic lack of direction. Their productivity, however, was top-notch. Somebody was working on something every day from 8 in the morning ‘til 3 the next morning.

The capstone, however, was the drugs. Millions of dollars worth of drugs flowed through Nellcôte on a weekly basis like a diamond-studded sewer. Heroin, cocaine, pot, hashish, angel dust, LSD, you name it. There were no limits to the Stones’ excess or lack of control. Keith Richards in particular was using heroin on a daily basis; his system didn’t know how to function without drugs anymore, so he kept it stocked. I really don’t know how in the world he’s still alive.

While the Stones were breaking down, though, their music was reaching a fever pitch of quality, depth, soulfulness and greatness. It seemed as though their heights of glory and musical triumph were matched by the descent of their personal lives, and as one got higher, the other got lower at an equal speed. They eventually reached rock bottom/heavens high, and that moment is captured on the entirety of Exile On Main St.

Robert Johnson, King of the Delta Blues

The song “Stop Breaking Down” is the entire thing in miniature, I think. Yet another Robert Johnson cover, this song explains in simple and exquisite terms the basic problem with drugs. The Stones’ cover of it is simply dripping with irony. “Stop Breaking Down” is like the pebble at the center of Jupiter, with the cloud surrounding it being the irony (the red spot is Mick’s voice).

The Robert Johnson original is about a drug dealer who deals to “Saturday night women,” or prostitutes, and how they’re completely enslaved to the drugs he sells them. His main tactic is hyperbole, something used by not just dealers but salesmen in general. The refrain goes like this:

The stuff I got’ll bust your brains out, baby / It’ll make you lose your mind

This song has been covered many times, most notably by Eric Clapton, ZZ Top, Lucinda Williams and the White Stripes, but the Rolling Stones’ version changes the lyrics just a tiny bit. Some people won’t even notice. The effect, however, is extremely significant as it turns the hyperbole into a cautionary statement, and turns the meaning of the whole song.

The stuff is gonna bust your brains out, baby / It’s gonna make you lose your mind

…shudder…

Take it from your Uncle Mick, kids: don’t do drugs. They’ll tear your soul out and make you a slave. And you don’t wanna look like your Uncle Keith, do you? No one wants that…

Next: Balls-to-the-wall Stones like never before (and never again).

Let It Bleed – The Rolling Stones – 12/5/1969

With Beggars Banquet, the Stones stripped down their music until they were left with a basic, elemental sound. With Let It Bleed, they continued that reductionism with their lyrics. While the lyrics of Beggars Banquet deal with much more mature topics than previously touched upon, that album still hides behind contrivance in some places. Let It Bleed, on the other hand drops the walls a little and starts to let the listener know what it’s like to be a Rolling Stone. And what’s it like to be a Rolling Stone? Well, you do a lot of drugs.

Drugs, too, are laid bare on Let It Bleed, though not completely. It wouldn’t be a Stones record if it weren’t filled with layers of subtext and innuendo, and this time it’s directed towards powders and pills of all kinds instead of sex. At this point in their career, drugs probably took up more of their attention than girls; the shine and glamor of both things wear off fairly quickly, but drugs has a killer hangover. I think the Rolling Stones were just entering that hangover in late ’69.

The first place the drug lifestyle’s weariness can be heard is “Love In Vain.” Written and first made famous by bluesman Robert Johnson (whose deal with the devil is now a piece of rock and roll mythos), the Stones’ interpretation staggers and sways like a drunken bum. It bears more resemblances to classic country western than the blues. The fact that this comes so early in the album should ring a tiny bell in the listener’s head; the Stones have aged a little, and time has not been kind.

forget the bogeyman; if you really want to frighten children, tell them about Keith Richards

Consider this: if they started aging in 1969, how old must they be by 2012? No wonder Keith Richards looks like a corpse that’s been reanimated about 7 times.

Then comes “Country Honk,” a version of “Honky Tonk Women,” a single from a few months before. “Honky Tonk Women” is a rock and roll stomper, but “Country Honk” takes a more acoustic and country western tack (there’s that term again). Mick sings it with a slight wink to it, and the listener buys the song both at face value and with the wink. “Country Honk” is just a small piece of the evidence of Mick being one of the most charismatic lead singers of all time. He’s like a mega-church preacher in his complete sway over his audience.

“Honk” (both versions), talk about a tried and true image of the rock lifestyle: whores. Speaking about them fondly and non-judgmentally, I find its drunken, you’re-so-awesome aesthetic kinda charming. “This foxy broad gives me sex and drugs, and her words are kind and cheerful. What’s not to love?”

Later in the record comes “Monkey Man,” which takes a pretty direct approach to drugs and the social effects they have. “A monkey on my back” has long been a common term for an addiction. Most of the time it’s drugs of any kind, but a monkey doesn’t care exactly what addiction gets it on your back. Mick works that image and manipulates it like a good poet does. In this song, the narrator is celebrating his unhealthy, co-dependent relationship to his subject; he has a monkey on his back (drugs), while he becomes a monkey on her back. Don’t they make a cute couple?

However, the best song that follows this theme is the title track. The swaying, drunken happiness of the vocals, the quivering guitar and the sloppy, relaxed drumming make a perfect drinking song for seedy bar in the poorest segment of London at 3am. “Let It Bleed” also features the simultaneous hopelessness and ecstasy of addiction to the strongest degree in the Stones’ entire catalog.

The Rolling Stones’ legal troubles with drugs (they are actually illegal, after all) are well documented, but at the turn of the decade, they would only get worse – a lot worse. I heard an unsubstantiated story that by the time of Exile on Main St. in late 1972, when the Stones wanted to go out on tour, Keith Richards went to a clinic in Switzerland first, paid them a boatload of money, and had his entire blood supply completely replaced. His blood was so filled with heroin and cocaine that he was literally incapable of doing a tour; he was barely capable of leaving the house. Getting all new blood was the most efficient option. This story is almost definitely false, though I haven’t read Keith Richards’ autobiography to find out. But the fact remains that Richards and the rest of the Stones were headed for a very dark place. Let It Bleed isn’t the first indicator; it isn’t even the most glaring. But it is one of the best records of the entire 60s.

Any band with a history as long as that of the Rolling Stones is bound to have a wide evolutionary arc.  The Stones I first heard when I was 8, for instance, are very different from the band of the 60s. In ’89, Mick’s swagger and showmanship was in its decline, no longer a compelling force but instead a nostalgic one. But in the mid-60s, the power and sexuality of the Stones was an alarming thing. Their trials and tribulations, while not as well documented as the Beatles’, were no less life-changing, or more importantly band-changing. After so much attention, adulation, and hyper-focusing from the media, any band will undergo fast changes. In just a few short years, the Stones were a different band.

Beggars Banquet shows the changes they’ve gone through, but more notably shows the place they came from, which isn’t necessarily where their listeners thought it was. It’s a grimy, unapologetic record, leaving the polish and sheen of the Stones’ past behind them. Keith Richards says being in prison really gave him time to think, and as a result, he and the Stones stripped everything in their sound down to its bare essentials. What was left is what we hear on Beggars Banquet; it turned out to be the first truly great record they ever made.

When you pop the CD in on track 1, it’s already in a groove. The light hand percussion gives hints to a darkness and sleaze that last throughout the entire 6 minutes of “Sympathy For the Devil.” The vocals have suaveness and arrogance, the bass playing is funky and soul-infused, and the guitar skitters in a mad dance of chaos. In the hands of some other bands (like Guns ‘N Roses, Ozzy Osbourne, Tiamat, and Bon Jovi), it doesn’t seem to have the same sinister, slithering tone. I think the Stones, with their original recording, glimpsed something primal, something true, something diabolical.

“Sympathy For the Devil” is a first-person narrative from none other than Lucifer himself. He lists his deeds and misdeeds through history, taking credit for events such as Jesus’ crucifixion, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Crusades, and the assassinations of both JFK and RFK. The genius of this song lies in the way it lays Lucifer bare. It shows with accuracy that the biggest danger we face from the devil comes not from the devil, but from ourselves. Satan can only act when we fail to act. His work is not directly in the evils of this world, but in the hearts of humans who perpetrate those evils all by themselves. Like The Screwtape Letters, it features dead-on characterization of a fallen angel caught up in his own pomposity. I think this is one of the most instructive and useful songs for Christians, and anyone interested in the nature of evil should study it very closely. Perhaps the most insightful lyric is this: “Just as every cop is a criminal, and all you sinners saints…”

Brian Jones

The next song promotes the stripped-down feel of the whole album and informs the listener of what’s to come. “No Expectations” could easily have been written by Robert Johnson, and fits right in with the Stones’ down-and-out musical motif. Jagger recalls this as the last significant contribution of Brian Jones, one of the founders of the Rolling Stones. They were all sitting around in a circle on the floor, and Jones did the slide guitar part that forms the backbone of the song. Drugs and sex distracted Jones from his band duties, hamstrung him in both his professional and personal lives, and ultimately undid him. He drowned in a pool at the age of 27, about six months after Beggars Banguet was released.

Brian Jones is a member of the prodigious 27 Club, a group of musicians who died at the age of 27. Arguably, the founding member was the rock and roll icon and mythological figure Robert Johnson, and they include Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain, just to name a few. Most deaths are alcohol or drug-related, but some are from car accidents, diabetes and falling off a horse, with one member even being raped and murdered. The latest member is Amy Winehouse, whose misadventures and odyssey with alcohol were well-documented both in her music and by the celebrity media.

“Dear Doctor,” another song with little adornment, is next. It tells in simple terms the story of a young man forced into a marriage but saved from it by his fiancé’s wayward ways, and his joy and relief upon hearing of her infidelity. The goofiness and comedy of it are not shied away from or apologized for. For some reason, Jagger sounds authentic even in this exaggerated, song-and-dance setting. That’s one of his special powers; the ability to sell almost any song despite its character.

More on Beggars Banquet on Thursday!