Tag Archive: Rolling Stones


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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

The Rolling Stones – Beggars Banquet – 12/6/1968

My fandom of the Rolling Stones is a latter-day thing. The reason I never got into them as a kid or teenager – besides the fact that when you’re a teen, nothing made before you were born has any value, including your parents – is that there was always some sneaking naughtiness to them. It was just barely within my consciousness, but I was just sensitive enough that it gave me pause. It still appealed to the curious side of me, but at a young age, that part wasn’t very big. I wasn’t a curious child; I didn’t want to open that drawer, watch that movie, or smoke that cigarette. With a few exceptions, I was a good little boy.

Thusly, the Stones were something I was wary of until I reached adulthood. When I was still living under my parents’ roof, I kept them at arms’ length. Ironically, the impulse that kept me away from the Stones didn’t stop me at all from getting into Aerosmith. That caused contention between me and my parents, let me tell you. One time they actually sat me down in our living room, took out the liner notes from my two Aerosmith CDs and read me every word of the lyrics out loud. Some of it was pretty embarrassing. They made a point that THAT was what I was choosing to “fill my head with.” From then on, I kept my listening choices more to myself.

It is that subtle undercurrent of something good little Christian kids don’t do that permeates much of the Stones’ material. This was in a bygone age, before profanity had become the valueless thing it is today. Back in the Stones’ day, innuendo and euphemism ruled the day rather than crassly obvious statements. There was kind of an art to what bands like the Stones and Aerosmith did; they talk about sex in a way that you could miss if you don’t pay attention. That takes more effort that just coming out and saying it.

“Parachute Woman” has that going on more than any other song on Beggars Banquet. The innuendo is dirty and funny at the same time. It’s a slow blues song with a lazy groove, and it features a bit more of an echoing, un-produced quality than other Banquet songs.

“Jigsaw Puzzle” floats by despite its 6 minute length, featuring monotonously strummed acoustic guitars and a lilting electric. It’s stylistically similar to certain Bob Dylan songs, but doesn’t have the lyrical depth or intricacy, though it sure tries. There’s a verse towards the end that talks about members of a band (a guitarist, a bass player, a drummer, etc.) that is possibly about the Rolling Stones themselves.

The vinyl flip starts off with “Street Fighting Man,” the first moment on the entire record where the Stones pull out all the stops and turn up the volume. This song can definitely be appreciated at a greater level when your volume knob is cranked to the maximum. It’s been called the band’s most political song. That march on the U.S. Embassy in London that happened when the Beatles were in Rishikesh was actually attended by Mick Jagger. He found contrast in the generally quiet, “sleepy” character of London and the huge event that was happening in the heart of it. But inspiration for “Street Fighting Man” came from not only that, but the hippie protests in America about the Vietnam War, but more strongly the near-revolution in France.

What makes this song more interesting than a straight-up protest song is that it’s really not a protest song. There’s talk of all the unrest and discord going on in the world, but not as particularly negative things. At best, Jagger is reporting on it in an observational tone like Lou Reed reports on drugs, but it very easily tips over into glorifying the violence. At times, he even seems to revel in it. I think the narrator of “Sympathy For the Devil” would approve.

Tomorrow: Statutory rape, and other fun stuff…

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!