Friday, February 24, 2012

(8th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Partners for 'Life' "

Song: She’s So Cold
Album: Emotional Rescue
Released: June, 1980

Partnerships can be risky business.  The variables to take into consideration are multiplied when two or more are involved in the decision making process, and over the long term the relationship typically must deal with an ever expanding set of dynamics.  Deciding to go into a partnership is ultimately a choice between success and failure, winning and losing, good times and bad.  Some remove themselves from the concept whenever they can, choosing to go solo in most ventures:  Hockey and football are abandoned at a young age for wrestling and swimming.  Charades is abandoned for chess.  The assembly line is abandoned for the work bench.  Big projects needing multiple skill sets are abandoned for smaller, more manageable go-it-alone ones.  

Being the safer bet, the solo route is still plenty gratifying when it pans out.  I’d argue however that a successful partnership has the potential to be far more gratifying.  Maybe it’s relating to someone else during the highs and lows.   Maybe it’s the ability to look back at a common experience.  Maybe it’s the triumph of a moment.  More likely, it’s all the above.  This week’s Stepping Stone is all about partnerships, along with the book that inspired the focus on this topic, and the boycott that had to be hurdled first.
When I first mentioned to everyone that I was starting a new series centered on 50 years of Rolling Stones music, I was well into a personal boycott; that being a refusal to purchase and read Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography “Life”.  This played out in the potential gift-receiving realm as well:  Nancy had hinted several times at buying the book for me, but my ambivalence gave her hesitation. 

My reason for the blackballing was simple:  Keith Richards has always refused to recognize his peers, and after leafing through the index of “Life” at a book store, my suspicions that his stance would continue were confirmed:  Little to no recognition of Pete Townshend and The Who; nothing on Ray Davies and The Kinks; no Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and Pink Floyd, no Van Morrison, and no Neil Young.  Absolutely nothing about much of the music that came soon after: Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, and later Elvis Costello, the Clash, U2, Springsteen and R.E.M.  There was some content on the Beatles, but then again a Rolling Stones book would be impossible without saying something about the Beatles.  There was some content on Bob Dylan, but it’s impossible to write any music story that starts in the 60s without discussing Dylan.

On the contrary, however, there was plenty of reference to Keith’s early influences, the Bluesmen from the deep South mentioned in earlier Stepping Stones, as well the first wave of Rock ‘n Rollers that came before the Stones, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers.  But the fact of the matter is and has always been that if the music came along any time after the Stones, Keith Richards refuses to recognize it… unless he has some affiliation (for example his ties with the Rastafarian musicians of Jamaica).  It all reeked of a twisted need to build up his legacy (as if he needs it).  And if Richards was not going to recognize his peers, I was not going to recognize his book. 

So was the case two months back when the family and I headed down to the Citarell’s to join in the celebration of Dad’s birthday.  While there, fellow Stones aficionados, Amy and Paul, independently insisted that my first order of business in starting up the new series, should be to read KRs book:  They were unaware of my bias, and surprised that I had not yet picked it up.  Having read it themselves, they were both sure I would enjoy it.

Deep inside, I knew they were right. 

Upon its release in the fall of 2010, the aptly named “Life” was received by both fans and critics alike as a well written, open, and honest account of a true Rock n’ Roll rebel; the poster boy in fact. In the ensuing year, the reputation of the book had only grown, to the point where it was being talked about as an all-time, upper tier retrospective of the life of a pop-culture icon.  I had over that time already read several excerpts and reviews, as well as paged through copies in bookstores.  Just about everything I’d taken in confirmed it as a must read.  Amy and Paul’s recommendations were the last straw.  After thinking about it a bit more, I realized that Keith Richards is simply an anomaly:  His musical interests a bit out of the box compared with many in his circles.  I decided to put an end to my boycott.

I’m glad I did.  There are numerous reasons to read “Life” for anyone interested in the Rolling Stones, their music, and their times.  First, despite his appearance, and demeanor, Keith Richards has one helluva memory.  And he remembers interesting stuff, not overly factual or self-centered fluff (which was how Bill Wyman came across in his autobiography “Stone Alone”), but fascinating tidbits, like describing in passionate ways how he writes and plays music; his nomadic years (most all of them); the truths behind the myths regarding his Dad’s ashes, blood transfusions, and his tree falling episode; and his views on being a life-long member of many-a top-ten-deathwatch lists (often ranking at number 1).

Second, despite his 9-lives, self abusive history, Richards has become quite the family man over the past several decades.  I credit his wife Patti Hansen for this, but I also credit Richards for knowing a good thing when he saw it.  One of the more moving stories in the book was how Hansen’s father and brothers slowly, begrudgingly accepted Keith as part of the family.  It had the feel of the movie “The Quiet Man”, with Keith as John Wayne’s character, the ex-boxer Sean Thornton going up against Red Danaher to gain Red’s approval for his sister’s hand in marriage.  In Richards’ case, several of Hansen’s brothers are very Christian, and, well, it was just hard for them to accept this wiry, ex-heroin addict into the fold.  But they eventually do, in a big way, and its how Richards handles himself in the face of the adversity that ultimately wins them over.

Thirdly, as stated in a review I read, this is not a confessional, 12-step recovery type of story.  For someone who has been through as much as he has, Keith Richards has no regrets.  This is oddly refreshing.  But he does not hold back on discussing the low points.  He reveals the sad story of his friendship with fellow addict Gram Parsons and his hard-to-read relationship with Anita Pallenberg.  He does not recommend any of it, but he does not deny any of it either.  Again, it works.

Fourth, Richards comes across as a true friend to many.  On any given tour, you find him chumming with roadies, support musicians (particularly Bobby Keys), fans, or relatives touring with the band.  He does not come across as elitist or money-driven in the least.  And there does not appear to be a prejudice bone in Richards’ body, be this in regards to age, race, sexual orientation or even gender.  This last one may be hard to believe with the reputation the Stones have gained through their music and related exploits as a chauvinistic band.   But I finished this book last week with no sense that Keith Richards has ever had a disparaging slant in his views on woman.  You have to read between the lines, but that’s what I concluded.  If anything, he “puts them on a pedestal”.

Fifth, his “Life” is truly amazing to read about.  The opening chapter says it all; his arrest in a rural southern town in the early 70’s (“Why did we stop at the 4-Dice Restaurant in Fordyce, Arkansas, for lunch on Independence Day weekend?  On any weekend?” is how he starts the book) and how he got out of it (sorry, you will have to read it to get the details).  Few of us could be so charmed.  Also, how he lived for months on end in the South of France during the “Exile on Main Street” sessions:  Open house; music blasting at all hours; people constantly roaming in and out; neighbors being driven to the brink and beyond; days without sleep; sporadic, intense and unpredictable moments of musical inspiration.  This is the story of a true bohemian.  I can connect with bits and pieces of it, but when adding this period up with many others in his “Life”, it’s all hard to fathom.

Now all this being said, Keith Richards can be nasty, and very much so. There are moments reading this book when I cringed at some of the things he says about others.  His nastiness is aimed in surprising directions though, including at fellow band members, the late Brian Jones and more daringly, Mick Jagger.  Despite the vitriol though, I’m surprised that I did not come away thinking any less of Jones or Jagger (well, maybe a little of Jones).  I suppose it’s because the writing was too good: Cutting while not permanently damaging.  And there was plenty of praise mixed in as well.

One of the biggest reasons for most folks to read this book was to hear KRs slant on his 50 year connection with Mick Jagger.  He does not disappoint.  Which brings me back to the main theme of this week’s Stepping Stone:  Partnerships.  Such a long period to spend as a business partner with someone is not unprecedented, but it is rare.  In fact, setting aside longevity for a moment, there are only a handful of successful songwriting tandems that even compare with Jagger/Richards:  Lennon/McCartney, Rodgers/Hammerstein, Plant/Page, Bacharach/David, and Taupin/John all come to mind.  Again, none were nearly as sustained. 

With such a long stretch of being a tandem, there were bound to be down periods for Jagger/Richards.  One pivotal stretch in their relationship was the late 70s/early 80s.  Keith Richards was just getting over a long period of addiction, and ready to get more involved in the business side of things, as well as the future direction of the band.  According to Richards in his book, his partner would have none of it.  Jagger had gotten used to making the big decisions by this time, and one of them was taking the band in a new music direction. The front man was sick of being a jack hammer on stage.  He wanted to start grooving, and began to introduce a more poppy, dare I say, disco sound.

What do you get when one strong willed partner’s impulse is to morph (Jagger) regardless of the implications, when the other strong willed partner’s impulse is to stay the course (Richards)?  In just about every case, it leads to a band breakup.  In the Rolling Stones case, the world instead got songs like She’s so Cold, this week’s Stepping Stone.

To many critics the new sound was viewed as an over compromise.  Fair enough.  But when seen through the eyes of Richards, and anyone who appreciates what can happen when people defy the odds, it was much more than that.  One thing that comes across in “Life” is how much KR values his band and that only an act of God should allow it to dissolve.  This philosophy is what distinguished the Stones from most all other bands, including The Beatles:  Artistic differences were not going to do them in and Richards was the man behind this attitude.

Seeing Keith Richards making the types of music changes he made during this time is akin to seeing Frank Sinatra roll out a rap record, or Madonna going punk, or General George Patton carrying a peace sign.  I believe Keith’s attitude was, “if this is what is going to motivate Mick (basically, how it’s going to be) then I need to Stones-ify the sound”.   He did it as best he could, and I’m certain that a song like She’s so Cold would not have survived as a Jagger solo effort (and speaking of Jagger solo projects, Richards gets into those too > “Have I listened to Mick’s solo albums?  Who has?”). 

The official pre-MTV video of She’s so Cold (
) is over the top (as many Stones videos are), but I do find it interesting.  First, it’s likely one of the best “Jagger in the Mirror” videos out there (SNL with Jimmy Fallon: ).  In other words, if you are going to attempt to imitate Moves like Jagger, this is a good place to start (“But she’s beau-ti-ful though” at 1:46 of the video is a perfect example).  Secondly, I noted Jagger stepping up on to the raised drum stage during the bass-driven bridge (2:15) to join the rhythm section.  Mick had unlikely allies during this musical transition in Watts and Wyman,(who’s bass playing on disco pop hits like Miss You, Emotional Rescue, and She’s So Cold are some of his best), and he appears to show his appreciation here.  Thirdly, it’s clear that the Glimmer Twins (Jagger/Richards) are not connecting in this video, as most of Mick’s goofing is with Ronnie Wood instead.

A few more personal thoughts on partnerships:  After making the challenging transition from listening to Sister Morphine (last week’s Stepping Stone) to listening to She’s so Cold and focusing on “Life”, I began thinking of my own personal partnerships.  Three of them came to mind.  The first is my marriage to Nancy, which I’d already elucidated on in several Gem Videos (particularly #’s 14 & 65), and which I’ll be certain to discuss more if I’m lucky enough.  The second is a team of five that I have been honored to be associated with for many years at USGS, the StreamStats team (, which has been an amazing experience for me.  But, jeez, I’d be boring the daylights out of everyone with that one. 

The third partnership that came to mind was a much shorter one:  3 months to be exact.  This was a partnership of adventure, taking place in Europe during the spring/summer of 1986.  My partner in this case was my great friend Bob Mainguy (included here as always), and I call our trip a partnership because we were dependent on each other for a good stretch of time, in numerous countries, and we needed to make many decisions together, often under duress.  I hope to at one time do it all justice, but I’ll just say for now that there was no one who could have made that experience any more fascinating than Bob did.  She’s So Cold is actually a personal memory of that trip:  Singing it with several other friends we had made on the streets of Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls.  Great memories never die.

Ok, I’m going to wrap up, but not before adding a few more loose ends to this borderline bombast.  First, Keith Richards not recognizing his peers can be humorous at times.  Case in point: Often the Stones have guest appearances during their shows, and one show I was watching on pay-per-view had Axl Rose from Guns and Roses, duet-ing with Mick Jagger for a rendition of Salt of the Earth.  At the end of the song, Axl is bowing to the crowd and Keith, from behind, points at him and then gestures “thumbs off”.  That was funny.

Second, Richards had a number of folks chime in for his book to help illuminate parts of his story.  One of them was his best buddy, Bobby Keys, a Texas boy and longtime backing saxophonist for the Stones.  One of my favorite lines in the book was Keys explaining what Keith Richards said when they both discovered that they were born within hours of each other (12/18/43):  “Bobby you know what that means?  We’re half man and half horse, and we got a license to shit in the streets”.  According to Keys “Well, that’s just one of the greatest pieces of information I’d ever received in my life!”

Finally, though the album “Emotional Rescue” (on which She’s So Cold is on) makes few fans lists of best Rolling Stones albums, it does hold one higher distinction (as revealed by Richards):  It is the only Stones album where the original tapes were actually blessed by the Pope.  I’ve spent parts of this week trying to grasp the effects of this distinction. 

It will take more time:  Maybe a “Life” time.

Friday, February 17, 2012

(7th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Showmanship and Spectacle"

Song: Sister Morphine
Album: Sticky Fingers
Released: April, 1971

A while back, longtime friend Kurt asked me, if I could choose a singular event to have been at over our lifetimes, which one would it have been?  Kurt should have said “sporting event”, which was his real intention with the question.  He had in mind big sports moments:  Bobby Orr’s OT Stanley Cup winning goal in 1970; Carleton Fisk’s foul-pole homer vs. the Big Red Machine in 1975; the Patriots “squishing the fish” in 1986; Larry Bird stealing the ball against the Detroit Pistons in 1987 (note: this question was posed before the great Boston sports moments of this past decade).

Since Kurt’s question was not specific enough, though, my thoughts went elsewhere:  More specifically, the music world.  I believe my responses included the Beatles at the Cavern Club in 1962; Woodstock in 1969; the Who “Live at Leeds” in 1970; the Watkins Glen Festival in 1973; Bob Dylan on his Rolling Thunder Revue tour in 1975; and Neil Young’s Rust Never Sleeps tour in 1976.  Kurt looked at me for a moment a bit quizzically, and then finally stated something along the lines of “good answer”.

Given a great sport event and a great concert event, I’ll choose the concert every time.  I’ve gone to my fair share of tremendous shows over the years, and wrote about some of the best several years back for Gem Music Video of the Week # 83 (“Night School”).  The song for that Gem entry was Memory Motel by the Rolling Stones (one of two Gem Videos featuring songs by the Stones).  The theme was great concerts, with a focus on large stadium shows.  And when it comes to the big stage, the Stones have mastered it better than anyone. 

So, having discussed the broad brush topic already, I’ll instead zero in here and relive a great concert moment.  I define a great concert moment as a transitional stretch in a concert, when the event evolves from solid show to Spectacle. These are the moments you always hope to see but rarely do.  In sports, they usually come at the end of a game, as did Bobby’s goal, Larry’s steal and Carleton Fisk’s homerun.  Not so with a concert moment.  These are much more unpredictable as to when they will happen.  I’ve seen a few that have had a lasting impact, and I hope to write about them all at one time or another. 

Here’s the first.

In October, 1997, the Rolling Stones arrived in Foxboro, Massachusetts (the old Foxboro Stadium) on their Bridges to Babylon Tour.  This was the tour that included a smaller “B”-stage near the center of the stadium, which core members of the band (sans support musicians) would hike out to about half way through the show to perform 3-4 songs (the Stones gained access to the smaller stage via a 150 foot long cantilever bridge, which extended out over the crowd, and contracted back after the mini-set was over). 

Brother Pat, Brother-in-law, Paul, and I attended that misty fall evening.  Sheryl Crow opened with a nice set.  The Stones then emerged in typical explosive fashion:  Keith Richards leading the band out to the stage through a burst of fireworks, playing the opening rifts to Satisfaction. This was followed by 3 more songs under bright lights (reviewing the set list on line, these songs included It’s Only Rock n’ Roll, Let’s Spend the Night Together and Flip the Switch).  Often it takes a while for a band to get it’s rhythm down, but on this night the Stones were already in fine form, and most of us in attendance sensed it. 

They could have kept it at cruise control from here, but the Stones then decided to up the ante, as it was at this point where a solid show began to transition into a Spectacle.  It started with Gimme Shelter, as the lights dimmed, and the stage began to take on a more eerie glow.  Many, including myself, were brought back to 1969, violence in the streets at home, and war overseas in Vietnam:

“Oh, a storm is threat’ning
My very life today
If I don’t get some shelter
Oh, yeah, I’m gonna fade away

I recall being amazed at how closely Lisa Fishser’s backing vocals resembled the original Merry Clayton recording:  “It’s just a shot away.  It’s just a shot away”.  The crowd roared at the songs conclusion.  A new tone had been set for the evening.  Could they keep it up? 

The band then launched into Sister Morphine as the lights remained way low.  It was a song I had always hoped to hear live, but had never really expected.  Too deep of a cut and rarely played live, but here it was, the opening notes unmistakable.  Written in the same tumultuous period as Gimme Shelter, Sister Morphine (which is now recognized as having been co-written by Marianne Faithfull) has an ominous feel to it, the lyrics describing the protagonist on a hospital deathbed and in an altered state, ambulance sirens still ringing in the victim’s ears from the tragedy that lead to this moment:

“Here I lie in my hospital bed
Tell me, sister morphine, when are you coming round again?
Oh, I don't think I can wait that long
Oh, you see that I’m not that strong”
Then after several more verses (including the classic line “Why does the doctor have no face”), the guitar bridge kicked in:  The bottleneck guitar bridge that is.  Could Woody pull it off, since it had originally been played on the studio version by Ry Cooder?  No problem there.  It was a perfect rendition.  In fact, the entire song up to this point had been a perfect rendition of the studio album.  The atmosphere was thick.  You could hear a pin drop between notes.  But the intensity level had not peaked just yet.  At the tail end of the bottleneck guitar bridge, Charlie Watts kicked in perfectly with the drum beat that sent the song into overdrive (2:41 of the attached video: ). 

This is when Mick Jagger took over, while taking on the appearance of a much younger version of his self.

With all 60,000 or so pairs of eyes now fixed on him, Jagger slowly turned and glided in our direction.  He then looked directly at us in a way that a hypnotist would look when putting his patient under a spell.  But instead of saying “watch the crystal ball”, the master performer of his time uttered the next set of lines in the familiar lower octave previously heard verbatim on the studio version of the song:

Well it just goes to showwwwwwww
Things are not what they seeeeeeeeeem
Tell me, Sister Morphine
Turn my nightmares into dreams
Oh, can’t you see I’m fading fast
And that this shot…… will be my laaaaaaaaaaaaast”

It was bone chilling.  It was jaw dropping.  

The Spectacle was complete.

The rest of the show was brilliant (including a magnificent rendition of 19th Nervous Breakdown, and of course the B-stage set).  But it was all icing on a cake that had already been perfectly baked 6 songs in. 

What is it about Spectacle that has such a powerful effect throughout life?  Is it a connection to childhood fascination, be it a long-ago visit to a circus, zoo, or carnival (Jolly Chollys!); or the faded memory of what it felt like to first successfully build a complex model or puzzle; or an early exploration into the woods with your Dad?  Whatever it is, it’s amazing when it all comes sweeping back.  Hey, there’s nothing wrong with feeling like a kid again.  I think we all strive for it whether we acknowledge it or not.

“Sticky Fingers” is my favorite Rolling Stones album.  It’s loaded with Stepping Stones, including the 3 extremely diverse atmospheric songs that close the album (starting with Sister Morphine).  I hope to get to all the others at one time or another.

Epilogue:  After writing the meat of this Stepping Stone Wednesday evening (the Sister Morphine concert experience), I pulled out Keith Richards’ book “Life” one last time, since I could not keep my eyes open to finish the concluding pages the nite before.  At the very end of the story, Keith talks about the passing of his Mom, Doris, several years back and how he spent time at her bedside playing some of the earliest songs he learned on the guitar (including “Malaguena”) while still living with her.  Between songs, Keith asks his Mom how she’s doing.  One of the last things she says to him: “This morphine’s not bad”.

I’ll be talking more about “Life” next week.

Until then

Friday, February 10, 2012

(6th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Live from New York: A Skit with Bite"

Song: Before They Make Me Run
Album: Some Girls
Released: June, 1978

One of my earliest lasting impressions of the Rolling Stones was watching them on Saturday Night Live in 1978.  More on that event and its effect on me below, but first a comparison:  This connection was a good 4 years into my exploration of all things Beatles, which was launched by my parents through several album purchases in the early 70s (Sgt Pepper and the Red Album).  The fact that it took an additional 4 years to make inroads with the Rolling Stones speaks volumes.  Though contemporaries of the Beatles, and almost as popular, the Stones were not a brand that was going to be marketed by Mom and Dad.  Most open-minded parents (like mine) could wrap their arms around the Beatles, or at least enjoy listening to them on occasion.  Not so with the Rolling Stones: They came across as something else entirely. 

By the mid 60’s the Rolling Stones had firmly established their “Bad Boy” reputation.  As is the case with many outlaws, this image is steeped in both myth and reality.  It was an image partly fed by their management to contrast them with the Beatles (one Canadian journalist bought into the comparison in 1965 with an article titled “would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?”).  However, be careful what you ask for:  The Stones soon became a target for a broad spectrum of the establishment.  To many, they were the white trash who hit the megabucks.  They were the Beverley Hillbillies, jumping into the “C-ment Pond” at all hours of the evening.  They were the drug users; the sex fiends; the slovenly, unkempt, riffraff.  They needed to be put in their place, and this general quest by authority figures (in numerous countries) made life for the Stones unstable and unpredictable for many years (at least until the late 70s when they became “Respectable”).

It was this reputation that was stirring in the back of my mind all those years ago when I stayed up to watch the band perform on late night TV. I was curious, but between the prolonged negative press and my own inclination to conform to most cultural norms in those days, the Rolling Stones were in somewhat of an uphill battle.

A little backdrop:  In 1978 the Rolling Stones were at the height of their game.  They had just released an album, “Some Girls” that propelled them back to the forefront of the music world.  During that period, they were spending much of their time in New York City, and this turned out to be a gold mine location for inspiration.  Manhattan was going through one of its major renaissances.  It was the place to connect with all types of music, be it new wave, punk, disco, or reggae.  All of these genres were at a fever pitch that year, and the Stones took advantage of each and every one, welding them together on their new album (with many of the songs referencing New York experiences). 

Along with the music, the Big Apple renaissance of the period included comedy, and in this profession, the folks who would yell “Live from New York, its Saturday Night!” on a weekly basis were without peer.  The original Not Ready For Prime Time Players were still largely intact and, as with the Stones, they were also at the top of their game.  Side note:  Another part of the renaissance, Bucky Dent and the NY Yankees, I would rather not discuss.

And so, it was quite the convergence of people, place and time that graced the “30 Rock” stage that evening.  I believe I sensed this at the time, realizing there was something unique about it all (though unaware it was fleeting).  The band performed 3 songs in typical Stones swagger (Shattered, Beast of Burden, and Respectable), but it was a sketch, ‘The Olympia Restaurant’ that had me most intrigued.  In this sketch, John Belushi, Laraine Newman, Dan Aykroyd, and Bill Murray all played roles as a Greek family running a diner for a lunch crowd (“Cheeseburger, Cheeseburger, Pepsi, Pepsi”), which by this time they had mastered, having performed it hilariously on several shows already.

On this night, the skit started off with the standard players.  Then, two Stones, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood, walk in and sit at the bar, playing pretty much anonymous versions of themselves.  It was a pleasant surprise to see several of the evening’s musicians in a skit (Mick Jagger was in another skit earlier in the evening, but that was not as surprising considering his side-acting career and stage presence).  I settled in for what I was hoping would be a few funny exchanges.  Disorder soon escalates, however; Watts and Wood get promptly abused by Pete Dionasopolis (Belushi), and are finally tossed out of the diner.  The whole scene came across as a bit unscripted, odd and unexpected.

What was there to make of this?  One interpretation could be that it was standard treatment at The Olympia Restaurant, but that was not my reaction.  Though I couldn’t fully grasp it at the time, what I saw was a clash of cultures (even though one of the cultures was an act):  Wood and Watts stood out in the crowd, and the Belushi character’s treatment of them was a bit over the top when compared to his usual tirade.  In hindsight, I think it was very clever of Belushi (who was a big time Rolling Stones fan) to do what he did.  In the process, he revealed something in me, perhaps a slight prejudice, at a time when I could take advantage of this insight.  I was still young and pliable, and so were many others watching the show that night.
Though the Stones were clicking on all cylinders at the time, there was one member, Keith Richards, who was on the edge of derailment.  Richards was at the tail end of a decade long heroin addiction.  After many brushes with the law over the years, it appeared his lifestyle had finally caught up with him, having been charged with a very serious offense for possession in Toronto in 1977. He was facing a long prison sentence when the Stones convened to cut the tracks for “Some Girls”. 

Jagger/Richards are the names associated with virtually every Rolling Stones song, but it is the rare occasion when Richards takes lead vocals.  This week’s Stepping Stone Before They Make Me Run, is one of these occasions ( ).  For a tough hombre, Keith Richards actually sounds unnerved in this song (he was) and his vocals would not have stood up unaided.  But in an unusual public gesture of caring, Mick Jagger offers up backing vocals that have the feel of attempting to carry a long time friend through an ordeal:  Waiting on a Friend indeed.  These backing vocals first kick in at the 1:43 mark of the attached video and then a few more times after the 2:20 mark. 

Nancy has always been a bigger fan of Keith Richards’ vocals than Mick Jagger’s.  Go figure.  I do see it sometimes, though.  Not so much in the strength of his singing (little to none), but more how the words just role off his tongue in a way that nobody could ever replicate.  He sings the way he plays guitar:  Weaving gestures. The best example in Before They Make Me Run is the first set of lyrics, “Worked in bars and sideshows, along the twilight zone, only a crowd can make you feel so alone.  And it really hit home”.   Without a cheat sheet, it would be impossible to interpret the “only a crowd can make you feel so alone” part.  But it works.

Before They Make Me Run is actually about the trouble Keith Richards was facing at that time in his life.  It’s the first time you can sense that he was listening to a wakeup call, and it was not long before he would kick his worst habit for good.  I later found out this song is also about the loss of Gram Parsons, one of his best friends, who died of an overdose several years earlier, reaffirming for me the wakeup-call feel of the music and lyrics. 
One other thought on the Rolling Stones “Bad Boy” image:  Despite their lower-middle class English roots, the Rolling Stones are really in many ways a black band.  They evolved in London in a very unique way, connecting inextricably with Southern black music via underground album purchases and a small, tight-knit club scene (Peter’s interest in the music of Eminem, a white guy in a black rap world, reminds me of my interest in the Stones).  Later in their career, the Rolling Stones would spend a good deal of time in the Deep South, chumming with the local black folk and musicians.  Keith Richards also spent a number of years in Jamaica hanging with the Rastafarians.  It’s a fascinating history, but one that, at least early on, may have contributed to the controversy the Stones have often found themselves in.  Other bands like Aerosmith would later try to emulate that Rolling Stones image.  But none of them get my nod.  The Stones were originals.  As bands with bad reputations go, they are the only ones I let in. 

By the way, Peter and I are not the only ones in the family with a liking of bad-reputation musicians…. Mom has always been a defender of Dean Martin and Glen Campbell:  Not the cleanest cats on the block.  Some things are hard to explain.  I hope I’m doing some of it here.

Finally, I could not find the classic Stones visit to the Olympia Restaurant, but here is the sketch as performed by the SNL crew on another night that year:

Until next time

- Pete

Friday, February 3, 2012

(5th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "From Black and White to Color"

Song: She’s a Rainbow
Album: Her Satanic Majesties Request
Released: December, 1967

Franklin High School was an unusual place for a 5th grader to get an education, but that was where I found myself in 1972.  The town was growing and with an (insightful) vision of further population growth, the then recently erected high school was, for the time being, built large enough to accommodate more than grades 9 thru 12 (a new vocational technical school would soon take the pressure off a bit).  And so, with the older high school redesigned to accommodate the junior high students (grades 7 and 8), the 5th and 6th graders were corralled together from a series of smaller, even older schools around town, and into the 2 wings on the northwest corner.

The age gap was not the only unusual aspect of being a 5th grader at a high school.  The time period was a large factor as well, and 1972 USA was quite a time period.  Many 5th graders, including myself, were transplants out of a private Catholic school system; having witnessed the permanent closure of St. Mary’s School the year before.  Making the transition from that insular world to what we were now experiencing was, to me, a bit of a culture shock.  Dress code, structure, and nuns were out.  Loose, multicolored clothing, long hair, and torn jeans were in, and this was much more so down the hallway.  Treks to the gym would bring us through this strange new world, but it was in the cafeteria where we would really get a good dose of it.

The cafeteria was where we had firsthand encounters with the juniors and seniors, who happened to share the same lunch break with us.   The 5th graders were shoehorned into a few long tables near the kitchen, but it was not uncommon to wander over to the older kids tables when you felt welcomed.  That’s where the jukebox was, and the lingo, and the sense of rebellion.  That was where the occasional streaker would make his way through the crowd, chased by teachers who appeared to have little idea of what to do if they caught him.  That’s where a different form of music began seeping its way into my consciousness.  There were all sorts of things going on, and my eyes were opening to something very different from what I had taken in to that point in my life.  Not better, or worse, just different.  The variety itself was what made it feel better though. The sense that there was diversity around me:  Diversity of thought, and an apparently complete freedom of expression.

This was not my only indoctrination into that world, however.  There were other experiences closer to home, happening at the same time.

Unless I have a long-lost cousin in a commune somewhere in the desert, my extended family (on both sides) completely missed the scene of the late 60’s.  To have been there, I assume you would have to have been born between 1947 and 1952, and despite numbering over 100 people (aunts, uncles, cousins), no one fit the bill.  I realize this was also the case for the families of many friends, but with such a large extended family as mine, I see this fact as running a bit against the odds.

Of the two generations that nipped at the edges though, it was the younger one (mine) that ended up getting the closest whiff.  My five oldest cousins all happen to be ladies and having reached adolescence in the early 70’s, they were, like those 1972 FHS juniors and seniors, close enough to that psychedelic sun to feel its effects.  Several have retained that certain air about them, be it hair style, clothing, or mannerisms.  I was an interested observer. Their colorful ways are reflected in this week’s Stepping Stone, She’s a Rainbow ( ), likely the best song penned at catching the lifestyle of a young lady from that time period. 

The years 1967, 68, and 69 were watershed years for rock music, but I believe it is ’67 that stands alone in terms of being at a crossroads.  Bands came into this year with one musical sound and came out of it with another, but 1967 itself was a year where it all blended together in one big psychedelic clump.  Bands were experimenting with each other’s sounds, and were not embarrassed to do so.  There was lots of overlap.  The Rolling Stones wrote songs that sounded like The Kinks, who sounded like The Who, who sounded like Pink Floyd, who sounded like The Beatles, who sounded like The Byrds. 

The Stones “Her Satanic Majesties Request” was but a shell of an imitation of The Beatles “Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band”, but it did have a few highlights.  She’s a Rainbow is a rare gem on this album, an album that only a small minority of fans would be able to name more than one or two songs from off the top of their head.  The best thing about She’s a Rainbow is Nicky Hopkins piano, with its 7 note intro and re-intro throughout, and with its timely pregnant pauses.  John Paul Jones plays the string arrangement.

Nicky Hopkins was one of many support musicians who performed on a second tier around the Stones.  Like electrons around a nucleus, the Stones kept many additional musicians close to the core throughout the years.  The list is extensive and includes Ian Stewart (keyboards:  The “6th Stone”), Jack Nitzche (harpsichord on Play with Fire), Bobby Keys (saxophone), Jim Price (horns), Nicky Hopkins (keyboards), Darryl Jones (bass man who replaced Bill Wyman), Billy Preston (keyboards), Ollie E. Brown (percussion), Wayne Perkins (guitar), Merry Clayton (backing vocals on Gimme Shelter), Chuck Leavell (keyboards),  Sonny Rollins (sax) and many others.  Pete Townshend and David Bowie have also contributed to Stones songs over the years.

The Rolling Stones influences and support have always been well recognized by the band.  It’s a big reason why Bob Dylan has great respect for them (noting on his xm radio show that the Stones always went out of their way to recognize southern black bluesmen like Big Bill Broonzy, Bo Diddley, and Muddy Waters while on their path to fame), and it’s one reason I got more interested in the band early on, after pulling out the cover sleeve to “It’s Only Rock’n Roll” many years ago and seeing nothing but photos of the support musicians on the album, Ian Stewart, Nicky Hopkins, Billy Preston, Keith Harwood, and Andy Johns.

Have a colorful weekend everyone.  Let your hair down.

- Pete

“Have you seen her all in gold
  Like a queen in days of old
  She shoots colors all around
  Like the sunset going down
  Have you seen the lady fairer”