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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.
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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 ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qpZ048-_xFQ ).  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. 
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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: http://www.hulu.com/watch/3533/saturday-night-live-the-olympia-restaurant

Until next time

- Pete

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