Friday, March 30, 2012
Song: Hand of Fate
Album: Black and Blue
Released: April, 1976
On the office door of a colleague at USGS is a cartoon showing two professors staring at a blackboard. One of the professors is reviewing a mathematical formula devised by the other. On one end of the blackboard is “Step One” of the mathematical formula showing a complex array of equations and variables, and the other end shows a supposed brilliant solution. In the middle is “Step Two”, which reads: “Then, A Miracle Occurs”. The subheading of the cartoon has the comments of the reviewing professor which reads “I think you should be more explicit here in Step Two”.
In the mathematical world of scientific theory where a hypothesis has to be proven, such a leap of faith is by its very definition prohibited. It’s a body of knowledge where phenomena must be explained. In the world of music, however, “Step Two” is strived for. It’s what turns a good studio song or concert event into a master stroke. It’s what has you wondering, when listening, how it all came together. This is probably the case for the musicians who created the work in the first place: For like any miracle, wonder, or happening, the way in which a classic piece of music gels is nearly impossible to explain.
It’s not very often that these two contrasting worlds, science and music, could be as front and center at the same time as they were for me this week, during which I attended the biannual American Water Resources Association (AWRA) Conference in New Orleans. On one side of Canal Street was the hotel where I spent my days presenting, attending and teaching sessions. Across the street was the French Quarter, which was where I spent the evenings with my professional brethren, and which just happens to be home for some of the best music the world has ever produced. Both environments were eventful and stimulating, but one was based on the quest for fact, where the other was based on the quest for that aforementioned cartoon’s “Step Two”. It was an interesting transition we would make from dawn to dusk and back, adjusting daily into these diametrically opposed worlds.
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For as much as I’ve read on the Rolling Stones, the personality traits that make Mick Jagger and Keith Richards great songwriters remains a mystery to me. I find it much easier to recognize the personality traits in other musicians that factor into this gift: Pete Townshend is introspective; John Lennon, intense; Paul McCartney, melodic; Peter Buck, serious; Bruce Springsteen, persistent; Joni Mitchell, searching; Joey Strummer, altruistic; David Bowie, artistic; Leonard Cohen, poetic; Roger Waters, deep; Chrissie Hynde, sharp; Neil Young, grounded; Curtis Mayfield, empathetic; Randy Newman has great wit; Ray Davies is reflective; and Bob Dylan is amazingly clairvoyant.
Most any other songwriter, I can see the driving force as well, but not Mick Jagger or Keith Richards. This is what remains fascinating to me about the Rolling Stones: That “Then, a Miracle Occurs” applies perhaps more than usual. On the one hand, I believe that Jagger/Richards have done a great job concealing their talents for the sake of their nonchalant image. But on the other hand, I feel that even if I knew these guys personally, I still would not be able to figure it out. I’m fine with that though. Again, the mystery appears to have drawing power, at least for me.
I did, however, get one small tidbit of a feel for how it all works with these cats when I read Keith Richards book, ‘Life’. Richards describes Mick Jagger’s role in the band as that of ‘Rock’ where his own role is that of ‘Roll’. Again, hard to define, but I believe this is what plays out on ‘Black and Blue’.
Let me try to explain.
‘Black and Blue’ may just be the Rolling Stones most underrated album. It includes a number of very good to great songs, including, Memory Motel, Fool to Cry, and this week’s Stepping Stone Hand of Fate http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UKH9enYiFIU. The songs on the album cover a range of styles, but nothing ‘Top 40’. Their two prior albums, ‘Goats Head Soup’ and ‘It’s Only Rock n’ Roll’, were a bit substandard compared to the flurry of all-time classics that came out before them, and as a result ‘Black and Blue’ may have slipped the radar (their next release, ‘Some Girls’ would get the band back in the limelight as it was an undeniable comeback, being full of hits).
‘Black and Blue’ was also an interesting transition album for the band, as they were auditioning for a 2nd guitarist after Mick Taylor abruptly quit just prior to the recording sessions (the reason for this has been unexplained for decades, but recent interviews with Charlie Watts and Taylor himself hint at substance abuse as being the major driving factor). As many as 5 guitarists are on the album, including Wayne Perkins who plays the lead guitar bridge on Hand of Fate (as well as on Fool to Cry). However, it was Ron Wood who would ultimately win the job over Perkins and others; making it onto the album cover, touring with the band just after recording, and remaining with them to this day.
Ok, back to that Rock (Jagger) and Roll (Richards) concept. Reading between the lines some, I believe what Keith Richards means by this is that Mick Jagger is more of the practical, organized, and unflinching side of the partnership, where he himself has more of the ‘roll with it, baby’ attitude. No band prioritizes and balances these critical elements for success better than the Stones. It has led to consistent quality, and of equal importance, longevity.
When Mick Taylor quit the band, the Stones did not fret, though they had come to rely on his amazing talents over the prior five albums. This ‘Rock’-like attitude served them well, but the ‘Roll’ angle certainly factored in their ability to move forward also. The auditioning of guitarists during an album’s making, as opposed to prior, is quite unusual. This ‘roll with it’ approach is something you see with the Stones all the time. They have never tried to confine the band’s music to their own abilities. They work with many other musicians to make a finished product, with the one criteria being that these musicians adapt to the Stones style and recognize their leadership, and not the other way around. This open-door policy is not all that common in the music world. And it may be the driving force behind what allows the band to adapt with new musical styles and genres.
The ‘Rock’ and ‘Roll’ personas of Jagger and Richards may go all the way back to the near-beginning for the band, when the two of them were literally locked in a room by then manager Andrew Loog Oldham, in his effort to get them to write their own songs. Originally, the band was content to just cover blues classics. But one great thing about the 60’s was that this was the origin period for the singer-songwriter as being part of a band. Tin Pan Alley was becoming a thing of the past. This eventually allowed those like myself who are interested in music from this time period and beyond to evaluate the entire package, and not just the singer’s voice or guitarist’s notes.
Hand of Fate may just be the last of the raunchy-sounding songs that the Rolling Stones perfected in the 70s. As far as I can discern, it’s about as close as the Stones get to emulating a Johnny Cash type of storyline: A song about a man on the run. Charlie Watts sounds particularly in the moment in this one as does Mick Jagger.
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New Orleans may have teetered after Katrina, but after a week of my taking in the place, it appears to have fully recovered. The music scene was as good as I could have expected. And it was omnipresent: On many street corners you could hear musical sounds emanating from up to 4 or 5 locations at one time. The diversity was there as well: Jazz, Funk, Zydeco, Cajun, Rock, Blues, Boogie Woogie, Brass, Pop, and Folk. It was all there. Hand in hand with my work duties, taking this all in was to me, of equal importance, bordering on responsibility. And by doing so, it may have allowed me to get a bit more insight into the inner workings of the Rolling Stones: Those ‘Rock’ and the ‘Roll’ factors that contribute to the musical equivalent of that mathematical formula on my USGS colleagues office door.
Friday, March 23, 2012
Song: Monkey Man
Album: Let it Bleed
Released: April, 1969
With the exception of ‘newspaper deliverer’, my first job description was that of busboy. I worked in this capacity for several years at Welick’s Restaurant in my hometown of Franklin until I left for college in the fall of 1980. At the time, Welick’s was the busiest restaurant in the region by a long shot: A weekend dinner date would typically begin with a 2 hour wait in the lounge area. When a party would finally hear their name called out over the intercom (“Jones, party of 2…. Jones party of…..2”), the well-lubricated patrons would then proceed into the dining area for a fantastic choice of surf and turf meals offered up by the restaurant’s secret weapon, Kammy, the head chef.
In those days, I suppose I was a bit on the gangly side. And I’m pretty certain I looked the part, even when compared to others kids my age including the other busboys. In all likelihood I was not much heavier than the large silver oval trays we would have to carry from dining area to dish room, stacked high with piles of dirty plates, silverware, and glassware. To be most agile, you needed to learn to carry the trays at shoulder level, one handed, as you negotiated your way through the crowded areas in the dining room, prep room, and kitchen (the swinging doors from the prep room to the kitchen and back were a particularly tricky area to weave through). This took some getting used to, and my first weeks on the job had a couple of highlight-reel moments, all eyes on me and my tray, as it came crashing down in resounding manner, instantly transitioning the tableware and leftovers into a pile of rubble. After more experience though, this rarely if ever happened again.
It was a great job, and I got plenty out of it besides the pay. I learned a lot about the adult world for example: Adults under stress (owners, most of the management, the cooks, and some of the waitresses) and adults relaxing (diners); frugal adults (waitresses that gave us the minimum in tips) and generous ones (those who gave us extra). I also learned to work hard and get good at something I got paid for. The evenings were a whirlwind of activity, and by the end I was pretty well spent. Yet there was a sense of shared accomplishment with most everyone else who clocked in on any given night.
On one of my last nights, after giving my two week notice, hostess extraordinaire Elaine approached me to let me in on something. Elaine was the daughter of the owners and wife of Kammy, the chef. I had gained a lot of respect for Elaine during my stint at Welick’s Restaurant for many reasons, not the least of which being her calm-under-pressure mannerisms. What Elaine had to tell me was that I came within a whisker of losing my job after those massive tray drops years before, but that she had convinced her Mom, Dad and brothers (a tough bunch) to give me time. Elaine also told me that she saw something in me early on that she thought would play out in a good way. Then Elaine looked me directly in the eye and said that I proved her to be right. It was such a great thing to hear, particularly from someone as reserved as Elaine was, and I’ve never forgotten it.
Since I insist on staying positive when reflecting on my own life experiences for these weekly entries, I start off with this story. There have been episodes in my life though where I experienced the opposite of what Elaine did for me… people who gave up way too early or never even bothered to try to get to know what I had to offer in the first place. I choose to forget that stuff, and thankfully for me none of it was ever even close to being life-altering. But this week’s Stepping Stone is just what the doctor orders when any of those feelings of rejection percolate back to the surface, because for the Rolling Stones, rejection was something they, and many of their contemporaries, had to face frequently.
And they did this head on.
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Twenty years: That’s a rough guess on how long it’s been since I last listened to ‘Let it Bleed’ from beginning to end. Consequently, popping this all-time-classic into the car’s cd player for the first of many-a play-through earlier this week, I knew things were eventually going to get interesting. That’s because if there is anything that’s been consistent in this musical-recollection process, it’s that I gain inspiration through listening to entire studio albums, not just the individual chosen songs. I already had a great song in mind for this week, Monkey Man, but not much to work with. Listening to ‘Let it Bleed’ changed all that.
So, to be a bit more specific, my goal, as always, was to work my way up to the Stepping Stone patiently, not just jump right to it and surf around from there. Yes indeed, there was an order of business in place for me to try and reconnect with Monkey Man, 8th song on the track list for ‘Let it Bleed’. Accordingly, I let it all play out, not just once, but often: First Gimme Shelter, then Love in Vain, followed by Country Honk, Live with Me, Let it Bleed, Midnight Rambler, You Got the Silver ….. and finally, Monkey Man, which I would then allow myself to play over and over (9th and final track, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, suffered all week from this repetitive process, but I did manage to fit it in a handful of times). As usual, I was bombarded with a suite of thoughts related to numerous topics including Rolling Stones history; my history; the time period of the album’s release; my first memories of the album; my favorite memories of the song; the meaning of the song; and so on. Could I again build something on top of that menagerie?
I once read a journalist’s observation, and I would have to agree, that the year of ‘Let it Bleed’s release, 1969, was more in line with the Rolling Stones musical sensibilities than earlier periods. If any one word could be used to define the year, it would be ‘tumultuous’. I’ve touched on this before. After three assassinations and an increasingly unpopular and expanding war, the good vibes were steadily being replaced by bad ones, which were partially fuelled by a once-promising youth movement’s growing substance abuse problem. The Stones worked well within this environment, but how and of equal importance, why?
With the Beatles in the process of disbanding and Dylan somewhat out of commission for a spell (motorcycle accident and retreat from the limelight), the Stones would find themselves thrust into a leadership role of sorts in 1969 (in hindsight, I believe the individual Beatles ended up being more influential as solo artists than they likely would have been if they continued as a band during this period, but this took a year or two to fully develop). It is fascinating that the Stones would have to step into this vacuum at this particular time, since for years they had been branded as poster children by the establishment for what was wrong with the younger crowd. In other words, at the very moment when it was all coming to a head, this band was caught in the crosshairs.
One of the biggest factors in the tumultuous nature of the time period was a clash of 2 strong-minded generations. In this corner weighing in as having overcome hardship (The Depression) and tyranny (World War II) was the “Greatest Generation”. And in this corner, weighing in as trying (and ultimately succeeding) to make a stamp of their own was the “Counter Culture”, likely the first youth movement in recorded history willing to make a stand for its own unique beliefs. It was a serious heavy weight battle for many years, with both sides ultimately pointing fingers at the other one as the reason for all the tumultuousness.
It did not have to be that way.
When I watch early TV footage of Rock n’ Roll musicians, say any time before 1968, one of the first things that strikes me is the respect those musicians appear to have for the host and audience. There’s a ‘yes sir, no sir’ feel about it all. The host was usually someone from the Greatest Generation, including Ed Sullivan, Jackie Gleason, Perry Como and Bob Hope, and the audience was for the most part the host’s peers. Certainly a part of the respect was self-preservation driven, simply to keep doors open for future air time, but I believe there was something else there as well: There was a respect for their elders in general and the sacrifices they made. There had to be. These new up-and-comers had parents who were part of that generation. Most of them knew what they had all been through.
This respect was not always reciprocated, however. And though it could be argued that respect had not yet been earned, there is a fine line between lack of respect and flat out rejection. The Greatest Generation crossed that line early and often, which likely lead to an eventual erosion of respect in the other direction. Certainly blame can go all around for the atmosphere, but this was a big part of it (and besides, weren’t these 30, 40, and 50 something’s supposed to be the adults after all?) A perfect example of how this played out was Dean Martin’s treatment of the Rolling Stones on his TV show in the mid-60s ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qOr2a9oEzGQ ), particularly in regards to his closing remarks and body language. Dean Martin was not alone and should not be signaled out. His attitude was emblematic of many in his generation toward a counter culture movement they just did not understand, and probably feared.
If you have a chance to read the opening chapter to Keith Richard’s “Life” you will get a sense for this tension. You can also hear it in the lyrics of Bob Seger’s Turn the Page, or read about it in any number of Tom Petty interviews when he reflects on being in a long-haired fledging rock band in Gainesville Florida in the early 70s. Sure there was an ‘image to keep up’, but living this life was not for the faint of heart. Given what the armed forces look for in a person, those sergeants, generals and admirals should have had some admiration for this crowd, since unlike those who could not change the color of their skin, or their accent, these folks had a choice on how they looked. And they chose to stick out like a sore thumb.
By 1969 the rejection and all its negative ramifications had reached a boiling point. Riots were breaking out in cities across the USA and Europe. The Rolling Stones took an interesting tact at this point: They exaggerated their image even more than before, playing with it all, like a cat plays with a mouse. Most of this was done through the music, but in Keith Richards’ case, it would all play out in his life as well…. A kind of “oh, so this is what you see in me. Ok, I’ll give you it tenfold” type of attitude that would nearly kill him on numerous occasions.
Allegorically, Monkey Man represents the tipping point, the point of no return. For the Rolling Stones, We Love You and Dandelion were out; Gimmee Shelter and Monkey Man were in. The song starts out so intensely; it’s a wonder to me that any reviewer would suggest it as a throwaway (and a few did). First there are the opening ominous piano notes and the bass, and then the angry guitar, and finally Mick Jagger kicks in, his singing fitting precisely with the mood of the song: Oh, so I’m a monkey ehh? Ok, I’m a monkey:
I’m a flea bit peanut monkey
All my friends are junkies
It’s a great song. Jagger appears to be having fun with it all (to a degree) while Richards seems to be taking it very seriously in his guitar playing (this contrasting juxtaposition may generally be why the Rolling Stones have been so successful). Then, at the 2:34 mark of the attached video of the song ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GcB-JTAZQow) the bottom falls out. I got to see the Stones perform this moment live. It was intense, the feel of a giant vacuum being swept into the stadium. At the end of the song (3:13), Jagger sounds almost intentionally obnoxious (predating Robert Plant and Steve Tyler in this paradox-like singing style). I guess the monkey transformation is complete at this point: Images of those flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz dance in my head.
Let’s face it, despite all the good that the Greatest Generation brought to the table (and let there be no doubt, I believe they did earn this distinction), there was quite a bit of prejudice mixed in there as well. For some it may have had to do with facing an enemy of a different ethnic background in a horrible war. Whatever the reason, this prejudice was not just geared to people of different races or religions, but also people who thought differently from the way they thought you were supposed to think. But I know this generalization is an over simplification of reality. It could also be argued that the Greatest Generation nurtured the questioning spirit behind the counter culture, allowing these folks to think for themselves, and be strong in their own beliefs.
For me, I was too young to feel that full brunt of rejection from the older generation, who eventually came around for the most part, but I did get the occasional wise crack growing up. Hey, what the heck, I suppose it builds character. It seems to have done so with the Stones. The flip side approach is much more rewarding though, not only for the one receiving the support, but also the one offering it, as I believe was the case for Elaine who stood by me, willing to go a bit out on a limb with her family. In my High School Year Book, I jokingly stated that I aspired to be a busman. From Elaine’s perspective, I guess I did just that.
Thursday, March 15, 2012
(11th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Spotlight on Brain Jones: The Effects of Longstanding Connections"
Song: Ruby Tuesday
Album: Between the Buttons (US version)
Released: February, 1967
Spotlight on: Brian Jones
Of all the lasting insights and interests I’ve garnered over my lifetime, most have been jump started via longstanding connections with family and friends. I believe this is the case for most of us. Sure, we can on occasion pick up a tip-that-lasts through other avenues, for example an acquaintance or professional. But there’s something about personal ties that can set the best of wheels in motion, often resulting in the deepest, most enduring and creative of preoccupations. Call it insider trading. Call it an inside job. Call it your inner circle. Call it whatever. It works.
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Fred and I benefited greatly from the family move to Park Road during the spring of ’73. First and foremost, we each got our own bedrooms (the room we were leaving behind on Martin Ave can best be described as a bevy of bunk beds). That alone would have been good enough, but these rooms came with a few other perks. There was an easy-access back staircase ***used by me one evening to sneak out of home at midnight for an hour or so while in my mid-teen years, tobacco-packed corncob pipe in hand, to hook up with Jeff (aka Popeye), John and others in the crew, several of whom had even more creative ways of sneaking out of their homes, including the use of windows, trees and deck pillars***. There was a small bathroom between our rooms (whose porcelain bowl may have been loudly worshipped once or twice). Most importantly, though, there was space: Space for posters, stereo systems, and hobbies. The space also came in handy for noise: The type of noise that a smaller, multi-generational home could not put up with….Rock ‘n Roll noise.
At the onset of our interest in Rock music, Fred and I each cobbled together small but diverse album collections. Between us there was some Neil Young (including ‘Decade’), some Cars, Joe Jackson and the Kinks (‘Kronikles’), and lots of Beatles. Later, our collections would expand to include The Who, Elvis Costello, The Clash, Mink Deville, The Jam, and others. We dabbled into each other’s selections regularly.
Another of Fred’s earliest records was ‘Hot Rocks’, a classic double album he purchased in slightly used (but cheap!) quality at a flea market. Arguably one of the greatest compilations of all time, ‘Hot Rocks’ opened me up to the world of the Rolling Stones. There was the cover, with 5 faces, one inserted inside another, that initially had me thinking it was all one person. There was the back cover, The Stones decked out in medieval regalia, Mick, Brian, Keith and Bill on the 2nd ledge of a decaying castle, Charlie standing in the front (likely scared of heights?). And of course, there was the music, which covered some of the Stones best material over their first decade.
A brief overview is needed at this point. Rolling Stones history can be broken up into 3 main time-periods, each of which can be defined by the 2nd guitarist. The first of these 2nd guitarists was founding member Brian Jones, who was released by the Stones in 1969 due to his fading contributions to the band (driven at least partially by substance abuse), and who died soon after, drowning in his own swimming pool (remaining the only Rolling Stone to have passed on at the time of this writing, excepting if you include Ian Stewart). The Brian Jones years, however, can really be broken up into an A and B period. Period A would be about 1962-65, when Jones faithfully stuck with his traditional instrument, the rhythm guitar. Period B would be about 1966-69. This was when Jones had virtually lost all interest in the guitar (to Keith Richards despair, who loves dueling with a partner), and ended up instead plucking, blowing into, and fingering just about any other instrument within reach. These instruments Jones would learn to play with aplomb.
It was a three song stretch on side 2 of ‘Hot Rocks’ that initiated the transition for me from casual listener to aficionado with The Rolling Stones, and all three have Brian Jones as the key cog, playing an exotic instrument like a sage in each. First there was his mood-setting sitar playing on Paint it Black; second his nimble handling of the marimba on Under My Thumb; and finally there was his beautiful use of the recorder on Ruby Tuesday, this week’s Stepping Stone. It was all classy sounding. It gave the Stones an edge over other bands. It convinced me that this band was for real.
Brian Jones contributions to Stones songs in the last years of his short life would reveal his multi-faceted abilities playing out yet again and again, as he would include in his repertoire of instruments the grand piano, harmonica, slide guitar, accordion, organ, dulcimer, harpsichord, oboe, mellotron, saxophone, autoharp, and more. This was all very interesting to me, and in hindsight, I now can pretty much say it was Brian Jones, not Mick Jagger (and certainly not the much-harder-to-connect-with Keith Richards) who opened the Stones doors for me.
Which brings me back to that inside-job concept: I truly believe that Brian Jones’ brilliant contributions on those 3 songs would have been impossible to have been performed similarly by a hired gun. This is the fascinating concept behind long-term bonds: They bring out a passion and creativity that cannot be artificially inseminated. There was something going on within his band’s ranks, and only through years of being immersed in this atmosphere, as Jones was, could these musical superlatives be drawn out. I’m convinced of it, as this has happened often enough in my circles to recognize it in other ones. And it’s these long-term bonds that are actually what lead me to The Rolling Stones in the first place, after poking through Fred’s collection all those years ago and pulling out ‘Hot Rocks’ for the first time. Fred was curious enough in this band to purchase their album, and that was good enough for me. It may not have played out as definitively for me as it did with the Stones. But make no mistake about it: It did play out, in equally extraordinary ways, and for this I am truly grateful.
Listening to Ruby Tuesday (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6DVCgKsqn30 There are the lyrics, with several poignant lines: “She would never say where she came from” to start it out; “She just can’t be chained to a life where nothings gained and nothings lost” in the second stanza; “Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind” in the third. There’s the unique bass sound, which was orchestrated by Bill Wyman holding tight on the strings while Keith Richards plucked. And of course, there’s Brian Jones recorder playing; which hits highlights throughout (with two moments in particular standing out for me at the 2:16 and 2:23 marks of the attached url). numerous times this week, I was reminded of so many reasons why I enjoy this song.
Brian Jones was a fragile soul… one of the most fragile in the history of Rock (Kurt Cobain also comes to mind). His iconic image, that of the lone blond in a gang of British hooligans (he was not exempt) remains front and center for many Rolling Stones fans when conjuring up a snapshot of the band, despite 40 years of Stones history since his death. Though eccentric and tough to deal with, the Stones were still very lucky to have this element in their circle for that relatively brief period of time in their long saga.
One other note: The Beatles roots are in Rock but the Stones roots are in Blues, which made it harder for a suburban Caucasian kid like myself to connect to them right off. ‘Hot Rocks’ was needed to initiate the process. It collected together some of the Stones best early stuff together, the earliest of which were scattered among many blues cover songs on their first 3 or 4 albums. I needed time and familiarity to break into that Blues sound. With enough persistence, I eventually did. But it was the music they first painted on top of the Blues, songs like Paint it Black, Under My Thumb, and Ruby Tuesday that started me down that path. Keith Richards should have been grateful: Though he lost a buddy to weave guitar notes with (he would eventually get this back with Ron Wood after several more Stones permutations, but these are stories for other times), he gained a much broader audience, and I’ve never heard of him complaining about the quality of those songs. On the contrary, I believe he was inspired by them. That creative spirit, spurred on by long-term bonds, would bite him deeply soon enough: For as Jones faded, the Richards-prolific years kicked into high gear, carrying through at least the middle part of the following decade.
The Rolling Stones performed Ruby Tuesday very admirably, without Mr. Jones, on their Steel Wheels tour in 1989, although one of those aforementioned hired guns was needed to fill the void. Those wheels grind on still, but for me it was Brian Jones, and my brother Fred, that set them to rolling in the first place.
Friday, March 9, 2012
Song: Anybody Seen My Baby
Album: Bridges to Babylon
Released: September, 1997
Ain’t it a shame when you have some supposed great insightful thought, and then poof it’s gone, be it an idea you get while on the run which you can’t jot down at the time; a dream you think you’ll remember in the morning when it wakes you up in the middle of the night; or…(hmmm, I had one other example but I forget what it was because the phone just rang and the Bruins just scored).
This memory slip also happened to me at least twice after concert events. In each case I had momentarily gained vivid insight into the deeper meaning to several songs as they were being performed, and then just like that, lost it again. One of these songs was The Rolling Stones 1997 semi-hit, Anybody Seen My Baby off “Bridges to Babylon”. And while the insight was not all that mind-boggling (nor likely all that accurate), it was fun to dream up, and I was bummed that it slipped away. Just this week, however, while listening to this song yet again, I finally gained that insight back, which gives me the opportunity to share the whole bizarre thought process here. Side note: The other post-concert memory slip was not long after listening to The Who perform You Better You Bet, but that discussion will have to wait for several reasons, not the least of which being that I still haven’t figured a way to reconnect those synapses.
Now, despite all the superlatives I’ve tossed their way these past months, The Rolling Stones are not what I would call a deep thinkers band. I usually value this trait in musicians, and hope in a future series to explain some of the deep thoughts Bob Dylan has teased out of me over the years. Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd, and even Steely Dan also come to mind when the thinking cap needs to be turned up a few notches. In the case of the Stones, however, they are forgiven of this seeming limitation because of everything else they bring to the table. And in actuality, the more thought the Stones appear to put into a song or album the more it feels contrived. Their regular formula works, and for the most part they stick to it.
Occasionally, however, this band can surprise you.
Knowing a tour was in the works, I purchased “Bridges to Babylon” not long after its release. The album immediately sounded balanced to me, which is something you can’t always bank on with Stones albums (or any musician’s albums for that matter), particularly those that are rushed out to precede an extended tour as this one was. Yet Mick Jagger relies on new music to help stir his creative juices while on the road, which can be a blessing or a curse depending on the quality of the new stuff (either way, I have plenty of respect for his attitude, seeing as by the 90s, The Stones could easily have fallen back on tapping into their vast catalog for a successful tour).
One song on the new album did stand out, however: Anybody Seen My Baby. I loved it. The song had an eerie sounding chorus (introduced through a single ominous bass note) that reminded me a bit of the band’s 1969 signature sensation Gimme Shelter. I noticed right off in the credits for this tune that k.d. lang was recognized as a co-author, along with Jagger/Richards. A Rolling Stone (magazine) review and re-listen made the reasoning behind this co-writing credit obvious: The chorus had strong similarities to lang’s song Constant Craving (though as mentioned before, Anybody Seen My Baby had a more eerie sound). I later would read that Keith Richards’ daughter was the first to recognize the similarity while listening to a prerelease of “Bridges to Babylon”. Keith claims to have then scrambled to get k.d. lang recognized, noting in his book ‘Life’ that Mick Jagger’s then habit of picking up new music ideas at clubs had finally caught up with him. I shrugged it all off: The Stones had been inspirations to many for well over 30 years by this time, so this slip on their part was not going to have much effect on me (as for k.d. lang, she was quoted as having been both surprised and honored to be a rare co-writer with the Glimmer Twins)
My first thought that there was a bit more to Anybody Seen My Baby than meets the eye was in listening to and reading the lyrics (on the album sleeve) which didn’t quite fit the song’s mood. At face value, the storyline was too simple, and I felt (I suppose more subconsciously than consciously) that this disconnect was intentional. The official video, starring a young Angelina Jolie, was not much of a help: An abstract short of an exotic dancer escaping from a broken relationship in the big city. Yet the more I listened to the song, the more my curiosity into a deeper meaning persisted.
These inklings of suspicion finally played out when I attended the Bridges to Babylon tour in Foxboro, which as fortune would have it, included Anybody Seen My Baby in the set list. And as they launched into the tune I now recall thinking about the vast quantity of shows the Stones and other longstanding bands have done in their lifetimes, though I can’t recall why this thought came to mind at that time. There could have been all sorts of factors that contributed though: The masterful performance; the order of songs performed (a bit of research revealed that Anybody Seen My Baby was immediately preceded by the Sister Morphine moment discussed in that earlier Stepping Stone); my curiosity into the tune’s meaning leading up to that point; an aligning of planets.
Whatever it was, the thought process evolved from there. I believe my next thought was of the longtime fans. If you go to enough shows, you will hear the longtime fans of any good band saying things like “oh, you should have seen them in ’72”… blah blah blah (actually, I do find many of these stories fascinating, so please don’t take this wrong, Mr. Strause!). From there, I bounced back to the band’s perspective on the same topic, as in “you should have seen the crowd from ‘72” or whenever. After all, it’s the bands who are the ones with the most to reflect on; with the deepest and by far most numerous memories of these events.
Back and forth I went: Band perspective, fan perspective. What it all came down to in my mind that evening while listening to this song, was that inspiration goes both ways: The performer can draw from the ticket holder in similar fashion to how the ticket holder draws from the performer. I’m sure this has been the case for many musicians, as evidenced in those bands that continue to tour well into their elder-statesman years; rock stars who already have enough money to retire 10-times over. And I’m also sure that the crowds on certain tours have been more endearing to bands than others. Has anybody seen my baby? Well Mick, Keith, and crew, apparently we have a lot to live up to in this massive 1997 crowd, but we’ll do the best we can.
Ok, so what’s the big deal here? Nothing in particular, but the memory recovery was very timely in relation to having something to write about for this week’s Stepping Stone. The recovery happened through a set of lyrics that I never could fully interpret before and which were not included on the album sleeve with the rest of the song’s words: While leafing through several YouTube links of the video several days ago, I came upon this one, which included the following stretch of semi-decipherable rap-like lyrics scrolled across the screen at the 2:50 mark ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hze4NCmmMnk ):
“We came to rock for Brooklyn
And Queens, And Manhattan
And The Bronx, And Staten Island
I can't forget New Jersey, and Long Island
And all over the world, we came to rock for everybody like this..”
And Queens, And Manhattan
And The Bronx, And Staten Island
I can't forget New Jersey, and Long Island
And all over the world, we came to rock for everybody like this..”
I did a double take at the last part of the last line: “we came to rock for everybody like this”. Almost immediately, it all came back to me: Puzzle pieces of thought that finally got some closure. It also helped when I re-read the last 2 lines of the album sleeves’ printed lyrics: “She’s just in my imagination” and “Lost in the crowd”. Nice touch, gents. I didn’t know you were the sentimental types.
A few other loose related thoughts:
Ø Songs selected to tour on by well established-bands can be divided into three camps: 1) the classics that everyone wants to hear, particularly the casual listeners (“Free Bird!”); 2) the deep cuts that aficionados want to hear (“so don’t overdo it with the classics, please”) and; 3) the new stuff that zealots want to hear (“the walrus was Paul”). It’s this 3rd category of songs that is most risky for a band to mix into a show, and it was this category that Anybody Seen My Baby fell into on that October night. Though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I put myself more in the aficionado category with The Stones.
Ø When my memory first came back earlier this week, I thought of writing this Stepping Stone up as a fictional story: Somehow getting backstage after the show and pointing out my insights to the band. The one line I typed up was a hypothetical response by Charlie Watts, along with a side note: “ ‘Oh, hadn’t thought of that, but yes, it does make sense’, he stated, while making gestures to the security guard behind me.”
Ø It must be grueling at times for colleagues to be around each other as frequently as band members are while on tour. It’s been hinted by those in The Rolling Stones’ circles that this lead to their classically titled song “Oh No, Not You Again” off 2005’s “Bigger Bang”.
Ø Brian Jones supposedly wrote a song called Anybody Seen My Baby in the short period of time between his release from the band in 1969 and his death. Interesting, but I have no time to read into this song any further.
Have a great weekend
Saturday, March 3, 2012
Song: The Last Time
Album: Out of Our Heads (US version)
Released: July, 1965
I can still conjure up an image of the place as if I were there just yesterday. When you spend hundreds of hours at a naturally impressive and seemingly clandestine location, as a crew of us did over many years, it’s not too difficult to get instant recall. Such was the case with “The Mountain” of my youth: A mere fifteen minute walk from home, yet for all intents and purposes, a world away. It’s been gone for decades now, and I’ll talk about how that all came about in short order; including a brief period of time when we knew its days were numbered.
First, let me try to bring it back.
The approach was from the west along an old logging road, a handful of downed trees and large well-placed boulders impeding progress and revealing this passage as having seen more useful days. Looming up ahead was our destination, The Mountain, a sizable expanse of rocky outcrop with a number of intriguing features, including the Inner Bowl. This bowl was where we would spend most of our time, and the far side of it was visible at several vantage points along the logging road. As you got closer though, you lost view of it, as the road angled slightly to the right backside of the bowl.
Here a trailhead began its ascent. This was a fairly steep, narrow, scraggly path consisting of both stretches of loose stone and smooth, solid rock. You had to be careful hiking up it on wet and icy days, although there were two small trees for support at several critical junctures (one of which broke off at its roots after years of overuse). Most of this entry trail was concealed from the Inner Bowl, but about half way up it, you could cut off to the left around a knob and sneak your way inside the bowl via a long thin ridge line. Not everyone dared this route, but good friend Bruce would walk it as if he were strolling through the park. More often however we would all stick to the main trail all the way to the top.
Ahhh, The Summit. Now, I’ve hiked up many a geologically-designated mountain in my day and in the process gained a feel for what to expect when emerging onto higher ground: That transition from a sheltered canopy to an exposed one. Amazingly, this relatively low-lying crest had the feel of one of those true summits: The pitch pines and scrub oaks were scraggly and stunted, with a windblown look to them. Tucked inside this grove of trees was a small clearing with an old abandoned fire pit in the middle (which we would use in the latter years of our journeys there), and on the far side of this clearing was a final vertical heave of outcrop, jutting just high enough to declare itself The Pinnacle (though no official benchmark by the USGS to distinguish it as such). Here, along with a few other locations in the general area of The Summit, were far ranging views in most directions. Looking back, I believe we were instinctively correct in dubbing this grand place “The Mountain” (despite good friend John’s attempts to keep our grasp on reality in check by regularly reminding us it was just a hill).
Following the trail a tad further, it then looped back from The Summit grove to the upper ridge of the Inner Bowl, the heart of The Mountain. There was not much space between the tree line and the cliff edge, but there were a few ledges to step out onto. One of these overhanging ledges hovered over a mid-upper level ridge, which itself was above the long thin ridge line mentioned earlier. This mid-upper level ridge was where I would spend countless hours with good friend Phil during our middle-school years, chipping ceaselessly away at the granite with any number of tools from crowbar to hammer, grooving out a wider and wider platform for us to hang out on (and making a cave beneath the overhang above us in the process). Several more ridges scattered about the bowl would be occupied by Fred, Joe, Bruce, Jeff (aka “the Piz”), and occasionally other friends; they themselves also chipping away with an assortment of tools. Together, I suppose we were unknowingly creating our own version of Mount Rushmore, or at the very least we were excavating; exposing rock (and fossils?... quite often we were convinced) that had not seen the light of day since at least the last ice age.
The bottom of the Inner Bowl was littered with rubble, including one very large boulder that we would use to prop targets on top of, picking them off with rocks thrown from our ledges (these targets included glass bottles which we would collect at a reliable party location for driving-age teens on the way). Bruce was always an extremely accurate hurler, but we all had our fair share of highlight-reel moments. We would take turns to go down to the bottom to set more targets up.
After chipping away at The Mountain off and on for a few years and hurling the rocks below, we had pretty much doubled the amount of debris at the bottom. This new debris included one particularly humongous chunk-o-pried-out ledge which took out a 20-foot tree on its way down, where it rested permanently next to the other large boulder and soon got used as a backup for more target-practice items.
Back to the trail which, after continuing beyond the top of the Inner Bowl, approached the most distinctive feature on the entire escarpment: An almost square ledge which had the appearance of “Frankenstein’s Head”. This feature jutted out just beyond the Inner Bowl, perfectly defining the bowl: Hidden entry trail on the southwest side to the right and Frankenstein’s Head on the northeast side to the left (looking up). Franks Head gave the entire location a Wild Wild West feel about it. And it was the one part of The Mountain you really could not climb without rope and carabiners. God know we tried though, and I believe Bruce (again) figured it out once or twice.
Just beyond Frankenstein’s Head was a nice stretch of climbing rock where you could practice your finger and toe holds, getting really good at it with repetition. There was an area to rest and regroup which was tucked in the middle of that vertical challenge. I believe some of this zone survives to this day. After this stretch, the exposed rock petered out, to the great woods beyond. We ultimately discovered that woods in equally intense fashion, but that’s a story for another time.
This was a world all to our selves. On the rare occasion when we were visited by strangers, they would usually get the hint that they may be intruding. The hint was delivered not so much by us as by our dogs, Nicky and Whiskers, who maintained constant vigilance on The Summit. Inevitably, folks would either turn around or saunter on by (and if they had read “Lord of the Flies” at any time in their lives, they may have sauntered a bit quicker).
Many great times were had on The Mountain, be they related to climbing, chipping, exploring, hurling, hiking, chilling, biking, or later, midnight fire stoking. It was a magical place; a natural fun house. What we did not realize in our earliest years there, though, but which would become more obvious to us over time, was that this land was actually owned by someone, deed and all. That entity was the Franklin Lumber Company, and their developed piece of property was adjacent, through a small patch of woods beyond the trailhead on the southwest side. Unbeknown to us, they were apparently becoming increasingly aware of our activities and increasingly interested in this piece of land for their own uses.
I believe it was Bruce who first got wind of the lumber company’s initial wave of encroachment onto The Mountain: The more gradually sloping hillside leading up to it from the east had been stripped bare of trees. Our world was still fully intact, but the space between this wonderland and the real world next door had narrowed considerably. And rumor that this was just a first step was now turning into inevitability: For reasons that have never been fully explained to me, the Franklin Lumber Company was intent on wiping out The Mountain. Perhaps it was a liability issue. Perhaps others who came later had squandered the privilege of enjoying this land as there were reports of theft and vandalism in the lumber yard.
Squatters Rights were not in the cards. Each visit now had the feel of being the last:
“Well, this could be the last time
This could be the last time
May be the last time
I don’t know”
The Last Time (http://www.youtube.com/watch?
v=JZ32lL4R970 ) was a song I never really appreciated until I saw it played live. The guitars are crude in the studio version (understanding this was 1965 and a great production for a Rock and Roll album was rare then), but what I really needed was a connection with the song on a different plane than where the simple lyrics can draw you. All good songs have the potential for multiple meanings, and hearing The Last Time played live by a band that was well past the expected expiration date of any band did this for me. I’m absolutely certain this was the case for most all who would benefit from hearing The Rolling Stones play it in large stadiums during the 90s and 00s, including the band members themselves. You could not but help being drawn into the serendipity. Yes, this could be The Last Time. Enjoy the moment. Sing it loud and in unison.
The Franklin Lumber Company did indeed plow The Mountain asunder, actually managing to get their heavy equipment on top of The Summit from behind, wiping it and the entire Inner Bowl out. The one saving grace was being able to see this coming and the last few times we went down to The Mountain, we savored those moments, much like savoring the moment at those Stones shows. I can think of at least a dozen other situations in my life where “This could be the last time” played out in my mind as it was happening.
Hopefully, for any potentially fleeting situation, we have the luxury to ponder these thoughts while still in that moment.