Friday, March 23, 2012

(12th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "It's Just a Tray Away"

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 ( ), 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 ( 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. 

-          Pete

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