Friday, March 30, 2012

(13th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "When and When Not to Eschew Step Two"

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  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.

-          Pete

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