Friday, April 27, 2012

(17th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Tapping into my inner Grasshopper"

Song: Shine a Light
Album: Exile on Main Street
Released: May, 1972

Mental hurdles can be tough to overcome, and it seems the older you get the tougher it gets.  We all become set in our ways after a time, don’t we?   Those unused synapses simply close shop.  Sure many of us try new things later in life, but the way we go about our business gets more predictable; we revert to coming up with solutions to problems in more of a hard coded manner.  I suppose it’s a good thing in the ‘glass half full’ way of looking at it.  Loyal people for the most part remain loyal.  Faithful people remain faithful.  Romantic types remain romantic.  Technical folks remain technically savvy.  On the flip side though, if you lack in any particular positive quality, is there a chance later in life that you can change?  Can a light shine on those deficiencies to make you a more well-rounded if not better person?  At the very least, can you gain new insights into previously difficult-to-grasp concepts?

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If there was anything I wanted to get out of these Stepping Stones from a music standpoint, it was to make a deeper connection with the 1972 double album ‘Exile on Main Street’.  I’ve known for years that ‘Exile’ deserves a boatload of praise: It is after all a resounding, critically acclaimed piece of work, earning a top 10 spot in virtually every Rock-album all-time list.  But there was disconnect:  I liked it, but I did not love it.  This mind block (which I openly admit to calling it) could make things difficult for personal reflections/reviews like these, because even though my primary music related focus in this forum is on individual songs, the greatest of albums have the potential to lift up those component tunes to loftier places.  I was missing out on that potential in a big way and I knew it. I’d made a few inroads here and there; selected tracks; a keen understanding of how the album fit the times; a sense for the unique vagabond, bohemian flavor.  But being able to honestly convey an insight into that top-tier reputation for the album as a whole remained elusive.  I needed to get to that point.

Indeed, thinking back recently to why I chose the Stones as the first series centerpiece focused on favorite musicians, I recalled part of my reasoning being that I had some concern with not yet having cleared this mental hurdle.  In other words, how much longer did I have?  I am after all turning 50 this year.  Would there be any hope afterwards?  The younger mind is more adaptable to new ways of thinking.  49 is better than 50.  Yet, more than simply clearing a hurdle, a bit of ‘reverse engineering’ would be needed in relation to making new ties to the Rolling Stones, Rock music, and ‘Exile on Main Street’. I needed to step back and take a different tact.

And so, I gave ‘Exile’ numerous additional listens over the past 4 months, the most concerted stretch being for Stepping Stone # 3, which focused on the song Rocks Off; the tune that opens the album.  But the very fact that Rocks Off is the opening track made that particular effort one that never really got off the ground (which had little effect on that Stepping Stone seeing as the tune was already one of my all-time favorites).  However, this and other false starts did get me closer:  To the ground level so to speak, which now sat on top a foundation, poured and hardened over many years.

Then, finally early this week, I started down the path of enlightenment.  And once it started, it snowballed; thoughts and insights cascading as each song suddenly and seamlessly rolled into the next.  I had visions of years gone by when I would be able to make this type of transition much more effortlessly, sometimes even in my sleep.  And here I was again, no longer just reading, hearing and parsing out bits and pieces, but now feeling the whole of ‘Exile on Main Street’:  Mind over matter, grooving to the sound of an A-list band in its heyday prime.

What did it take to break on through to the other side?  To describe the process in the best way possible, I refer back to the old T.V. series “Kung Fu”, on which ‘Grasshopper’ would often reflect back on the spiritual training given him at a young age by his Master on ways to take the proper path when confronting problems.  The lessons the Master taught were often deep and over the young Grasshopper’s head, but years later they would apply.  For me it’s a bit harder to define who the Master is, or the Grasshopper for that matter: My Ego and Id perhaps?  My young and older self (which is the Master, which is the Grasshopper?).  Or flashbacks, however vague, of similar lessons from similar savant types in my life:  I certainly have had my fair share.  Regardless, the big question “Did I still have some of that Grasshopper in me?” was answered in the affirmative.

So, here’s a loose interpretation of what transpired this week as ‘Exile on Main Street’ made the transition in my mind from good to great: 

“Grasshopper, you’ve been going about this album all wrong. First off you must try to break it down.  There are 4 sides to a double album, or don’t you remember?” 

Yes, it’s true.  I had been going about this all wrong.  Although I purchased ‘Exile on Main Street’ at least 25 years ago, it proved to be the victim of a transition period for me from album to compact disk.  At the same time the cartridge on my turntable was giving me problems, and so I jumped ship.  Yet looking back, most every album I love, I’ve been able to break down to A and B sides.  In the case of double albums like ‘Exile’, this process was even more important:  ‘Quadrophenia’.  ‘The Beatles (White Album)’, ‘All Things Must Pass’.  These all had to be broken down first.  There is meaning to this.  It can all be overwhelming otherwise:  Too difficult to take it all in at once. 

And so, the first thing I did was break things down.  Side A is heavy with a Rock sound; heavy, but now much easier to wrap my arms around.  Immediately, side B made much more sense:  An all-acoustic side.  Now it sounded incredible as a coherent stretch of music: ‘Sweet Virginia’, ‘Torn and Frayed’, ‘Sweet Black Angel’, and the amazing ‘Loving Cup’.  These songs not only began sounding consistent, they now all came across as deep and unguarded; uncharacteristic traits for the Rolling Stones.  Happy’ opens up side C.  Interesting:  A Keith lead vocal opening up a side, and rightfully so.  I’d forgotten this completely.  Side C also includes two very spiritual gospel songs, Just Want to See His Face and Let It Loose (which both include Dr John and his backup singers).  The Stones were doing this before Dylan and around the same time as Harrison and Townshend?  Wow!  Side D ends the album on a solid high note.  No drop off here, which can’t be said for many other double albums. This alone makes Side D intense, and it also confirms just how much material the Stones had to work with at the time.

“Grasshopper, you must take a long drive.  Take it all in slow and steady.”

Yes, it’s amazing what a long ride can do.  And so, for my work trip to Harrisburg PA this week, the first thing in the car was ‘Exile’.  Riding along the Appalachian Trail, over the Connecticut, Hudson, Delaware, and Susquehanna Rivers, I thought of that commercial with the older man and the young boy on a train; the man listening to classical music on headphones and looking out at the mountain vistas; the young boy asking what the man was listening too; the man pointing at the mountains and saying “that”. 

“Grasshopper, enjoy some of the lyrics, print them out (large print) for the ride.  Remember reading lyrics?” 

Yes, I did not think this would be much of a factor with these Stones songs, but it was.  There’s Sweet Black Angel, a protest song about then jailed activist Angela Davis (“Not a gun toting teacher, not a Red lovin’ school Mom”).  There’s Loving Cup:  What a beautiful buzz!  Yes I’m nitty gritty and my shirts all torn.  But I would love to spill the beans with you till dawn”.  Tumbling Dice gets the rise to that ‘loftier place’ mentioned earlier (“but baby, baby, there’s fever in the funk house now”).  Ventilator Blues:  I’d always thought the lyrics at the end stated “Don’t fight it”. The lyrics are actually “Gonna fight it”.  Big correction there. Much better.

I’d already discussed Rocks Off in Stepping Stone # 3, but conceptually related to it is the lyric-loaded Torn and Frayed, which is sure to have its own entry in weeks to come, and this week’s Stepping Stone, Shine a Light ( ), which includes the classic lines:
When you're drunk in the alley, baby, with your clothes all torn
And your late night friends leave you in the cold gray dawn.
Just seemed too many flies on you, I just can't brush them off.
Angels beating all their wings in time,
With smiles on their faces and a gleam right in their eyes.
Whoa, thought I heard one sigh for you,
Come on up, come on up, now, come on up now.
“Grasshopper, forget the South of France (where the album was produced while the Stones were in tax ‘exile’).  What is this album really talking about?”

Yes, America!  The Stones truly became American with this album.  No English band had ever done this before.  The Beatles were extraordinary, but always viewed as a British band.  The Kinks, Led Zeppelin, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits: All English.  Only one other band from overseas, The Who, would also be able to pull this off.  But where the Who connected themselves with the intellectual and industrial northeast, the Stones did so with the entire country:  North, South, East and West.  And boy does this ever come across on ‘Exile’.  There’s the Joshua Tree “desert in toenails” of California in Sweet Virginia.  There’s the entire lyrical content of Rip This Joint and Casino Boogie.  There’s gospel.  There’s blues.  The Stones were feeling it.  Heck, they had already lived it more than most native-born Americans.

This is truly one of the great things about the Rolling Stones.  They have been able to identify themselves with the American Experience, and will forever be part of our history:  An American love affair of sorts.  There are very few overseas types, be they entertainers, politicians, poets, writers, whoever, who can make that claim.  The Stones have a little Clint Eastwood about them.  A little Muddy Waters.  A little Jerry Garcia.   And a lot themselves.  The story goes that while ‘exiled’ in the south of France, the food of choice was from a local American burger and fries joint.  Kinda reminds me of the Mainguy clan:  Misplaced Americans in a foreign land.

“Grasshopper, think of the Rolling Stones in a different light here”

Yes, this is true.  Ah, the glories of youth, and the Stones capitalize on it all here.  This is a band clicking on all cylinders.  And what a sound: Drums, vocals, horns, piano, guitars, bass, organ, all of it.  More interesting though is that this is an album where the band removes all constraints, freely discussing their spirituality, their insecurities, and their concerns.  Why didn’t the Stones do more of this in their career?  I’m not complaining as there’s plenty of other bands to turn to for these elements.  And the Stones did just fine later when they lifted that veil back up.  I’m just curious. 

“Grasshopper, connect with an old friend while on the road:  A true master in the world of music”. 

Yes, the final stroke.  It just so happened that this trip would allow me to connect with longtime friend, Jeff Strause, on my way to Harrisburg.  Jeff, as in Mr Music Event.  As in “I don’t know anyone who has seen more great shows”.  As with any visit with Jeff, this one gave me more insight into the music world.  Any general discussion of music helps me in writing these Stepping Stones; particularly with someone as knowledgeable as Mr. Strause.

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Like the Boston Celtics dynasty of the 60s, the Stones were at the peak of their game during the production of ‘Exile on Main Street’.  And like those Celtics, they delivered.  Take this from one who (finally) knows. I sensed this before, but I did not feel it.  I feel it now.

Perhaps there was no need to rush on this mental hurdle, but I’m glad I did.  And I learned something else from it:  I’ve still got a bit of Grasshopper left in me.  Will it last?  I’m not so sure.  After all, I’m still only 49.  Ask me again next year.  I’ll test some other mental hurdle; try to tap again into the Master and Grasshopper inside.  Try again to Shine a Light: See if it still works.

-          Pete

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