Thursday, May 31, 2012

(22nd in a series of) Stepping Stones "Gaining New Perspectives"

Song: Gimme Shelter
Album: Let it Bleed
Released:  April, 1969

The world has its fair share of opinionated, stubborn, set-in-their-ways types.  And although these traits can be seen as a sign of commitment and strength (nobody wants to be viewed as ‘wishy-washy’), they can also, on occasion, be major obstacles to the truth.  So, a little wiggle room for evolving and new perspectives is important.  Keep that curmudgeon at bay, at least until the age of 80.  At that point, I suppose you’ve earned the right to dig in your heels on most any subject.

Sorry, I kicked into my role as Dad there.  That’s proven difficult to overcome in writing this week’s Stepping Stone entry, because this past Memorial Day weekend was a four-day father/daughter adventure; a trek to Maine and beyond to explore the campuses of a handful of universities.  In the process, Charlotte and I got a taste, however briefly, of that next phase in both of our lives.  For Charlotte, it was obviously an opportunity to get a peek into life away from home.  For me, the early stages of letting go.  In each case, I believe it was a needed step since the alternative, abrupt change, is much harder to deal with.

But back to that opening paragraph.

Setting aside the fatherly advice, there are numerous reasons this week for starting with those comments.  Some of these reasons were already clear to me as Charlotte and I headed Northeast this past Friday morning, but others did not come into focus until our travels unfolded. Indeed, this past weekend was all about gaining new perspectives on a whole variety of things.

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Memorial Day is most importantly a time to reflect on lost loved ones, especially those who served in the military during wartime.  With several uncles who did just that and who are now buried in military cemeteries, along with my maternal grandfather who also served in wartime, and a plethora of reading and studies over time on the major battles this country has been involved in this past century, I did a fair share of reflecting this weekend.

In the past three decades or so, Memorial Day weekend has also become known, for those in my generation and beyond, as a “top” list weekend on FM radio.  Top 500, 1000 (or whatever) songs of all time, often played from that Friday afternoon to a countdown-to-number-one crescendo late into Monday evening.  I’m rarely in agreement with the top-of-the-list choices.  Who is?  I’ve stated before that choosing a ‘best’ list of rock songs is an impossible task.  I remember one year back in the mid 80s when WBCN put David Bowie’s Young Americans at the top of the list.  Young Americans?  A great song, yes, but number one all time? The funny thing was that as the countdown hit the top 10, I predicted it, along with most of the other songs at the top of the list.  I was listening to WBCN a lot that year, and so was familiar with their bias at that time.

The good thing about these ‘top’ lists is that, most songs are very familiar, and so over a lifetime, you can accumulate all sorts of insights about them; some good, some not so.  This can put you in a position to educate the younger crowd.  The songs on these lists are so common, even the current up-and-coming generation recognize many.  Yet there is much room for broadening their perspective.  And so as one of the several stations we listened to made way through its countdown while Charlotte and I drove across Maine, I took it upon myself to elucidate a bit when the opportunity presented itself.  There was King of Pain (“about clinical depression”…“the best Police song”); Glory Days (“the endurance of the E-Street Band is captured in the closing jam session”); Sweet Home Alabama (“the female backing vocals make this song”…”part of the lyrics are a reaction to Neil Young’s Southern Man”) Rockin’ in the Free World (“an anti-Bush 1 era anthem”); and Another Brick in the Wall (hmmm, ok, let’s talk a bit about ‘The Wall’) along with many others.  For her part, Charlotte continued to nail down the decade of any song that played, an uncanny ability of hers (More than a Feeling “that’s a 70s song” Hungry Like the Wolf “that’s a 80s thing”).

A never-fail song in any FM ‘top’ list is Gimme Shelter, this week’s Stepping Stone ( ).  This is where my own broadening perspective kicked in this week.  I’ve always appreciated this song, but honing in on it gave me a new depth of appreciation for this all-time classic.  It may have had something to do with Memorial Day and my own interest in past events, as that sense of war and history factored big time while I listened.  And this is one heavy Vietnam War-centric song, focusing on the victims of it, empathetic with their fear, their desperation, and their pain.  One of my biggest insights this week:  Music becomes history like anything else eventually, and my fascination in both has actually been a complimentary process over the years; the one feeding the other.  Charlotte’s interest in history reaffirmed this.

Gimme Shelter hits you in waves and each of those waves raises the ante: The eerie guitar work, the brilliant harmonica playing, the lyrics.  And then there is the singing of Merry Clayton, vulnerable, not over confident.  Her voice actually cracks on several occasions, but sounds extremely powerful, nonetheless.  It all works. The Stones needed this hired gun to compliment Mick Jagger's vocals on Gimme Shelter.  Jagger just can’t emit these emotions in his singing.  He’s the opposite of Paul Simon in this respect.  The only risk for the Stones is that Clayton comes very close to stealing the show. The only other times I can think of when a non-Stone almost stole the show are Nicky Hopkins piano playing on She’s a Rainbow and The London Symphony Orchestra on You Can’t Always Get What You Want.  ** By the way, can anyone name another Stones song that includes female vocals? **

Gimme Shelter is so strong in conveying a sense of desperation, dread and pain, that much of the rest of the album ‘Let It Bleed’ tackles coping mechanisms.  Four songs in particular have the feel of retreating somewhere, anywhere, be it loving (the album's title track), reasoning (You Can’t Always Get What you Want), rebelling (Monkey Man) or snapping (Midnight Rambler), making this perhaps the only Rolling Stones album that delved into the world of the conceptual.  Whether intentional or not, I’m not sure it matters.

Although I find it impossible to put together a ‘top’ list of my own, there are a few ‘chill down your spine’ songs out there, though you need to be in the mood for them to take that effect.  The ones that come to mind:  Hey Jude (McCartney written, Lennon inspired), Good Vibrations, Holiday, What’s the Frequency Kenneth, Won’t Get Fooled Again, Kashmir and Not Dark Yet. In all these cases, the musicians somehow transcended their own limitations for at least a moment to preserve a magnificent snapshot in time.

Gimme Shelter is right in there with that short list.

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Along with the music and the reality settling in of a not-to-distant future for Charlotte, there was much more this weekend that broadened our perspectives.  Mt. Katahdin was a truly physical one, viewing it from many different angles as we trekked through Baxter State Park for as many vantage points as possible:  Knife’s Edge, Baxter Peak, the Owl, the Tablelands, the snow.  It was all there in clear blue skies.  There was Maine in general, having thought I’d seen a vast majority of it, but then discovering Mount Blue State Park near U Maine Farmington, including Tumbledown, Webb Lake and Mount Blue: Just spectacular. There was Fredericton New Brunswick, a capital we usually drove straight through with nary a thought as we made past treks to Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  But in broadening our horizons this weekend we discovered a wonderful city with an incredible university (UNB) at its core.

Keep those windows to new perspectives alive.  You never know when it’s that time to be a student again.

   - Pete

Thursday, May 24, 2012

(21st in a series of) Stepping Stones "Something for Everyone"

Song: Shattered
Album: Some Girls
Released: June, 1978

I recently credited Fred with introducing the old homestead on Park Road to a Rolling Stones record, that being ‘Hot Rocks’ sometime in the mid-70s (see Stepping Stone # 11).  The first Stones studio albums to make it into the home, however, were purchased separately by Joe and I not long after.  Mine was ‘Sticky Fingers’, which was about seven years old at the time.  Joe’s was ‘Some Girls’, which was hot off the presses.

Where Fred and I purchased our music primarily as vinyl albums, Joe’s purchases were strictly cassette tapes.  This made things a bit more flexible for Joe.  First off, he could easily transition a good music moment from his bedroom to his car.  Secondly, Joe’s cassette player was portable, so he could bring it almost anywhere and tape most anything, unlike our turntables, which were about as portable as our beds.  Third and most important, Joe kept his collection in a cassette carrier case, which made it easy for him (and the rest of us) to thumb through an impressively diverse collection.

There were drawbacks to this flexibility, however.  First, there was a slight compromise in sound, since there was not as much range of quality with a cassette sound system as there was with a turntable sound system.  Secondly, cassettes did not usually come with all the perks of a vinyl album, such as picture sleeves, booklets, and lyrics (though they were cheaper).  The most unfortunate drawback, though, was one that none of us could really anticipate in our relatively insular world:  That being the ease of theft.  And after amassing that impressive collection over a period of years, Joe would witness it all disappear just like that; stolen away from him in the blink of an eye.

Despite that last sad twist of bad vibes, I know for the most part that Joe looks back on his collection in a positive light, choosing to remember the inspirational qualities of having it for a very impressionable period in his life.  It’s a testament to Joe’s general outlook on anything and everything.  As for me, my primary memory of that cassette carrier case remains ‘Some Girls’, an amazing assembly of songs that launched an unlikely and uncharted third wind for the Rolling Stones and eventually gave me new insights into the power of perseverance.

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‘Some Girls’ was when the Stones really began defying the odds, extending their legacy beyond what anyone would consider normal shelf life for any band.  The album had high school and college strength in 1978-79.  What I mean by this is that the songs off of ‘Some Girls’ were all over the airways, and were a dominating, familiar sound on jukeboxes, in parking lots and at parties.  The Stones were closing in on 2 decades as a band at the time of ‘Some Girls’ release and were suddenly ruling the roost of a generation quite a bit younger than them.  How many 18 year old bands can say that?  Most high school ‘popular’ music is based on trends:  The latest fad comes, the latest fad goes.  It’s all recorded for posterity on trendy radio stations like KISS 108 FM: Marketing geniuses tapping into the teen consciousness, making a new up-and-comer famous and wealthy before disposing of them like yesterday’s papers and moving on to the next short-term hit maker.  For a few years the Stones would breach this world, connecting the music played at a prom with the music played at a backwoods keg party, the disco with the hip rock club, the beach party with the underground, and the jock with the burnout.

This was because ‘Some Girls’ had something for everyone: There was disco (Miss You), there was punk (When the Whip Comes Down), there was a ballad (Beast of Burden), there was country (Far Away Eyes), there was hard rock (Respectable and Lies) and there was raunchy blues (the title track).  There was also one of my all-time favorite cover songs (Just My Imagination) and an earlier Stepping Stone (# 6: Before They Make Me Run).  Finally, there was something completely different; not quite definable, but perhaps an early precursor to rap.  That song would be this weeks’ Stepping Stone, the distinctly fascinating Shattered (

Shattered describes the look and feel of New York City during a major renaissance in its history (again, see Stepping Stone # 6).  There’s an underbelly to the renaissance, however, and the Stones capture some of that here (“This towns full of money grabbers, go ahead bite the Big Apple, don’t mind the maggots”).  The drumming and guitar work in the bridge are top notch, but its Mick Jagger’s singing that gives this song a place in the pantheon of great Stones songs.  Other than Heaven off of ‘Tattoo You’, I can’t think of another song where Jagger’s singing is so unique.  Yet where Heaven is aided substantially by production, this is something else entirely.  Shattered captures a distinct mood in the vocals, an uninhibited, confident singing that showcases these superlatives in a big way.  Sir Mick’s vocalizations in the second stanza bear this out:

Friends are so alarming
My lovers never charming
Life’s just a cocktail party on the street
Big Apple
People dressed in plastic bags
Directing traffic
Some kind of fashion

I believe it took way more than luck or even skill for the Rolling Stones to pull off a feat like ‘Some Girls’ at that stage in their career.  It took perseverance; a collective trust in a formula that worked. This is the five core Stones with very little support to speak of, and with a stripped down production.  The creative juices were once more at a fever pitch.  Again, I am most impressed with Mick Jagger here, as it’s not just his singing on Shattered, but his contributions on the entire album that inspires; and I’m not just talking about his performance and songwriting skills, but also his apparent commitment to the band.  Jagger comes across on ‘Some Girls’ as having rediscovered the fountain of youth, which could have been his ticket out of the Stones seeing as he seems to have been carrying much of the load in the late 70s.  Yet rather than abandon his mates, which may very well have been a tempting option to him considering the condition of Keith Richards at the time, he immerses himself in their sound and makes it all work as good as it ever had before.

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Perseverance was not unique to the Stones in 1978. Joe was in the early stages of showing this trait as well.  Often seen at his desk hovering over his text books for hours on end, putting extra time into his studies; glasses on, tongue hanging out a la Michael Jordan while making a drive to the basket.  Vice President of Sales, Portfolio Advisory Services at Fidelity would be the long-term reward for this effort, though Joe’s resume could see even loftier position descriptions before it’s all said and done.

Yet I can’t help wondering what would have happened if that cassette case was never stolen.  Would Joe have added to it at an ever expanding pace?  Perhaps with a few more hundred listens to ‘Some Girls’, Joe’s mind would have wandered in other directions.  Maybe he’d be in the front office in my building at the U.S. Geological Survey, writing his 3rd cutting edge scientific report on the significant human effects on climate change; un-tucked flannel shirt, sporting a beard (inside joke). Ok, I know what all you money makers out there are thinking: Thank goodness that cassette case was stolen. Though I can’t agree, I don’t really believe that unfortunate event set Joe’s future path:  Just a fun “what if” scenario.  Most friends and family I know have followed a professional path of passion.  Joe is most certainly in that bracket, stolen cassette case or not.

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Mick Jagger, all 68 years of him, revealed a recapturing of youthful confidence yet again this past weekend on Saturday Night Live, performing high-intensity versions of several of the Rolling Stones greatest songs.  The set list included The Last Time with Arcade Fire; 19th Nervous Breakdown and It’s Only Rock n’ Roll with the Foo Fighters; and a touching all-ensemble performance of She’s a Rainbow and Ruby Tuesday in tribute to Kristen Wiig’s departure from the SNL as the evenings events came to a close.  However, it was Jagger’s’ performance of a new song with Jeff Beck, ‘Tea Party’, a wonderfully politically charged blues ditty, that just may have stolen the show.  I spoke a bit too soon two weeks ago about Mr. Beck; he did find a supporting cast for his finesse after all.

As for the Rolling Stones’ perseverance, this remains a factor, now being their 50th anniversary.  Yet, is it really all over now?  Maybe not.  Perhaps fate is aligned.  After all, the last Triple Crown winner, Affirmed, pulled that feat off in 1978.  Winning the Triple Crown is the very definition of defying the odds.  Affirmed’s accomplishment coincides with the year the Stones began defying the odds themselves with ‘Some Girls’.  Are they poised yet again for one final great album?  One thought comes to mind:

I’ll Have Another”

*Post mortem: "I'll Have Another" was injured before having the opportunity to win the 3rd leg of the Triple Crown

   -  Pete

Friday, May 18, 2012

(20th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Portals of Discovery"

Song: She Smiled Sweetly
Album: Between the Buttons
Released: January, 1967

A few weeks back I made that deeper connection with the Rolling Stones all-time classic album, ‘Exile on Main Street’, which as I stated at the time was a goal when I started this series.  There is, however, another music-centric goal I want to accomplish with these Stepping Stones, and in general with this forum:  This would be to round out my general knowledge of the catalog of songs composed by the musicians/bands that have had the deepest effect on my psyche.  Each will present a unique challenge I am sure; even the Beatles, as I plan on including their solo stuff when I get around to them (can anyone help me with ‘Dark Horse’ for example?).

The biggest challenge with the Stones?  This would be their first five studio albums, namely ‘The Rolling Stones’, ‘The Rolling Stones No. 2’, ‘Out of Our Heads’, ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Between the Buttons’.   Unlike the Beatles, or even the Who and the Kinks, the Rolling Stones earliest albums are a hodge-podge of good and not-so-good music.  Several of these albums also include a large number of cover songs, which while superb at times (i.e. Not Fade Away and It’s All Over Now), are not in my cross hairs for this series:  Only songs penned by the artists are.  And also unlike the Beatles, few in my age bracket are familiar with these earliest of Stones albums.  In other words there is no one to toss recommendations my way.  The hit singles from these albums?  Sure, they survive and thrive…. all have been teased out and compiled onto various “Greatest” albums (i.e. ‘Hot Rocks’, ’40 Licks’, etc.).  These early hits were also reinforced on tour, mixed in with set lists that would include hits and deep cuts from the Stones more solid albums later on:  This band has never been lacking in material to select from when hitting the road. 

Alas, many of the deeper cuts from the Stones earliest albums have faded away, for the most part relegated to the historical bin of Rock n’ Roll minutiae.  There’s just too much other stuff to enjoy.  The Rolling Stones have contributed to this reality themselves, refusing to connect with large chunks of their earliest years.  Whether their emotions be tied to trying to disassociate from a more vulnerable and inferior sound (producer extraordinaire Jimmy Miller did not join the fray until ‘Beggars Banquet’ in 1968) or sheer embarrassment, or simply moving on, it’s hard to say. 

Ronnie Wood, a fan long before he was a band member, has tried to get Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to resurrect some of this older, deeper material on tour to no avail.  Yet, the fact remains, that if a song from this period did not make a compilation album at some point, it has been left in the dust.  And so, we have a better chance of seeing Albania lead the medal count at the London Olympics Games this summer than we do of Jagger singing any deep cut material from the Stones mid 60s albums while hosting Saturday Night Live this week ( I will hold out hope though).

Until recently, the question remained for me; are there any hidden chestnuts on these earliest albums?  I made my first sojourn this week to find out, picking up the album ‘Between the Buttons’ for a listen.  I figured I would start at the tail end of the 5-album list and work my way backwards, likely giving the others a go as well (off and on) over the upcoming months.

Stepping Stone material was indeed in the mix.

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This process of trying to find diamonds in the rough reminded me of my days collecting coins.  Growing up near downtown Franklin in the mid-70s was an amazing adventure.  The range of activities for a young teen, including hobbies, was all over the map. Numismatist was one of the better ones; a hobby that had us taking advantage of our close proximity with the downtown area, as I’ll explain below.  Several of us were avid collectors for a good stretch of time, including Brother Joe, and good friend Bruce.  We were mostly focused on pennies, nickels and dimes, and our coin books of these denominations were prized possessions.  I still poke through them when the urge to rekindle those memories stirs back up.  Mine is not a priceless collection by any means, but priceless in other non-monetary ways there is no question.

We acquired our coins in a variety of ways.  Metal detectors unveiled a handful of treasures.  There was also Dad, who connected with our fascination and found many ways to supplement our collections, including the occasional stocking stuffer.  Dad’s biggest interest in our collections was the Indian Head Penny, which simply put, was an amazing coin to us at the time. This was after all a coin from another century.  We were already blown away with ‘wheat’ pennies, particularly any that were pre-WWII (Lincoln looked different on those 1920s and 1930s versions; smaller, but somehow more impressive).  So when those Indian Heads started rolling in from Dad-related sources, well this was something to really savor and appreciate.

Any coin with an “S” stamp for the San Francisco mint was a keeper, as were the silver nickels, minted to preserve true nickel in those war days of the mid-40s.  Then there were the pre-1964 silver of the dimes, quarters, half dollars and silver dollars, which are so much nicer than what followed them.  I can still make out the distinct sound of a silver coin when I flick it onto a counter; high pitched, bright.  The modern coins have a much duller thud about them.  And we were always aware of the rarity of any individual coin, assisted by the coin books, which listed the quantity for each date and mint.  1909 S VDB was never found.  But others were.  1950 D Nickel: Check.  1918 S Penny: Check.  1916 Mercury Dime: Check. 1855 Flying Eagle Penny (large and small letters): Check again.

Metal detectors and Dad were the greatest of assets, but these were not our only methods for acquiring coins.  We had another very innovative method, which was to roll coins we had already thumbed through and bring them downtown for a trade in.  Most of the time we would trade our rolls with bank rolls at Ben Franklin or Dean Co-op.  But we also went to the local businesses:  Pharmacies, department stores, liquor stores, furniture stores, grocery stores, restaurants.  You name it, we tried it.  Occasionally we would hit pay dirt.  I recall walking into Pisani Shoe Store and asking if we could exchange rolls.  The cashier reached into the darker reaches of a very old cash register, dusted off several old rolls, and handed them to us.  Our eyes lit up.  We could hardly contain ourselves, running down the tracks toward home to check out our trade-in value.  We were not disappointed.

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‘Between the Buttons’ contains two very big hits: Let’s Spend the Night Together, and Ruby Tuesday (see Stepping Stone # 11).  But there are a few chestnuts as well, including Something Happened to Me Yesterday, which is a rare lead vocal interchange between Jagger and Richards (Memory Motel is the most well-known).  This week’s Stepping Stone, She Smiles Sweetly ( is another chestnut, moved along nicely by Ian Stewart’s piano playing.  It’s a creative song, where an at-peace female protagonist is trying to sooth the singer/song writer from a variety of maladies:

“Where does she hide it inside of her?
That keeps her peace most every day,
And won’t disappear my hairs turning gray”

The bridge is her response:

“There’s nothing in why or when
There’s no use trying, you’re here
Begin again, and o’er again”

‘Between the Buttons’ catches some of the feel of Swinging London, which was at its height at the time of the album’s release.  Andrew Loog Oldham, their manager at the time, has recently stated that it is the Stones most English of albums.  There’s a bit of copycat mixed in throughout though, as there is no mistaking the effect that Dylan, the Beatles, and especially the Kinks, were having on the Stones at the time.  Coupled with their early Blues influences, it’s apparent the Rolling Stones were still searching a bit for their own identity.

The transition from Blues dominated music to mainstream was not easy for the Rolling Stones, but they persevered, which eventually paid off.  If you are willing to dig into their early music, you can struggle through this process with them and get a better feel for what was to come:  Slow and steady can win a race, and soon enough (1968) this would prove to be the Stones winning formula.  A nice side-effect for me is that I’ve been able to better isolate the hits from this time into distinct periods:  Let’s Spend the Night Together and Ruby Tuesday now settle into the early ’67 era.  Other early hits will be tied with earlier periods as I explore a bit more later on.

The collector/hobbyist came back out in me this week.  What really lies behind a collector, though, is the fascination with discovery.  I guess I have ‘Between the Buttons’ to thank for bringing those old feelings back.

-          Pete

Friday, May 11, 2012

(19th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Spotlight on Mick Taylor: A Touch of Finesse"

Song: Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
Album: Sticky Fingers
Released: April, 1971

Spotlight on: Mick Taylor

I’m thinking it was sometime around 1978.  Dad walked into my room early one evening after work.  This was unusual, because Dad seldom forayed into the side of the upstairs that comprised of Fred’s and my bedrooms.  It may have been in response to the fact that, where normally I could be found downstairs during some stretch of time before or after dinner, on this night it was not happening.  I was preoccupied.  And so Dad came to me, in all likelihood just to say hello.  

The reason I was preoccupied was that I was listening intensely to a song on my turntable (which I will get to in much more detail in a moment).  By the time Dad had showed up, I may have been on my 10th to 15th replay; I was mesmerized by what I was hearing, and he had walked smack dab into it. 

As I recall, it appeared to me at the time that Dad was ok with just giving a wave and heading back downstairs.  But he hesitated and so I seized the moment and suggested that he give this music a listen.  Dad obliged, and stood there for a few minutes, taking in the notes of an amazing lead guitar solo near the end of the song.  I remember now appreciating that he took the time to do this.  Rock n’ Roll was not his style. 

When the song ended, Dad made a minor concession: “Nice sound system”, or something along those lines.  Fine enough.  However, I knew it was more than that.  I could tell Dad was impressed.  His reaction was a big moment for me:  For perhaps the first time, I felt as if I were introducing him to some new concept, though I could not describe exactly what it was.  Dad allowed me this false triumph, as I would not realize until years later that he already had this concept under his belt for quite some time.  Today I can finally define it.  What’s that you ask?  Well, that would be the concept known as finesse.

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There is no mistaking finesse, is there?  Defined as “intricate and refined delicacy”, there should be little doubt that no matter your age or where you are from, when it’s there in front of you, you know it.  Finesse can be expressed in many ways, connecting with at least three of our senses.  First off, there is the visual; a dancer perhaps (Ginger Rogers, Fred Astaire) or an athlete (Michael Jordan, Bobby Orr).  Secondly is realizing someone has finesse through the sense of touch; I’ll leave that one to the imagination.  Finally, you also pick up on it with your ears.  And although finesse can be associated with a great orator, such as a politician, actor or poet, it’s the musician that comes most immediately to my mind in terms of hearing it.

Finesse is most often associated with music forms such as Classical and Opera, which, as I would discover later, was the world Dad would already have had ample experience in (well, at least the Classical).  But Rock n’ Roll has had its fair share of refined delicacy; Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck have it and express it in their guitar playing.  Same goes for Carlos Santana and Jerry Garcia.  Another guitarist with finesse, Mick Taylor, flies a bit more under the radar.  Taylor has played with numerous musicians over the years, including John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, but it was his stint with the Rolling Stones during their imperial years in the late 60s and early 70s that he will be most remembered.
And so yes, it was Mick Taylor’s lead guitar playing that I was listening to that evening Dad walked in my room.  The song, as some may have already deciphered, was Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, specifically the closing 3 minutes. It’s a song that lead to my discovery of finesse in Rock n’ Roll, one of a handful of quantum leap moments I have had in my lifetime when listening to music.  These were moments when I would come to new understandings of music’s effects; its power in broadening the mind (another was watching The Who perform A Quick One in ‘The Kids are Alright’, which is discussed in Gem Video # 12 “The Awakening”)

Charlie Watts came up with the word “finesse” in a recent interview to describe the most important musical attribute that Mick Taylor brought to the Rolling Stones.  If anyone else comes close in the band, I suppose Charlie is that guy….it takes one to know one.  I believe the Stones were graced to have this added angle in their repertoire for however brief a time.  Mick Taylor was a 19 year old, dough-faced prodigy when he joined the Stones soon after Brian Jones dismissal in 1969.  He would quit the band six years later.  It was the only stretch of time where the Rolling Stones had a true lead guitarist, and it could be argued that it was the only time the Stones had finesse.

Finesse can be magical, but for these ears, it can’t stand alone.  I usually get a bit bored when this is the case.  For example, though I know he is extremely talented, Jeff Beck’s guitar playing does little for me.  He just does not have the right cast of characters with him.  There needs to be other stuff surrounding finesse.  In the case of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, that other stuff is all sorts of things.  It’s the raunchy Richards riffs opening the first half of the song, which is almost a contrasting juxtaposition of what happens later (and I love the accompanying backing vocals, and Mick Jagger’s singing, including the line “throw me down the keys”, followed by a timely “Alright!” as if he just caught them).  Side Note: this first half of the song took some time getting used to, and is probably what stops a non-Rocker dead in their tracks before getting to the finesse later; also, it’s Richards staccato pops at the start of Mick Taylor’s solo (which I will elucidate on more below); it’s Bill Wyman’s steady yet creative bass strumming; it’s Charlie Watts’ heavy-on-the-cymbal clanging throughout the second-half instrumental-portion of the song; it’s Rocky Dijon’s congas; it’s Bobby Keys intro saxophone which initiates the instrumental portion of the song.  And most importantly, it’s the spontaneity.

Ahh yes, the spontaneity.  In the Rock and Jazz worlds, this is a term typically affiliated with jamming, which is something the Stones have never really been known for, not in the same way as the Allman Brothers, the Grateful Dead, Crazy Horse and the Who, anyhow.  But this is what happens in Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, starting off at the conclusion of the premeditated first half of the song at the 2:43 mark of the attached url (  From that point on it was all improvisation, which makes Mick Taylor’s guitar solo at the 4:40 mark all that more impressive. 

Here’s how I picture the 2nd half of the song unfolding (all times have been captured in the url link): 
1.       Everyone starts putting down their instruments except for Keith on guitar, Rocky Dijon on congas, and someone else (Jagger?) on maracas (2:43)
2.       Bobby Keys settles back in, starts his saxophone solo (2:58).  Charlie and Bill settle back in around the same time, rounding out the backbeat.
3.       Mick Taylor settles back in with a soft un-intrusive sound, but then begins hinting at his own solo with a couple of high notes on his lead guitar (3:41)
4.       Taylor gets a bit more serious with some high pitched rhythmic tuning. Keys continues his solo (3:49)
5.       Keys gets the hint, but not before finishing his solo with a flourish (up to the 4:26 mark).  It almost feels as if Keys is letting the young buck (Taylor) know that if he’s going to give it a go, this is how it’s done.
6.       Mick Taylor begins his 3 minutes of fame (4:40).  I’m reminded of the movie ‘Walk the Line’ when Sam Phillips (Dallas Roberts) tells Johnny Cash (Joaquin Phoenix) to play something that moves him.  Cash then kicks the band into Folsom Prison Blues, leading to a record deal.
7.       Keith Richards supports Taylor for a time with those staccato guitar pops, but this support starts to dissolve by the 5:15 mark, likely due to Keith taking in the moment (he later gets his rhythm back).
8.       Mick Taylor gets the attention of that other Mick in the band, who lets out a “Hey!” at the 4:50 mark
9.       Finesse takes full control of the wheels for several minutes
10.   Charlie adds a nice touch on the symbols (6:28), seemingly heavily inspired by this point
11.   The jam ends as great as it began (7:16)

I had a recent brush with spontaneity just this past Monday that gained me a fresh appreciation for what happened to the Stones in the studio during the production of Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.  I participated in a fairly new concept called Lightning Talks, whereby many speakers give 5 minute back to back to back presentations.  Each speaker has exactly 20 slides, and the slides automatically advance after 15 seconds whether you are ready or not. 

The format had this grizzled veteran of public speaking sweating at the palms and feeling a bit queasy at times.  Heck, even a longtime tenured professor I greatly admire, who was sitting next to me and presenting just before me, was nervous.  In fact, just after a handful of talks (and before our talks) he leaned over to me and said “we are screwed”.  But, you know, it worked, for both of us.  Something kicked in.  I’m not sure where it came from, but at the same time, I’m not sure Mick Taylor and the Stones knew either.  It can be amazing what you can pull off when you really want (or need) to do something at the spur of the moment.

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To close this week’s Stepping Stone, I go back to Dad and his long-standing appreciation of finesse.  Years after my discovery of it, I would occasionally catch him in his study, taking in a Mozart symphony, concerto, or opera.  Sometimes Dad’s eyes would be closed (which is the best way to take in finesse), but when his eyes were open, he would see me and call me in, much like I did to him as a teenager on that quantum-leap evening.  Then I would sit down and listen.  The finesse was all around me. 

And not just coming out of the speakers.

-          Pete

Friday, May 4, 2012

(18th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Staying the Course"

Song: Laugh, I Nearly Died
Album: A Bigger Bang
Released: September, 2005

Not Fade Away:  If there is a Rock n’ Roll mantra, this is it.  Neil Young went as far to say that it is better to burn out if it comes to that as being the only alternative; a bit extreme, though to his credit he did also emphasize that “once your gone, you can’t come back”.  In other words, don’t burn out.  Too bad Kurt Cobain did not take in that part of the lyrics.  As they say, always read the fine print.

In general, “Not Fade Away” is a great adage to live by.  It can get tricky, though.  Stick with something long enough and you just might fade away.  When does the “Peter Principle” kick in; that “rise to your level of incompetence”?  When do you know that it is time to quit, to move on, to leave on a high note?   

Turns out the band R.E.M. had it figured it out.  It could easily be argued that they were still at the top of their game when they disbanded recently after a 30-year run.  Same could be said for Led Zeppelin, though their hand was forced somewhat with the loss of their drummer. Barry Sanders nailed it.  So did “Seinfeld”.  On the flip side there’s The Eagles, Stan Musial and M*A*S*H to symbolize the risk of dragging things out beyond the expiration date. They are not alone though: More often, that is the path taken.  It can be awfully difficult to know when to fold ‘em.  You never know if another burst of whatever it is you had before is just around the bend.

So, we have burn out. We have fade (rust).  We have leaving on a high note. 

And then we have the Rolling Stones.

Ten years ago, during a 60 Minutes interview, Ed Bradley made the astute observation while interviewing Keith Richards that Keith appeared to place a very high value on continuity.  Richards’ eyes lit up.  Bradley had nailed it.  He had gotten to the core of what drives Keith Richards, and in the process explained, at the very least, a major driving force behind the longevity of the Rolling Stones.  But longevity is only one side effect of continuity, as the two terms are not exactly synonymous.  Longevity is synonymous with durability, a noble trait, yet a bit close for comfort to the potential for rust.  Continuity is more than that.  It’s the state of stability.  It’s the absence of disruption.  You can be durable without being stable, but not the other way around.

At a glance, the Stones don’t come across as all that stable through the years.  Their history is a bit of a roller coaster ride:  Even keeled in the early to mid-60s, biding their time while the Beatles were soaring; climbing high during a four album stretch from ’68 to ’72, when they were the biggest game in town; sweeping back down in the mid ‘70s, burn out rearing its ugly head; a second climb in the late 70s to early 80s, while brilliantly connecting the dots with all the trends of the time; another drop in the mid to late 80s, infighting almost ending it all; and finally another leveling off (much like their beginnings) playing out through the 90s and 00s, a surprising rejuvenation capped by the emergence of mega tours.

No other band has been able to pull such a lengthy ride off to near the level of excitement, and this is where the whole of the Rolling Stones continuity can begin to be envisioned.  Everything with continuity has its ups and downs, including a good marriage, a good friendship, or a good partnership.  But it takes work and endless passion.  Keith Richards has that.  I see this pretty clearly now, because if there is anything I can relate to with Mr. Richards it’s my own high value of continuity and what it takes to make things work.  I know what it’s like to be the last one standing behind an ideal; to be the persuader; to be the dreamer.  It does not always play out the way you would hope, but persistence pays off in a good way more often than not.

Back to R.E.M. for a moment; the consummate “end it on top” band.  These guys were an incredible live act in spite of the fact that they would typically refuse to play any songs on their tours that were older than the 3 studio albums prior.  In fact, I would be willing to bet that if there was enough material on their at-the-time most-recent album for a 3 hour show, they would have played music from it and nothing else.  This stance was a curious one, seeing as by the 90s R.E.M. had a deep and rich catalog to choose from, and I’m sure the old nuggets would have been refreshing for them to play on occasion.  But the three-album-window approach worked for them:  The sound was always dead on; the band’s performance consistently sublime. 

But the questions remain:  Why such a stance and how was it that the sound was always so good?  I believe at least some of the reasoning was that R.E.M. did not want to rest on their laurels.  Was there a fear of stagnation?  If so, it never happened.  On the contrary, the band remained sharp, creative and ambitious to the end, which again, came across in the live shows.  The crowd sensed this, and cut them a lot of slack.  No chestnuts?  Ok, than the newest stuff better sound damn good.  And man did it ever, each and every time.  R.E.M. lived up to that old Rock n’ Roll mantra:  Not Fade Away.  Not many bands can make that claim.  And their approach appears to have been intentional, particularly now that they’ve hung up the cleats on that proverbial high note.

If the Rolling Stones had to rely on their last 3 albums to tour on now, ‘Voodoo Lounge’ (1994), ‘Bridges to Babylon’ (1997) and ‘A Bigger Bang’ (2006), I think they would be in pretty good shape music wise.  Though their own studio career has had its ups and downs, these 3 albums have held up rather well.  The crowd may not appreciate it if they did this:  Too many expectations on what constitutes a great Stones show.  The bar has been raised awfully high over the decades, so while the most recent releases are solid, they are somewhat lost in the already crowded vault.  The Stones are in many ways victims of their own success.  But they can also stake claim to the Not Fade Away mantra: It’ rare when a band (or anything for that matter) sees itself to its natural conclusion.  If the Stones were to call it quits today, they could make this claim.  There’s no rust on them.  They’ve simply come full circle.

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I have to admit to a bit of a comedown this week after the ‘Exile on Main Street’ experience last week.  Why I chose the other Stones double studio album, ‘A Bigger Bang’ immediately after, I have no idea.  I must say, burn out, or at least rust, slipped in here and there.  Not fair to this album, a very good one.  I will have to come back to it again later.  This time around, I latched on to the song Laugh, I Nearly Died ( ) for this week’s Stepping Stone. As with any great song, this one hits you from many angles:  In this case the lyrics, the backing vocals during the bridge, and the ominous sounding guitar.  The Stones still had it in them with their last release.  Hopefully there is another one left in the tank.  If not, however, that natural conclusion has already been reached.  Anything more is gravy.

-          Pete