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

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