Friday, June 29, 2012

(26th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Good for the Soul"

Song: Sweet Black Angel
Album: Exile on Main Street
Released: May, 1972

In a previous Stepping Stone (# 17), I discussed a major reason why I focused on the Rolling Stones first for this new series of Gem Videos; that being to make a deeper connection with the all-time classic album ‘Exile on Main Street’ before I turned 50.  Mission accomplished.  Another reason that came back to mind this week was this:  I figured with the Stones I could ease myself into the intensity of writing about what a handful of upper-tier musicians have meant to me on a personal level, while at the same time also ease myself into trying to bring to light what I think are some of the great contributions my generation has made to, for lack of a better term, the American ideal (or American Idealism).

Hmmm…. this clearly needs to be explained in some other fashion.

You see, the Stones seemed to be a safe bet to cover first rather than any one of a handful of other bands I’ve never tired of listening to.  Why?  Because those other musicians, Neil Young, the Who, the Beatles, and Bob Dylan included, all have let their guard down in a multitude of ways over the years.  In other words, they have all tapped deeply into their social consciousness, their morality, their humanity, and in turn their souls.  As such, they have tapped into ours as well.  I knew this would all be hard to write about and I acknowledged to myself that I needed time and practice.

The Stones seemed to be the perfect antidote; the perfect “Stepping Stone”.  My thinking back then when I started this series was that, though brilliant, the Rolling Stones have mostly stayed clear of those deeper convictions in their lyrics, at least over the past 40 years.  Seeing as I enjoyed their music as much as any though, focusing on the Stones first would make it easier for me to transition to the more profound stuff later.  I believed as recently as several months ago that this band was primarily in it for the “gas, gas, gas” (and damn good at it I might add), certainly to a greater degree than those other musicians I mentioned.  This would hopefully make the Rolling Stones a quicker study, or at the very least more fun to write about.

And yet there was a hint of something more there, and it was gnawing at me from the beginning. I was just not sure what it was.  To track it I started hypothesizing.  One thought had been this:  Were the principle writers for the band, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, disillusioned after the generational utopian spirit of the late 60s fizzled out?  The Glimmer Twins, after all, were among the crowd clapping and singing in unison when the Beatles performed All You Need is Love to a live, worldwide television audience in 1967 (Original Gem Video # 7).  By 1970, however hard reality kicked in.  A realization seemed to settle over the still-young generation that short term aspirations and long term achievement were two entirely different things.  Did the Stones, along with so many others, simply drop out from trying to achieve those lofty peace-centric ambitions?  As Paul McCartney wrote in Live and Let Die:

“When you were young and your heart was an open book
You used to say live and let live
(You know you did, you know you did you know you did)
But if this ever changing world in which we live in
Makes you give in and cry
Say live and let die”

If this was what the Stones had transitioned into, I’ve always been willing to accept it.  Bob Dylan did it too for a spell.  One needs to reevaluate from time to time.  But what has always confused me until recently about the Stones is that, despite their apparent reluctance to let their guard down, they have always come across as having the same soulful touch in their music as these other musicians I mentioned.  How could this be?  How can a band that has kept a lyrical front for much of a lengthy career sound deep, soulful, and at times, as with any musician worth their weight, even spiritual?  There are many bands that have tried to emulate the Stones attitude, but most of them come across as self-centered.  This is just not the case with this band, at least with me.  So again, how?
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I love it when musicians take risks.  The Rolling Stones satisfied me to some degree with their swagger in the face of adversity.  But the adversity was related to not-so-noble characteristics: “Sex and Drugs and Rock n’ Roll”.  Others took risks in more lofty ways:  John Lennon’s politics (i.e. Working Class Hero, Gimme Some Truth) and Bob Dylan’s quest for justice (i.e. The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll, Hurricane, Masters of War); Pete Townshend revealing inner turmoil (i.e. Empty Glass, However Much I Booze); and Ray Davies looking at the world from a poor person’s viewpoint (i.e. Dead End Street, Get Back in Line). There is risking the loss of a fan base through religious-conviction albums (i.e. George Harrison, Bob Dylan).  There is Roger Waters’ empathy (i.e. Shine on You Crazy Diamond, Breathe).  Even major music transitions can do it for me (Joe Jackson, Pete Townshend, Peter Gabriel).  The list goes on:

Neil Young: Ohio
Bruce Springsteen: The Ghost of Tom Joad
John Mellencamp Jackie Brown
Lou Reed: the entire ‘New York’ album
Pink Floyd: ‘The Wall’ and ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ albums
10,000 Maniacs: What’s the Matter Here
Leonard Cohen: Democracy
Bruce Cockburn: If a Tree Falls
The Pretenders: My City Was Gone
Joni Mitchell: Big Yellow Taxi
*some of these were listed in the original Gem Video # 24 for a similar purpose

What it took for all this music to transpire was soul, which is defined as “the spiritual or immaterial part of a human being” and “a person's moral or emotional nature or sense of identity”.  We all have it.  As Neil Young sings in his lovely song Campaigner, even Richard Nixon had it.  The key is to let your guard down enough to tap into it.  That can be difficult to do.  Many of us keep a hard outer shell over our soft innards all the way from the cradle to the grave.  Part of writing these weekly diatribes is to break down that wall a bit in me (maybe watching ‘The Wall’ at Fenway Park this coming Sunday will help to break it down some more).

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Back to the Stones.  It turns out that they have plenty of soul themselves, but can be masters of disguise in concealing it or distorting it.  They do this in all sorts of ways, including album covers (i.e. a toilet in a graffiti-filled bathroom; a zipper on a pair of jeans); songs (i.e. Some Girls; Star Star) and reputation (drug busts; skull rings; Altamont) as well as hard-to-interpret and hard-to-comprehend lyrics.  Sprinkles of soul are heard on ‘Beggars Banquet’ and ‘Let it Bleed, gaining momentum on ‘Sticky Fingers’. But the album that truly bared all was ‘Exile on Main Street’.  This was the mother lode, and it took me almost 50 years to realize it.  For a moment in time, the first half of 1972 to be precise, the Stones reached for something higher, which opened them up to long-term dividends:  For though they would rarely connect with their social consciousness lyrically again (a few exceptions that come to mind include a handful of songs on ‘Goats Head Soup’ in 1973, Sweet Neo Con in 1997 and Jagger’s unveiling of the song Tea Party on SNL several weeks ago), their music would continue to have scatterings of soul through the 70s, 80s and beyond.  Once you tap into it, you know what it is, and you can feed off it anytime you are ready to put the effort in again. The Rolling Stones can thank ‘Exile’ for that.

This week’s Stepping Stone is the magical Sweet Black Angel ( ) a protest song about then (early 70s) jailed activist Angela Davis.  Several lyrics in the song do it for me (along with the music) in terms of soul.  The entire set of lyrics is below, with the “do it for me” lines in bold, including the line ‘got a pin up girl’ (in other words > not your usual pin up).

   -   Pete

Lyrics to Sweet Black Angel
Got a sweet black angel,
got a pin up girl,
got a sweet black angel,
up upon my wall.
Well, she ain't no singer
and she ain't no star,
but she sure talk good,
and she move so fast.
But the gal in danger,
yeah, de gal in chains,
but she keep on pushin',

would ya take her place?
She countin' up de minutes,
she countin' up de days,
She's a sweet black angel, woh,
not a sweet black slave.
Ten little niggers
sittin' on de wall,
her brothers been a fallin',
fallin' one by one.
For a judges murder
in a judges court,
now de judge he gonna judge her
for all dat he's worth.
Well de gal in danger,
de gal in chains,
but she keep on pushin'
would you do the same?
She countin' up de minutes,
she countin' up de days,
she's a sweet black angel,
not a gun toting teacher,
not a Red lovin' school mom,
ain't someone gonna free her,
free de sweet black slave,
free de sweet black slave

Thursday, June 21, 2012

(25th in a series of) Stepping Stones "A Competitive Spirit"

Song: Paint it Black
Album:  Aftermath
Released: May, 1966

Transitioning beyond the Beatles was a gradual process for me in the mid-70s.  Yes, I had a variety of other album selections back then; including records by Joe Jackson, the Cars, and Super Tramp.  But these, mostly singular forays, were all secondary to my Beatles-dominated collection.  Don’t get me wrong… I was dabbling back then, primarily with the radio.  But my album collection said it all in terms of my knowledge of music at the time:  I was a bit too top heavy to say the least.

Like many of us who eventually weaned off the bottle…I mean Beatles, I had reached a crossroads when my “Beatlesy” (a George Harrison term, as in “Paul told me my song did not sound Beatlesy enough”) ears became saturated, which was not long after I pretty much tapped out on their discography.  Where would I go at this juncture?  Some in my generation hit the easy-listening stuff:  James Taylor, Carole King, Steely Dan, America.  These were typically the folks who enjoyed the Beatles earlier sound more than the later, heavier albums.  Fine enough.  We all must follow our ears to where the music takes us.

I followed the other path:  The harder stuff, which seeped into the mainstream to stay by the late 60s.  It was simply too good to pass up, and I always felt it was more honest in reflecting our times.  Don McLean would lament this harder sounding, innocence-lost era of ours in his song American Pie.  But I don’t think those earlier times (the Buddy Holly 50s that Don McLean pined for) were really all that innocent either.  Things were just covered up much better, veiled, behind closed doors:  The WWII Generation needed time to heal is my thinking.  No negative spin wanted, thank you!  It would take the likes of Bob Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Marvin Gaye, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Curtis Mayfield, The Byrds, the Rolling Stones, and, yes, eventually the Beatles (including their solo careers), to break through the log jam to help reveal some of the undertows of hard-reality, inner turmoil, and injustice that loom just beneath the surface of our modern society (I wrote an essay on this 50s/60s dichotomy in college for a class titled ‘History of the Post-War World’).

When it comes to comprehending why I followed this rough-edged path however, I know it was not all simply about clairvoyance and altruism.  In fact, early on, that was but a small piece of the puzzle.  Though sheer enjoyment was the principle driving factor, another big part of what drove me in this direction was my fascination with competition; an allure that can have me acting downright capitalistic at times.  As is often the case though, my competitive interest here was from the perspective of observer rather than participant.  I became fascinated in just who the Beatles chief competition was back when bands of that era began honing their craft.  I wanted to know more about who pushed the envelope from the role of underdog in the early days of British Rock.  I wanted to know more about the musicians who had to play catch up.

From this perspective, it was only a matter of time before I started broadening my horizons.

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Who really likes monopolies?  Even the monopolists must feel this way.  Everyone needs competition.  What would Russell have been without Chamberlain?  Bird without Magic?  Ali without Frazier?  The Yankees without the Red Sox?  The Canadiens without the Bruins?  Coke without Pepsi?  You need something or someone to push you to greater heights.  I’ve always needed this myself.  Bruce pushed my chess game forward way back when.  Dave pushed my table tennis and billiard game (see GMVW # 40).  Mac pushed me with Trivial Pursuit and poker.  Pat Shea did the same with darts.  A handful of scenarios have helped me at work as well.

The Beatles also needed competition, and it came initially in the form of the Rolling Stones.  When you compare the 60s Rolling Stones period (the Brian Jones years) to the Beatles, there really is no comparison.  The Beatles were consistently excellent from ‘Please Please Me’ all the way through ‘Abbey Road’.  The Stones in the early days were very sporadic, sometimes releasing songs the likes of which the Beatles would have left on the cutting room floor the minute they walked in the studio.  But if you dig a bit under the hood, you can see that the Stones had the right pieces in those formative days, which played out very nicely on occasion in the form of hit singles.  By sticking it out, this would eventually pay off in an even bigger way.

Breaking things down the Stones music actually matches up rather well against the Beatles circa ’63 – ‘67.  Yes, the Beatles mastered the craft of penning good songs long before the Rolling Stones.  But the Stones take the prize in other aspects.  Here’s a rundown:

Multi instrumentalist: Brian tops Paul
Drums: Charlie tops Ringo
Bass: Bill tops Paul (at least in the early days when Wyman was more involved in the creative process)
Guitar:  Really can’t compare.  George was a lead guitarist, and the Stones didn’t get one of those until Mick Taylor in ’69.  All guitarists in both bands (Lennon, Harrison, Richards, Jones) were solid, though Jones lost interest in the instrument sometime around 1966, leaving Richards to fend for himself while Jones himself explored other instruments.
Singer: Also can’t compare.  Mick, John and Paul are all excellent singers, but the Beatles were a harmony band, and the Stones were…. something else.
Note: The Who would obliterate any instrument match-up later, coming near or on top the list in virtually every category.

Things were ramping up in 1966 when the Beatles released ‘Rubber Soul’ and the Beach Boys released ‘Pet Sounds’. Though the Rolling Stones were still primarily a singles band, Paint it Black ( ), released in May 1966, was the earliest feel that the Stones could compete, and on occasion, find the Beatles chasing them.  Paint it Black is heavy, and on this front the Stones beat the Beatles to the punch.  I define heavy as a combination of powerful music and lyrics.  Heavy songs started popping up slowly in the mid-60s and would explode by ’68.  As far as I can discern, it started with the Animals cover of House of the Rising Sun in 1964, followed by Bob Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone in 1965.  And the Stones were next in line with Paint it Black, a serious sounding song about a man attending his lover’s funeral.  ‘Heavy’ would snowball from this point on, ultimately mastered by the likes of The Who, Jim Hendrix, Crème, Neil Young, Jefferson Airplane…. and the Beatles.

This week’s Stepping Stone has much to say besides the lyrics.  Charlie Watts drumming is brilliant (I am starting to enjoy his drums more than ever, listening so much to the Stones over the past months).  Bill Wyman sounds very involved in the studio effects.  His bass playing is some of his best, particularly that aforementioned ‘vrooming’ sound at the end of the song (discussed briefly in Stepping Stone # 3).  Keith Richards strums along very admirably, particularly during several of the instrumental breaks.  Mick Jagger is solid as usual.  And of course, Brian Jones sitar playing just about steals the show.  These were the days when this band didn’t really have a leader.  Everyone contributed equally, with perhaps only Watts not interested in taking control of the situation.  Later, Richards and Jagger would assume dominance, winning the internal competition, but this would have its ramifications, much like the effects that played out in Pink Floyd when Roger Waters took the helm.  I hope to discuss more of that later.  For now, though, I’d rather just enjoy the moment of hearing a 5-piece ensemble working on an even keel.

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All this talk of competition has me itching for a win of some kind.  Hmmm, I hear Mom is the master of on-line scrabble.  I’ll have to challenge her.  See if she’s game.
-          Pete

Friday, June 15, 2012

(24th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Reserving the Rights to Diss Disco"

Song: Emotional Rescue
Album: Emotional Rescue
Released: June, 1980

“Get up, get out, into something new”…. so goes the opening salvo of lyrics to Dances (Pt. 1), the aptly named first song on the Rolling Stones 1980 album ‘Emotional Rescue’.  The line itself was apropos of the then-freshly minted decade as well as this new dance-sounding music for the Stones.  But these lyrics were also fitting in defining the band itself, seeing as the Stones were once again morphing.  Change is something the Rolling Stones have never had a problem with.  They initially showed this capacity in a serious way with ‘Her Satanic Majesties Request’ in their 5th year as an ensemble, and though that venture was not all that commercially or, for that matter artistically successful, it did not inhibit them as they have continued to dabble with a vast variety of musical styles and genres ever since.

Many bands fall into the trap of trying to recapture some long-gone musical feeling from their more successful days.  The Rolling Stones realized pretty early on that this was virtually impossible to do, and so avoided it.  In fact, their attitude appears to have always been to ‘get up and out’ from that old feeling’s shadow as quickly as possible.  Part of this motivation seems driven by the need to simply stay relevant by following the head (i.e. $$) and not the heart, and critics have consistently pointed this out about the Stones.  Fine enough, but not many bands can morph like the Stones and thereby maintain their relevancy, which is an achievement in and of itself and is a big reason why these characters are so unique.  And while the Stones are viewed more as trend followers than trend blazers, they have typically mastered those trends, showing how it’s done, often better than those who initiated the trends in the first place.

With all this in mind, it should have come as no surprise to fans when for a brief ‘Emotional Rescue’ period the Rolling Stones flirted with disco.

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Ahh, disco.  Ahh, the memories.  For a 70s rock ‘n’ roll kid like me, the advent of it in the mid-70s was an anathema.  Looking back, I realize now that disco was seen at the time as an affront to the rock radio stations I frequently listened to back then, and the DJs on these stations verbally lashed back whenever they could, which was often.  This was especially true of my favorite radio station, 104.1 WBCN.  And I was caught up in it all, on the battle lines and in the trenches.

Disco was the first wave of new music to seriously confront Rock after the latter ruled North America and Europe for a good 10 years.  More waves were soon to come in the form of rap and hip-hop.  But by the time those waves swept in, Rock was already wounded.  Its first true competition of strobe lights and mirror balls would ultimately go down in a disco inferno (“goodbye sister disco”), but not before taking a few casualties.  Rock would stagger on, maintaining a strong face to this day, but now you more often than not have to dig a bit to find its modern day movers and shakers, whether on the Web, the music store back bins, or side-alley night clubs.

Though I would learn to accept change more readily after leaving home for campus life the very year ‘Emotional Rescue’ was released, my stance on disco would remain unflinching well into the 80s and still lingers off and on to this day.  Case in point:  I recall playing DJ myself several times at garage parties at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada back in ’82 and ‘83.  When doing this, I would begrudgingly share the DJ role with another guy on my floor who insisted on playing newer dance music to ‘draw in the ladies’.  I considered his reasoning shallow at best, and I told him this in so many words.  My take, though I could not put my finger on defining it at the time: The hipsters who enjoyed good music, ladies included, would help to set a unique, lasting, and memorable mood.  The alternative would just be another average to forgettable evening.  And when I took control of the turntable over an extended period of time, the gathering felt more like it meant something, though I’ll admit the crowd was fewer in numbers.  But hey, these were fellow diehards!  I’ll take quality over quantity any day.

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Ok, so I’ve been listening to the Rolling Stones now for 24 straight weeks.  At the end of last week, I figured I needed some type of break; maybe take a little time off, listen to something else for a change.  It turned out the break was more of the Rolling Stones as ‘Emotional Rescue’ was the perfect antidote.  My shoulders relaxed a bit this week, maybe even started to groove some:  Quite a contrast from the pile-driving feel of many of the previous Stepping Stones.  Message to self:  Cancel that appointment for a chiropractic adjustment.

I’ve always had a bit of a soft spot for the disco-centric, middle-of-the-pack album ‘Emotional Rescue’, but it took me years to admit it.  This was particularly true for the title track, this week’s Stepping Stone ( ), which is about as disco of a sounding song as you are going get for a ‘Gem Video’.  Mick Jagger sings in falsetto for most of this song, and he does it well.  It’s Ronnie Wood, and not Bill Wyman, who lays out the bass lines.  Perhaps Wyman was drawing some line in the sand.  But the bass works very well in this song, as does Charlie Watts drumming.  Disco has always been driven by the bass and drums.  The fact that Charlie made yet another adjustment to his drumming style, and did it in such a seamless way, is pretty fascinating.

The rest of the album works for me as well.  There’s the back and forth between lads and lasses at the tail end of Where the Boys Go (this song is the answer to the trivia question I asked in the Gimme Shelter Stepping Stone several weeks ago, though it is likely not the only answer).  There’s the last set of verses on Send It to Me (starting at “She won’t have to watch her step, she won’t have to relocate, I guarantee her personal security”).  I’ve already covered She’s So Cold (Stepping Stone # 8).  I even like Indian Girl, which sounds a bit like Dylan’s Romance in Durango.
And I love the opening banter between Mick and Keith on Dances (Pt. 1):

Mick: “Hey, what am I doing standing here on the corner of West 8th Street and 6th Avenue and...”
Keith: “Ah, skip it.”
Mick: “Nothing.  Keith!  Watcha, watcha doing?”
Keith: (whistle)
Mick: “Oh, I think the time has come to get out, get out”

It’s almost like their trying to ignore each other, but can’t.  Things were starting to get a little tense between The Boys around this time.

Then there’s that strange sound that makes its way into Dances (Pt. 1) at the 2:33 mark of the attached url ( ).  It repeats over several more stanzas.  I can’t make out what it is, but boy does it work.  I keep picturing a ‘what if’ scenario:  The Stones being asked to perform this song on the Muppets, with a few of the host puppets pulling off the wacky sound effect.  Too bad it never happened.  I elucidate on Dances (Pt. 1) here because I don’t think it will make the cut for a Stepping Stone.  Let’s just call it Stepping Stone 24B, as it works very well as a partner to Emotional Rescue: Both songs are funky in beat but deep in lyrics (Emotional Rescue about a guy pining for the woman of another man and Dances Pt 1 about taking a leap of faith into the great unknown).  Here’s a great live version of the latter:  ( ).

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My stance on disco and all it represents has always been, as mentioned earlier, a remnant of my younger days when change was a lot harder to accept than it is now.  But going through major changes myself at the time of the release of ‘Emotional Rescue’ had me catching the album at the right time.  Change soon became the norm rather than the exception for me, and I’ve come to gain tremendous respect for those who make it their modus operandi to accept it, and even push for it.  In turn, I try to strive for it in myself.

I have been accused of being stuck on ‘relics of the past’ when it comes to my musical interests.  Though I admit to not being as current with the latest musical trends as some, I believe I am much better than most.  The strange thing about this is that the ‘old timers’ are the ones that actually keep me up-to-date when the best of them release new albums.  These are the bands and musicians that figure out ways to accept changes and modify their sound.  It’s really the only way to stay viable.  It’s why the Rolling Stones went disco for however brief a time.

But despite all this enlightenment, I reserve the right to pan disco whenever the urge strikes me:  There are simply a handful of core beliefs from my youth that I forever must honor.

   -  Pete

Friday, June 8, 2012

(23rd in a series of) Stepping Stones "Spotlight on Ian Stewart: Big Brother"

Song: Silver Train
Album: Goats Head Soup
Released: August, 1973

Spotlight on: Ian Stewart

One thing I’ll really never know is what it’s like to be a younger sibling.  No complaints, just reality:  Hey, someone has to be born first.  Back in my adolescent days, this ignorance was compounded by the fact that I was surrounded mostly by friends and family who, in one way or another, looked up to older siblings.  And some of them looked way up.  Dad grew up with 4 sisters, sharing the youngest role with one of them (his twin, Aunt Ann).  Four of my closest friends were also the youngest (Phil, Pete, Bruce, Dave). Mom was 10 of 12.  All my brothers and sisters were, well… younger than me.  Most everyone else was tucked somewhere in the middle (John, Mac, Cousin Jack).  Even the ladies in my life at the time were lower in their family’s age pecking order. The only friend I shared oldest affiliation with was Jeff D (looking back, there were definitely similarities in how we approached this role).

In most all these cases the older siblings had a strong effect on these people in my life.  Bruce, in his younger days, most definitely aspired to be like his oldest brother Alex, and was very much influenced by his older sisters as well.  Pete had tremendous respect for big brother Paul.  Jack felt the same toward his brother, my older Cousin, Bill.  Mom was influenced by all her older siblings in one way or another.  I loved witnessing all this, and I often shared the admiration that these friends and family members had in their older siblings.  I suppose I was experiencing the concept vicariously.

Older siblings clearly have a different effect on us than our parents.  The parental units can be the coolest folks on the planet, but when you come down to it, they are from a different generation.  The cultural disconnect is usually too vast to make the type of bond you can make with someone a few years older.  This is good for both sides of that coin.  What parent really wants to have their kids emulate their every interest?  That would be a bit freakish, yes?  You want them to find their own interests.  An older sibling however?  Now you’re talking.  At least that’s been my observation.

Although I did not have the younger sibling experience, I did eventually get to experience something very similar, playing the ‘apprentice’ role in all sorts of situations later in life.  Most of these were work related, but there were a few other situations as well.  One memory that comes to mind is Bob and I hooking up for a few days with an experienced world traveler while touring through Spain.  There was also the time Bruce and I headed into Boston as young teenagers on the train to see a Red Sox game with his older sister who we met up with at her apartment in the city and who appeared to know Beantown better than Samuel Adams.  There was cousin Andrea’s wedding when I was just 15.  There was John Miller in North Adams, who introduced me to hot peppers and gut wrenching belly laughs.  There was cousin Tom Gilligan and his knowledge of history.

The Rolling Stones had their apprenticeship too, and for many years subsequent they would be guided and conducted by their behind-the-scenes elder statesman, Ian Stewart.

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If there is one scene that stands out for me in the movie ‘The Sting’ it’s when Johnny Hooker (Robert Redford) and Henry Gondorff (Paul Newman) meet:  The young up and comer trying to get the old veteran back into the con game.  It’s a very well-acted scene.  When finally convinced to move ahead with ‘The Sting’, Gondorff proceeds to give Hooker the apprenticeship of a lifetime.  After reading Keith Richards’ book ‘Life’ this is how I picture his and Mick Jagger’s meeting with Ian Stewart:  Big warehouse-like room, Stu sitting at a piano in a dark corner.  “So, what is it you’ve come here to learn, boys?”

Ian Stewart never seemed to want the limelight that eventually came with fame and was content to be left off the publicly-recognized Rolling Stones lineup, never once appearing on any of their album covers.  But he was so integral to the Stones sound and how it matured over time.  He may have simply realized that he did not have the image that record companies looked for to sell a band.  He was a few years older than everyone else.  The big brother:  In all likelihood unwilling and probably unable to go fab, mod, psychedelic, hippie, or wherever the trend was heading at any given time.  The Jay-Leno like jaw certainly did not help.  It appears he just wanted to guide the music from the side of the stage, his piano playing remaining in that dark corner.  The band was very lucky to have him.  I cannot think of any other musician or band that had such an apprenticeship, such a mentor, such a Gondorff.

Stu’s style stands out in this week’s Stepping Stone, Silver Train ( ). The song has a pre-rock sound to it; boogie like.  In fact, the song sounds like it could have been used in the soundtrack for ‘The Sting’.  It’s a period piece of music.  The piano playing paces the song.

As for the album it resides on, Silver Train sticks out like a healed thumb on a body of bruises.  ‘Goats Head Soup’ is the Stones ‘Who by Numbers’:  Introspective, sad, and at times dark.  Three excellent songs on side one, 100 Years Ago, Coming Down Again and Angie, sound almost remorseful:  An unheard-of sentiment for the swaggering Stones. Despite the deceiving title, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker) is angry.  Dancing with Mr. D is the darkest song (the ‘D’ standing for death).  Silver Train brightens things up just a bit (think Squeeze Box on ‘Who by Numbers’).  It’s a solid track on an album full of them.  All in all, part of me wishes I started listening to the Stones with this album.  Not sure why exactly.  Just seems like a good place to begin.

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Of all my ‘apprenticeships’, some of the most valuable were the numerous situations where I received insightful tips on great music, the most memorable of which were while listening.  Those tips were often from that slightly older crowd, the big brothers and sisters of my friends in my younger days, as well as older friends and acquaintances later in life.  Being a child of the 70s, this meant that I was typically getting advice on some of the best music of our times:  Songs written by musicians of the late 60s and early 70s.  A handful of these musicians have sustained their creativity, even to this day.  In some ways I guess I viewed these slightly older musicians as my big brothers and sisters.  Perhaps that’s why I’ve delved into the music a bit deeper than most.

The tips continue to roll in, and I remain amazed at the fact that there is always something new to learn; some new Stone to flip over.  Like fellow oldest sibling, Jeff D once said “music can be, and is the common tie that bonds us, separates us, and spans our emotions, and unites us with the common bond of humanity, whether we are near or far”.  This was certainly the case with Ian Stewart and the Stones. 
Keep it up everybody.  I’ll continue to try to do my part.

   -   Pete