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

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