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Thursday, July 5, 2012

(27th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Mastering One's Craft"

Song: Jumpin’ Jack Flash
Album:  Released as a single
Released:  May, 1968

If you do something for a really long time, it’s likely that you are going to get pretty good at it after a spell.  And the best of the best find the niche within the niche, honing their craft to the point where they have carved out something distinct unto themselves.  This occurs in any profession, craft or hobby….you name it:  Software developer and lawyer, basketball player and day trader, blacksmith and sentry (I have no idea why I thought of that last one).  And mastering ones craft is not unique to individuals.  It can also happen with a group, such as a law firm, fishing fleet, scientific expedition, or rowing crew.

In both of these cases, the individual and the group, masters of the art form have cropped up in the music world as well.  Not all at the same pace, though.  Some of the best musicians of our time found their distinct sound very early in their careers:  Richard Thompson, Led Zeppelin, Randy Newman and R.E.M.  all come to mind.  Their first releases gave a very good indication of what was to come.  Others took some time to weave their unique, lasting, indelible sound, including the Beach Boys, David Bowie, the Kinks, U2, the Police and the Grateful Dead.  Of all the great musicians I know of, however, the ones who took the longest to nail down a uniquely untouchable resonance were the Rolling Stones.  They finally accomplished this in 1968, a good 6 years into their formation, with the release of Jumpin’ Jack Flash. ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eQSGw0hMd_I ).

I think they would agree with me in saying it was worth the investment of time and effort. 

Jumpin’ Jack Flash was a defining song for the Rolling Stones.  First off, it was a major departure from the studio dependent phychedelia that preceded it over a period of 2 years.  Secondly, Keith Richards was stepping to the plate as a true leader, not only as a maturing songwriter, but also in other ways, including a uniquely evolving guitar sound:  Brian Jones was turning into dead weight around this time, and Richards ended up doing virtually all the signature guitar work for Jumpin’ Jack Flash as well as the heavy bass (Wyman shifts over to Hammond Organ).  This was a live sound; something that could be reproduced in front of a crowd with a 5-piece band.  The Stones would end up playing it more than any other song for the remainder of their career (up until now anyways).

 Thirdly, there is the imagery of the lyrics, right up there with any number of Bob Dylan songs such as Lily, Rosemary, and the Jack of Hearts, Jokerman, and Tweeter and the Monkeyman, including the lines:

I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain,

Along with…

 I was raised by a toothless, bearded hag,
I was schooled with a strap right across my back,

And of course….

 I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead.
I fell down to my feet and I saw they bled.
I frowned at the crumbs of a crust of bread.
Yeah, yeah, yeah
I was crowned with a spike right thru my head.

Dire for sure, but the Stones had a defying twist in the refrain:

But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas!
But it's all right, Im jumpin jack flash,
It’s a gas! gas! gas!

In other words, “yes, it may have been tough for many of us, but now we are going to have some fun my friends”.

 Most importantly, the song almost senses the stadium crowds that would attend future Stones shows. Better yet, it may have created them.  Jumpin’ Jack Flash would launch this band into the 70s and beyond.  The Rolling Stones, it seems, had committed themselves to the long haul, not just for themselves, but for their fans.  This was an opposite direction taken from that of the Beatles, who launched into a studio career at about the same time, shunning the stage and crowds for the last 3 years of their existence as a band.  Same could be said for Bob Dylan around this period.   The Stones, however, come across here as the first 60s band to be saying “look out new decade, here we come!”  A weaker song could not have made such a bold statement.  But this was not a weak song.  On the contrary, it was a groundbreaker. 

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This is where I come in, along with so many I grew up with.  The Rolling Stones would start a chain reaction of great musicians committing themselves to the long term, setting the ground rules for the uniquely exciting decade ahead.  In turn, this commitment helped to foster a generational bond among my peers in the 70s that I’m quite certain had never existed before in any generation at such an early stage.  Stadium shows meant a larger audience.  It meant bumping into someone a few days later who was wearing the same concert tee-shirt as you and then talking about the show.  It meant heavy conversations with friends about the music while hanging out in a parking lot, as you hiked the train tracks, or while sitting around a bonfire. 

In the 30s, 40s, 50s, and even 60s, stadiums were where a Dad would take his kid to see a ballgame.  Now it was kids with kids dominating 1) the roads on the drive in, 2) the parking lot, 3) the immediate area (whether urban or woods), and 4) the concert event itself.  Most of the time, this would result in a lasting, sometimes complex, growing experience.  Night School was the name of the game, and if you immersed yourself in it (with caution I might add) the reward could be mind-expanding (and I am not talking drugs per se!).

My most recent exposure to all this was last Sunday evening when I headed into Boston to see Roger Waters perform ‘The Wall’ at Fenway Park with Mac and others.  This was a music-centric crowd, and before the show we seamlessly bounced our way through a myriad of past concert experiences and events from Eric Burdon to Hot Tuna, Lou Reed to Delaney and Bonnie, Dave Davies to Patti Smith.  Conversations like this always prime you for the show ahead.  We were not disappointed.  ‘The Wall’ was spectacular and moving; my faith in the power of live rock music again rekindled.   After years of skepticism in all things large and unconstrained, I think Mr. Waters felt it too.  Perhaps it was something he learned from the Stones.  They figured it out in 1968.  Despite seeing it all in the interim, both good and bad, they have never looked back.  Jack Flash is still Jumping, on stage and in the crowd.  It took 6 years for the Rolling Stones to nail it down.  It’s been 44 grateful years of having found that niche ever since.

 -          Pete

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