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Thursday, August 9, 2012

(32nd in a series of) Stepping Stones "Dispensing the Notion of Indispensability"

Song: I Go Wild
Album: Voodoo Lounge
Released:  July, 1994

By the mid-90s the Rolling Stones were not even in the least bit competing for air time on my various music players.  In fact, if the Beatles were left in the dust (which was pretty much where they were in those days for me) the Stones were in their dust.  I had moved on, now listening to a whole variety of other stuff, including a lot of R.E.M., some Joan Baez, Richard Thompson, Randy Newman, Leonard Cohen and Iris Dement, the Counting Crows, the Crash Test Dummies, plenty of Bob Dylan, and as always the Who and solo Pete Townshend.  There were other musicians competing as well, seeing as Charlotte was born in 1994.  In turn, the sounds coming out of our cd player got a bit gentler by including the likes of Raffi, John McCutcheon and traditional Bolivian music (though I can proudly state that Charlotte also got a good dose of Rock n’ Roll in her earliest years).  And so like Puff the Magic Dragon, the trailblazing bands of my high school and college years slipped into their cave; which is analogical speak for the back of my record bin.

The only thing that kept the Rolling Stones even remotely on my radar at that time was their live shows, which I attended whenever they made their way through town.  As stated before, the Stones rarely, if ever, tour without releasing a new album and with an itch to get back on the road the band hit the studio in early 1994 to produce ‘Voodoo Lounge’.  I purchased it right off and gave it a few weeks of intense listening, but after the tour hit the area, I back-shelved it into the same zone of the bin where their other albums were already collecting cobwebs.  I don’t believe ‘Voodoo Lounge’ saw the light of day more than once or twice until very recently. The re-listen, however, had me recalling what I liked about the album at the time of its release.  Heck, it won a Grammy that year for Best Rock Album.  It was a comeback of sorts, and the new producer, Don Was, had added a nice new touch to their sound.  In hindsight I just did not give it the time it deserved:  Again, too much competition in those days. 

The biggest reason for my ambivalence though was personnel related.  Just before ‘Voodoo Lounge’, Bill Wyman decided to quit the band after 30 years (siting an ever growing fear of flying and a downgrade in band creativity) and I became immediately jaded about the Rolling Stones without him.  For me, the karma was gone.  Membership stability, a Stones staple, was suddenly out the door, and this bothered me.  I know it bothered Keith Richards too.  But what could he do, end it all simply because his longtime bass man was leaving?  I pondered this some back then, and also recall thinking; what if it was Ronnie or Mick or Charlie or a combination of several that was packing it in on Keith instead of Bill?  Where was that tipping point at which the essential nature of the band could no longer exist? 

I had been challenged with this concept before on a number of occasions.  Now it was the idea of “what makes or breaks the meaning of ‘The Rolling Stones’ ” that I had to contemplate.  In other words, was anyone in this band indispensable?  For that matter, what is it that makes an individual in any group effort indispensable?

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I suppose I’ve always been a traditionalist when it comes to band lineups.  For example, years ago I refused to see “Pink Floyd” without Roger Waters.  At the time I shared Waters’ disdain for David Gilmour, Richard Wright and Nick Mason in their use of the band name without him.  Later, I’d also find myself blowing off ELO without Jeff Lynne and the Cars without Ric Ocasek.  How could these bands reunite without such immense key cogs involved?  To me it was like Crosby, Stills and Nash touring without one of the three of them, and keeping the band/brand name!  Sure I’d break my stance here and there, attending several Band concerts without Robbie Robertson and Richard Manuel, as well as the Allman Brothers without Duane Allman, the Grateful Dead without Jerry Garcia, and even a brief reunion of the Byrds without Gene Clark.  But in all these cases, the lost ingredient(s) was always in the back of my mind, leaving me to wonder during the shows what the given show would have been like if these founders, these true movers and shakers, were still there.

It took Zak Starkey to correct my jaded-view bias in 1996.   Up to that point, I’d seen the Who a handful of times without their legendary drummer, Keith Moon.  First there was Kenny Jones, and then Simon Phillips, each proficient in his own right, but neither matching the intensity or style of “Moon the Loon”.  I knew I was watching a tainted version of the band for years, and questioned their use of the name in the same way as I did all those others.  The difference with the Who, however (and maybe the Band) was that every original member was equally as incredible in their musical talent as the other.  Was this the boundary for me between someone being indispensable and another replaceable; the idea that if each and every individual brings an equal talent to the whole, they clear some type of hurdle when losing a part, allowing the band name to endure?  Was this the difference between the Who losing Keith Moon and the Rolling Stones losing Bill Wyman?

Back to Zak Starkey.  In 1996, Nancy and I headed to Madison Square Garden with Bec, Dave, Kurt, Mac and others to see the Who perform the entire ‘Quadrophenia’ (see GMVW # 22 for details).  This was the ultimate test for the tainted Who, as ‘Quadrophenia’ remains the standard-bearer instrument album for this band.  The drums are truly exceptional on the album, tapping into a prior unknown musical ability, along with the bass and vocals.  To me, the remaining lineup was now going way out on a limb to resurrect this sound down in the Big Apple.  There was no way they could meet our expectations without Keith Moon, was there?  At the same time, I was impressed that the Who were willing to give it a go, and so off we went to see for ourselves.

In a nutshell (since this is currently a Rolling Stone forum and not a Who forum) we were not disappointed.  On the contrary, I was blown away with the show, and the key to it all was Zak.  Ringo’s son had channeled his inner Keith Moon, something I thought impossible.  And he was not only able to do that, but was at the same time able to add his own touch as well.  The Who were incredibly the Who again.  I did not expect this.  This band would be thrown another curve ball in 2002 when John Entwistle died, but they were already able to do what I had never seen before:  Get away with losing what I determined to be an indispensable element.  The Who got me to reevaluating my belief system.  They got me thinking in a different way yet again, as they had done so many times in years gone by.   

And they got me thinking:  Is it possible for a band to carry on beyond all of its founding members?

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Darryl Jones was a suitable replacement for Bill Wyman; certainly not the same, but with Wyman and the Stones, this is much harder to feel out than the case I explained above with the Who.  The Stones are far more visceral; so much harder to pinpoint what makes them exceptional (I hope I’m doing some of the explaining this year, though).   Anyhow, the Rolling Stones got away with the transition to a degree.  They were able to endure, to release three more studio albums (to this date) and to launch out on a handful of mega tours.  The band was diminished in my mind, but still relevant, and justified in carrying their name and lips-logo forward.  For new fans, none of this seemed to matter all that much:  People from former Eastern Bloc countries were seeing the Stones come to their countries for the first time in the 90s and jumping on the band wagon.  The Stones were still the Stones in their mind (I experienced this myself just this weekend when I went to see Gandalf Murphy and the Slambovian Circus of Dreams at the Bull Run with Nancy and good friend, Jeff.  It was my first time going and what I was witnessing was a tight-knit band.  For Jeff, however, the loss of their longtime drummer was having an effect as the new percussionist was not quite up-to snuff).

Could there be such a thing as a never-ending band lineup?  Why not?  If a band plans correctly, it could overlap new members forever, much like what has been happening for decades now with the Allman Brothers Band.  The concept exists in other realms too.  The New York Yankees have endured as an iconic institution, with just enough overlap in their superstars to “pass the torch”:  Ruth to Gehrig to DiMaggio to Mantle, and so on.  On Saturday Night Live, it was John Belushi passing the torch to Bill Murray who passed it to Eddie Murphy and on to Mike Myers then Will Ferrell, Tina Fey and Kristen Wig.  This concept can happen in great bands, yes?  I’m surprised none of them have publically connected with this thought: The idea of an enduring legacy. 

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This weeks’ Stepping Stone I Go Wild ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3wdVdS8CmsQ ), is one of the best songs on the ‘Voodoo Lounge’ album.  Listening to it over the past week, I was thinking that Mick Jagger sounds like he really enjoyed singing it, as he takes the song to that next level that all great musicians seem to be able to do on occasion.  Later I read he very much did enjoy singing it. 

Yes, Jagger and the remaining Stones all sound almost indispensable when you listen….but ever since I watched Zak Starkey fill in for Keith Moon, I’ve known better.

-          Pete

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