Thursday, August 30, 2012

(35th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Young vs Old"

Song: Brown Sugar
Album: Sticky Fingers
Released: April, 1971

Upon waking up this past Saturday morning I quickly realized I had turned 50 while in my sleep, then took a few moments to reflect before getting on with my day.  Sheesh!  What did this mean?  Time to act my age I suppose:  Wear rubbers over my shoes when it’s raining out; brown bag my lunch for work in the morning; tea break at noon; listen to Bach; watch ‘Masterpiece Theatre’; rotate my tires routinely; sweep a metal detector across a beach at the end of a hot summer day; tuck my shirt in; where a tie to work; shine my shoes once a month; maintain this crew cut; use moisturizer on my skin; play golf; sport a smoking jacket in the evening, pipe in one hand, ‘Wall Street Journal’ in the other.  In short, become more deliberate, conventional and conservative in my day-to-day activities. 

Geez, this couldn’t be, could it?  I mean… I wasn’t ready for any of this.  Was I?

I had to snap out of it; see if I still had any semblance of my pre-half-century-mark self.  A challenge was needed, and pronto.  And not just any challenge.  This had to be extreme. 

I knew just what to do: Give the Rolling Stones a listen.

I hopped in my car and pulled out the cd ‘Sticky Fingers’ from the console.  If any Stones album could test my supposed new interests and priorities it was this one:  Virtually everything about it has the potential for coming across as offensive to the sophisticated, conservative mindset.  Glancing at the back of the picture sleeve before popping the disc in, I scanned the album track list.  Being fairly knowledgeable on the subject of this band and this record, I could see what was in store:  There were songs loaded with references to drugs (Dead Flowers, Sister Morphine), darkness (Sway), desire (I Got the Blues) and alienation (Moonlight Mile).  There was also the cover art (those zipper jeans) and of course the album’s title.

My mind wandered…..

……“Oh, the vulgarity!”

Wait, what was that fleeting thought?  Whatever it was, it was unfamiliar.  I ventured that this was the freshly minted 50 year-old inside me doing the talking.  I beat it back, but a moment later, up it crept again, a bit louder this time; “Oh, the vulgarity!”.  Then back, and up yet again; “Oh, the vulgarity!” 


OK, perhaps I had to accept this change of heart, try not to suppress it any longer.  Yes, if this was the new me then so be it:  Time to move on; put the Stones and other rock bands with bad attitudes in the rearview mirror.  Pass me the remote; and a glass of prune juice while you’re at it.  What does that AARP Card get you again?

I thought about all this as I backed out the driveway and headed down the road.  Then, I decided to try and push back one more time, and so went ahead with my plan and popped ‘Sticky Fingers’ into the cd player.  Oh boy!  Was this the right thing to do? Hearing the first dueling Richards/Taylor guitar notes from track # 1, I realized that the challenge to my old self would ramp up fast and furious now.  Why so? Well, because there is little in the Rolling Stones repertoire that packs more potential for controversy than Brown Sugar.

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How to explain Brown Sugar?  Whatever be the interpretation, one thing is for certain:  It will never be sung by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.  Even Mick Jagger (who wrote the lyrics virtually on his own) has struggled some with it, once stating in an interview years after the songs composition “It’s such a mishmash.  All the nasty subjects in one go…. I never would write that song now”.  In other words, Jagger has pretty much censored himself from writing anything like it again.  And this is Mick Jagger where talking about, mister test-the-waters himself, not Barry Manilow, Donny Osmond, John Denver or Linda Ronstadt.  It appears that even the lead singer for the greatest of all rock and roll bands can get a bit conservative minded in his old age; at least with subject matter the likes of which is sung about on Brown Sugar.

So what is this song about?  Well, where others (including Jagger) have multiple ideas on the matter, my own reading on it is primarily a historical one:  It’s about slavery and the various forms of abuse that many “slavers” cast on their female servants.  Take these opening lyrics:

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans
Scarred old slaver know he’s doing allright
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

And then this:

‘Drums beating, cold English blood runs hot,
Lady of the house wondrin where it’s gonna stop.
House boy knows that he’s doin alright.
You should a heard him just around midnight.’

A few other lines round the concept out some.  The point, however, is this:  If a strict interpretation gets to the bottom of Brown Sugar, that being the topic of sexual abuse during antebellum slavery, than it’s not such a bad thing to write about, right?  In fact if this be the case, the Stones are, in their own somewhat off-color way, revealing a bit of American dirty laundry here; taboo subject matter that can often be overlooked in our high school text books.  From this perspective, Brown Sugar can be viewed as a fact-finding mission of a tune.  And if so it connects the Stones to the folk scene, which is in many ways a very honorable genre to be connected with.

“Nice argument” I thought.  My younger self was seeping back in a bit.  The new ‘50’ in me fought back:

The strange thing is, however, that the song sounds so upbeat, and includes references to dancing.  Dancing?  In this storyline?  Although predating MTV, you can almost see the potential depravity of an 80s style video:  “Brown Sugar”, “scarred old slaver”, “lady of the house”, and “house boy” all moving to the beat around a campfire in front of a shack on a moonlit night in the deep south.

Ouch, my younger self thought:  Good point. 

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Despite the controversial nature of the music and lyrics, however, fans love this song.  It’s quite possibly the most requested Stones song of all time, both on radio and in concert. And ever since seeing it performed live, (with Bobby Keys stepping into the limelight for his sax solo; upper-stage-right) I have to admit to thoroughly enjoying it myself over the years.  Why is this?  I think I’m a pretty empathetic person. Doesn’t this song ‘cross the line’?  Still, as the song blared on my speakers this past Saturday morning, I could not help but groove to the beat.  The younger me was taking control again, and would ultimately win the day.

Now I’m no apologist for the Rolling Stones, but I do not in any way think this song puts them in ‘off limits’ territory either.  Not even close.  One thought that came to mind these past days as I listened:  The Stones have far more black friends than your average Caucasian.  Keith Richards lived with and played music with the Rastafarians in Jamaica for years.  The entire band has befriended and brought back to our attention many-a black bluesmen and woman from Muddy Waters to Etta James to BB King; and rockers Chuck Berry and Little Richard (to name a few)’s a big reason why Bob Dylan has so much respect for them.

And I see the rules as different when it comes to the arts than say, for someone like Howard Stern (in that case, I’ve always had a bit of the conservatism in me).  First and foremost, the Rolling Stones are musicians, artists per se, giving them leeway to morph into character, much like an actor in a movie.  Yes, musicians can cross the line, and the Stones have done their fair share of it; much more than any other band I enjoy listening to.   But their line crossing is not quite as bad as it’s been made out to be by the establishment media.  And the Stones have the respect of many great musicians who never crossed that line, putting them in somewhat of a unique spot in the annals of music lore. 

Besides, I’ve always been of the belief that if it sounds good to these ears, it must have arisen out of something good in the first place.  Who knows …that dancing reference? Well, maybe Jagger had it in mind that adversity brings out things in people and cultures that they never knew they had beforehand: Ellie Wiesel, Anne Frank, Helen Keller, Jackie Robinson, Geronimo, … all had something brought out of them through adversity that may not have otherwise been there.  Was Mick Jagger writing about one of the rare positive things to come out of slavery?  Just a thought.  If so though, that’s pretty impressive.

To enjoy the Stones, however, you really need to strip them down to their essence: Music.  You can only come at them from this angle….at least at first.  Wipe out the on and off-stage personas, even the lyrics from your mind.  From this stripped down perspective, a song like Brown Sugar can be truly appreciated.  What do you get when you see years of hard work and dedication to one’s craft payoff?  You get Brown Sugar ( ).  This is what can be fascinating about delving deeply into a band or any individual/team that has risen to the top of their given profession: You get to witness greatness.  By the time of ‘Sticky Fingers’, the Stones had developed an implausible sense of musical timing.  They were no longer individuals playing music together:  They were a collective whole. 

Heavy subject matter…. now maybe that’s what kicks in at 50.  As for the conservative, sophistication? Not just yet, thank you. 

Maybe I’ll wait till I turn 60.

-          Pete

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