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Friday, September 28, 2012

(39th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "It's All a Matter of Taste"

Song: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Album: Out of Our Heads (US Version)
Released: July, 1965

Got a hold of the Rolling Stones 3rd LP this week:  1965’s ‘Out of Our Heads’.  It was a refreshing diversion.  I’d been up in the canopy for some time, listening to the Stones as most of us know them; the hit makers, with the reputation as the greatest of all Rock ‘n’ Roll bands.  Now I was slipping down the trunk and digging into their early-day roots:  Blues music, with a hint of the band’s then-future sound. 

In terms of Stepping Stones, there was not a heck of a lot to choose from on this album, primarily since I’d ruled out cover songs from the get go for this blog series (the toughest song to drop in this regard is the Stones exceptional cover of Just My Imagination on 1977s ‘Some Girls’).  My stance would mean more than half the album was off limits, including the great opening number, Mercy, Mercy (who is it singing the high-note Entwistle-like backing vocals, anyway?).  As for ‘Out of Our Heads’ originals, I’d already used one for a Stepping Stone (The Last Time > SS # 9, which I cheated on by listening to their ‘Singles’ compilation cd that week instead of the original album), but there still remained several pretty good candidates, including The Spider and the Fly, Play with Fire and The Under-Assistant West Coast Promotion Man. 

Oh, and there was one other song….the one which just so happened to hit the number 2 position in Rolling Stone Magazine’s top 500 songs of all time back in 2004.  Of course I’m talking about (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction, a principle contribution in the Stones path to stardom.  Satisfaction’ is about as catchy as you can get if you are looking to make it big time, which is indeed what transpired way back when. 

But my gut reaction, going all the way back to January when I dreamed this series up, was to rule it out.  I had to be honest with myself:  Ever since I can remember, ‘Satisfaction’ has simply not connected with me; at least not in the same vein as so many of those other Rolling Stones songs I’ve reflected on this year.  I do recognize what it has brought to the Rock and Roll alter, and do not dispute its lofty status in the annals of music history.  But taste is taste; this I could not deny.  Heck, I’ll even admit to holding off a bathroom visit at one live event until the moment I heard the opening guitar notes to this song.  In fact, I’m willing to bet I did it on more than one occasion.

I realized the danger in passing it up: Could any Stepping Stone list be complete without (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction in the mix?  Geez….there would be no chance of these diatribes ever being taken seriously would there?  I can see it now, sitting at some suits desk at Faber and Faber thirty or so years down the road: “We like your concept and writing style old man. You are a trifle delusional, but the biggest issue is that you have to be a complete idiot to overlook ‘Satisfaction’! ”.  And that was even if I made it that far.  Beforehand there would likely be Keith Richards to deal with in some dark alley behind Fenway Park after a show on the Stones next tour, switchblade at my throat:  “What were you thinking, Steeeeeeeves!” 

Yet here I am writing about the Rolling Stones biggest hit, despite my history of ambivalence toward it.  How did I get to this point?  I’d like to think it has nothing to do with the mostly fleeting and farfetched hope of authorship, or fear of a violent ending at the hands of a master blades-man.  The answer, I believe, was there in front of me for the taking all these years.  However, before getting into how I cleared this hurdle, let me first reflect on the possible reasons why ‘Satisfaction’ never made inroads with me before.

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Oversaturation?  How do you repair oversaturation?  I mean, once a song maxes out on your psyche, can you ever get back to the pre-saturation stage?  Let’s say you were stranded on a desert island for 5 years.  You build a raft, drift on it for a few days.  A cruise ship picks you up.  It’s karaoke night.  All those greatest hits are being sung by the passengers; off key no less.  But again you haven’t heard any music for 5 agonizing years.   Is it possible that those songs could gain second wind status?

When did I reach the point where this song became oversaturated?  Anyone who listened to WBCN, WAAF, and WZLX as much as I did in the 70s and 80s could sympathize:  Satisfaction’ was played “early and often”.  And this song was not alone in the “used and abused” department.  Don’t get me wrong.  WBCN could dig deep, which made it well worth listening to the repetition.  But still, it could be enough at times to have you morph into pirate mode..  arghhhh!

One difference between Nancy and I has always been that when something ‘old and tired’ is queued up on the radio, she usually starts surfing.  I on the other hand, tend to stand pat, willing to suffer out a few tedious minutes with the belief that there is something good coming up right around the corner.  I’ve also been willing to forgive a good DJ for an occasional gaff in judgment.  The risk to this approach, however, is delving even deeper into the repetitiveness.  Perhaps Nancy’s approach works better:  If you don’t want to start hating the song, change it and save the possibility that you will enjoy it later once the rote of it fades from memory.

Yes, oversaturation was possible.  But the more I thought about it the more I realized there was never a time when I was not oversaturated with ‘Satisfaction’.  Reflecting on earlier days listening to Fred’s copy of ‘Hot Rocks’ (see SS # 11 for details), I recall my lukewarm reaction every time the tune played on the turntable. 

It had to be something else then.   

Too Darn Simple?    The Stones rely on simplicity more than any other band I enjoy, except maybe Neil Young with Crazy Horse.  And make no mistake: (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction is simple.  Maybe not as much as their later hit Get Off of My Cloud… but close enough.  Throughout my music-listening lifespan, I’ve tended to gravitate more to the complex, whether lyrically or musically.  My thorough enjoyment of Bob Dylan’s entire ‘Time Out of Mind’ album is a good example.  The Rolling Stones have plenty of examples of complex lyrics and arrangements as well.  But ‘Satisfaction’ is just so darn ‘out of the box’ sounding.  It has the feel like anyone could have conjured it up.  I mean, Keith Richards, a man not prone to hyperbole, has stated that he practically wrote the song in his sleep (a play back of the recorded riff the morning after was two minutes of guitar, the sound of a dropped pick and “then me snoring for the next forty minutes”). 

But I’ve grown to enjoy other simple sounding tunes.  Sometimes, it’s all you need.  Johnny Cash is straight up, as are the Flying Burrito Brothers, and the Ramones.  Despite my willingness to open up to these more simple sounds though, ‘Satisfaction’ was still, until this week, not on my appreciation list.

Nope, simplicity was not the answer either.

The Guitar-Centric Sound?  OK, now I think I’m getting somewhere.  I don’t believe I have ever been a big fan of the guitar-centered song, which remains a fact to this day.  This is probably why I have never been heavy into Hendrix, Clapton, Jeff Beck, Led Zeppelin or Van Halen (god forbid).  I’m more into the subtle guitar.  Townshend is more often subtle than not, willing to let the bass and drums rule the lead sound (very unique to the Who) and filling in where necessary.  Dylan’s guitar sounds are subtle, as are the Beatles, the Band, and R.E.M.  Neil Young, again, is a rare exception.  Don’t ask why… I could not explain it.  Not yet anyways, though perhaps sometime soon when I focus on Mr. Live Rust himself in a later series.

Like the Kink’s You Really Got Me, and All Day and All of the Night, the Stones (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction has that distorted guitar sound that just does not resonate with me.  Of all people, Keith Richards may be on the same page.  He rarely ‘struts his stuff’, and actually wanted to replace his original riff for the song with horns (the rest of the band overruled him).  I’ve been imagining what that would sound like all week, and I like what I “hear”.  Perhaps the band should reconvene in the studio and give it another take.

Yes, this theory, heavy guitar-centric sound, may be pretty close to the truth of the matter, so I’ll close this self-critique for the time being.

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I did not climb all the way out of my ‘Satisfaction’ doldrums this week, but I did make it far enough to include it here as a Stepping Stone ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8_VbImuG71M ).  How?  Well, it mostly has to do with what I should have known all along:  Putting the song into its proper context.  Despite having heard it a plethora of times in my lifetime, I never really listened in that original ‘Out of Our Heads’ environment before.  There was radio, there was greatest hits records, and there was live, but never this.  Listening to an original album simply puts you in the moment.  It gives you a much better sense of the songs place in history (take note Pat and all you downloaders out there).

And so, surrounded by blues numbers and other early self-penned, unique sounding tunes, I got to enjoy the lead vocals, beat, bass, and even guitar on ‘Satisfaction’ a bit more than before:  Not quite to the point where I envision performing the song karaoke style any time soon (see Mick Jagger on his most recent SNL visit for a hilarious skit related to such a scene), but enough to put up with someone else giving it a go.

Taste is taste after all.  This week gave me a chance to explore it some in myself.

-          Pete

Friday, September 21, 2012

(38th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Keith's Conundrum"

Song: Sleep Tonight
Album: Dirty Work
Released: March, 1986

“What was I thinking?”  This about summed up my state of mind this past weekend after several days into a risky venture.  I was wasting valuable time, and had about reached the point of cutting my losses and moving on.  There was still half a week to make up for my mistake.  A bit of a scramble, but so be it: I had dug this hole, and now it would be up to me to climb out of it.

The reason for all this unease:  Believing I could find a gem in the rough on ‘Dirty Work’, an album that has gained a reputation over the years as the 3rd rail of Rolling Stones records.  Recorded smack dab in the middle of the “video killed the radio star” decade, ‘Dirty Work’ was immediately panned by rock critics for lacking any collaborative substance, and has not fared much better critique with the test of time.  The first single from the album, Harlem Shuffle, was a cover song for goodness sake!  The second single, One Hit (to the Body), a fair to middling effort by Stones standards, was backed by a video ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VfiQejr9MhE ) that helps to explain why Keith Richards’ hostile nickname for Mick Jagger in those days was ‘Brenda’.  Upon its release in 1986, the album came across to me right off as at best thin, and at worst forgettable.  And here I was giving it a 2nd chance?  If I couldn’t connect with it back in my more clairvoyant mid-20s days, how was I going to now?  And of bigger risk than a lost week of inspiration: Would this jaded and no-longer faded memory of the Stones derail - or even 3rd rail - my running nine-month journey altogether? 

And so, there I was this past Saturday afternoon on a drive to the hardware store, staring at the radio and struggling to make some sense out of the second track on the album, Fight, one of many songs on ‘Dirty Work’ that reeks of collegial inauthenticity; so un-Stones like. I tried to sympathize by first pulling myself further into those springier shoes of yesteryear, rehashing my younger-self’s thoughts.  Waves of 80s pop shtick began flooding my mind; unavoidable way back when and easy enough to recollect now.

Ahh, yes… I was now recalling that even while living the era it was clear to many of us that the Rolling Stones were not alone in their lack of depth perception during this period:  Many other bands were also challenged in this regard, likely due to an over focus on the telegenic at the expense of the telemetric.  And the biggest culprits were the lead singers:  All glitz and glamor; feathered hair, blowing in electric-fan induced wind.  Not many of these front men made it through the decade with their old reputations intact:  Certainly Mick Jagger slipped a notch or two, but so did Roger Daltrey, Sting, Robert Plant, Benjamin Orr, Eric Clapton, David Bowie, and others.  The lure of the camera, it would seem, had gotten the best of them.

MTV, however, was the least of the Stones problems when ‘Dirty Work’ began to take form in 1985.  First off, Keith Richards and Mick Jagger were barely on speaking terms.  After several decades as one of the best songwriting tandems of all time, it appeared the magic had finally run its course.  Why the discord?  For one thing, Richards was fuming that Jagger had signed a solo record deal:  How could his longtime partner split his creative allegiances?  To Richards it was near impossible.  This, among other issues, would see Jagger and Richards putting alternating time shifts in the studio during the making of ‘Dirty Work’, much like Lennon and McCartney during the production of the ‘The Beatles’ (aka the ‘White Album’) in 1968.  On top of all this, Charlie Watts, of all people, was struggling with substance abuse.  And Bill Wyman was becoming indifferent in his attitude about the band, later admitting that this period had convinced him the Stones glory days had passed them by (personally, I think Wyman was just turning into an old fart).    

All of this entered my mind on that drive to the hardware store as Fight blasted on my speakers.  I had a few other Stones discs to switch over to, and was - oh so close - to making the transition.  But I didn’t.  I allowed the song, and the rest of the album, to play on.  And then I played it all again…. and again.  At the time of this writing (Thursday night) I’ve now replayed the album at least another 10 times.  Through it all, it’s defiantly begun to grow on me.  In fact, I’d go as far as saying that it has made its way a few notches up the Stones album ladder in my book. 

How in the world did this happen?

Well to start with, somewhere along the lines I began to realize that ‘Dirty Work’ is unique.  How many albums can you name where the parties involved are openly dissing each other in the music?  Other than this one, I could not think of many.  There was a single, “Hatred”, by the Kinks, where Ray and Dave Davies go at it.  As for the Beatles death throes days, the ‘Let it Be’ sessions were very tense (all caught on camera no less), but the animosity between band members did not come through in the music or lyrics (other than a substandard product).  I’m sure many other bands went through internal strife as well.  Hey, for the Who, tension was actually a sign of normality.  But again, it’s rare to see it all play out on record.

Sure there have been tongue lashings between EX-band members in song:  How do you Sleep (Lennon lashing out at McCartney) and Too Many People (McCartney lashing out at Lennon) come to mind.  And verbal abuse has numerous examples of playing out post breakup through the press as well, including Levon Helm’s resentment of Robbie Roberston; John Fogerty vs the rest of CCR; and Roger Waters’ anger at David Gilmour.  ‘Dirty Work’ raises the ante, however:  Almost every one of the nine Jagger/Richards penned songs (several also co-written by Ronnie Wood) could easily be interpreted as being about their deteriorating partnership, including Fight, Hold Back, Winning Ugly, Dirty Work, Had It With You, Sleep Tonight and One Hit to the Body, (with that aforementioned video showing the Glimmer Twins duking it out).  Rather than crediting these songs “Jagger and Richards”, CBS records should probably have listed them as “Jagger vs. Richards”. 

‘Dirty Work’, like the Frankenstein Monster, has the feel of coming together piece by piece.  There’s no live - jamming in the studio - feel to it whatsoever; no Can’t You Hear Me Knocking here (see Stepping Stone # 19).  At the time, it was just depressing to envision.  But with the benefit of hindsight, and now knowing the Stones would make their way through this low point in their history, it’s more interesting than anything. 

And yet, amazingly, back when everyone else thought it was the end of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards was already planning for brighter days ahead, and doing it “on the record” in the process.  This declaration would give fans a peak into the man’s soul. 

Most importantly for me though, it would give me a Stepping Stone on ‘Dirty Work’ after all.

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How do you get the type of vision that Keith Richards reveals in Sleep Tonight ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jor4tBpGOzc ), a song that apparently suggests to his songwriting partner to get some rest, because there is much to aspire to in the days ahead?  At the same time, how do you step out of the moment, that caustic atmosphere described above, to pen such lyrics?  I’m not sure, but I keep thinking about Richards’ stamina… the ability to stick out almost anything.  Keeping the candle burning.  Being there in the wee hours.  Picking up on the little things through a sheer quantity of moments of listening to others.  Engaging in late night heavy talk sessions. Stoking the campfire when most everyone else is asleep.  Recognizing and appreciating your elders. Resisting the urge of pigeonholing yourself into tighter and tighter factions of ‘like minds’.   If there is any individual in the Stones who I’ve gained a greater appreciation for during this year of writing about them, it is Keith Richards.  As with Richards, I’d like to believe I’ve been there for those quality moments too. It’s not always easy to stick things out.  Burnout can seep into the picture.  It takes patience, fortitude and a genuine fascination in the lives of those around you. I’m pretty sure it’s those moments that gave Richards the freedom, flexibility and character to write a song like Sleeps Tonight.

I admit up front to not having gained this insight into the meaning of Sleeps Tonight on my own (while keeping in mind that with any great song, there certainly are other meanings):  A bit of research had me tracking a very interesting web site ( http://www.stylusmagazine.com/articles/on_second_thought/rolling-stones-dirty-work.htm ) that puts a positive spin on ‘Dirty Work’, including discourse on the Sleeps Tonight concept raised here.  But I was piecing some of it together on my own beforehand when I wrote about the ‘Steel Wheels’ tour for Stepping Stone # 15.  As discussed in that write up, a favorite Stones story of mine is that of Keith Richards pulling up to the studio to begin work on that 1989 album and subsequent world tour.  Before getting out of the car, he would hear Charlie Watts drumming inside and a great big grin crept across his face, which he would catch as he looked in the rearview mirror.  In Watts drumming, Richards could hear that Sleeps Tonight was finally beginning to play out 3 years later.  He deserved that moment.  He’d earned it.

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One of my goals with this series was to fit at least three Keith Richards lead vocals in, which I’ve done now.  I’m glad to have been taken by surprise with Sleeps Tonight.  The original song I had in mind was Little T&A off the ‘Tattoo You’ album.  A great tune, but I could never think of what to write in relation to it:  Discussion points on the line “the pools in but the patio ain’t dry” was just not going to cut it. 

‘Dirty Work’ can pretty much be viewed as Richards first solo album, with Jagger as a hired gun for the lead singing.  He would follow up over the next 5 years with several real solo efforts including ‘Talk is Cheap’ and ‘Main Offender’.    Both have been very well received by critics and fans.  Richards has credited ‘Dirty Work’ for setting those wheels in motion, particularly in his vocal delivery:  With Mick Jagger an infrequent visitor in the studio, Richards had to sing the first cut of songs he was writing much more than on previous albums.  I’m sure there are some interesting early-cuts of ‘Dirty Work’ songs that will make the bootleg rounds one day (if they have not already).

A few final thoughts on the 80s.  The decade was distinct, there’s no doubt about that. Daughter Charlotte, who did not live it, has an instinctual distaste for the period.  Every decade has its cultural lows, including the 60’s (drugs) and 70s (disco).  But Charlotte doesn’t seem to have a problem with either. The 80s low was a bit more superficial.  It’s not as easy to define the downside compared to those earlier decades. But just having a corner on the word ‘superficial’?  That’s low.

But there is always at least a little redeeming value in most anything.  There are those, for example, who would defend the likes of box office bombs like Ishtar and Water World, or DC Comics circa the late 70s, or David Bowie’s ‘Glass Spider’ tour (see GMVW # 37), or Barney.  I understand this more now.  ‘Dirty Work’ was dead in the water for me back in the 80s, but it found a second life.  Was it a change in taste that did this or a broader perspective?  Perhaps it’s time to give some of those other 80s duds a second chance, such as Dylan’s ‘Empire Burlesque’, the Who’s ‘It’s Hard’, and the Kinks ‘Think Visual’ (can anyone name even one song off that album just off the top of their head?).  Yes, those floodgates just may have reopened.

Keith Richards is no miracle worker:  I don’t think I’ll ever fully embrace ‘Dirty Work’, as I can’t help but picturing Mick Jagger working out to those Olivia Newton John workout videos - headband, spandex, Physical blaring in the background (the general health of the band was actually Jagger’s biggest concern in the 80s, which is documented in a cartoon in the picture sleeve of the cd, the fictitious Olga, trying to whip the band into shape).  But Richards?  Watts?   Just conjuring the image is hilarious. 

It was all part of Keith Richards conundrum at the time.  He chose to wait it all out.  And by doing so, he took the road less travelled, ultimately making for some memorable experiences for many of us in the ‘Steel Wheels’, ‘Bridges to Babylon’ and ‘Bigger Bang’ days that would follow.

-          Pete

Thursday, September 13, 2012

(37th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Spotlight on Charlie Watts (and Mac): What Reliability Brings to the Table"

Song: Tumbling Dice
Album: Exile on Main St.
Released: May, 1972

Spotlight on: Charlie Watts (and Mac)

One of my most favorite features of virtually every Rolling Stones album is that they include a breakdown of who plays what instrument on each and every song.  Many bands simply list a summary of instrument credits for the entire album, focusing most of their visual ideas on features like written lyrics, artwork, photography, general concept and video.  The Stones put effort into these elements as well, as it can all contribute to fans gaining insight to the music…which is the ultimate intention.  But I’ve found that the Stones added dimension of fleshing out instrument credits by song as being a great way of welcoming fans further into the fold, allowing us to conjure up an image of what it must have been like to be in the studio during the production.  And more often than not there is a surprise or two:  For example, Keith Richards is credited for bass guitar on Street Fighting Man; Mick Jagger plays the electric piano on Fool to Cry; Harvey Mandel is the lead guitarist on Memory Motel; Brian Jones plays autoharp on You Got the Silver (only unusual considering the fact that he was pretty much a non-entity by this point); Pete Townshend contributes to background vocals on Slave; and so on.

Of the more than 400 songs the Stones have written and recorded, there are 3 near constants on all of them: 1) “Mick Jagger on vocals”, 2) “Keith Richards on guitar”, and 3) “Charlie Watts on drums”.  And of these three, it’s probably Watts who is the most consistent:  Where Keith and Mick may hit the 97 percentile of Stones songs in their primary roles, with Charlie it’s more like 99.9%.  For all intents and purposes, that’s every Rolling Stones song over a 50 year time span.  That’s a lot of drumming.

Keith Richards has never been one to throw praise around lightly, but when it comes to the topic of his drummer, he is effusive.  How much does Keith Richards value Charlie Watts?  One measure was expressed just this year, the official 50th Anniversary year for the Rolling Stones.  That is….official for most of us.  According to Richards, though, the Stones were not the Stones until Mr. Watts joined them in early 1963.  And so, the master of the guitar riff will be holding off his celebration until 2013.

Charlie Watts:  Such a non-Rocker is the way he’s always come across to me.  Even the name “Charlie”…. it just doesn’t have that Rock ‘n’ Roll feel to it.  “Ozzie”, “Ringo”, “Jimmy”, “Janis”, “Sid”, “Jerry”, “Ronnie”…even “Mick” and “Keith”…. but “Charlie”?  It fits him though.  Mr. Watts is one of the great anomalies of Rock history.  Where the rest of the Stones have floated around him for half a century in full rock regalia, Charlie sits stoically at his drum kit, looking like he has the chills most of the time, wearing out-of-context tee shirts, out-of-trend haircuts, and detached demeanor:  All of it unorthodox for a Rock musician.  He’s more of a Jazz/Big Band type guy (Nancy and I saw the “Charlie Watts Orchestra” perform at the Channel back in the late 80s, where he looked more natural in his surroundings).  How the band has been able to keep him on board for all this time is one of the more fascinating mysteries of the Rolling Stones long saga.  As such, I’ve invariably seen him as a gage of sorts.  In other words, if it’s good enough for Charlie Watts it’s good enough for me.

Above all else, Charlie Watts epitomizes the definition of reliability.  He comes across as the type that is there for his band mates through thick and thin, forever ready to lay down the back beat.  This is what Keith Richards - a classic bohemian type prone to erratic late night moments of inspiration - values so much about the man.  It’s why half the time on stage, Richards is not looking at the crowds, but rather looking at Watts with a shit-eating grind on his face, and in doing so, setting up a chain reaction of glee; starting with the crowd and ending with the guy on the stool.

Reliability:  I’ve had my share of experience with it too, having been surrounded by many friends and family over the years that are quite good at it themselves.  Of all these very reliable connections, my close friend Mac is right there at the top of the list.  I could leave it there, but that wouldn’t be any fun, would it?  What the heck:  Might as well do a bit of reminiscing…

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Mac and I did not start off on the right foot.  When my family moved into the old neighborhood on Martin Ave in Franklin as I entered 1st grade, he was hanging out with some tough characters, including a crowd of Garfield Street ruffians on the other side of the Franklin version of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Sneakers were tossed on roof tops. Toys were strewn across fields.  Pickup baseball games were interrupted.  Middle fingers were pointed upward.  Large sticks were waved about.  Friends were poked fun at.  Parents were alerted to mischief of one kind or another. 

It took some time, but eventually Mac came around, joining up with the good guys by middle school or so.  For years I thought this was based on some amazing insight on his part.  Only recently did I find out the truth…. Mac was kicked off of Garfield Street for what remain undisclosed transgressions.  He had no choice but to hang with us.  Way to burst my bubble good buddy!  Anyhow, none of us were really out of the woods yet.  In fact, the abuse probably picked up a few notches around this time:  Mac’s proximity to us and familiarity with our faults gave him much more ammo.  In hindsight, this eventually gave me more ability to defend myself in many situations later in life.  At the time though it could often be grating on the nerves.  Why?  Because Mac is about as sharp-witted as they come.

But the Master made up for it all when just the two of us were hanging; when there was no chance for faction-driven taunting within the crew (which had you on the giving end one night and the receiving end another).  These were really the moments when our friendship grew.  Comic book collecting, aforementioned visits to Humarock, playing our own ‘card’ on NFL Sundays (quarter bet each game), roaming the halls at Dean Junior College, pinball at Newberry’s Department Store, and of course, eventually discovering a very similar taste in music (one of our greatest of pastimes).

It was probably around my junior year that I knew Mac would be a friend for life.  Years later he would finally admit to me that it was he (along with Phil) who sent the telegram stating: “Your performance at Oskey was moronically asinine.  If it continues we will take action”.  This in reference to my jaw-cracking take on the tune ‘Popcorn’ at the Franklin High School Variety Show.  I should never have given my initial hunch a second thought:  Only a good friend can keep you on your toes with a prank like that.

While in college, we kept in touch.  In 1982, when I was going to school in Canada, Bob and I made the drive down to St. Michaels in Winooski Vermont to visit Mac during a long weekend.  It was a great visit for me.  Bob didn’t know what to make of Mac at the time, though they would eventually develop a tremendous friendship.  My point here:  College and distance were no longer obstacles; they were opportunities for new experiences and adventures.  From that point on, this was the prism through which we would view that reality.  ‘On the Road’ was no longer abstract to us.

Mac has been there for it all.  Ok, maybe not all of it, as despite the rumors he was not there on the Eifel Tower with Nancy and I…though he was only a few blocks away (just that once I decided to use my ‘Mac repellent’, a gift from Fred and Kip on the eve of our trip to Europe and Bob’s wedding in the summer of ’89).   But Mac has been there for just about everything else:  Zurich, Brussels, Mainguy Island, the biggest and best of concert events, Ottawa, Montreal, more Steeves weddings than any non-relative, New York City, Amsterdam, Lake Street, Boston, Chicago, Banff, Jasper, Burlington Vermont, Quebec City, Harvard Square.  The list goes on. 

This is what I mean by Mac’s reliability.  I can’t recall him even once declining an offer to do something potentially momentous.  Even I can’t make that claim.  And Mac’s reliability comes with honesty, integrity, and generosity.  There’s not much more you can ask for in a friend.

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Of all musical instruments, I believe the human element can come out of the drums best.  There is such strong contrast between a synthesized drum track and a good drummer. 

There are so many songs to select from in Charlie Watts’ catalog, but I choose Tumbling Dice ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6U8JlcB_BzA ) for this week’s Stepping Stone.  Watts and his tumbling, rumbling dice, are indeed the Stones most human of elements – and that’s saying a lot.  It all comes across beautifully in this song.  Tumbling Dice is also my choice because it is well known that ‘Exile on Main St.’ was not the most pleasant of experiences for any/all parties involved.  There were many nights when things were going nowhere in the dingy, dimly lit, Ventilator Blues of a basement in NellcĂ´te (but oh, that sound).  Amazing patience was needed to deal with the late night sessions, many of which ended in chaos.  Keith Richards credits Charlie, and only Charlie, for sticking it out (along with producer Jimmy Miller).  Some nights the three of them were rolling ‘sixes and sevens and nines’.  The frustration in the air must have been thick.  But other nights it was nothing but snake eyes! 

Looking back to my own experiences, those snake eye days and nights can make up for all the others.  When you have reliability in your life, you learn to ride it out.

-          Pete

Thursday, September 6, 2012

(36th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Fame vs Anonymity"

Song: Fingerprint File
Album: It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll
Released: October, 1974

In the 1973 Sam Peckinpah movie ‘Pat Garret and Billy the Kid’, the wild-west atmosphere is paced by Bob Dylan’s excellent score, including one of the all-time classic Rock songs, Knockin on Heaven’s Door, which is unveiled during a dramatic moment in the film:  The sheriff, played by Slim Pickens, dying in his wife’s arms from a gunshot wound.  Dylan had done it again; interpreted a mood in song.  And his already vast catalog would now be supplemented to include a soundtrack. 

Of lesser known fact, even to those who watched, was Dylan’s acting in the movie; he playing a bit part as the character ‘Anonymous’.  It’s been some time since I watched ‘Pat Garret and Billy the Kid’, but from what I remember, Dylan’s character was aptly named:  There, but not really there; unaccountable for the most part, appearing to simply want to survive in a world of near lawlessness. 

‘Anonymous’ was very likely Bob Dylan’s dream role at that point in his career, because back in the early 70s the master songwriter of his time was trying to find a way out from under the weight of fame; a near impossible task as it turned out.  Dylan’s anxieties were caused not so much by self-destruction, superficiality, or Paparazzi - factors which have unraveled others who were thrust on a pedestal - as by hangers-on types.  I came to understand this after reading his autobiography ‘Chronicles: Volume One’.  Dylan was being hounded by over-zealot fans.  His privacy was being invaded.  He was becoming a prisoner of his own success.

Bob Dylan has not been the only rocker to struggle with the perils of fame.  John Lennon retreated to his Dakota apartment in New York City for 5 years in the mid to late 70s to be a ‘house husband’ and get away from it all.  Fellow Beatle George would turn to religion (as would Dylan a few years after ‘Billy’). In fact, the effects of stardom on Harrison would end up being even more pronounced than that on his longtime band mate, as he would develop an intense stage fright in his post-Beatle years.  Stage fright would also overcome Linda Thompson.  For others, including Brian Wilson and Syd Barret, the retreat from fame would play out in their mental stability.  For still others, including Hendrix, Joplin, and Cobain the results would be - young - life ending. 

Stardom is not for the faint of heart.  In all likelihood, it’s probably not for the heart at all.  David Bowie may have said it best in his song Fame with the line:  Fame (fame) puts you there where things are hollow”.  Not that the rest of us have not been there at one time or another, but with fame, I am sure you have to ward off the hollowness far more often….or be immersed in it. 

For the Rolling Stones, that immersion came perilously close to happening in the mid-70s, and it would take several unrelated outside forces, namely the Punk movement and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, to reverse that course before it got too deep.

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I suppose most of us aspire to be famous when we are young.  Though I can’t recall any specific ambitions in this regard, I do know I pondered the thought some.  If anything, it was ‘Rock Star’ that sounded most enticing to me.  I liked the idea of connecting with the masses, but only in a rebellious sort of way; my terms and no one else’s.  Songwriting; yeah, I could do that, but only in the way that someone like Pete Townshend did it:  Brutally honest, open, and truthful.  And if it were sometimes agonizing to do so, then so be it.  Thankfully, I found a better, more under-the-radar type of career to challenge myself in.  Rock fandom would end up being close enough to that ever-precarious rock-world flame for me.

And so, Rock fan it was.  And from this perspective, I can vouch for the fact that the Rock world of the era was extremely interesting to a teenager growing up in the 70s.  First off, big money was just entering the picture, as entrepreneurs were discovering the monetary value of the modern music world, be it in record sales, concert promotion, or related marketing.  This would lead to more creative advertising, in depth writing, multi-faceted record releases, and immense concerts. Money would also challenge the musicians, revealing a deeper sincerity and integrity, or lack thereof, in those who made it to the big time.  It was all fascinating to this then-young mind.

Secondly, being a highly successful venture by this time, Rock was now developing new spinoff genres from glam to punk to new wave.  This variety expanded the fan base, no longer allowing establishment types to simply relegate Rock as the world of hippies, groupies and bikers.  Rock music had now connected with virtually the entire cross section of high school and college personality types.  And these spinoffs were far more uniting than divisive: Even if you barely knew someone your age, there was always the topic of music to talk about.

Most interesting though was seeing how the musicians of the 60s dealt with longevity in this evolving world they started.  For it was not only money that was putting new pressures on them; it was how they responded to 1) the new kids on the block, 2) multi-album contracts, and 3) the ability to show you had staying power, among other things.  Many dropped out or faded away.  Others sold out, trying whatever they could to stay in the limelight.  Far fewer still survived on their own merits. 

Possibly the most intriguing story of them in all in the 70s was that of the Rolling Stones.  In terms of creativity, the Stones rolled smoothly into the decade, releasing some of their most amazing albums during this “Imperial” period in their history, including 68’s ‘Beggars Banquet’, 69’s ‘Let it Bleed’, 71’s ‘Sticky Fingers’ and 72’s ‘Exile on Main St.’.  You could say that a streak like that had to end at some time.  And it did.  1973’s ‘Goats Head Soup’, though having its share of highlights, was a bit of a slip, and so was its follow up, 74’s ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’.  Both albums have their fan base, including myself, but few of those fans would debate that these 2 albums have measured up to their precursors.  Something lacked…. at least from lofty-Stones standards.  Why?

Well, this takes me back to that fame thing.  If there was any stretch of time where the Stones were struggling with the effects of stardom, it was the mid-70s.  Who knows where it would have gone if it were allowed to continue.  But as mentioned earlier, there were outside forces at work.  The first of these was the Punk scene.  Punk challenged the Stones: Big Time. Even more than that though, a significant element of the scene shunned them.  “Is this what a long-time Rocker becomes?  Gaudy!” (as portrayed on their self-centered ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll’ album cover).  “Long winded!” (most of the songs on the album were verrrrry long).  “A parody of themselves!” (the distinction between tabloid and reality was slimmer than ever).  It all reeked of jet-setting hubris.  The punks wanted to have nothing to do with it.  If this was what happened to you down the road, then they were breaking off the marriage. 

The Stones begrudgingly listened.  They may never admit it.  But they did.  It took a little while, but 1977’s ‘Some Girls’ is evidence of it.  The Stones had not simply been snapped out of their ‘bloated Elvis’ period; they’d been slapped out.  Slapped Silly!  The punks had done their job.

There was one piece of the puzzle still to take care of, however, and I suppose we can thank the Royal Canadian Mounted Police for setting those wheels in motion.  Keith Richards was a junky in the late 70’s, pure and simple.  The Canadians put a scare into Richards; arresting him on the road for possession, throwing him in jail, and seriously threatening a prolonged incarceration.  This threat would soon end Keith’s addiction and in the process have the unintended consequence of ending the Stones “on the run” period, allowing them to settle down for the first time in a decade by the late 70s and get work done, at their pace, and without looking over their shoulders.

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No one knows for sure (other than Jagger/Richards) whether this week’s Stepping Stone, Fingerprint File ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GFNiSjN4BBY ) is a nod to John Lennon’s early 70s struggles with FBI wiretapping (a truism, unveiled years later by the FBI themselves).  It could just as easily be about Keith Richards and the day and night drug-related British Bobby surveillance he was up against during that time as well.  Either way, it was all part of the trappings of Rock ‘n’ Roll fame back in the 70s.  Take these lyrics:

“Some little jerk in the FBI. 
Keeping papers on me, six feet high”

To me, the song reveals how big Rock was getting at the time.  Yes, the powers that be were taking it all quite seriously now.  These musicians were influencing a generation.  And there were some who believed that a lid had to be put on it.  I give credit to those who felt that adversity and yet stuck it out, whether in the continuing integrity of their songwriting or on the road, which I am sure included locations which were not the friendliest of places to be for a long hair.

Fingerprint File sounds like a Curtis Mayfield song.  The Rolling Stones had once again morphed; connecting with, and even advancing a musical style.  Mick Jagger does a great job on the proverbial imaginary phone near the end of the song, bouncing back and forth between relaxing conversation with a female friend and ….paranoia. 

Bob Dylan expressed that same emotion in ‘Chronicles: Volume 1’, as he wrote about the legions of crazed hanger-on types who stormed his Woodstock property, eventually driving him out of town. Dylan’s one unfulfilled wish for himself was that he could just be a common man.  For all of us who never attained the opposite, it’s a very profound testament to absorb.

-          Pete