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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

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