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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

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