Saturday, October 13, 2012

(41st in a series of) Stepping Stones: "The Ties that Bind"

Song: Oh No, Not You Again
Album: A Bigger Bang
Released: September, 2005

My first expanded listen to ‘A Bigger Bang’ for this series resulted in Stepping Stone # 18 back in May (Laugh, I Nearly Died).  That entry followed on the heels of a week of enlightenment listening heavily to ‘Exile on Main St’ on a drive to a USGS meeting in Pennsylvania.  Seeing as ‘A Bigger Bang’, the Stones most recent major effort of original material, is the only other double studio album in their repertoire, I noted near the end of the entry the unfairness of not being able to give it the full attention it deserved while promising to return to it again when the time was right.  This week’s long drive to yet another meeting in Pennsylvania gave me that opportunity, and I added a few extra days beyond my typical deadline of Thursday nights for good effect.

The revisit was just what the doctor ordered, confirming my longstanding belief that this is a solid album through and through.  Similar to ‘Exile on Main St’, there are no big hits to speak of.  Yet, also like ‘Exile’, there are no weak links.   I’ll stop the comparisons there, but I will grant this to ‘A Bigger Bang’:  If it had been released back in the mid-70s, the album’s title would have been a bit more apropos.  There’s no attempt to connect with trends.  No, this is all about digging deeper. I’m willing to bet the Stones must have realized what they were up against though when they tackled this project:  Long-time listeners of the band were well into middle age, and in general it could be stated that a bit of apathy had set in for a fair percentage of us in relation to their new music.  Because of this, ‘A Bigger Bang’ likely has the largest gap of any Stones album between our insights of it and what it truly delivers.  Being underrated is one thing; combine it with many years of water under the bridge, and you get a disc that has clearly slipped under the radar.

I love how ‘A Bigger Bang’ starts out:  The first notes of Rough Justice (which came a close second to this week’s Stepping Stone) give the impression of a band wandering in from the cold.  Indeed, it had been 8 long years since the release of their prior studio album, ‘Bridges to Babylon’.  But in no time the Stones lock in, not only for Rough Justice, but for every song thereafter.  In other words, what follows is a series of very good to great tunes.  Several of the best include Rain Fall Down, She Saw Me Coming, Look What the Cat Dragged In, and Laugh, I Nearly Died. Each song is unique, powerful, and a bit eccentric …just like the good old days!

Tucked in the middle of the album is Oh No, Not You Again ( ):  A great, hard rocking tongue-in-cheek song.  The title is in-itself hilarious and is something Charlie Watt’s jokingly referred to when reconnecting with his longtime band mates for a post album tour in 2006 (which I attended along with Mac, Amy and Paul at Fenway Park).  Watt’s remark was funny to me because, being in the public eye for so long, he and his band mates were symbolic to many of us as having been through so much together, both high and low, which in many ways is a uniquely gratifying position to be in.  How would I know this?  Well, I’ve lived it myself with some of the longest running friendships a person could have.

I had all this in the back of my mind last Monday while driving down to the Delaware Water Gap and listening to Oh No, Not You Again and the rest of ‘A Bigger Bang’.  There was one major reason for making a connection with the concept of long-standing friendships as this week’s topic:  I had spent the weekend before camping in Vermont with Phil, John, and Pete; 3 guys I’ve known since sandbox days.

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The entire Blob Squad was invited to go camping in Southern Vermont this past long weekend.  As fate would have it though, only the longest-standing connections of this crew made it (along with my family and close friends Madeline and Jeff and their family).  I’ve been friends with Phil, John and Pete for quite some time.  I’ll try to put this into perspective:

Ø  Lyndon Baines Johnson was President when I first connected with Pete (that’s 9 Presidents ago), and it was the early years of the Nixon Administration when the same happened with Phil and John.
Ø  The Rolling Stones had not yet released ‘Let It Bleed’
Ø  The Beatles were still a band
Ø  Bobby Orr had not yet taken flown through the air at the hands (and stick) of Noel Picard
Ø  Vietnam was in the news for all the wrong reasons
Ø  There was no such thing as Punk Music, the Vancouver Canucks, the pocket calculator, Disco, Star Wars, the Muppets, or Saturday Night Live
Ø  There was not yet a proliferation of indoor shopping malls (the closest thing to them was the semi-enclosed Shoppers’ World in Framingham).
Ø  Burger King, Dunkin Donuts and 7-Eleven were closer to “Mom and Pop” than “Super Chain”
Ø  Franklin could still be considered a backwoods community

It’s funny the things you can reminisce on when you are 50 and connecting with guys you’ve been friends with since the age of 5.  First off, the inside jokes cover the gambit of life and can at times be extremely inside.  Inquisitive looks come from all directions, so if you are not in a position to explain something (often due to the bizarreness of the story behind it), you have to find a way to put a lid on it…at least until the crowds have thinned out a bit.  Secondly, it’s interesting what happens at our current age:  Any veneer of a front that may have existed in the past is practically gone.  There’s much more of an open book policy, which adds new angles to the reminiscing that may have not existed before.  As a result, black holes of misunderstandings have a chance to be filled in based on more clairvoyance. 

One of the most important aspects of longtime friendships that I connected with this past weekend, however, was coming to a better realization of the incredible value to how old friends keep you grounded.  It’s nothing like connections you make later in life, be they work, town, neighborhood, or even college related.  Your childhood friends really know your past:  Warts and all.   One story drawn out of me this week from the earliest days of 1st grade, was when Sister Marie Saint Michael had the class take their crayons out of their original packaging and toss the emptied package into the trash barrel that was being brought around from desk to desk.  I missed the part about taking the crayons out first, and though confused, through the entire package in the barrel.  When we were then directed to use our red crayon, I had nothing to work with, and began to get flustered.  The good Sister spotted me in my anguish and kind-naturedly had the class help me dig out my crayons from the barrel.  To this day, Phil notices that occasional lapse that can come with my decision-making process:  His smirks can take us both back 45 years. 

I believe most long-standing friendships, like ours, are roller coaster rides: They go up, they go down.  They expand and contract.  Let’s face it; the chance of having a buddy that shares all your personality traits and interests is rare.  And so over the years the bonds tighten and loosen.  Yes, it’s a variable history with these old friends I hang out with; rustling leaves, swaying branches, twisted trunk…but strong at the roots:  I wouldn’t trade it for anything.  Still there are occasions when “Oh No, Not You Again” seeps into your thoughts.  I kidded with Phil in one open wound moment this weekend (he questioning my sense of direction, which is about as under the belt and misguided as it gets for me), inquiring if he had heard anything about friendships having a shelf life.  I’m sure the Stones have tossed this thought around at one time or another.  Heck, they not only have a long-standing friendship; they also have a longstanding professional partnership.  Strains are bound to happen in such a relationship. 

The commonality of old ties: One of the many reasons I connect with the music of the Rolling Stones.

-          Pete

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