Saturday, December 1, 2012

(48th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "No Stone Left Unturned"

Song: Loving Cup
Album: Exile on Main St.
Released: May 1972

Welcome to the 48th and final installment of the Stepping Stone series.  Tacking on the two Rolling Stones-centric “Gem Videos” (GMVW # 41; Waiting on a Friend and GMVW # 83; Memory Motel, which are also on this blog) it all adds up to an even 50, meshing numerically with this the Stones’ Golden Anniversary year (now alas in full swing with the launch of their mini-tour > the first show in London earlier this week included cameos by Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor).  Though it was my aim from the beginning, fifty song reviews like these for one band was a high target to shoot for.  But the Stones have written and produced an amazing amount of music, so in actuality much was left on the table.  However, there are other great musicians knocking at the doors of my psyche and with the year 2012 winding down, it’s time to move on.

What an incredible introspective process this has been; examining the music of the Rolling Stones and its effect on my life.  I realize this band is not for everyone.  What band is?  For me, however, they are one of a handful of artists who I feel I know well enough to be able to do something like this.  Included on this short list would be those musicians of whom I’ve explored much of the breadth of their discographies over time; the ones who have breached that hard-to-define tipping point of quantity and quality.  Just about every one of the artists who I have had this deeper connection with got their start in the 60s.  Being a teenager in the 70s who listened to this stuff and who was influenced by it in ways far different than the contemporary fans of these 60’s musicians, I believe I have a story here that has not been told; at least to the degree that it should.  There is a long way to go, but I think this was a good start.

Why the Stones first?  Well, as discussed before, I felt I had to slip them under that invisible psychological line that is 50 years old, believing they were the musicians from my past whom I was least likely to connect with in my older years at the same level I did when younger.  Having crossed that half-century line several months back while in deep with their music, I may never know if this approach was necessary.  Better safe than sorry.  Still, the Rolling Stones make strange bedfellows for a person like me who looks to Rock and Roll not only for fun but also for conscience and morality. The Stones do have these elements in their repertoire, but they will never really be known for this in the way that other great bands will be remembered.   This band has honed an image that includes less-saintly, more unsavory qualities and they will have to live with that image. They’re the kids who ignored, even laughed at their elders.  They’re the kids who brag about their dalliances.  They’re the kids who took the candy from strangers, knowing full well the range of implications in doing so.  And yet, I’ve always been intrigued by free spirit types the likes of these dudes.  All in all, our generation was lucky to have the Rolling Stones.  They’ve showed us what happens if you stick to your rebel ways (particularly Keith Richards), even as you climb the ladder of success.  The album ‘Some Girls’ is a great example of this.  It was a dangerous and edgy album when it was released, and it came out 15 years into the Rolling Stones careers!  How many bands can make a claim like that? 

So, what did I get from a solid year of listening to the Rolling Stones that I did not already have?  Plenty.  For example, the double album ‘Exile on Main St.’ made the transition in my mind from very good to masterpiece.  Keith Richard’s climbed to higher rungs on my appreciation ladder.  I tapped into early deep cuts off of ‘Aftermath’ and ‘Out of Our Heads’.  I came to the realization that ‘Black and Blue’ is likely the Stones most underrated album.  I thoroughly enjoyed listening to She Was Hot and struggled to move on at the end of that week.  Same for Plundered My Soul and I Am Waiting:  All these songs deserve more credit than has been given them.  Midnight Rambler is a very twisted song indeed.  Mick Jagger is even smarter than I thought.  There are tinges of regret on ‘Goats Head Soup’.  ‘A Bigger Bang’ is worth a second listen.  The Stones just may have a concept album in their catalog after all in ‘Let it Bleed’.

Many of this band’s albums have extreme elements:  Insightful and heartfelt at one end of the spectrum; brazen and crude at the other.  For example, ‘Beggars Banquet’ unveils both Salt of the Earth and Stray Cat Blues.  ‘Goat’s Head Soup’ gives us 100 Years Ago, but it also gives us Star, Star (which is actually a far better song than I have ever been willing to admit).  ‘Some Girls’ contains the magnificent Miss You, but also the bordering-on-absurd title track. ‘Undercover’ contains the political Undercover of the Night and the macabre Tie You Up (The Pain of Love).  ‘Between the Buttons’ includes both She Smiles Sweetly and Backstreet Girl.  The list goes on.  Why do they do this?  I now know it’s most likely a Blues thing, which is where the Stones roots are and is something they have never forgotten. 

The Rolling Stones can be messy.  Not everything they release has worked.  From all accounts, they go into the studio with rough bits of music, and depending on the mood and other intangibles, things either coalesce or they don’t.  But like the scene in ‘Close Encounters’, that proverbial mound of mashed potatoes can be suddenly razed off at the top, and voila …an instant classic.  This band feeds off one another more so than most.  It is a very big reason why they are so successful.  The Stones are a perfect example of how the whole can dwarf the sum of its parts.  Spend long enough with people doing something everyone loves while keeping the passion alive inside yourself, and magical things can happen.

I could have considered solo songs from the individuals in this band, which I will do for other groups like the Who and the Beatles if I manage to get around to them.  But the Stones are unique in that they have been a continuous band now for 50 years.  The Beatles on the other hand only lasted 9 years.  The Who, as a creative studio band:  About 18 years.  There was so much to work with within the context of the Rolling Stones.  And so I did not stray, even if the band members have done so on occasion.  I believe the focus ultimately helped flesh out some of my thoughts that otherwise may not have come to light.

Mostly what I got out of this Stepping Stone process though was a stronger reconnection with my youth.  Shouldn’t this be a goal for all of us?  It can get easy to grow old; to become curmudgeon-like.  It sneaks up on you.  One way to stem the tide is to spur faded memories, and nothing achieves this quite the way music does.   Over the past year I flashed back to Joe’s ‘Some Girls’ tape; Fred’s ‘Hot Rocks’ album; Dad’s partial admission all those years ago to the quality of Mick Taylor’s guitar playing on Can’t You Hear Me Knocking; obtaining great concert tickets with Saiping; the skip on my old ‘Tattoo You’ album; Pete’s guidance when I purchased my first turntable; ‘The Mountain’ in my hometown; how I became friends with Mac; an old North Adams classmate who knew his Glimmer Twins; Mick Jagger’s brilliant performance of Sister Morphine in Foxboro;  those super-sized Honky Tonk Women; the effect that the older 60s siblings of several of my best friends had on my adolescent years; that amazing mini-stage and the cantilever bridge to it; my fellow Stones aficionados (Amy and Paul) and what fascinates them about this band;  an inspiring soul I worked for at the now defunct Welick’s Restaurant; the dogs who joined me on my old paper route; and the numerous Moonlight Mile drives I have experienced over my lifetime; among other memories.

This Stepping Stones series was a bit different from the original Gem Music Video of the Week (GMVW) series.  The Gem Videos had more of an emphasis on my appreciation for friends and family.  It was also more video-centric.  This time around I tried to be more balanced; I wanted to dig deeper into the music itself and see what it could bring out in me.   I wanted to see if it could help me explain my formidable years.  This exploration should not to be confused with delving into the personal lives Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood.  As if I could anyway (as Pete Townshend once wrote “Don’t pretend that you know me, ‘cause I don’t even know myself”).  Their lives are theirs….but their music is ours.  They sold it to us.  We can write about it without feeling like we are treading on private property.  Good music is uniquely interpretable to all of us anyhow.  I recommend contemplating and writing about the music you love.  You may be surprised what comes from it.

The closing Stepping Stone, Loving Cup ( ) is apropos, because it is the only Rolling Stones song that can have me closing my eyes as I listen.  I’ve imagined Mick Jagger doing the same thing as he sang the version of this song that appears on the ‘Exile on Main St.’ album.  It’s an exquisite, almost angelic song that exemplifies what a band can do when it’s clicking on all cylinders.   The entirety of Loving Cup is a non-stop highlight, but there are a few transcendent moments.  I love when the song transitions into chugging mode (1:15 mark of the attached url): One of many marks that can define a true band.  And the bridge is just magnificent:  That nitty, gritty, beautiful buzz.  Most great bands have that one signature tune they could hang their hat on; one great song that is enough to get the point across.  Loving Cup is that song for the Stones.  It’s got soul written all over it.

And so, I raise a glass to the Rolling Stones; the band that can be both elusive and embraceable at the same time.  I listened intently for a solid year….with gusto; and for a final week as if it were “The Last Time”. 

I hope I’ve left no Stone unturned. 

-          Pete

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