November-December 2014 … The Global Online Magazine of Arts, Information & Entertainment … Volume 10, Number 6
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Stones Not Over Yet/Music

Rolling Stones 50 Years:

Time is Forever on Our Side.

by Eric Schafer

Rolling Stones at 50. Time is on my side. Absolutely goddamn right. Know why? Oh, by the way it is not “The Rolling Stones,” it’s “Rolling Stones,” as it was in the beginning, on the first day that co-founder Brian Jones thunk it up in a jumping jack flash when a writer for Jazz News – ‘cause nobody covered rock ‘n’ roll back then, it was only jazz that was taken seriously, and blues and R & B were considered bastardizing of jazz – and the band, which began as Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, a great name but Rolling Stones beats it, asked what was the name of the band, and Jones glanced – wisely – at a Muddy Waters album and that was that, but over five decades people forgot – more likely got lazy – and assumed the name was like every other plural thing in the English language and added the “The.” “The Rolling Stones.” You even see it on their album covers sometimes. “The Rolling Stones” right there on the cover. But many times it’s “Rolling Stones,” as it should be; and on either type one can often find simply “Rolling Stones” on the spine of the album. Look at their record company – it’s not “The Rolling Stones Records” but “Rolling Stones Records.” Got it? Rolling Stones, like Pink Floyd or Pearl Jam. Though someone used to call them “The Pink Floyd.” Isn’t that fall-on-your-ass laughable? The Pink Floyd. Can you imagine “The Pearl Jam”? “The Metallica”?

Time is on their side. Rolling Stones are 50 years old. No, 50 years in. So what? Years don’t matter in rock ‘n’ roll, especially for Stones, the greatest non-progressive rock band that ever existed. They make time stop, they keep you young forever – this is a good thing – because before rock ‘n’ roll, people slowed down at 30 and had nothing more to say; they were old at 40 and dead though still breathing at 50. Rock ‘n’ roll does not exist in time. It’s always the same time, so there is no sense in marking this anniversary… especially since they’ve only released a single album of new material in the last 15 years. Rolling Stones are not 50, they are the same they were in 1962; they are timeless because they’re so simple. They began playing covers and then writing imitations of American country blues, R & B (when it still was R & B), country, and rock ‘n’ roll because that is the music that Mick and Keith and Brian loved, and Charlie loved jazz – which Americans also invented – and Bill went along for the gig. And to this day, not a single fucking thing has changed. They have not grown or “progressed” in the least. They were never as good as the Beatles, Kinks or Who in terms of creativity or musicianship; they are still playing covers and writing imitations of American country blues, R & B, country, and rock ‘n’ roll. Discovered and directed by Andrew Loog Oldham when he was 19 – younger than the band! – read his fascinating books, Stoned and 2Stoned, all about Swinging London and youth culture and Rolling Stones. So what that Jagger couldn’t sing and they often hit bum notes? What was great about Stones was their panache and the astonishing growth Jagger and Richards made as songwriters. In 1963 they were recording with no thought of writing songs; Oldham pushed Jagger/Richards together and by 1965 they were changing the world – “The Last Time,” “Get Off My Cloud,” “Satisfaction.” These songs are timeless. Charlie keeps time perfectly, so perhaps he’s the one counting. But it doesn’t matter.

Speaking of timeless, they recorded an awful lot of songs about time. Not the first, but the most notable was the scathing cover of Jerry Ragavoy’s “Time is on My Side,” slowed down and tarted up, the best version being the difficult to find guitar-dominated one – most folks are only familiar with the one featuring the church organ – this was the first time they really got global attention, with that bluesy picked guitar rubbing your face in it and that smartass little fucker out front yodeling the words. Before that was the raucous cover of the Womacks’ “It’s All Over Now,” and then Mick and Keith’s “Good Times, Bad Times,” “The Last Time,” the unjustly overlooked “Out of Time,” and then “Long Long While,” “2000 Light Years From Home,” “100 Years Ago,” the covers of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long,” and Sam Cooke’s “Good Times.” And of course “Goodbye Ruby Tuesday Who Could Ever Hang a Name on You?” They’ve covered the time thing, and it don’t matter now. They are as they were the day when childhood friends then separated for a dozen years little boy blue Michael Jagger London School of Economics student with a bunch of precious sent away for in the mail American blues records tucked under his arm bumped into Keith Richards art school student on the train platform and someone said, “Eh, what you been up to?”

“Well… this.”

Been up to it ever since. But don’t count years, days, numbers. Doesn’t matter. They’ve been doing the same thing ever since that day, so they are that day, this is that day. When they began, the single was still the métier of rock ‘n’ roll, even though the Beatles were already showing the importance of the album, but the single has always been Rolling Stones’ modus operandi. The single, the tiniest of records, solid gold and a nuclear bomb contained in the smallest of packages, a couple inches of vinyl in a glossy paper sleeve, one song per side, the A-side the chart-topper, the mind-expander, the bomb that changed your life, the punch in the face to society, anyone could afford to buy it, my big sister had boxes full of them; the B-side often some throwaway but occasionally a gem in itself. Stones singles, killers, hot rocks, diamonds cutting against the grain – “Come On,” “I Wanna Be Your Man,” “Not Fade Away,” “It’s All Over Now,” “Little Red Rooster,” “The Last Time,” “Satisfaction,” “Gerroff Me Fuckin’ Cloud,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Paint It, Black,” “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?” (standing in your mother’s dress) “Let’s Spend The Night Together,” “We Love You,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Brown Sugar,” “Tumbling Dice” – statements of arrogance and flash, lurid fornication and impudence, brag and sneer, greasy hair and pimples, heroin and heroines but no heroes. Get it in all its glory, the collections Hot Rocks or Singles: The London Years, forget the albums, they’ve only ever made one great album, Rolling Stones Exiled off Main Street.

 

 

Single or album track, throughout them all there is a single constant – Keith Richards’ riffs. Beyond musical, there is threat in those riffs, menace in “The Last Time,” sex in “Satisfaction,” fear in “Gimme Shelter,” exultation in “Jumping Jack Flash,” riot and revolution in the Euro police siren wail of “Street Fighting Man,” the mind-bending rhythm shifts in the live version of “Midnight Rambler.” That’s what hooks people deep and forever – the threat in those riffs, all coming from Keith’s ripping, crunchy, shreddy, off-rhythm rhythm Telecaster (go ahead, just try to play the opening riff of “Tumbling Dice” exactly like him – no one can match that rhythm). Keith is the band, no, Keith and Charlie are the band. Take them away and you do not have Rolling Stones. Even Terence Trent Darby stood in for Mick one night and was fabulous. I don’t give a winkle for Brian, Bill, Mick; the band is Keith and Charlie. There is the battle between Mick’s predilection for pop and dance and keeping the rhythm section under control and under volume, and Keith’s pure “I don’t give a fuck” rock ‘n’ roll sensibilities. They’ve stayed together but Keith’s solo albums were the best Stones albums of the last part of their career. I recorded some demos at Studio 900 on Broadway, where Keef and Steve Jordan would demo their songs that ended up on Talk is Cheap and Main Offender. Keef had just been there. The air reeked of riffs. I cut my finger on a riff. My drummer got motion sickness from a riff. Saw Keef and the X-Pensive Winos at the Beacon Gotham City February 23 ’93, their next to last show ever, opened with “Reelin’ and Rockin’” and I watched it with Joe Strummer beside me. Heaven.

Greasy hair, menacing riffs, storming singles and those mismatched clothes. That was rock ‘n’ roll British ‘60s style, the best. They weren’t the first band to not wear matching outfits – the Beatles had their suits and so did Stones – if only for a while – and the Kinks had their velvet and lace, it was the Who that was the first band to never have never worn matching clothes – but it was Stones that were the first established band to dispense with trying to look like they were a single organism. I’ll always remember being a little boy and discovering my brother-in-law’s Big Hits (High Tides and Green Grass) collection, those striking photographs of those horribly ugly guys in horrible clothes; he played me “Get Off My Cloud” and I made him play it a dozen more times. Suddenly those guys are beautiful. It’s a masterpiece, one of the classic 15 singles released in the 15 months of the great rock period from the summer of 1964 to the autumn of 1965 (I’m writing a book about this period; hands off the topic is mine). It comes in like a panzer attack and never lets up; listen to how Keith and Charlie match each other perfectly from start to finish. There is no better matching of two men playing together in the history of smash ‘n’ roll. It’s pure nastiness in the great Stones nastiness period – “Heart of Stone,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Play With Fire,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Under My Thumb” … but not really. They were just being upstarts. Mick wasn’t actually mocking someone suffering from mental illness, he was talking about himself, he’s long suffered from depression, and Stones were actually nice middle class boys who were trying to be working class – whereas the Beatles were working class boys who would only be accepted if they pretended to be middle class. They did what Oldham told them to do, and played at being bad, but it was still great. Oldham was brilliant, but didn’t have to present them as anti-Beatles. It’s not about competition. As my Theorem of Expanding Economic Fandom proves, if there is a great rock ‘n’ roll band and kids buy their records, and another great rock ‘n’ roll band comes along, the kids are not going to buy just one record by one of the two bands…they’re gonna buy two great records by both bands! That was another myth, that Beatles and Stones hated each other. They were buddies and got drunk and got laid together.

All the Beatles albums were great but the early Stones albums were filled largely with horrid fake R & B songs, icky pop, rejects from singles sessions. The album covers were great – early punk sneering, no Rolling Stones name, just the brilliant color photos. Finally, Aftermath was half good, Between the Buttons (U.K. version) was all good; Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed is overrated but still, it contains “Gimme Shelter,” one of the greatest songs ever written; Sticky Fingers, the underrated Black and Blue, Some Girls, the sadly overlooked summertime fun of Emotional Rescue, Voodoo Lounge, Bridges to Babylon are all good, some even great, but they’re not albums – they’re collections of songs. Only Exile was a true album and it’s a masterpiece which some to this day still don’t comprehend.

Exile is a masterpiece because it’s a double album. Double albums allow artists to stretch out, play music for themselves instead of for the charts. Everybody’s best albums are the doubles – Blonde on Dylan, The White Beatles, The Who’s Deaf Dumb and Blind Kid with Four Personalities, Clash Calling and Clashdinista!, Led Graffiti, Stones on Main Street. Because it was recorded in Keith’s basement while Mick was chasing Nicaraguan pussy, Keith had complete control before he succumbed to heroin for a decade and Mick never knew what hit him – and made sure it never happened again. Listen to it – notice that Keith sings beneath Mick on every track? That’s why it’s so good. And in 1972, no one cared about the charts so the songs were real.

The Double Albums are dead (another book I’m writing; hands off!) and Rock is dead (yet another book on the way) so the big thing about Rolling Stones is we shall not see their like ever again. That is the only significant thing about 50 years anniversary. As Rolling Stones and the Who, Dylan and Bruce age, with no one coming after them, an epoch is dying. There have been good bands since – Counting Crows, Pearl Jam, Green Day, Metallica, Public Welfare – but really, it’s dead. Pete Townshend said it in 1979, “I’m sure rock ‘n’ roll will prove to have been a fascinating era.” There he was, putting a finite end to it. Rock and roll will go on forever –  Bullshit!

The real hard-nosed stuff was done by the mid-70s and Woody left Faces to join Rolling Stones. I like Woody but so much of the character of his Faces guitar playing was subverted when he joined… They were still pumping out good solid rock ‘n’ roll but the Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band in the World as they were now billed? No. One could only believe that if you don’t listen seriously to any other band. Compare Stones’ 1971 Sticky Fingers to the Who’s 1971 Who’s next. The Who blow them away. Even Keith doesn’t think so, he said it best, “World’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band? No. On some nights, maybe, but no, we’re not.” Keith, always honest, always from the heart. He cares nothing for anything but playing guitar, pumping out riffs. No ego whatsoever. Arrested in Toronto in 1977 for possession of brown sugar, Keith: “Why didn’t they arrest someone important, like a mailman?”

Super Bowl 2006, Stones still managed to get censored twice in three songs – fantastic! Still doing their jobs! And my Vietnamese sister asked, “Is this the band of the magazine about music? I’m confused.” Apart from that, all she knows about rock ‘n’ roll is: “The guy with the round glasses that married the Asian girl.” But for me it was over just months later with the Shine a Light film recorded at the Beacon and they changed the words to “Some Girls” – no more “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night.” They’re worried about what people will think now? Over.

I live in Viet Nam and believe it or not, Rolling Stones are a great soundtrack for VN. I guess it’s the Delta thing… About a hundred singles, all the same, copying American music, great rhythmic riffing stuff. Fantastic singles band, which is what they wanted to be and is the essence of rock ‘n’ roll. They’ve never strayed from that. Sometimes they really got to you – “Gimme Shelter,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Street Fighting Man,” “Paint It Comma Black” but it was really about what it did to your gut, not your mind. They’re not 50 years old, they’ve just been doing it for 50 years, and we’re better for it. Thanks.

 

About the author:

Eric Schafer is a writer from New York who has spent most of the last decade in Viet Nam, writing books and advertising copy. He is the author of the short story collection The Wind Took It Away – Stories of Viet Nam, as well as two children’s books and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. A musician and formerly a music columnist with the Binghamton Press & Sun Bulletin, Schafer is an occasional contributor to  Ragazine.CC.