I’m currently in the early chapters of reading a biography of Mick Jagger, not because I think there’s anything new left to learn, but because it’s a story I never get tired of revisiting. Jagger’s decades-long-and-counting notoriety has always been fueled by sex, as much if not more so than music. He’s had an awful lot of women saying ‘yeah’ to him, often without even being asked. Unlike a lot of rockers, Mick Jagger didn’t suddenly start attracting women because he was famous; he became famous because he was already irresistible to women. Girls followed Jagger home from school when he was a kid, they followed him when he was a nobody blues singer without two shillings to rub together, and The Rolling Stones shot to fame because a handful of girls grew to hundreds to hundreds of thousands to millions. If many of the Stones’ songs are sexually crass – and a great many of them are – at least they come by it honestly. If they’re sexist – and a great many of them are – it’s not the bitter sexism of desperately insecure twerps whose ego depends on capturing and locking down a female trophy. It’s the cavalier attitude of a real Casanova, a man for whom trophies mean nothing, who doesn’t quite understand jealousy or commitment, who doesn’t want or need to lock anyone down and resents the pressure to settle down himself. If he doesn’t put the ladies on a pedestal or see them as particularly valuable, it’s because they’ve always delivered themselves to his door and he doesn’t see what the big deal is. John Lennon wrote about stalking and killing women who rejected him; Mick Jagger always did the opposite.
The irony is heavy in the title of this one. This is a woman who plainly does no such thing as belonging to anyone. Maybe in your dreams, Bob. No conversation about songs about…well, anything… would be complete without Bob Dylan in it. In this case, it’s songs that seared themselves into my little half-baked child mind and became cornerstones of my future identity. (We’re also ostensibly discussing songs about women, which dovetails neatly.) Between this and the Velvet Underground’s Femme Fatale, I pictured in detail the woman I wanted to be, or maybe I recognized the person I already was and felt validated. “She’s got everything she needs, she’s an artist, she don’t look back” sang Dylan “She never stumbles, she’s got no place to fall.” She’s the ultimate muse because she’s got no interest in being any muse at all. She’s so radically self-contained that great men have no choice but to write songs about her, knowing that they’ll never really have her and she’ll never really need them. I’m an artist too, I get it. I know what inspiration feels like. Inspiration comes from wanting someone you can’t really ever have, or maybe you have them for a minute but they’re already halfway out the door even when they’re right beside you and you both know it. Artists write and paint and compose about the muse because the muse is unknowable. The muse is compelling because she (or he or they) is incapable of seeing the artist the way the artists sees her. If she needed him as much as he needs her, she wouldn’t be a muse, she would just be another needy person. Needy people reveal themselves, they open themselves up, they want to be known and seen and understood, they’re looking for someone to complete them, they’re ready to compromise and communicate and to be vulnerable and to sacrifice pieces of themselves in order to feed the union, and in that they are boring. They’re the wives and husbands who do the right thing and stay and forgive and do the work of making it work and lose their own identity behind an ampersand. They’re suckers. Nobody writes songs about those people. Songs are written about the ones who walk away and remain themselves.
(Because of copyright reasons, this is a cover by the Tom Tom Club)
Here is Donovan with an educational history lesson, which, if you don’t live in Texas, you may be needing. Living in Texas for nearly a decade, I really should know more about this Alamo thing that we have. Apparently it was a very epic historical event that Texans really have a hard-on about remembering. Something about taking Mexico away from the Mexicans so Texan-Americans can be free? Honestly, the more I live here the more I don’t give a shit. However, the Battle of the Alamo has retained a strong mystique in the public imagination. It has an undeniable storytelling appeal, and who doesn’t love a tale of desperate courage in the face of inevitable defeat? It’s inspired its better-than-fair share of songs, and books, and movies, and stage names, and dumb-looking hats etc. All of which vary wildly in their degree of truthiness. But history is not about what happened, it’s about teaching a good lesson, and telling a rip-roaring good story. So we keep telling the story about those brave good old boys defending their miserable garrison in the name of Freedom™ as an example of the good old American can-do spirit, even though the broader context may be a little bit hazy. Texas wasn’t even a member of the United States at the time, and lemme tell you, Texans are inordinately proud of their short-live little republic, even though or maybe because half of it was requisitioned from Mexico at the cost of great bloodletting. I’m frankly a little confused as to why Texians defending their right to be a sovereign republic that is not a part of the United States of America is such a beloved example of American patriotism, but the complexities of history bore me, and the concept of patriotism is a very difficult one for me to grasp, and it seems like all it comes down to is that the tale is a fun one to tell.
This is Bob Dylan at the height of his lyrical cryptid phase. I honestly think that trying to parse Dylan’s lyrics is pointless and detracts from just enjoying the wordplay and the music, but I realize that for some people it’s a sport. I think Dylan just liked to use a lot of words. You should try to just feel the emotion of the song and not think too hard about what it ‘means’. Because this is a conversation that’s been going on for decades and it’s gotten boring. Also, I quite like this particular take of the song; it’s less…screechy?
My first thought was, wow, I haven’t listened to this gem in so long. Second thought; wow, nobody writes a put-down like Bob Dylan. I know Dylan has a reputation for being grumpy, or catty, or whatever you wanna call it, and his diss tracks are notorious, but what really makes it brilliant is that he never stoops to just putting someone down. He rolls out an entire thesis of what’s wrong with that person and why. And even on his most famous ‘insult songs’ he’s not without sympathy. Some of those songs are obviously romantic goodbyes, but I don’t think that’s what this one is. I think it’s just about one of those situations where you used to be friends with someone but you’re not friends anymore, for whatever reason. Obviously, we have no way of knowing that for sure, or who the target may actually be, if there even is one. That only makes it more interesting and more relevant, though.
Don’t play with Mick Jagger, young upper-class girls. He will wreck your life. Because he’s a bad, bad boy. Of course Jagger was never quite the ruffian he made himself out to be, and as with most people, his alleged contempt for the upper class was actually a poorly veiled desire to join it. Which he in due time he did, knighthood and all. In the early years, though, The Rolling Stones got a lot of songwriting traction from the discovery that wealthy people’s lives are just as shitty and dysfunctional as theirs, but also wrapped in a pretty package of hypocrisy. Being a celebrity made Mick Jagger an irresistible target for slumming rich girls, which, at the very least, afforded great writing opportunities. It’s always a bit of a shock to find that so many of the moneyed cool kids you’d been envying from afar are actually miserable trainwrecks who hate their lives. And many of them want to distract themselves from their problems by sleeping with common people, a phenomenon that the Stones documented many years before Jarvis Cocker discovered the same thing. Though some of the songs Jagger wrote about the not-so-cool-after-all girls he encountered on the cool scene were quite vicious, many were actually sympathetic. Some managed to be both. This one is rather rueful in tone; the singer is almost apologetic that he can’t offer any real escape from a pitiful life in a gilded cage. But also it’s not his problem, so don’t expect anything but trouble.
The Rolling Stones vs. Otis Redding. Which one do you like better? On one hand The Stones’ version has that raw garage band oomph that made their earliest recordings the precursors of punk. On the other hand, they were really wet behind the ears and had no grasp of nuance, whereas Redding was a master vocalist working with Motown’s finest professionals. Redding’s emotional gravitas is clearly head and shoulders above anything Mick Jagger could muster. Redding could give the simplest song real pain and soul. What the Stones offered was their glamour, not so much artful music but an invitation to a whole new way of being. But why choose? A great song can serve many purposes depending on who plays it and how. A Rolling Stones record and an Otis Redding record exist to fill different needs, and the same song can become, essentially, two different songs.