The Rolling Stones recently made a blues album, their first straight-up blues album since the 60’s. The Stones can do their thing in their sleep at this point, so the question is not whether or not it’s a good album. The question is, once again, whether the Rolling Stones are the greatest living blues band or just a pastiche of one. Back in the day, when every other band was a blues band, the Stones were – arguably – the best of the bunch; now they’re among the last of their breed. The question remains, though: is it really the blues? If it’s a bunch of middle class white guys from the suburbs of London? What if it’s a bunch of elderly white guys who are richer than God? Can they achieve authenticity through sheer bloody-mindedness and depravity? The answer in 1968 was, I think, very much yes. What the Rolling Stones did was very authentic, although perhaps not in the way they intended. It never really sounded like real American blues, but it was believably enough its perverted English cousin. It was blues unique to its time and situation, born from the unique angst of its creators. Are the Rolling Stones still the greatest living blues band, despite being obscenely wealthy old men? Given that not many people are much given to either playing or hearing the blues these days, yes. The Stones still play the blues as though their ability to master the blues could still impress people.
Janis Joplin presents, the unpopular girl’s lament. This song, if you haven’t noticed, is exceedingly masochistic. Disturbingly so. Especially coming from Joplin, whose entire identity seems to have stemmed from the pain of growing up homely and unpopular in a bourgeois small Texas town, where she was bullied and mocked for her looks. Despite her outwardly tough ‘bawdy blues mama’ persona, Joplin struggled with crippling insecurity, which led to the alcohol and drug consumption that killed her. It was also, of course, what made her such an outstanding blues singer. When Joplin begged for a scrap of love from the stage, she was begging from the bottom of her heart. She famously described her performing life as making love to thousands of people only to go home alone. Which is incredibly sad, as is the fact that Joplin’s success as an artist was unbreakably intertwined with her inability to be a functional person. One can imagine that if she had managed to get the drugs out of her system, come to terms with herself, and found a fulfilling relationship, she may have quit singing and gone back to being a painter. As it were, though, she just spent a brief moment exemplifying the long sufferin’ woman of lore, the one who takes on all the abuse the world gives her and keeps on plowin’, just hoping to earn the love of one good man, or even a shitty one, anybody really, just for a minute. Sad.
Speaking of classic Motown… nothing is more classic than Aretha Franklin. To say that they don’t call her the Queen of Soul for nothing would be dismissively pat. There are few musical artists who have gained a similar cultural status, few who could legitimately be called national treasures, as she has. She’s come to be seen, through the power and breadth and scope of her work, as a one-woman Smithsonian Institution of American musical heritage for the latter half of the 20th century. Her career has encompassed almost every style of music available to a vocalist, but where she came from was the church, and she learned her trade as a gospel singer. I can’t claim to know enough about Franklin to guess where her deepest passion lies as an artist, but if I had to guess, I’d guess that it’s the gospel tradition that everything else lies on top of. We don’t usually speak of Aretha Franklin as folk singer, because when we speak of ‘folk music’ we imagine some gentrified version of white guys with banjos, but what is gospel but one of the deepest American folk traditions? And, unlike the Scots-Irish folk tradition that gifted us Mumford & Sons, gospel music is still very much alive at the heart of the communities that birthed it. Because, obviously, African-Americans, unlike the Scots-Irish, are still forcibly ‘othered’ as a group. The gospel music that came out of the churchgoing black community has been assimilated into pop culture and its influence in the mainstream has been widespread, but its history goes, unbroken and unforgotten, straight to the first African-Americans, who created culture out of the darkest possible human condition, slavery. The history of gospel is the history of a people, and yet it remains a living art. That’s one hell of a legacy for one person to harness, but is seems that Aretha Franklin has taken her place representing the past 50 years of history (and all the weight of the history behind), whether she would have claimed that position for herself or not.
The Rolling Stones, keeping the dirty blues alive. You could say that all blues is dirty, but some is more dirty than others. In the old times it had been standard for pop songs to slide in the innuendo under the guise of love and hand-holding, blues musicians took delight in making comical and absurd double entendres. The line between dirty and not-dirty began to disappear in the 60’s, thanks in no small part to acts like the Stones making overt references to all the things that were supposed to be kept behind locked doors. Nobody one-upped the old bluesmen more than The Rolling Stones did when it came to dirtying it up; Mick Jagger loves a good entendres, the broader the better. In this case, the entendres barely exist, words collapse into a gibberish of sexual desire, all that matters is what that thumping beat is suggesting. It’s a reminder that all music is, deep-down, inherently primal, and while you can refine it for polite society, it still just really wants to make your dick hard.
Harry Nilsson was inspired to write this song after getting a busy signal on a phone call. For those of you too young to remember busy signals, yes, it’s absolutely enough to throw you into an existential funk. A busy signal is the sound of rejection and unwantedness. There’s nothing like a late night busy signal from a loved one to make you dwell on how essentially solitary and inconsequential your existence is. You may even, like Harry, begin to imagine the mathematical equations of your loneliness, and arrive at the conclusion that all sums are divided by one, and you will always be the 1 divided against all the others. Math makes everything more depressing.
Let’s make it a Lizard King kind of a day, shall we? If that means a diet of alcohol and LSD, visions on rooftops and a possible night in jail, that’s up to you. Jim Morrison’s lesson of personal freedom means pursuing your own breakthrough by whatever means necessary. For some people, that may just mean reading lots of poetry, or commuting with nature. It doesn’t have to be the kind of hedonism that gets you dead. The prophet gets himself dead, that’s why he’s the prophet and you’re not. Morrison’s own pursuit of the hedonistic ideal had, by the time Waiting for the Sun was recorded, progressed beyond mystical and cool into intolerable and sad, according to his less insane bandmates. “This was no longer a young man’s drinking; it was a full-grown man’s drinking.” according to Ray Manzarek. Ray and the others understandably failed to see the glamour in Jim’s self destructing. There’s a disconnect between the romantic ideal of the tortured poet and the everyday reality of dealing with a rampaging drunk, which boils down to a lot of sheer aggravation. Miraculously enough The Doors continued to produce music of an incandescent quality right up until the end. It may be because Morrison managed to summon his mystical spirit despite being a walking trainwreck, and had the theatrical timing to die before his work suffered in any way, that everything we know about the perils of alcoholism flies out the window and we’re still mesmerized by the glamorous illusion of an all powerful Lizard King who could do anything. What should have been a cautionary tale remains a fever dream of a sexy martyred shaman who touched something greater than himself.
Nico wasn’t fond of musical niceties such as string sections; her urge was always towards the atonal. But despite her general disinterest in things of beauty, she could sometimes be convinced to produce something pretty. And some of her greatest works were the ones where strings and flutes and conventional melodies were allowed to surround her eerie voice. John Cale, as producer, deserves a lot of credit here, for bringing in a quartet of violas and making them just avant-garde enough to pass Nico’s muster. The effect is surreal, and very beautiful, and almost warm.