Remember when sensitive singer-songwriters were cool? Or, conversely, remember when sensitive singer-songwriters were uncool? I don’t think the raging debate over whether being sensitive and feelsy is cool or uncool will ever be resolved, but I can tell you one thing: Cat Stevens will never not be cool. I like to act all dismissive towards earnest types, true. But I also think there’s a fine distinction to be made between earnesty and sincerity. Overly earnest people may not actually be sincere, but they very much want you to think they are. It’s manipulative. You know the kind of try-too-hard earnestly I’m talking about; the kind where the singer sounds like he’s trying to convince some half-drunk woman at a bar what a decent person he is. That’s the opposite of real sincerity. Or maybe I’m just having an exercise in empty semantics, an attempt to make some intellectual justification for why I like Cat Stevens but not James Taylor. I mean, Cat Stevens is certainly very, very sensitive and deeply feelsy, but I would never accuse him of being overly earnest. He’s just over here sitting in the sunlight, probably reading some poetry or whatever, minding his own business, thinking about life.
Maybe ‘uplifting’ isn’t the first idea you’d associate with The Rolling Stones. Their credo of hedonism may aspirational to some but it sure ain’t inspirational in the “Hang in there, Buddy” sense of the word. I can’t tell if it’s inwardness that they lack or outwardness, but what they’re kind of notorious for their selfishness. But yet, they’re not entirely without sensitivity, and that’s often overlooked. Mick Jagger may not be prone to openness in his writing, but he often writes with empathy and he definitely has a writer’s talent for observation. So many Rolling Stones songs are filled with details about the kind of people who float around in the rock world and the oft-not-very-happy lives they live. A few of them may flourish, but many end up being casualties, and it’s not that living the rock star life is dangerous and deadly; it’s that people are attracted to that kind of living because they’ve already blown it in the normal world. This applies to one of the Stones’ most unfortunate casualties, their former leader Brian Jones, who was formidably gifted but absolutely unsuited to any kind of life at all. Jagger may have made a calculated decision to save the band by kicking out its sickest member, but clearly he wasn’t unaffected watching his formerly close companion turn into a wreck of a man. This song dates back to 1968, when those wounds were still fresh, and it feels like an attempt to find some sliver of absolution in a sad and ugly story. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but some people just want to destroy themselves, and all you can do is watch them and pray.
See, what’d I tell you? Blues isn’t blues unless it sounds like garbage. The Rolling Stones knew this, better than most any other English blues band. Resources are no substitute for soul, and if you don’t have a colorful life to draw on, you’d better create one. Maybe that’s why they were so hellbent on turning themselves into human wreckage. They may not have come from very bluesy backgrounds, but they could reinvent themselves as people with something to sing the blues about. Drugs, debauchery and existential dread, as it turned out, make for great blues.
Any excuse to just listen to Roxy Music for the rest of the day. Starting with the incomparable first album, of course. What a powerful introduction, from the winking, gaudy throwback aesthetics to the off-kilter romanticism within. I’ve been listening to this record all my life and I’m still not sure what it’s saying. It may be saying that every love affair is like a suit you step in and out of, and life is a series of impressions to write about. Or it could be saying that glamour is a cheap salve that barely covers your wounds and does nothing to protect your vulnerable heart. You can be walking around bleeding on the inside, but at least you look – and sound – great doing so. Or it may be that there is nothing underneath the lace and velour and the poses you strike are everything you are and all of your feelings are just a performance. It may be all of the above, if you’re truly versed in camp and irony.
Every great record has a narrative. Only the most ambitious concept albums have a narrative imposed by the artist, but every great record has a narrative that is imagined by the listener. Because a great record takes you on a journey, which becomes a story we tell ourselves about that experience. Hence, an emotional narrative uniquely your own, soundtrack courtesy of your favorite musician. And since every narrative has an arc, every record has an exact climax, an emotional high point. On Transformer that moment arrives exactly at 2:49, track seven, when David Bowie comes in with the high notes. From then on it’s all afterglow.
It’s hard to believe that in 1972 Cat Stevens’ albums were the kind of bestsellers that nearly everyone went out and bought. I mean, that’s hard to imagine just logistically, because in their day they had to physically walk to the record store, in the snow, and it was uphill both ways. But also, it’s weird to think of a time when it was guileless thoughtfulness and gentle melody that floated people’s boats. Songwriters like Cat Stevens still exist, people who want to write about love and finding meaning in the world. But being thoughtful and spiritual and positive-minded and just nice is not what you’d call the dominant aesthetic. Maybe it’s because our times are more troubled than 1972 was. The early seventies were all peaceful and golden, right? RIGHT??
“The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”
The Rolling Stones are strung out in the south of France, and the strain is starting to show. Leave it to those degenerates to turn a glamorous and idyllic life into a crawl through the gutter. Legend has it that Villa Nellcote had been requisitioned by Nazis during the occupation, and the outlines of old swastikas could still be seen on the basement walls. (It’s now owned by a Russian oligarch.) That lends Exile on Main St. an appropriate touch of evil. 1972 may have been the last time that The Rolling Stones still seemed haunted by devils, before they turned ‘dancing with Mr. D’ into high camp and appeared dangerous to nobody but themselves and their familiars. Of course, The Stones’ orbit continues to be marked by tragic death and inexplicable acts of survival, but nobody worries anymore that the corruption will somehow rub off on their children.