“Because we couldn’t remember their bloody names” Keith Richards famously joked about the title of the record, and if the double-down of sordid groupie cliches in the lyrics felt somewhat like a desperate attempt by the Stones to be demonized as rock’s worst bad boys once again, well, it worked. They pissed off the women and they pissed off Jesse Jackson. Then they pulled the old “but it’s satire!” card. In 1978, apparently, you could still confidently claim that the freedom to be racist and sexist – purely as an artistic statement, of course – was an act of sticking-it-to-the-man nonconformity. You can’t take that position anymore, of course, but the mindset persisted right up until, oh, about yesterday, it feels like. It’s exhausting, and not necessarily helpful, to go on debating whether or not some piece of art is qualified satire, a cry for attention, or the unexamined product of a sick mind. I would say that if anything, it’s a work of cultural anthropology by somebody who’s done their due diligence and their research, plowing women from all walks of life all over the world. If Mick Jagger says that black girls just wanna get fucked all night, he would know.
“This song is about reincarnation, but most people think it’s about cosmetic surgery” says Lena Lovich. That’s a big leap in meaning and philosophy, but I can see how most people take words at face value. It’s nice to see Lovitch still up there doing it, shaking her crazy old lady bones. She doesn’t seem like one to espouse cosmetic correction of any kind. She seems like more the kind to tell everyone to let their freak flag fly. Weirdo types like Lena Lovich really blossom with age, don’t they? Especially women, who delight in outliving expectations of prettiness and acceptable behavior. It’s admirable to see the creativity of old ladies who’ve embraced the role of the crazy spinster aunt or witch in the hut in the woods. It’s so much less of a battle after you’re through being young and attractive.
Come for Bryan Ferry’s gleaming hair, stay for the Marcel Duchamp references. With Ferry, you really get the best of both worlds. High fashion sophistication, obviously, Ferry being the world famous dandy and bon vivant that he is. But moody posing would just be moody posing without intellectual ambition, and Ferry, having been both an art student and a teacher, knows his reference points. He draws his poses from old Hollywood and beyond that, from the greats of literature and art. Which makes him the ideal package, a man who dresses better than you do and has also read more books. In short, he’s probably an insufferable prig, but you want him anyway.
If I didn’t know Lou Reed any better, I’d think that this was one of those fist-pumping inspirational songs about being, you know, a shooting star. I also can’t help but notice a mild similarity to Bad Company’s song Shooting Star, which had been a hit a few years previously. That song was supposed to be a warning to people who make bad life choices, but it was unmistakably fist-pumpy. It’s still all over the radio to this day, so I’m absolutely assured that Lou Reed would have heard it at some point, and if I know Lou, he probably had something caustic to say about it. The sarcasm in his voice as he sings the words “you’re just a shooting star” makes me dead certain that he absolutely was mocking Bad Company, not just coincidentally alighting on the same corny metaphor. I mean, have you ever heard Lou Reed resort to a corny metaphor about the brilliant transience of life? If he was going to make a metaphorical point about how life is short and beautiful even as it is tragic, he would probably liken it to something that comes in a needle, or a transactionary sexual encounter, or something else urban and nasty. Anyway, Lou is a blunt guy who isn’t generally given to flighty metaphors anyway. But he isn’t above making fun of b-list rock bands with heart-swelling big hits. I can’t believe nobody has talked about this.
Bob Marley writes a simple song about a simple, universal experience. It’s that time when your lover has left you, and you know deep down that they were right to leave you, but your life feels bleak and empty all the same. Resigned heartbreak. We’ve all been there. Marley wrote a lot of songs about things that were specific to his own milieu, politically charged songs, ideological songs. He covered a lot of ground, more than most songwriters ever do. It’s impossible to quite pinpoint the key to his popularity, what it was that catapulted him out of his relatively obscure genre and into the realm of pop icon. There were a lot of factors at play, bottomless charisma being not least of them. And one of those factors was surely Marley’s ability to deliver both love songs and political anthems with the same sensitivity and conviction.
“You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown…”
New York City in the 70’s was a dirthole riddled with filth and crime, making it the perfect place to be strung out and at loose ends. It may have been a miserable place to live, but the people who lived there – and the ones who just visited – were busy mythologizing it as a smoggy Babylon of self-expression and debauchery. So of course, The Rolling Stones, connoisseurs of sewer-rat glamour, gravitated there. Mick Jagger happily hit the cocaine circuit of Studio 54 in the company of celebs like Andy Warhol and David Bowie, while Keith Richards relished the city’s turn-a-blind-eye anonymity as he fought his heroin addiction and the unraveling of his family. The Stones create their own Babylon wherever they go, it’s what they do, but they sucked up the highly specific place energy of 70’s New York and added to the canon of quintessential New York albums.
In 1978 Dire Straits were already embattled keeping blues rock alive. Popular music was becoming more and more fractured, and in many cases moving away from the basics. There were fewer and fewer bands who wanted to master good old fashioned unpretentious blues rock, and this was before everybody started wearing Miami Vice suits. Dire Straits went against the grain with their combination of great musicianship and thoughtful lyrics. They didn’t have a gimmick! They just played really well, and people bought it. And all of their records are still great, because they’re trend-proof and timeless. There’s something to be said for not trying to reinvent the wheel.