I sense an element of irony in the Rolling Stones’ exhortation to drink to all of the hard working people. The Stones don’t care about anything but themselves. They’ve never bothered much with pretending to be socially conscious or politically active, except for some vague up-against-the-man posturing. They did all come from working-class backgrounds, so there’s that, but they pretty quickly established themselves as their own class of doped-up aristocracy. “Do we look strange to you?” they ask, hoping for a resounding yes. I don’t really want self-awareness from The Rolling Stones; I like to imagine them communing with demons and occupying a space-time bubble far removed from us peasants. They certainly occupied their own world in 1968, into which this is only a cracked glimpse.
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.
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.
If you want to see this song in better action, turn to The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. There you’ll see the last live performance of Brian Jones, playing what would be his final major musical contribution to the Rolling Stones. By the time the song was played live a second time, Jones was dead and the performance was his ad hoc memorial. Jones was a person with immense musical talent and absolutely no ability to be a functional human being; his death surprised no one. The other Stones must have felt nothing but relief to have him finally out of their hair. The Stones in the Park is a bizarre document of a bizarre moment in a bizarre time. The Stones were rusty, the butterflies all died. The tribute felt half-hearted. The only part of the performance that still compels is Mick Jagger’s glorious flouncy white dress. But then there’s that blues song, proof that the blues can come pouring out of white men in flouncy white dresses, against all expectations. It almost seems as if The Rolling Stones sacrificed one of their own so they could play the blues.