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.
Since it’s been my long-held, unpopular opinion that Exile on Main St. is wildly overrated you wouldn’t expect me to be especially excited about a deluxe special extended edition. It reiterate, I don’t hate the record, but I do think it’s overlong and bloated, as double LPs are wont to be, and doesn’t quite rank as the masterpiece it’s generally accepted to be. It would have been, as double LPs are wont to, better off as two separate entities. I would be inclined to think it absolutely doesn’t need a bonus third disc. But the bonus third disc that the Stones released in 2010 is actually pretty exciting stuff. I suggest thinking of it as its own entity, not as a bunch of outtakes rejected from an already jam-packed album. It bears me out, though; Exile could have been great as two albums, and it would have been even greater as three.
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, 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.
Truly, one of the best hit singles about suicidal depression. The Rolling Stones paint a picture of a man who sees nothing but darkness after his lover has died. Musically, however, they’ve done the opposite; they’ve swung open a door of color, depth and texture that was news for rock music. We may have some hit single fatigue towards The Rolling Stones all of these many years later, but to sit down and watch clips from their earliest heyday is to say to yourself “how was that even real?” In 1966, on television variety shows, there was a revolution unfolding; you can literally see, as befuddled hosts in suits are shoved aside by convulsing throngs of young people, a new set of values taking hold. The Rolling Stones may have objected to being called ‘role models’ but they offered themselves as such just the same. Mick Jagger was 23, a childlike demon presiding over a generational sea change. It’s more than a pop song with a sitar, though that was its own small revolution; it’s the sound of collective consciousness changing.
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.
My rebuttal to anyone who says that The Rolling Stones stopped writing good songs, or whatever it is nonbelievers say about The Rolling Stones. I pay closer attention to the Stones’ saga than most. Throughout their adventures and despite their ups and downs, they haven’t lost the ability to pull together into something great. They’re the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band, remember? The fact that it sometimes seems like they’re doing it in their sleep, or worse, just for the money, doesn’t change that. And this is brilliant, and a great love song, and well on par with their other great love songs. If only it existed outside of the context of ‘gosh, you guys sure are old!’ it would be held up as such. I think it captures something very specific and very familiar; the sheer weariness that comes with heartbreak, that sick afterglow that’s like a long hangover that just won’t fade away. It’s a beautiful reminder of any number of dark nights.