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.
This was one of the Rolling Stones’ last big hits, and you can definitely feel them teetering on the edge of self-parody. In the video you can see them tumble right over. It’s right there in the sweet spot, if you can call it that, between effortlessly funky and mindlessly childish. Rumor has it that Mick Jagger composed this ode to non-reciprocated lust about his ex-wife Bianca, to whom he stayed married for seven years despite neither one showing any signs of liking each other very much. It’s certainly unlikely that Jagger would have much experience of being frozen out by stand-offish women unless those women had already been burnt out by years and years of his bullshit. Either way, it’s deeply silly, and as far as songs about mindless lust go, pretty harmless. If the worst thing you ex-husband can think to say about you is that you’re “goddamn cold” you’re getting off pretty lightly.
The Rolling Stones may have been slightly out of their element playing phosphorescent psychedelic pop music about love and rainbows, but they’ve rarely written anything prettier. No one was immune to the dizzy highs of the Summer of Love, not even a group whose key members actually spent the summer in and out of jail. Anyway, the Stones’ fabled sympathy towards the dark side was mostly savvy marketing (although, one trail of corpses later, it does seem to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Mick Jagger could just as easily sold himself to the public as a nice young man who went to a very good school, but the pop market already had enough nice young men and the public wanted a bete noire. With this kind of songwriting and less carnage, the Stones could have become pillars of the British Empire a lot sooner.
This is everything that’s wrong with the Rolling Stones: another one of Mick Jagger’s absurd tales of mindless sexual conquest backed with the same tired riffs. By 1983 the Stones had sunk into self-parody, and judging by the tongue-in-cheek video, they were well aware of it. Taking the stance of “yes, we’re pretty silly at this point but we’re good at what we do” was understandable. Imagine trying to generate new ideas when you’re 40 years old, you’re trying to record your 17th album and you hate your coworkers. Jagger’s urge to take himself seriously would take the shape of an abortive solo career. (At this point he was hoarding his ‘best’ songs for his own project.) Keith Richards had stopped taking himself seriously around the time the band stopped being blues purists, and the others had never taken themselves seriously in the first place. The fans, meanwhile, proved that they didn’t need seriousness to keep them paying for the product. And that collective attitude kept the Stones rolling straight into the millennium and beyond. They don’t care if they’re not relevant, they just do what they do. They’re also among the last of a dying breed, literally. Blues based rock music is struggling today – nobody takes it seriously anymore! Also, nobody wants to listen to songs about the simple pleasures of fucking and discarding an interchangeable series of women. It’s just not what the conversation is about today. This entertainment is retrograde. There are many elements of rock star culture that we can’t zoom away from fast enough – the glorification of predatory sexual behavior, for example – but I don’t think we’ll ever lose our fascination for figures like Mick Jagger, people who are so larger than life that the very idea of their lifestyle is enough to fuel decades of profitable work.
In between the hits, we find Rolling Stones songs that are not about the usual sex’n’drugs crap. All that strutting would be a pretty meaningless posture if Mick Jagger didn’t occasionally show glimmers of vulnerability and self-awareness. Nobody, not even Jagger, can maintain eternal cockiness as a full-time job, and it’s endearing to think that he may mope and worry about his hair turning grey. (It’s hard to imagine Jagger maintaining his longevity without a fluffy head of hair.) It’s also endearing to know that Jagger, like anyone else, just wants a little sympathy and a pat on the head. You can have sex with thousands of people, but not all of them will pat you on the head afterwards.
I’m currently in the early chapters of reading a biography of Mick Jagger, not because I think there’s anything new left to learn, but because it’s a story I never get tired of revisiting. Jagger’s decades-long-and-counting notoriety has always been fueled by sex, as much if not more so than music. He’s had an awful lot of women saying ‘yeah’ to him, often without even being asked. Unlike a lot of rockers, Mick Jagger didn’t suddenly start attracting women because he was famous; he became famous because he was already irresistible to women. Girls followed Jagger home from school when he was a kid, they followed him when he was a nobody blues singer without two shillings to rub together, and The Rolling Stones shot to fame because a handful of girls grew to hundreds to hundreds of thousands to millions. If many of the Stones’ songs are sexually crass – and a great many of them are – at least they come by it honestly. If they’re sexist – and a great many of them are – it’s not the bitter sexism of desperately insecure twerps whose ego depends on capturing and locking down a female trophy. It’s the cavalier attitude of a real Casanova, a man for whom trophies mean nothing, who doesn’t quite understand jealousy or commitment, who doesn’t want or need to lock anyone down and resents the pressure to settle down himself. If he doesn’t put the ladies on a pedestal or see them as particularly valuable, it’s because they’ve always delivered themselves to his door and he doesn’t see what the big deal is. John Lennon wrote about stalking and killing women who rejected him; Mick Jagger always did the opposite.
“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.