I am not the kind of person who skips over Keith Richards’ grackle-voiced contributions when I listen to Rolling Stones records. Nor would I want to listen to an entire album of his croaking either. Keith’s there to lend a little bit of soulful grit to what’s become a very shiny and polished enterprise, but he’s hardly a born frontman, in either personality or vocal gifts. Not all of the Keith songs are standouts, but they never fail to reset to the mood to an earthier level. As far as the obligatory “let’s let Keith have the mic” numbers go, this one is by far one of my favorites. It is such a poignant outro, without even knowing the knotty history behind Steel Wheels. It’s all there in his voice. You can hear the many miles and years logged to get to that precise moment, the history and tragedy and burned bridges and grudgingly given love that make the Rolling Stones the often barely-functioning family that they are.
It’s impossible to imagine Mick Jagger ever being anyone’s ‘slave’. Not even in a kinky sex way. Nor is it a good metaphor for romantic relations, because, you know. But it is a good jam, and good jams don’t have to make sense. You don’t make sense of energy and chemistry, you just either feel those things or you don’t. The magic of The Rolling Stones has always been in their combined chemistry together. They somehow make great jams happen even when they don’t actually have any good ideas, or when they’re not speaking to one another. That’s why they can turn a handful of previously rejected outtakes and polish it into a classic album. It is utterly inexplicable. But thank God.
It doesn’t get much bleaker than this. When Marianne Faithfull decided to finally and forever stop being a dollybird and become a real songwriter, she ended up writing one of the great drug epics of rock, an ode to deathly chemicals on par with Lou Reed’s Heroin. It was, of course, banned and pulled from shelves, while The Rolling Stones re-recorded it and took all the credit. (Faithfull says that it was a matter of copyright issues and that they did in fact pay her royalties, and it was those royalties that kept her alive during her worst years.) Faithfull always insisted that she wrote it before the worst of her drug addiction, and she was just trying to be literary, but she came to know the truth of her own writing soon enough. Besides the lyrical foresight, the song shows a singer literally metamorphosing as we listen from ingenue to rock star. She’s already done enough to herself that her voice is cracking. She wavers like pubescent boy between her old high vibrato and the husky croon we now know her for, and she doesn’t know what to do with it yet. That in itself belies any claim that of pure literary exercise. Marianne Faithfull was burning herself out, and she knew it. Years later she sang it again, now in full command of that barrel-aged croak, but it didn’t have the same fragile poignancy. The Rolling Stones, meanwhile, mined many of the same trenches, although with considerably more cash in hand, and they turned Sister Morphine into their own confessional. It’s probably the most explicit look they’ve ever taken into the dark side of their hedonistic lifestyle, and it is, in its own way, almost as poignant. Mick Jagger, tough guy that he is, doesn’t do confessionals, but he watched the closest people in his life sacrifice themselves to addiction, and the hurt shows, sometimes. Sticky Fingers was one of the great drug records, and Sister Morphine was the sad centerpiece that highlighted the theme most starkly. It was a fitting coda for a tainted love story, and an era.
It’s Mick Jagger in the persona we know best: a smug fuckboy who knows he can be a dick and get away with it because he’s got boundless sexual charisma. Mick Jagger is the best kind of fuckboy, the kind who is absolutely gleeful and unrepentant, fully confident he’s got what girls – and boys! – want. As opposed to the other types, the insecure whiny ones who rely on fake sensitivity and postures of vulnerability in an attempt to make themselves seem harmless and appealing. Nobody wants a wolf in sheep’s clothing, though, everybody just wants the wolf. Or the sheep, some people are into that too, nothing wrong with a little lamb, as long as it’s authentic lamb. But yeah, in the real scheme of things, all the little red riding hoods can’t wait to line up to get eaten by the sexy cocksure wolf. You can call it problematic all you like, but it’s the way of nature.
I love the Rolling Stones when they’re at their most weird, and they never broke away from their usual hitmaking formula harder than they did on Their Satanic Majesties Request. In all fairness, 1967 was a bumper crop of psychedelic albums striving to emulate the surreal sing-along ebullience that sounded so effortless when The Beatles did it. But among all of the attempts to make a worthy reply to Sgt. Pepper, nobody failed as hard as The Stones. They didn’t just fail to capture the Summer of Love spirit, they made mockery of it. With three-fifths of the group being embroiled with the criminal justice system, nobody’s head was exactly open to waves of cosmic love or whatever (something Mick Jagger was always too much of a flinty-eyed realist to fall for anyway.) The Stones’ use of popular hippie musical tropes only exposed those gestures for what they were: empty posturing and hopelessly naive ideology unhinged from reality. The sixties only went downhill from there.
Whatever thoughts you may have on The Rolling Stones, put them aside and just admire Mick Jagger’s bedazzled physique. Man, his hips are so tiny! Pure sex in little white tennis shoes. Also stop and appreciate how weird the 1970’s must have been to allow this spectacle to even take place. The blues gods never intended their music to be turned into a drag show such as this. But the Stones took the blues and turned it into a gender-bending, drug soaked burlesque, yet somehow they still retained the mystique of guys who were not to be fucked with. The implication of danger lingers, making the glitter and spandex look like a lure to entrap the hapless. The pretty drag queen will seduce you, then the other guys will quietly slit your throat. A very real probability given that Keith is known to carry a switchblade. We know that the 70’s Stones roadshow was a literal den of iniquity, complete with an all-you-can-eat buffet of narcotics, adolescent groupies, and unconscious bodies discreetly disposed of through the back exit. Everyone who survived it with their brain cells still intact agrees that it was actually pretty miserable, but somehow the misery is all part of the sordid glamour, the idea that rock’n’roll is a force of Dionysian chaos that steamrolls anyone who dares to dance the dance. Who cares about the trail of ruined lives and dead bodies? It’s only rock’n’roll!
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.