This is why the Rolling Stones were the best of the British blues bands. They play blues like their brakes and their steering don’t work. It’s always ride or die with them. Besides their sloppy garage band vibes, there’s always Mick Jagger’s cheeky insouciance. He’s bad and feels absolutely no shame. He will make you a bunch of doe-eyed promises and then forget them all for the first bottle-blonde who walks up to him. That rake’s confidence has carried Jagger through decades of scandals, and the little flies still can’t wait to hop right in. It is, of course, irresistibly sexy.
This song is some filthy smut. Or at least so I thought at the age of 12. I thought it was absolutely delightfully outrageous. I mean, did you hear? He wants to fuck your sweet ass. Hehe. Yeah, it’s a sex song. The Rolling Stones have done many, many sex songs, with different combinations of naughty words, and I guess that every fan has a particular favorite that makes them go “yowza.” The Stones have always been the universal go-to band when it comes to jacked-up hard-pumping sex songs. They’re certainly no part of the Barry White school of baby-makin’ slow jam music, but nobody else quite captures the essence of unbridled libido. Something in that rhythm section; it’s as if Keith Richards’ guitar is literally plugged into his mainline and the entire band is rocking to the rhythm of his beating heart. Amped up on pussy and speed, of course.
Listening all the way through to the end of Exile on Main St. leaves me with that ‘making it home at 5 a.m.’ feeling of exhaustion. As if I, like the Rolling Stones, have just run a gauntlet of joyless debauchery, and I congratulate myself, cheerlessly, on surviving it. The Rolling Stones, between the lot of them, have hit so many levels of rock bottom throughout their ongoing adventures: jail, death, carnage, you name it, but every time it looked like they were down and out they somehow got back up. Yet somehow, none of their low points ever seemed to provoke a crisis of soul searching. No one found Jesus or came back from rehab talking New Age psychobabble or cried on TV while blaming their shitty behavior on childhood hardship. Which is both surprising and weirdly admirable, this ability to shrug off the hard times and soldier on. Exile on Main St. is the closest they’ve ever come to a “rock bottom” record. It’s hardly self-searching or even self-aware, but it reveals the torn and frayed sinews of a group suffering from too many miles on the road, too many artificially long nights, too many deaths, too much sex with strangers, too much paranoia, too much time trapped together like a chain gang, too much exile. It sounds like the final hours of a very long party.
I love everything about this. It should have been a single. I can envision an alternate universe in which the Rolling Stones murdered their long-term career with one inexplicably successful vaudeville-inspired novelty hit song. They’re now eking out a living playing cornball versions of other people’s hits in dive bars in the north of England. (Brian Jones went on to become a successful record producer in this scenario. He lives in a castle.) Nobody ever envisioned the Rolling Stones being an oom-pah band, but they’re pretty close to it here, and maybe they would’ve been a good one. Ironically enough, for a song that sounds like something your granddad grew up drinking pints to, it’s about the wild new experience of LSD. Because everyone who took drugs for the first time had to write a song about it. The Stones, of course, had to do it differently. Not for them trying to recapture the cosmic magick of an acid trip with lots of mellotron and a sitar solo. They must’ve found the experience deeply comical and absurd more than grand and cosmic. They’re not wrong. The drug culture that sprang up in the 60’s was very often absurd, and could be seen as comical if people didn’t die so much. Anyway, the Stones were often amused by other people’s delusions of grandeur, and they were most likely having a laugh at the expense of other people’s pretentious LSD songs.
“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.
Sometimes, I get tires of thinking about the changing pace of music and culture, the confusing prism of what things mean, to whom and it what context. Fandom seem to require so much hard work and reckoning these days. Sometimes I just want to throw in the towel and stop trying to be a conscientious consumer. Fuck it, sign me up for Nihilism 101. I just want to listen to the Rolling Stones in all their unrepentant glory. I want to hear Mick Jagger be a little bitch. I want music that means sex, drugs and death. Sorry, but that’s my comfort zone.
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.