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.
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.