Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Stones in my Passway

Fifty years, and still no-one can find that portrait of Mick Jagger, hidden in an attic somewhere, and tear it into shreds.  Don't get me wrong, I'm a lifelong fan, but really...  It ain't natural.

I say "lifelong", but that needs serious qualification.

For me the story starts in 1964 in my friend John B's house.  His father's blue-sparkle drum kit is set up* in the front room, and John also has a harmonica and a plastic toy guitar, with pictures of cowboys on the sound-board.  On the family Dansette record player we have stacked several 45s, including  "Not Fade Away" and "It's All Over Now".  John takes the drums, I take the harmonica, and friend Barry takes the guitar.

One, two, a one-two-three-four...  Pandemonium.  It is great.

After a bit Barry and I have stopped pretending to play, and are simply jumping up and down in an ecstasy of exuberance.  Now this is "Music and Movement"! John keeps bashing the drums and we can barely hear the music (until you have stood in front of a drum kit in a small room, you have no idea how LOUD drums are) but it doesn't matter.  It is like that famous first high: the rest of one's life is spent chasing it.

Cut to 1968. The Stones have been rubbish for what seemed ages. To this teenage boy, anyway, psychedelia was one big yawn. Then, suddenly, there were revolutions, riots and assassinations on the TV news and "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man" came in on the soundtrack like a cymbal crash.  It was John B's front room all over again, this time with added hormones and new improved parental disapproval.

Jump to the early 1970s.  A girl I have just met likes the single "Honky Tonk Women".  She also appears to like me.  I could listen to that cowbell and bump-and-grind guitar riff intro again and again on her stereo, but she just wants to dance.  Come on! The penny finally drops that dancing is not foolish but fun.  Big fun.  Music is the theory, this is the practice.

In my college years my musical tastes were broader, but I had an unshakeable belief that the albums Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers were as essential as Hamlet.  But the story suddenly ended for me with the release of Goats Head Soup in 1973.  Meh.  I saw the Stones live at Knebworth, 1976. Triple meh.  Forty years later, and they're still going at it but, really guys, why bother?  You can stop now.

The theory and the practice... 
(Ferdinando Scianna, from PhotoEphemera)

People who have come late to the the Stones party tend to focus on the personalities, rather than the music.  This is the legacy of decades of rock journalism (it sells more papers to write about Keef's habits than his innovative guitar-playing), and the ubiquity of pop videos, haircuts frozen in time.  Yes, on stage Jagger is a preening prat whose act can veer close to "blackface", and who has pressed the public's homophobia button so often it has finally broken.  And yes, off stage Richards is a mumbling, wheezing old geezer who embodies all the romantic lies of self-destruction -- as if to outlive a life of excess on a private jet is an achievement on a par with surviving a Chicago Housing Authority project.  All true, but, but...

The point is that -- despite what musicians think -- recorded music leads its own life, independent of its originators.  We listeners make it our own; we use it. When you hear the opening bars of "Gimme Shelter" and get the chills, as I always do, you are not inviting those two grotesques into your life, but allowing the magic of the music they wrote and recorded to do its work.

Do you make allowance for the fact that Beethoven was deaf and none too keen on changing his underwear when you listen to a late quartet, or put down Great Expectations unread when you discover how shabbily Dickens treated his own wife?  Of course you don't.   The work is the work, the life is the life, and these are completely different things.  As D.H. Lawrence put it, "Never trust the teller, trust the tale".

And those were such great tales, too, 1962-72...  We can forget about 1973-2012.  As someone once said, 90% of anything is rubbish, so 80% is pretty good.

Now, if only we could find that Jagger portrait...  Unless, of course, Keef is the portrait.

* I was insanely jealous of this.  Both my father and grandfather played the drums, but I think my Dad was under a triple-underlined veto from the highest authority (i.e. Mum) NEVER to teach me to play the drums.  I think she thought it would make me neglect my schoolwork, and she was probably right.
N.B. on the subject of drummers, we are convinced in our family that Keith Moon was the drummer in the group that played at my cousin's wedding in the early 1960s.


Martin said...

I couldn't agree more, Mike. And the list goes on.

Led Zep - Celebration Day

Paul McCartney - Recording 'The Christmas Song'

Neil Young releases his thirty-fifth studio album, Psychedelic Pill.

The Stones - Grrr!

It's all unquestionably grrr...atuitous.

Dave Leeke said...

Two things:

Auberon Waugh once asked Jagger what was wrong with his face, to which Mr J replied, "They're laughter lines."

Mr W: "Nothing's that funny."

Secondly, I hope you realise that by reacting to "Honky Tonk Women" you were, inadvertently, reacting to Ry Cooder - his riff. Still owed royalties by Mr Richards, I believe.

Mike C. said...


Interesting -- I thought I'd heard most Ry Cooder -- what track was that, then?


Dave Leeke said...

It's the (possibly) apocryphal story of Keef "taking Cooder for everything he's got" - evidently RC taught him how to use Open G for slide guitar and that riff was what he used. Keef took it from there.

I believe the curmudgeonly Mr Cooder has never forgiven him.

Mike C. said...


Well, as Picasso is said to have said, "good artists borrow, great artists steal".


eeyorn said...

I don't think I'd mind if they wanted to play on, but to charge such exorbitant ticket prices....they're having a laugh, surely.

I'm pleased to report I was amongst the audience that attended Roy Harper's 70th Birthday gig and the old feller is still spellbinding.

Mike C. said...


Roy Harper... Now's there's someone I didn't expect to live beyond 50. I did a RH post a while back: