Friday, March 9, 2012

ruminations: the rolling stones- 'got live if you want it' or how the rolling stones ruined everything

Having been in the process of collecting Brian Jones-era Rolling Stones vinyl for the past five or so years I finally got my ugly little mitts on 'got LIVE if you want it' during a rare visit to Laurie's Planet of Sound a few days ago. I'd always avoided buying this one for some reason as, despite being the only slab of live Stones vinyl that features Brian Jones, I'd always heard it was kind of a joke. A friend played it at work one day and I thought it was fantastic, but a cheap well-worn copy continued to elude my grasp time and time again until I found it in the stacks for $4.99. It had a few audible pops, but nothing too serious and no skips. I'd also read much ado about 'Fortune Teller' being a studio recording with crowd noise inserted underneath it- which would be the first concrete example of something awful and despicable done by rock bands through the ages that finds its roots with the Rolling Stones. While I was listening it came to my notice that the previous song, the mediocre reading of 'I've Been Loving you Too Long' by the great Otis Redding, was ALSO doubtlessly a studio recording with crowd noise inserted beneath it. Once I'd finished my converting my theory proved correct as the waveforms for both songs revealed identical and artless tells- the tracks themselves were both in mono panned hard left while the crowd noise was mixed hard right. Come on, folks. Seriously?! Since I determined that 'Fortune Teller' would be great to have as just a studio track I set about easily removing the crowd noise by spending five minutes panning it out of the stereo track and then rendering it from stereo to mono and bang-zoom! 'Fortune Teller' with little to no crowd noise.

As for the rest of the album it has its moments. Mick is way too high in the mix and his hand-clapping and improvised scatting are incredibly irritating. The band bashes away in gloriously sloppy and doubtlessly hopped-up on coke fashion far off in the background. The cavernous acoustics of the Royal Alert Hall are also vaguely detectable. They kick things off with 'Under My Thumb'- one of many great Rolling Stones songs built on some truly despicable lyrical subject matter, go straight into 'Get Off of My Cloud' and then, inexplicably, a tender rendition of 'Lady Jane.' It's all very much by-the-book and they clearly put this set together very quickly to please and sell. During the second side 'Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow?' shows up. This, to me, is by far the most fascinating piece of Jones-era Stones. As a pop song it's empirically and brilliantly weird and it's distinctiveness is unparalleled in all of 60s rock. Not even the Beatles have anything to compare to it. It's built on droning guitar feedback, rollicking tack piano and horn hooks. Even Mick has the proper amount of reverence for the vocal melody while bashing through it beautifully here. What's more even the CROWD is going nuts for it. It's an example of what was so great about the Rolling Stones- it's an original written by Mick and Keith and pulls together a myriad of influences that no one had ever thought to combine at the time. This is an example of when they were able to toss them together by the fistful and emerge with something transcendent. After that it lurches into a nicely extended version of 'Satisfaction' (which, according to the fade-out, was probably even longer on the night- I'd personally like to hear the whole thing in all of its un-checked, self-aggrandizing glory).

What my main point here is that, while I consider myself a huge fan of the Stones' music I am in spite of having to resign myself to the fact that they are responsible for pretty much every single annoying rock cliché that I have always reviled. My wife and I found ourselves reading two seemingly unrelated books that ended up dovetailing unexpectedly- I was reading Tony Sanchez's 'Up and Down With the Rolling Stones' (which is the Stones' story told from the point-of-view of a hanger-on from their earliest days through to the late 70s and mainly devolves into a story of the author's own descent into a druggy hell) while Stefanie read Naomi Klein's 'No Logo.' In 'No Logo' it was revealed to us that the Rolling Stones went on the first corporate-sponsored concert tour. Their 1981 tour was sponsored by Quintessence Inc., the makers of Jovan perfume. Granted the corporate presence was more limited and subtle than it is with most corporate-sponsored rock tours these days, but nevertheless, it's another example of an undesirable precedent set by the often self-proclaimed 'best band in the world.'

Strangely this seems more shocking and regrettable than the fact that because of their rampant drug use every rock star in the known universe is expected to be halfway into a coma at every second in order to be considered authentic. All it's really done for the Stones is yield the affecting 'Sticky Fingers' standout 'Sister Morphine.' On the flip side the reason most people have never seen 'Cocksucker Blues,' the no-holds-barred rock documentary from their 1972 post 'Exile on Mainstreet' tour, isn't because of the fact that it depicts them as depraved and despicable misogynists (there is a great deal of disturbing sexual content in the film that says nothing good at all about the band or its affiliates), but because their constant drug use and wasted lifestyle begins to make them look like desperate and rather pathetic figures. It also reveals how little bearing this has on the brilliance of the music, as any musical performance from 'Cocksucker Blues' will attest. I suppose it's fascinating to watch them play a blinding version of 'Midnight Rambler' all the while wondering if one of them is going to keel over from the sheer amount of drugs that they've taken, but does that really make said performance any better?

What else struck me the most while reading Sanchez's book was the section during the Rock 'n Roll Circus wherein Sanchez describes the group as donning costumes for the occasion that personified each member's roll in the band- Brian Jones was the devil, Keith Richards the Mystic and I don't remember what Mick Jagger was, but it was something seemingly significant. What were rhythm section members Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts? Clowns. That is exactly what Sanchez (and I'd imagine most would agree) writes them off as. The truth of the matter? How many stories do you hear about Watts' or Wyman's storied drug use? Not many. My guess is because they probably didn't do as many drugs as Mick, Keith or Brian. Why not, you ask? Well maybe because they had to set a firm foundation for a bunch of fucked-up peacocks to make a dazzling display from. Jagger and Richards wrote the songs, but it often became their duty to hold them up and help them exist. This is the first example of the rhythm section as a truly thankless job. Were they not present to back up the three peacocks there wouldn't have been much to write home about and, make no mistake about it, most of the greatest Stones songs wouldn't have been nearly as striking without them. '19th Nervous Breakdown' would be impossible without either of them, for example. One of the Stones' only legs up on the Beatles is the fact that Charlie Watts is a better drummer than Ringo Starr. Not that anyone has ever bothered to mention this.

Another revelation from this Sanchez book was something that I had never known. Have you ever been at a big arena rock show and after the opening band has played you are forced to wait an obscenely long time before the headlining band graces you with their divine presence? Of course you have. We all have. Guess where that glorious tradition has its roots? The Stones made this a common practice during their 1969 tour which climaxed with the Altamont disaster. The two-hour waiting period that they treated the crowd to there is often cited as a contributing factor. My maximum waiting period is a pretty firm 30 minutes. Anyone who makes a capacity crowd wait longer than that is guilty of some form of egoism that I don't care for- excessive lateness or just plain bravado that finds its root above. Axl Rose anyone?

The few conclusions that I draw from my love of the Rolling Stones is that I can, indeed, separate the art from the artist (or artists in this case). Despite being drug-addled, orbit-forming ego-ed, misogynistic assholes Mick Jagger and Keith Richards still managed to write some of the most amazing pop music in the world. I suppose this does mean that I won't be getting 'Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out' any time soon, though. That's okay, though. I still have 'Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadow.'

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