In which I introduce a thermostat-inspired trilogy
Something happens to me as spring turns into summer. It’s been an annual occurrence since 2012. The change in the weather, the ratcheting-up of the heat, impels me to spend some amount of time (brief or not) absorbing everything the “World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band” did between approximately 1968 and 1972. I’ll elaborate on the specific period later–I’ve spent years winnowing it down–but suffice it to say that whenever it gets too hot or humid to keep my attention span from functioning at full capacity, I start thinking about the Rolling Stones.
I’m not sure if it’s coincidental or completely logical that this should happen concurrently with my (and others’) exploration of Black musical traditions and their appropriation or exploitation throughout white culture. Almost no one has benefited from such appropriation quite like these guys have: or, whoever else has, they learned it from the group who have predicated a fifty-plus-year career on it. They got their start playing the Delta blues and, were it not for certain early handlers nudging them in the direction they eventually went in, might have gone on doing just that until they either gained a modicum of status within that niche or simply faded into obscurity. Instead they took their favorite genres, just about all of which originated in the American South–blues, country, jazz, of course the classic first strain of rock & roll–and updated them for a new generation, in fact basically transformed them into a brand, one which mainstream (read: white) audiences found appealing.
The paradox is that if white suburban postwar parents were so distressed about their kids absorbing the music of pioneering Black artists–even though they themselves had done the same in the nostalgically-named Jazz Age–then they ought to have been even more riled up by these unkempt boys whose presence on and offstage was actually less benign than the very artists they were imitating. But at the end of the day, as unacceptable as they supposedly were, the Stones were still acceptable. They could get away with it. That’s the West for you.
Variations of this cultural story had played out before and have played out since. The good news is that these musicians don’t hesitate to give the greater glory to Big Mama Thornton or Muddy Waters or James Brown or any of the vast array of influences they have credited for the feel of their sound. The bad news is that in spite of all this, we somehow ended up with a lyric like “Brown Sugar”* (or “Under My Thumb” or “Stupid Girl” or, again, any of a vast array), which likely would not have been a thing in the present day and age because it would have gotten them cancelled. Apple Music calls it “pushing boundaries.” I don’t think that goes far enough.
But I’ve renewed my ticket on this train of thought (oy with the trains already) for other reasons, too. Maybe the quarantine experience’s distortion of reality draws one too many parallels to the Exile on Main St. sessions at Villa Nellcôte, summer ’71, with its serial distractions and interminable anxiety and threatened, thwarted creativity. Maybe this soundtrack represents a last-ditch effort to romanticize the harrowing uncertainty of being young and on your own in a foreign place and sorting out the next way to get by. Maybe, after what has essentially been a months-long psychological obstacle course, I just need to jump around.
Whatever the case, the next few entries will probe the mystique, the madness, and the miraculously tenable formula that took the Stones from success to SUCCESS. It will make for a rather specialized study, as the stretch I care about is the stuff I really care about, and if I were to try to treat the whole half-century run with the same critical eye I wouldn’t live to see the end. Call it a bit of escapism, courtesy of one of the most alluring band mythologies in the book. Who knows, I might even tell you what their best song is–and it’s not up for debate.
Just go with it. You’ll see.
*I’ll refer you here once more, because this one might top that list. It possibly invented the tradition (followed by songs like “My Sharona”) of a riff absolutely wasted on a lyric.
Image: not totally sure where this one comes from, but I hadn’t seen it before and I took an instant liking to it, and not only due to the presence of Brian Jones