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Tuesday, May 22, 2012  

No Satisfaction

I was of course not going to miss Mick Jagger's appearance on Saturday Night Live, and though one is always going to hope for a cameo by the full band, it didn't disappoint. All the same, the music did suggest a melancholy truth of Mick's, and the band's career.

In his memoir Keith Richards described, and presumably exacerbated, a decades-long rift between him and Jagger, and he did so while studiously avoiding any high roads. It was not a pleasant thing to behold, in the midst of an otherwise splendid tale, and I am accustomed to embracing virtually everything Keith does. Bill Wyman (not the bassist), writing in Slate, penned a clever, even moving response in Jagger's voice:

The second important thing is Keith's talent. We took it for granted, in a way, as he says. We felt it was our duty to get together and write a song, one good song each day we worked. He is kind to say I could take what he gave me and run with it. But he is the one who gave me the actual song to write the lyrics to. He wrote a dozen Top 10 hits in five years, and, after the band added Mick Taylor and essentially grew up, he wrote most of Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed. Again: What were you doing at 25? It's interesting to me how no previous song we'd recorded would have a respectable place on those albums; and any song on them would have seem out of place even on Aftermath or Between the Buttons. Keith's lurch forward was amazing. As a pure rock (not folk or pop) songwriter, I think he is not just without peer. I think he is unrivaled in depth and growth, from "As Tears Go By" to "Satisfaction" to "Jumping Jack Flash" to, I don't know, "Gimme Shelter. " "Monkey Man." "Street Fighting Man." The primal feel of the chording. The musicality of the intros and breaks. The innovation of the recording—cruder, no doubt, but I will argue far more emotionally powerful than the Beatles'. The winding, intermixed guitars he almost desperately loved. Without him, what would I have been? Peter Noone? It is hard to use a word like integrity about a band as compromised, as self-bloodied, as we were. But for some years, unlike any other group, the Beatles included, we declared war on that silly, hypocritical, repressive, and arbitrary society in which we lived. The only ammunition we had were Keith's songs. The lyrics, I confess now, may have been in their defiance just Ă©pater la bourgeoisie and in their poesy derivatively Zimmerman-esque. Even when they weren't, no one would have paid attention if the chords weren't arresting, irrefutable. The songs spoke primarily through their music, not their words. Keith's doting fans nattering on about the ultimate avatar of rock 'n' roll authenticity irritate me, it's true; but he may to this day be underappreciated. 

What I noticed about Mick's performance was not just the obvious: it was all Stones material, all from the sixties and seventies excepting his throwaway original blues song. More significantly, the songs he picked were either from that early period ("The Last Time," "19th Nervous Breakdown," "She's a Rainbow," "Ruby Tuesday") or a standard-tuning rocker from later on ("It's Only Rock n' Roll"). These are fine songs, and Mick can flick them out of the park without breaking a sweat when he's in front of a tight outfit like Arcade Fire or Foo Fighters. What was missing, what would always be missing, is the big open-tuned chords of that high period: "Jumping Jack Flash," "Gimme Shelter," "Street Fighting Man," "Brown Sugar," "Honky Tonk Women," "Rocks Off," "Tumbling Dice." The mystery of these songs is all in the guitars, and more specifically in their tuning. They use tunings that Keith Richards mastered and that few, if any, standard-tuning guitar gods will touch. It's easy enough to imagine The Kinks or even The Beatles recording "The Last Time," but there is only one band that could have done "Jumping Jack Flash," and in fact there still is. No one can cover these songs without basically ripping their heart out by transposing them to standard chords.

And so the core of Mick's canon is, in effect, useless to him as a solo performer. The dilemma is even worse for Keith. His voice has a croaky charm, but after he blows through his own lead-vocal chestnuts and the early Stones R&B covers, usually with the help of a stronger vocalist, he can't go near the great stuff either. They are both so diminished when apart, both hugely talented but laboring in the shadow of a collaboration that long since soured. It's more painful and obvious even than Lennon and McCartney; they had been working separately for so long, and their instrumental talents were so dispensable, that a division of musical effects was pretty straightforward after the Beatles fell apart.

Reading Keith's book made me long for the Salman Rushdie of an earlier period, the kind of novelist who could do this story some justice. Two former schoolmates meet at a train station, become famous within months, and end up locked in an artistic and temperamental death-embrace that crosses decades and continents. Each man must be painfully aware--must have been for decades now--as he gears up to grace the world with a live performance, that the bulk of his output is either too routine to bother with, or too enmeshed with the other to attempt. It's hard to imagine that one more mega-tour, even preceded by another album, wouldn't be redundant as far as the music is concerned. Sure, there are some more deep cuts to be pulled out and some albums whose reputation could use a second or third of fourth look, but really: what matters is to hear those chords again, and that voice, together as they can't help but be. 

posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 10:40 AM
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