Friday Fun—Books

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The Rolling Stones: December’s Children (And Everybody’s)

decembersThis is the final album from what I will call the “early years” of the Stones. Released late in 1965, December’s Children isn’t really an album. Much like a few of Capitol Records’ Beatles “albums,” Children is a patchwork quilt of singles, live tracks, and songs from English EPs. It contains only one bona fide classic, and six of the twelve songs are cover songs.

Strangely, the first side of the record (I’m clearly kickin’ it old school here) contains five of the six covers, leaving side two as the real harbinger of what the Stones were really working on at the time.

As usual, the covers are excellent. “She Said Yeah” is played with a ferocity and aggression that would not be commonplace until the English punk movement arrived more than a decade later. The obligatory Chuck Berry cover, “Talkin’ About You” similarly has more grit than the original. The Stones always brought an innate aggression to their cover songs that frequently elevated their versions to levels above the originals. In comparison, the covers done by the Beatles were, with some exceptions ( e.g., “Money,” “Boys,” “Twist And Shout,” “You Really Got A Hold On Me”), usually close approximations of the original tunes, and paled in comparison to the brilliance of Lennon and McCartney’s originals. For the Stones, the covers frequently saved their early albums from being somewhat lightweight. (What the 1963 Stones did to Lennon and McCartney’s “I Wanna Be Your Man” is downright frightening, turning a fairly soppy song given to Ringo as a throwaway into a song of nakedly sexual urgency. It is akin to what Jimi Hendrix did to the utterly banal “Wild Thing” a few years later.)

Covers of Arthur Alexander’s “You Better Move On” and Muddy Waters’s “Look What You’ve Done” are a step down. “You Better Move On” is a very good soul song, but “Look What You’ve Done” sounds like an English band doing blues (and even though that’s exactly what they were, the Stones were always better than that). The vocal on “Look What You’ve Done” is excellent, and Jagger deserves much more credit than he is ever given as a blues singer. The harmonica, likely played by Brian Jones, is on overdrive. It drowns out all the other instruments and does little more than detract from Jagger’s compelling performance.

The sole original on side one, “The Singer Not The Song,” is a throwback to the earlier days of the Jagger/Richards songwriting combination. It’s a good song, but can’t be viewed as anything less than a letdown after “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” And the high note squealed in the fadeout is just brutal. The Stones had mastered blues and rock singing, but were light years behind the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Byrds when it came to singing high harmonies.

Side one ends with a live recording of “Route 66.” At least I think it’s live. It’s got that “studio recording with overdubbed screams” sound to it. Either way, it’s not much to write home about. Without the shrill screams, it’s not a bad performance. But it sounds muddy.

While side one may end with a whimper, side two kicks off with one of the greatest drums licks in rock history, followed by Keith’s unstoppable rhythm guitar and Bill Wyman’s McCartney-esque bass as Jagger sings one of rock’s greatest anthems, “Get Off Of My Cloud.” A hymn to the desire to be left alone, the lyric actually has some nice imagery (“I sit at home/Lookin’ out the window/Imagining the world outside” “The parking tickets/Were like a flag/Stuck on my windscreen”). “Cloud” is really nothing less than a continuation of the saga in “Satisfaction.” Jagger takes a shot at the world of television advertising (“In flies a guy all dressed up like a Union Jack/Says I’ll have five pounds/If I have his kind of detergent pack”), and seems to have decided that his best chance for satisfaction is in being left alone. It’s a thrilling song, even now after all these years and all these listens. Perhaps because it was not as famous as “Satisfaction,” “Get Off My Cloud” can still be heard with fresh ears.

“I’m Free” follows and this also seems to run with the theme. In pursuit of satisfaction, Jagger has chased all hangers-on from his cloud. The result is that he is now free to sing his song, any old time. Earlier he had complained “I can’t get no satisfaction;” now he “can get what I want.” Frankly, the song is a little repetitive, but the vocal is convincing and the music is great. The early song, “As Tears Go By” follows. They’d written this old geezer anthem and given it to the ingenue Marianne Faithfull to sing. From her teenage lips, or from the lips of the young Stones, the lyrics seem a bit precious, as if they were consciously trying to write a song that was “mature.” The string arrangement, undoubtedly done with one eye clearly looking…um, yesterday…is quite nice, and Jagger’s delivery is as good as usual, but the song overall is way too old for the young Stones. In fact, it’s old for the current Stones.

The remaining original songs, “Gotta Get Away” and “Blue Turns to Grey” are both good performances. “Gotta Get Away” is not a particularly compelling song. It feels rushed and underwritten, but the Stones carry it with the strength of their convictions. “Blue Turns To Grey” is the better song, but carries some of the same criticisms that can be applied to “As Tears Go By.” It seems self-consciously “mature” and one can’t help but wonder whether they were trying to catch up to the ever-escalating songwriting prowess of Lennon and McCartney by writing more “adult” songs.

Unfortunately, side two ends with yet another live, or perhaps “faux live” track, “I’m Moving On.” With this song, the album ends as it began—with a full blast of punk rock fury. The performance once again is just plain mean. The ever-present screams of thousands of young girls itching to satisfy Mick make it hard to listen to, though.

The next Stones single, released two months after December’s Children was the epochal “19th Nervous Breakdown.” The song would both cap the Unholy Trinity of Stones classics that began with “Satisfaction” and continued with “Get Off My Cloud” and set the stage for the middle period of the Stones, where the cover songs would all but disappear and Jagger and Richards would refine their songwriting until it began turning out one classic after another.

Grade: B

The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, by Ron Hansen

Unwieldy title aside, Hansen’s 1983 historical novel is a fascinating account of the life and death of America’s most notorious outlaw, and the dissolution of Robert Ford, the man who shot Jesse James in the back on April 3, 1882.

Hansen begins the book with a recounting of the final robbery of the James Gang, in September 1881, then spends a section of the book telling the tale of the outlaw and his robberies. The retelling of the James Gang’s exploits, including the famous botched robbery in Northfield, Minnesota, is handled briefly. This is not a biography of Jesse James.

When the novel picks up again, it is the aftermath of that final train robbery. Jesse James is hiding under the name of Thomas Howard, and his gang has split and gone in different directions. The novel traces the most important members of the gang, Jesse’s cousin Wood Hite, Dick Liddil, Charley Ford and his younger brother Bob Ford, as they make their way in the world. These are crude, violent people and intelligence is not particularly high on their list of attributes. There are sporadic bouts of violence. Wood Hite has a confrontation with Dick Liddil over a woman. When a subsequent confrontation turns violent, Hite is killed by Bob Ford and Dick Liddil is on the run.

Thinking that Hite was killed by Liddil, Jesse James goes on the hunt for Liddil to avenge his cousin.

James recruits the Ford brothers to serve as the nucleus for a new gang, though he is highly suspicious of Bob Ford. With good reason. Bob Ford is in cahoots with the Governor of Missouri to turn over Jesse or kill him.

The death of James is no surprise. It’s enshrined in a folk song about that “dirty little coward” who shot him in the back as James straightened a picture hanging on the wall. For most people, that is where the story ends. Hansen, however, has James killed roughly 2/3rds of the way into the book, leaving the remaining pages to tell the fascinating story of what happened to Robert Ford.

Ford gained a high degree of fame and celebrity for killing James. He recreated the act on stage countless times to packed houses. But Ford’s arrogance also served to alienate many people. Near the end, he was trying to make it as a saloon keeper, and still trying to trade on his name as “The Man Who Shot Jesse James.” He was driven from town and eventually killed himself was shot down ten years after the death of James.

Hansen recreates the Western setting deftly. This is not the West of John Ford and John Wayne in Monument Valley; this is the West of rolling plains in Missouri, small towns, and isolated houses. The characters, especially the two title characters, are vivid and realistic. James is portrayed as a loving family man who cherished his wife and children, but who was also a psychopath and cold-blooded killer. There is a great ambiguity to Robert Ford. Aside from the title, and the opinions of almost all who cross his path, the idea that Ford was truly a coward is questioned. Yes, he shot Jesse James in the back when James was unarmed. However, he had excellent reason to believe that James was planning on killing him later that night, James was almost never unarmed, and James was far better at handling a gun. In a fair fight, there is no way that Robert Ford would not have become just another nameless victim of Jesse James. And Jesse likely would not have fought fair when the time came.

What is most interesting in the book is the retelling of Ford’s experiences after the killing of James. Robert Ford is first hailed as the hero who killed the villain. As time goes by, it is Ford that starts to become vilified, and James who starts to gain stature as some kind of American folk hero. As the years go by, the fame and status of Jesse James grows and the hero worship of Robert Ford becomes outright disdain, leading to his eventual assassination.

Throughout the book, Bob Ford reminds me particularly of Mark David Chapman, the killer of John Lennon. Ford was a wannabe, who worshipped Jesse James, collected newspaper articles and memorabilia. He wanted to be Jesse James. When this proved impossible, Ford the Stalker decided that the only way to link his name forever with that of James was to kill him. Unlike Chapman, who followed a similar learning curve with the ex-Beatle, Ford worked with the law to ensure a large reward (which was never paid to him) and total exoneration for the crime (which he half-received: he was found guilty of murder and sentenced to hang but then received a full pardon).

The book also serves as a refresher on the truth of Jesse James. For some reason, America has always had a love affair with the villains of the past. Billy the Kid, Jesse James, John Wesley Hardin, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Pretty Boy Floyd, John Dillinger…these are the names of genuinely bad people, notorious villains and murderers. Yet their names evoke certain wistfully romantic images of riders on horseback, Model-T cars, tommy guns.

In many ways, Jesse James was a Confederate terrorist. He started with Quantrill’s Raiders after the Civil War, and embarked on his life of crime in order to avenge members of his family who were killed by the Union. James wanted the money to be had in bank and train robberies, but he was also a die-hard Confederate soldier on a mission long after the Civil War had ended. He was a murderer and a psychopath. There is absolutely nothing romantic about his life and crimes, yet just the name evokes startlingly powerful mental images of a time before any of us were born. It is perilously close to a sort of national nostalgia.

Is it the movies? Did Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway turn the idiot murderers Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker into star-crossed lovers? Did the great team of Robert Redford and Paul Newman neuter the reality of Butch and Sundance so much that they became some sort of comic heroes?

Partially, perhaps, but not completely. Long before the movies, singers were writing songs about villains like Jesse James, extolling him as a good and noble family man. Later, Woody Guthrie would write a song about Pretty Boy Floyd that turned the murderer and bank robber into some kind of Robin Hood.

America is a country that has always looked to the future, while dreaming of a largely mythic past. As the past becomes a romantic legend, the villains also take their part. The rational mind understands the reality of thugs like Jesse James, but who ever said nostalgia had to be rational?


UPDATE: I fixed a poorly constructed sentence that made it seem as if Robert Ford committed suicide when, in fact, he was murdered.

Saying Goodbye to Michael Jackson

I’m hearing from all quarters today about the Michael Jackson Memorial that’s happening in L.A. today. As I wrote shortly after his death, Jackson was a talented guy with major problems. Twenty years ago he was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet, achieving levels of fame not seen since the days of Beatlemania. I get it, I really do.

The circus surrounding his memorial says more about the people in attendance than anything else, though. Since the early ’90s, Jackson’s fame has revolved entirely on his physical disintegration, his mental and emotional aberrations, and the accusations of pedophilia. From his sham marriages to his baby-dangling hijinx to hiding the faces of his childen with blankets and masks whenever they went out in public, Jackson’s continued level of fame is based on a combination of nostalgia for the days when Thriller blasted out of MTV every twenty minutes and the urge people have to look at accidents by the side of the road.

My guess is that most of the people in the Staples Center can’t name a Michael Jackson song after “Scream” or “You Are Not Alone” (if they can even remember those). For the record, “Scream” and “You Are Not Alone” came out in 1995, and “Alone” was his last number 1 hit on the Billboard charts. Jackson hasn’t even released an album in the past 8 years, what with those annoying interruptions from the police and all. Yes, Invincible briefly hit the Number 1 spot on Billboard in 2001, but that was just an initial surge of buying from the hardcore fans. You have to go back an additional 10 years to 1991 for the last real hit album he released.

Which, at long last, brings me to my point. Hey, it’s my site and I’ll take as long as I want to get to the point.

There certainly are legitimate mourners today: Jackson’s family, his friends, and his lawyers just to name a few hundred. But the Staples Center is filled with people who are mourning themselves. They are mourning the long-gone days of dancing to “Billie Jean” or eagerly anticipating the much-hyped premiere of the “Thriller” video. Jackson’s music was an integral part of their lives and in the midst of Jacksonmania in 1983 when the world was younger and so were we, Jackson seemed somehow more than mortal. Surely a man with this much talent (and who had not yet boarded the Crazy Train, though he was clearly waiting at the station with his bags packed) would live forever.

Michael Jackson was the Man in the Mirror for so many of those at the Staples Center. The weeping and gnashing of teeth, out of all proportion for a has-been pop star with a predilection for cuddling up to young boys, is a cry for a lost youth for most of those people who are lining the streets. I am sure there are some real fans who are legitimately upset. I was upset by the murder of John Lennon, and the stupid, stupid death of Kurt Cobain. I get that, too. But when Cobain killed himself, I never once thought along the lines of this truly disgusting open letter. What the writer of this letter fails to realize is that it is precisely this type of revolting sycophancy that hurt Jackson. What Jackson needed was not some knucklehead to tell him that he was “the Alpha.” He had plenty of those jackals surrounding him. Jackson needed someone to sit him down and say, “It’s time to grow the hell up, Mike.” It’s a good message for many of those spending today with tears in their eyes, too.

If you wish to honor the man’s music, put on Thriller and dance the night away, and reminisce about days gone by. Save the tears for someone who deserves them.


UPDATE: Michelle Malkin reminds us who really deserves honors.

The Rolling Stones: Out Of Our Heads

outofourheads

Not to be confused with Ron Nasty’s first book, Out Of Me Head, the fourth Rolling Stones album finds them mining the same fertile grounds they had on the previous records, with a few exceptions that are nothing short of magnificent.

Once again, as on 12 X 5, the accent here is less on pure blues and more on soul music. Don Covay’s “Mercy Mercy” and Marvin Gaye’s classic Motown hit “Hitch Hike” start off the album in a familiar style. As usual, the Stones are still one of the very best cover bands that ever played. Jagger may not be a particularly great soul singer in comparison to the originators, but he still manages to be pretty convincing, especially on “That’s How Strong My Love Is.” You won’t forget Otis Redding’s version after hearing Jagger’s, but for a pasty white English boy, Jagger more than delivers.

The other covers are consistently excellent, including an outstanding version of Sam Cooke’s “Good To Me.” The Stones bring their blues roots to the soul mix with the Solomon Burke hit “Cry To Me.”

The covers are not as smartly chosen as the ones on The Rolling Stones, Now! but they are played with the same raw style. Brian Jones and Keith Richards continue to be the best two-guitar attack in rock music.

The thing that separates Out Of Our Heads from the earlier albums are the original songs. On prior albums, the Stones were clearly finding their way as songwriters. Even as recently as Now! there were only four original songs. At some point the Jagger/Richards combo started clicking. There are seven original songs on Out Of Our Heads, including a raw, funny blues dedicated to the unsung heroes of the music business, “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotions Man.” Of the remaining originals, “One More Try” is a quick shuffle and not all that indistinguishable from a mediocre Yardbirds track, minus the searing Clapton leads, and “I’m All Right” is really nothing more than a groove, and not a terribly interesting groove at that.

Where Jagger and Richards really start to get close to the target is with the two near classics: “The Spider and The Fly” is an original song that sounds as if it is a cover of a blues standard. Finally the Stones have come genuinely close to the heart of blues music in an original song. The lyric is both funny and clever and is one of the earliest examples of Jagger’s notorious satyriasis. Poor Mick, lured to the bed of an older woman (almost 30!).

“Play With Fire” is even closer to the mark. Not really a blues, it is more of an attempt at an original, slow-burning soul song. The excellent lyric serves as a warning to a rich, spoiled, high-society woman who is used to getting whatever (and whoever) she wants. Most unusual is the quiet harpsichord throughout the song, an early example of the kind of instrumental stretching that Brian Jones was starting to explore. The choice of harpsichord is perfect, adding a stately, almost Victorian, air to a song directed at a member of the British upper crust.

With “The Last Time” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” the Stones not only hit the target, they obliterated it. These two songs are so much higher in their quality than the surrounding songs that they stand out as sore thumbs. The only parallel I can think of is the inclusion of the devastating “You Really Got Me” on the first Kinks album (a completely unremarkable collection of mediocre Merseybeat songs).

“The Last Time” begins with one of the most recognizable Stones guitar licks of all time. Then the band comes in firing on all cylinders. The Jones/Richards guitar interplay in the solo is breathtaking, as are the backing vocals that chime in at the end as Jagger starts shouting and scatting in a style that he would later perfect in “Sympathy For The Devil.” Probably most unusual is the fact that the chorus on “The Last Time” veers strongly towards country music. There’s nearly a twang to Jagger’s delivery, and shows that even at this early stage exposure to American radio was shaping the music of the Stones as they assimilated the many sounds around them.

“Satisfaction” needs no introduction really. It may be one of the most overheard songs of the last 44 years. It’s been played at every Stones concert and is one of the pillars of classic rock radio. The fuzz guitar riff that starts the song like a rocket engine is probably the single most easily-identified riff in the history of popular music. There’s probably nobody over the age of 14 who can’t name that tune in five notes, and nobody over the age of 30 who can’t name it in two. Richards wrote probably the single greatest riff in rock and roll history, with all due respect to “Smoke On The Water,” “Sunshine Of Your Love” and a couple of dozen Led Zeppelin songs.

Most importantly, the music connects perfectly to the lyrics. The chorus of the song reflects Satyr Mick’s longing for satisfaction, but the verses imply that the satisfaction being sought is more than purely sexual (though that plays a big part). The whole of the lyric implies a search for meaning in everything that was going on around the Stones. Radio DJs with their mindless blather leave Mick longing for something deeper (probably wishing Murray the K would shut up and play some music), television advertisements similarly leave him confused and wanting more (with the brilliant lyrical swipe at advertising “Some man comes on to tell me/How white my shirts can be/But he can’t be a man/’Cause he doesn’t smoke/The same cigarettes as me”). The whirlwind of touring in both England and the States is leaving our singer disoriented and clamoring for something more. Even in the final verse, when the Stones are touring and appearing on promotional jaunts (“doing this and signing that”), the solace of a woman is out of reach. Rumors of the day implied that the woman in the song rejected our young Lothario because it was that time of the month for her (“Better come back/Maybe next week/’Cause you see I’m on a losing streak”). If I ever get the chance to ask Mick I will, because that reading of the lyric makes perfect sense.

Far from being the easily caricatured song of sexual frustration that many people assume, “Satisfaction” is actually a brilliant lyric set to an apocalyptic riff. It is hard to imagine that Jagger and Richards would write better songs, and it is only overexposure that knocks “Satisfaction” down a few pegs from where it rightly belongs, near the pinnacle of rock songwriting craft and, importantly, rock recording. The world of rock music is filled with one-hit wonders, but any band capable of writing “Satisfaction” was clearly going to be around for the long haul. It’s too bad the rest of the album falls short of “Satisfaction” and “The Last Time,” but it’s also understandable.

Grade: B+

The Listening Post: June 2009

Quickie reviews of what’s been rockin’ the Odd Pod this month.

  • Rory GallagherRory Gallagher. Early ’70s blues boogie from the Emerald Isle. Gallagher is a ferocious guitar player whose whiskey-soaked vocals on this, his first solo album after the breakup of the band Taste, provide an additional layer of grit. He’s not as mannered a guitarist as someone like Eric Clapton, preferring to play in a raw, warts-and-all style. There are also several acoustic songs on the album which add a great deal of depth to the overall sound. His slide guitar workouts like “Sinner Boy” sound like a gutter-born Duane Allman. The only problem here is that too many of the songs are merely okay. His second album, Deuce, is superior, but this is a fine listen for fans of raunchy blues guitar. Grade: B
  • Fire And WaterFree. Best known for including the classic rock standard, “All Right Now,” Free’s most well-known album is a surprisingly groove-oriented hard rock collection. Most of the seven songs on the album are slow, and there is little of the guitar freakouts expected on most albums of this nature, though the bass guitar gets a workout on “Mr. Big.” Lighter than Black Sabbath, slower than Led Zeppelin, more stripped down than Deep Purple, and more soulful than any of their hard rock contemporaries, Free gets by on the power of their songs and their lead vocalist, Paul Rodgers. The drawbacks are that there’s a certain sameness to some of the performances and the songs stretch the limits of how long they really need to be. Grade: B