Steve Wilson. On music.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Rolling Stones - Doom and Gloom ... Old Devils Not Yet Dead

Modern media. So fast, so shallow. I feel dirty just participating in it. Okay, not really. But for a music business veteran like myself, the hyper-accelerated rate at which new information about music, and the music itself is processed is brain rattling.

How must the Rolling Stones feel? They were young men in their Twenties emerging from the London blues scene to become teen idols in 1962-64. They cut their teeth on the blues and rhythm ‘n’ blues masters whose records moseyed their way across the Atlantic, shaking thing up over weeks, months and years, not nanoseconds. But things probably felt like they were moving fast for them. And they were, for the time. The machinery of promotion and distribution was in a horse and buggy world compared to today’s drop, drag and download environment.

Nonetheless, in American bohemian enclaves and in London, Liverpool, Newcastle and Manchester a fire was starting. A new single made its way into shops. Kids talked it up, word of mouth stimulated sales. If a band was lucky enough to crack into radio airplay it happened market by market, especially in the U.S.; of course news could travel fast once the phones lit up and some station had a hit with a song. But it was still a snail’s pace compared to now, when you post a song on YouTube on Friday morning and it has 1,771,135 on Sunday morning, as the Stones’ new song “Gloom and Doom” did. And nobody experiencing this music spent a dime! Yes, that is the head of my sound spinning. Of course “Gloom and Doom” is still a few clicks away from “Gangnam Style’s” 460,258,483 views (yes, it’s gone up since this draft was written). Eat your heart out, John Dowland.

 “Doom and Gloom” is the first of two songs the old devils have tracked to call attention to their umpteenth ‘hits’ collection Grrr. They can’t be arsed to actually record an honest to God album, I guess. After all, it’s only been six years, or whatever, since A Bigger Bang. Okay, snide tone retired.

When I hear a new song from icons like the Rolling Stones or Bob Dylan I try to hold two ideas in the mind at the same time. First, it’s impossible to place anything new outside the context of the artist’s recorded history. Second, you have to try. And accordingly I try to imagine what I would think of this music if it were made by some strange, new band (who of course sound a lot like the Rolling Stones, reinforcing the first proposition). Ah, hell. I think that were there a Rolling Stones informed vision of rock ‘n’ roll music without there having been a Rolling Stones, I would say ‘these guys rock.’ But it is sort of like Hazel Motes’ “church of truth without Christ.”

Even not talking about them, you’re talking about them. 

Various comments about “Doom and Gloom” have attempted to place it instantly within the Stones’ pantheon (premature), or to posit some sort of referential construct - including the usual, bogus claim that it “harkens back to Exile;” Sure, whatever. It doesn’t. That genie is long out of the bottle, pilgrims. And the bottle was full of hurt and death. Fans love to live vicariously through their favorite artists, through their dark days in dank basements. Fans, like bedsit voyeurs wrapping themselves in a virtuoso method performance, ignoring the fact that there there were real casualties (cue: Jim Carroll’s “People Who Died.”). But don’t cry for me, Bianca Jagger.

The point is that’s there no point, after a point, in evoking or raking the artist over the coals of past glories. The Stones have never equaled Exile on Main Street, although Some Girls was competitive. For me, the post-Exile Stones is a worthwhile proposition because they have continued to provide quality entertainment, and once in a while illumination. If they aren’t the artists they once were, they are still great song and dance men. And like Dylan in any given year, their suckiest albums have had two or three songs that hit the spot, songs that you find yourself returning to more than that year’s flava of the moment years down the road. Even Bridges to Babylon, you say? Okay, maybe not.

Reflexive contextual framework bull crap aside, here’s what “Doom and Gloom” is – it’s as good as the Rolling Stones could possibly sound in 2012. It’s not “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Gimme Shelter,” the urgency and danger that made those songs possible has passed. But is there continuity, sure there is. For all of the rape, murder and fire sweeping the street in “Shelter,” in the end Mick was trying to, you know, get some. The apocalyptic surroundings, mostly Keith's dark, shimmering, then piercing guitar, Charlie's wonderful thud, and of course the great Merry Clayton's vocal upstage, made him sound imperiled, even heroic, but ignoring the scenery it was about the Jaggster dipping his wick.

In “Doom and Gloom” he sprays lyrics about a plane crash and zombies in a rapid fire “Too Much Monkey Business” fashion, but by the end of the chorus he professes his primary concern: “baby, won’t you dance with me?” Sweet of him to offer in the midst of the mayhem, dun ya think? And (ah, sweet) he does it in the Fifties euphemistic language of “Dance with Me Henry,” as if Ed Sullivan was looking over his shoulder asking him to sing “some time” instead of “the night” together.

And this, ladies and gentleman, is why I love the Rolling Stones. They rocked sexual freedom right into our living rooms, just as Elvis Presley had, but with even less inhibition. They learned the rhythms of the Delta, the south side of Chicago, New Orleans, and Memphis so well, and by interpreting them in distinct and individual ways they spoke to their life and times. They took the message of African-American culture places it couldn’t have gone otherwise. Sure, it was racism that made this triumph possible, but that’s not the fault of the Rolling Stones. Their homage was both sincere and transcendent. Putting the hip shake in the groin of suburban white kids was surely critical to the emerging consensus favoring sexual pleasure. The Rolling Stones loosened things up. Carriers of a liberating, libidinal virus, they helped changed the world.

Of course they courted feminist scorn, especially in the Seventies, with their risqué lyrics and sado-masochistic promotional imagery. I’m here neither to apologize for them nor to excuse them. They were experimenting in the spotlight. Was “Some Girls” (the song) sexist and racist? Maybe. I don’t really care. I tried to. But I don’t. And I think that generation of women’s warriors lost the larger plot. The ribaldry of the Rolling Stones was ultimately not pornographic, rarely exploitative, and finally more about liberation than oppression. It’s something younger women understand and take for granted, that sexuality is a blessing not a curse, that pleasure isn’t the devil’s domain. If the Rolling Stones behaved questionably, at least give them credit for shaking us up.

How’s the music? It's pretty damn good. “Doom and Gloom” lurches forward without wasting a second - first with Keith and Ronnie’s twin rhythm guitars, Charlie enters after seven seconds, Mick’s yap is full throttle instantly at thirteen seconds. Vocal mixed forward. Jagger seems to have dropped his most affected mannerisms. Of course he’s always and all mannerism, a leering, bug-eyed White Negro, but in the Eighties and Nineties he was reduced to jealously imitating whatever shit pop singer was topping him on the charts; here, the older, wiser, more self-possessed singer of A Bigger Bang returns. He sounds like this great rock ‘n’ roll singer, named Mick Jagger.

The sound of the recording is closest to stuff like “Dancing with Mr. D,” with its rhythms at once lugubrious and cutting, while the rhythm guitar parts resemble “Undercover (of the Night).” It rocks. It’s leering, sinewy and not without menace. Just like we like our Stones. And in that it controverts any snot-nosed “why don’t they just give up” critique – for me, anyway. On the other hand, when you hear some fan raving about it being a classic (probably not, at least it’s premature) your suspicion is warranted. Finally, though, it’s a good tune, a fiery performance from one of the greatest artists of the last fifty years. It’s a pleasure to have, to add to your favorite Stones playlists or mix CDs. I mean, really, at this point should we expect more?


Darrell said...

Good piece, sjw.

Regarding "Bridges To Babylon", there were a couple of decent tracks that worked well in concert, namely "Out Of Control" and "Saint of Me." Sure, one is not much more than a remake of "Fingerprint File," and the other could have been on a Mick Jagger solo album, but I think they're still good tracks.

sjw said...

I shortchanged it a little. Just being a jerk. I can't love on the Stones without spanking them a little.