Sunday, October 28, 2012

Music Sunday: Another View of the Rolling Stones Edition, plus a book review

I've never been that big a fan of the Rolling Stones. It isn't that I don't like their music; some of their songs are classic. I think it's mostly because I've always had the impression that Mick Jagger can be sort of an ass. On the other hand, I've always been sort of intrigued by Keith Richards, who seems to be a walking, talking set of contradictions. He has this reputation as being "bad, mad, and dangerous to know" (I don't know who said that first, but I've heard it over and over gain), but he is, by all accounts, extremely well read and fairly articulate for someone who has ingested the amount of liquor and drugs he reputedly has.

Well, last week, I read another book about the Stones, sort of, Under Their Thumb: How a Nice Boy from Brooklyn Got Mixed Up with The Rolling Stones (and Lived to Tell About It) (2009, Villard Books; 354 pages), by Bill German. Like the book I read about Led Zeppelin's 1975 US tour, and reviewed here recently, Under Their Thumb is really more about the writer than the band. Unlike the author of the Zeppelin book, Bill German acknowledges in the title that the book is really about him and his adventures as writer/editor/publisher of the fan newsletter "Beggars Banquet", which he put out more or less on his own beginning in 1978, on his sixteenth birthday, and continuing until 1996. During that time, German became friends with the band, especially with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, even ghostwriting an art book with Wood along the way.

It's a good book, with interesting insights into the life of the band and the lives of its members during a time that doesn't get that much attention. German was there during the years when it seemed that there might not be any more Rolling Stones, as the band struggled through personality clashes and disagreements and then came back bigger, but indebted to big corporations in ways that changed the band and its relationships with the music and the fans in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. It is also the story of how a teenage boy, through hard work, persistence, and luck, got to hang out with his favorite rock band and make a living writing about them. Not that it was much of a living. Even though his newsletter was the Stones' official newsletter for a period of about a year and a half, he never made much money from it. It's expensive, following a bad around the world amid ever-higher ticket prices (again, thanks to its association with corporations), after all.

By the time German began to hang with The Stones, a lot of their more controversial work and behavior was behind them. They had not, individually at least, gotten any less interesting, even if they didn't quite live up to the "bad boy" image that had cultivated since their earliest days as a band, not least through the songs they recorded early on in their career.

For instance, I found this oddity, from a television performance in 1965, of "Play With Fire", that presents all kinds of mixed messages, illustrating fairly well why The Stones were the band that your parents didn't want you listening to:

Things didn't get any better when they recorded "Let's Spend The Night Together" in 1967, and then got positively dire when they released "Sympathy For The Devil" in 1968. Unlike the Beatles, the Stones were not out to play nice.

Here is a performance of "Let's Spend The Night Together" from Top of the Pops the year it was released:

Of course, Mick Jagger was not above altering the lyrics of the song to "let's spend some time together" for The Ed Sullivan Show in the US. He wanted the exposure, after all, and at that time, the Sullivan show was the ultimate in exposure. Jagger showed, however, by some pretty dramatic eye-rolls during the performance, that he thought the whole idea of having to change the lyrics was really pretty damn stupid:

"Sympathy for the Devil", of course, started rumors that The Stones were Devil-worshipers, despite the fact that it is one of their best songs, here in a much later live performance:

The Stones' reputation was not enhanced after their free concert at Altamont Speedway in California in 1969, which essentially ended the Sixties when a concert-goer was stabbed to death by Hell's Angels. Well, the bikers were serving as security (not necessarily the wisest choice for that role), and the victim, Meredith Hunter, had been waving a gun around near the stage (a stupid thing to do even before the days of terrorist threats), but The Stones took a lot of the blame for the incident, especially after rumors spread that the band had been singing "Sympathy for the Devil" at the time of the stabbing, something that a viewing of the concert footage proves to be untrue.

The picture Bill German paints of the later Rolling Stones in Under Their Thumb is much less threatening. Sure, Jagger is "a nice bunch of guys", as German is told by Richards and Wood at one point in the book, referring to Jagger's variable personas and an inability for even those closest to him to predict which one of those guys they were going to get on any particular day, or even from one hour to the next. And there is a lot of drug use and drinking, although German insists that he never did drugs with The Stones - never did drugs period. German further claims that Richards defended him in that when others accused German of maybe being a narc when he refused to snort a line. All in all, the members of the Stones as portrayed by German are much nicer, and much more human, that their reputation would have us believe.

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