Three thoughts about the Rolling Stones – Gloom and Doom

The emotional heart of my recent science-fiction/corporate espionage short story was inspired by Rolling Stones imagery.

I am not entirely comfortable with my proclivity to treat real people as mythological figures in my internal cosmology.

Nonetheless I recently returned to thinking about music through autobiography and started reading Ronnie*. This has inspired the following thoughts in no particular order:

1). Keith Richards autobiography Life might have been a better biography if he had demonstrated a greater degree of self-awareness, but as a literary work, that awareness could have been fatal.

Adherence to reality aside, Life conjures up a portrait of a man overflowing with raw talent and passion for which he is rewarded with enormous success.

It also reveals a man trapped by the limitations of narrowly defined masculinity and his own image. He seeks redemption in friendship and art, even as he fails to acknowledge his own role in undermining the efficacy of these elements in his own life.

None of this would have the same layered depth, the same nuance, if you had a fully self-aware author. The phrase “show, don’t tell” is overused writing advice, but it applies here. As a novel, it leaves the reader wondering if the narrator is even a good person. What does it mean to leave to leave that kind of trail of destruction and not have any real sense of responsibility for it?

As it stands, Life is a beautiful portrait of undeniable talent mixed with obliviousness.

2) The commonly cited theory that the Rolling Stones recent albums are mere retreads of past glory’s holds up if you narrow your focus to their greatest hits. But their critical success rests primarily on the their streak from Beggars Banquet – Exile on Main Street.

Listen to those albums with fresh ears and you’ll notice that the Rolling Stones (for good or ill) have not even attempted to replicate the same heady mix of blues and folk that that they exemplified during that period.

If nothing else, their recent production relishes in clarity, while these albums are confident attempts to to bury their dynamic riffs and simplistic lyrics** behind layers of atmosphere.

At their worst the last three albums (Voodoo Lounge onward), are cynical retreads of Start Me Up, but they have not attempted to ape triumphs such as Jigsaw Puzzle, Loving Cup, or Can’t You Hear Me Knocking.

The trash on their recent albums are clearly throwaway Rock and Roll McSingles, but for my tastes I can cobble together a pretty good album with selective editing. But even that mix-tape of an album has few of the sonic influences that they were playing around with at their peak.

3). It is surreal is it that they have released a Greatest Hits Album (containing up to 80 tracks) entitled GRRR!

Seriously…. GRRR!

It is even stranger that barely anyone comments on the absurdity of this.

On the other hand, GRRR! contains one of their better McSingles titled: Gloom and Doom. The music is serviceable, gritty and on the right track, but lacks dynamism.  It’s lyrically great and it grew on my after repeated listenings.

It’s the kind of song that in a different context would make me think “this band is really onto something – I can’t wait to hear what they do when they get an album together.”

Who knows what they could do if they cared to really try.

*Random non-music autobiography book recommendations:  The Swerve (which demonstrates how old modernity is) and End This Depression Now! (which functions as nice economic’s primer for mainstream liberal thought and shows that money does strange things in large groups).

**My internal struggle with the content of most of their lyrics merits its own post.

Playing favorites: Cameron Crowe, redeeming Elizabehtown and trying my hand at film criticism

Q: What is your favorite film?

A: An unhelpful question. “Favorite” is vague enough to be meaningless and my answer is likely to change based on a variety of social contexts – none of which come into play when questioning myself.

Q: What’s a film that reveals something about you that you value?

A: Slightly better. Although my answer will still be random, at least we’ve eliminated Braveheart.

Q: Fine. What’s the movie you’ve had the most radical change of heart about?

A: Well now see Bravehearts back in the mix…

In this way we eventually approach Elizabethtown.  The linked trailer does justice to my first viewing. I almost walked out of the theater, casually dismissing the film as an unremarkable pat romance with some uninteresting family drama and a too long scavenger hunt at the end.

History has not been kind, and the general consensus seems agree with that interpretation.

Then I read Roger Ebert’s 3-star review, and I found an extra detail that caused me to reconsider. You see, at the start of the film, the protagonist is fired from the shoe company. This is the great professional failure that sets everything into motion (oh yeah- spoilers ahead for Elizabethtown & Almost Famous). Ebert writes:

“In the first cut of the film, there was a great deal more of the journey, followed by a pointless epilogue in which the Spasmodica shoe turns out to be a hit after all, because with every step you take, it whistles.” (emphasis mine).

It was this absurd detail – the idea that his great failure had been turned into success through some Jiminy Cricket like insane optimism.

Upon reading that I was suddenly able to see the movie not just as a long dirge with some manic pixie girl thrown in, but as a metaphor. Once I stepped back an inch everything else fell into place.

The scenes worked on there own just fine, but their power came from wielding larger concepts around with them.

Concepts about death. About love. About the meaning of life and parenthood and optimism and truly knowing someone else.

This highlights a few things:

1) I’m not so bright.

2) Context is everything. I could have gotten this context from knowing Crowe’s work.

Or from the opening of the film which signals it like a bat signal if you’re looking for it. Or maybe if I’d had a better breakfast that morning – who knows.

I do not mean to imply that detail about the whistling shoes should have been left in. Rather that viewing the film requires that we bring something of ourselves to the experience and what I bring can be unpredictable and may say more about me than the film.

3) Really good art can inspire interesting commentary even if the commentary isn’t particularly approving. Try searching for reviews of L. Cohen’s Old Ideas.

Once I saw the film with these larger themes in mind – it became a masterpiece.

The love plot became a layered balancing act of meaningful dialogue that commented both on the history of “meet cutes” as well as counter-balancing the foreboding sense of death, failure, suicide and regret.

Her manic pixie girl status wasn’t just a cheat or lazy writing, it was a conceit that opened doors.

Once I wasn’t watching just another romantic comedy, but engaging it as a something of substance it opened up and rewarded me for it.

Allow me to use an example from a better regarded Cameron Crowe film (since it has a youtube clip available – and because I’m slightly intimidated by Elizabethtown).

Sample Scene: Here

Here the “talent” of the band is getting back on the tour bus after a night of ill-advised partying. When they last left, it was unclear if he would return, or if the band was done for.

More importantly, the lead singer of the band, has made it clear that the rest of the band simply does not like him. The core of the tension is unresolved. This theme is hammered home throughout the movie. Time and time again when crisis hits – when you’d expect them to pull together and find a deep love for each other – they come up dry. They come up with selfishness and bitterness.

So why does the band stay together? Is it money/fame (partially yes). But then why do we care about them?

This scene argues compellingly that the answer is: music.

Sure they are all failures as human beings and friends.

But then there is the music. A theme (one of many) echoed throughout the film, from the rock critic to the too-wise band-aid. It is the heart of the film. It’s where the film begins, and ends.

Or maybe the movie is about a rock critic trying to maintain his distance so he can write about the music. Or maybe it’s about his love of the girl who puts her head on his shoulder, but is not with him.

It’s all there. The whole film is in that scene.

It also gets him out of the party, back on the bus and keeps things moving along pretty quick.

Or maybe it’s all in that song choice. It has the right kind of fame and feel to be sung on a bus. Not a bus I might be on, but a bus full of rock stars reaching for a way to show some appropriate manly sensitivity.

Not just a song that was famous around this time, but like the film, a song of this time. All enchanced if you bring certain cultural knowledge to bear on the moment, but works well on it’s own.

And of course it says a lot about the band-aid as well.

What I’m saying is, if you think Almost Famous has layers, give Elizabethtown a second viewing.

Or maybe it’s that I’m usually a lazy viewer and I woke up this one time.

More on this when I get the courage to break down Elizabethtown in detail. And if you beg, I’ll talk your ear off about Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

The Power is Yours For the Taking

Greetings Stumblers,

A Purple GoatA purple goat

You hold the power in your hands. You can change the course of a life.  Lives. If you walk away, nothing happens. But if you click the thumbs up button… If you share this link…

then others will see it.

And if they do the same. My friends, you might start a movement.

That is, until you crash my servers, because I use cut-rate hosting.

That’s not the end. It’s the beginning. It will force others to act. I will need to decide how dedicated I am to this.

Until I realize it’s not a decision. You will inspire me. How can I, or anyone stand in your way?

I know some of you are thinking: “Well this is kinda fun, and I liked the goat picture. But someone else will surely hit the ‘like’ button.” Someone else will make it happen.

But there is nobody else except for you.

That’s it. All society is, is a collection of you’s.  When we band together  social structures are formed but without your active participation it all falls apart.

Some of us live in an attention based economy and you are the taste-makers if you choose to stand up and claim your right.

And if you don’t feel like making some random blog a temporary blip on the internet famous scale, consider joining EFF. Or something else all together.

Andy Rooney

Andy Rooney died a few months ago. Today I came across the column of his that made me fall in love with him. I loved that created a solid, entertaining column about his love of wood. I came to his work with irony in mind. I wanted his job. To simply absorb life’s details and report them without pretension.

In retrospect that column was not his best work perhaps. For his best you really need to grab a copy of one of his books. Even then what he was after was something that doesn’t link well. It was not flashy or attention grabbing.

But in his own way, like Roger Ebert and Miss Manners he was so good for so long that he came to define a genre, and the quality of his work hovered on being taken for granted. The joking was usually in good fun, but if you look his work with fresh eyes it holds up on its own.

 

Life – Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Media Images and so on

Eventually this post will resolve into a minor point of media criticism. But it starts with…

I just finished “reading” the Keith Richards “autobiography” Life.

Whew, that was a lot of hyperlinks.  The word reading is in quotations because I listened to the audiobook rather than using a print copy (and the link goes to Stephan King’s thoughts on the practice).

Autobiography is in quotes because the book’s creation process strains the word “autobiography” without quite breaking it.

Overall the book was well-written enough to offer some insight into Keith Richards, the human being, despite the fact that it never quite escapes being based on interviews with someone who has spent years cultivating a very limiting media image (and potentially a limiting self-image).

For instance, the book manages to capture the contradictions and insanity of the junkie logic Keith still uses to defend his past addictions even as it also includes his protestations that heron is bad.

How much you will enjoy these ramblings may depend on your tolerance for an insightful portrait of a rock and roll star who defines a certain kind of “cool”.

Or more to the point of this post, the book conveys some of the depth and breadth of the complicated relationship Keith has with Mick Jagger (his co-song writer in the band the Rolling Stones), without actually spending that much time on it. It captures the sense of two men who have the capacity to create something greater than themselves even as they are weighed down by years of history and very petty infighting.

Certainly Keith comes out looking better than Mick in his telling, but again, the book is good enough that a careful reader will notice the broad outline of why Mick may not be the only villain in their story.

This doesn’t answer the question of why you should care about their petty infighting. But it does offer some insight into to how small it must be to have to be Keith Richards all the time.

The most limiting factor of the book is that it’s written by someone who knows in his media-savy bones that of all the nuanced, spiteful, loving, and childish things he says about about his relationship with Mick, the headlines will boil it down to a particularly juvenile penis joke.

If not that, then something like that was always going to be the cage. And it was one he played into. Maybe he did that to himself, and maybe it’s not a problem for him, but the willingness of the world around him to reduce and celebrate that kind of nonsense probably didn’t help to broaden anyone’s horizons.

I wrote the rest of this to give me an excuse to actively avoiding perpetuating the myth that the worst thing he says about Mick is that joke. Because the media seems to think it is, and this does a disservice to everyone involved. The book portrays the man as something much worse, and more nuanced, even within its severe limitations.

The book is a glimpse into the mind of someone who knows they live in in a cage made of gold and beauty and myth. But can also make music like this.