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.

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.