Wednesday, September 4, 2013

The Singers and the Songs: A Conversation with Bill Janovitz

Bill Janovitz's Rocks Off is a smart and engaging tour through fifty Rolling Stones songs that, as the author writes in his introduction, "were chosen, in part, to tell the story of fifty years of the band." Divided into Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, and Ron Wood sections, Rocks Off will surely ignite disputes, as all good-natured lists are bound to do. (Uh, "She Was Hot"? Really? And where's "When The Whip Comes Down"? [see below] Or "Love In Vain"? [ditto].) But Janovitz is less interested in arguing for the greatest Stones tracks than he is in discussing songs that are the most telling, that, in total, dramatize a long, complex story about iconic commercial artists who've endured successes and failures, hot-streaks and cold-war eras, internal dissension against world-wide adulation, and suffered sometimes brutally against the laws of diminishing returns. What Janovitz had to decide is what is the story of the Rolling Stones, and which of their songs most fully and memorably narrate that story?

A musician himself (in Buffalo Tom and as a solo artist) and the author of a previous book on the Stones (2005's Exile On Main Street in the 33 1/3 Series), Massachusetts-based Janovitz weaves song analysis and the occasional fan-gushing within a broader history of the band and the culture in which they lived, using tunes as aural snapshots of a week, month, or year in the band's history. A veteran music scribe at All Music Guide and other outlets, Janovitz writes with expertise about the songs' formal components and about recording studio tech specs, but the book never bogs down in arcane musical terms or gear fetishism: Janovitz writes as a fan first. Lucky for us, he's a knowledgeable fan, and a lively writer.

Recently I virtually sat down with Janovitz and asked him about Rocks Off.


You write in the book's introduction, "These songs are not necessarily my favorites; they were chosen, in part, to tell the story of fifty years of the band." Could you expand on that criteria a bit? I'm curious as to how you chose the songs you did; I'm certain that many were left out. 

I wanted to choose songs that were original compositions and wanted to have each record represented. So I start with their first self-penned single, "Tell Me," and go all the way through their career up to last year (when I started writing), ending with "Plundered My Soul" from the Exile re-issue. The latter was a good way to discuss their embrace and repackaging of their back catalog. They have always been commercially keen about this, but they seemed to come to a greater appreciation for such classic albums artistically as well, as is evidenced by their deeper and more varied live set lists circa 2000-on.

But my approach also meant I could not load it up with 50 favorites. I had to leave many great songs out. It is not a Top 50 or "Best of." But I wanted all the songs chosen to be good ones, faves if possible. I left off one of my top favorites, "Winter" to make room for "Angie" from Goat's Head Soup. "Angie" was an important record for them, as it was a chart-topper at a point where the band was barely holding together. It was the start of a battle to stay relevant. The choice of the song for the book helped forward that narrative. 

Why did you limit yourself original compositions, when the group's covers (as a young band, and later in the 1960s with "Love In Vain") are a significant part of their story?

I can't imagine sacrificing an original from some of the best songwriters of their generation for a cover, not matter how it helped inform their sound, direction, or how they reinvented it. Covers are surely a big part of who they were, and I mention the role of some of those songs in the growth of the band. But the 50 really made me hone in on originals.  

Bill Janovitz
As is well known, and as you point out in the book, there was a marked drop-off in quality in the band's songwriting starting in the mid-1980s. You don't shy away from criticizing the band's poorer albums, but did you consider discussing outright poor songs as among the fifty tracks in the book as they were indicative of the band's lesser years? After all, the weak songs that the Stones recorded and released since Tattoo You are part of the story, too. You do mention "You Got Me Rocking," from Voodoo Lounge. 

I have been surprised to find out how many people actually love "You Got Me Rocking." To me, it is emblematic of them going through the motions, a self-parody. I manage to take swipes at that and other such songs, but I did not want to the book to get mired down in negativity. As you say, I don't shy away from it, but the band also managed to have a bunch of great songs mixed in to most of those records. Why not point out those instead of spending too much time slagging. 

If you were given more space for "The Ron Wood Years" what five songs would you add? Why? 

"Hey Negrita" is a very Ron Wood song. I chat a bit about that in the book, how he came into rehearsals/auditions with that one, without getting proper credit. but it brings some funk to the Stones.

"When the Whip Comes Down" would be a great one, another favorite I left off to make room for another song that told the story that much more effectively, "Respectable." "Beast of Burden" has that great Keith/Ron weaving. So fluid. "She's So Cold" and "Emotional Rescue" are a bit of a parody, but in a truly knowing and actually funny way. "Little T&A" is another great one.

What surprised you as you were compiling the list? Were there any songs that you felt were "no-brainers" as you began the book that didn't make the cut? Were there songs you'd undervalued that did make the cut? 

Surely I had previously undervalued some of those later songs. Even if I liked songs like "Saint of Me," something about how those "newer" songs aged made them settle into the Stones overall catalog more naturally. I mean, I remember when "Start me Up" was new. That still feels like a "new" song to me. But, no, the "no-brainers" were always obvious and I left few of them out. Though, I might have expected "When the Whip Comes Down" to be there when I started out. 

You spoke with some notable figures for the book: Darryl Jones, Bobby Keys, Chris Kimsey, Andrew Loog Oldham, Chuck Leavell. How did they add to your understanding of the significance of the songs to the band's story? 

I think they provide the necessary first-person accounts instead of a guy just researching and re-hashing or speculating. Al Kooper as well. Big insight. Andy Johns: What a great conversation we had! 

How so? 

Kimsey and Johns basically co-produced, or at least recorded and mixed so many of the classic tracks. Andy was there for most of the golden years. His stories (in the book) were entertaining, provided insight, and for a kid who stared at these names on the backs of LP covers (never mind Led Zep, the Who, etc.), it was a real treat talking to these guys. 

You write Rocks Off as a fan and a musician, and occasionally you mix in autobiography. Did you much resist the first-person "I" in writing the book? What does your particular perspective add to the story? 

As you know, the 33 1/3 series is meant to be heavy on the voice, the p.o.v. So my first book on Exile leaned into that heavily. I did want my perspective, my voice, and my opinions to remain for this book, but I did not want it to be about me too much. I did not really have to struggle with that at all. I certainly did not approach it like "I'm a pro musician/songwriter, so I am here to tell you how it's done with unquestionable authority." But I did want to inform the book with my experience.

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