Monday, December 9, 2019

Growing Up Action Jackson

Recently, my friend Dan Epstein mentioned that he’d had a G.I. Joe growing up; I told him that I’d been an Action Jackson kid. Had we known each other as kids, the battles lines would’ve been drawn! We didn’t actually meet until 2012, and because we have so much in common—we share a deep love of music, baseball, writing, and more—Dan suggested that we each write a piece about our childhood action figures. Here’s mine. You can read Dan’s “Growing Up G.I. Joe” here. Enjoy!

~~

Sometimes in my dark bedroom at two in the morning I'll ask myself: How would my life had been different if I’d been a G.I. Joe kid?

The fact is, I was an Action Jackson kid. Produced by Mego starting in 1972, Action Jackson allowed kids to stage all manner of high-paced derring-do in the backyard or basement or rec room. He had Adventure outfits, Military outfits, Sports outfits. Depending on which costume set your parents bought, he could be a scuba man or a secret agent, work at a rescue squad or race with a snowmobile team. I don’t recall now how he infiltrated our split-level home in Wheaton, Maryland, or why I was given him and not the more popular G.I. Joe. Did I ask for it? I’m one of six children for whom my harried parents had to buy presents at birthdays and Christmas, so it was likely a cost issue. Like the Safeway-brand Cragmont sodas that my budget-minded mom bought, I’m pretty sure Action Jackson was cheaper.

He was smallish, about eight inches high, tinier than G.I. Joe, whose strapping physique I noted at the Toys ”R” Us or in ads and in the hands of my luckier friends. A. J. was moderately handsome, the George Lazenby of action figures, though I don’t know if that made an impression on me either way as an eight-year-old. His hair “mod styled,” he came clean-shaven or with a beard. I had the bearded model, and played with him for hours. I’d been reading through the Mack Bolan Executioner series of books by Don Pendleton, so I knew a thing or two about thrilling rogue play, and I’d send A.J. careening across the skies or engage him in hand-to-hand combat with all manner of imaginary foes.

Then the Jungle House materialized under the Christmas tree. A faux bamboo and leaf hut, propped on four stilts with rope-ladder access, the House featured a crow’s nest, a telescope, a secret weapons bench, a signal-light, a radio hidden behind a sliding bookcase (!), and a trap-door floor revealed with the surreptitious twist of a tribal idol head on the floor (!!). There was a scowling ape and a bamboo cage in which to hold him once captured. (Generally, A.J. would lure the predatory ape to the trap door, and….) I loved this play set. With its spears and “Zulu” shields and other obvious appropriation of tribal exotica, I see it now, affectionately, as a relic of its era, but to a kid mesmerized by Tarzan books borrowed from the school library and Tarzan television movies on long Saturday afternoons—air-conditioned stays against the oppressive suburban summer heat outside—the Jungle House was head-liftingly fun, a beacon to my imagination. In the cool of the basement I staged many humid jungle days and nights.

Yet lingering in the back of my mind was unsettling feeling that Action Jackson was a lesser action figure. Despite the commercials crowing that “bold adventure” was his game, he was clearly inferior to the taller, more righteously-outfitted G.I. Joe, and I unconsciously absorbed that. I, too, was clearly inferior to the bigger boys in school, the ones whose reach exceeded mine, who could approximate a “Kung-Fu Grip”, and though puberty was still a few years away, the playground popularity political boundaries were already gerrymandered, lines drawn between the haves and the have-nots. I was hardly feeling bold and adventurous on my way to Saint Andrew the Apostle School each morning, but with Action Jackson I could imagine.

I didn’t know it at the time, but I got into Action Jackson as his popularity was fading. In addition to having to compete with G.I. Joe, Action Jackson had to battle the National Association of Broadcasters. As the Mego Museum website recounts, the toy line suffered a “near-fatal disaster” in 1972, the first year they advertised on television. Mego hired Mel Hellitzer Advertising; Hellitzer was an “industry hotshot at the time, and he produced a terrific series of spots for Action Jackson, spots designed to put Mego on the map and attract a lot of attention.” Unfortunately, the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) took note:
The television industry at the time was self-regulated by the NAB, which had certain guidelines policing content and claims made in commercials. Though we are by now used to seeing 3D Barbies skating and swimming and strutting down runways thanks to Reagan Era deregulation, the rules used to be much different. In the seventies, one of the cardinal rules of broadcasting was that toys and dolls could not be animated or otherwise presented doing things they did not actually do in reality. Of the spots Hellitzer produced, each one was almost entirely animated with stop-motion photography.
The site adds that the NAB pulled all of the television advertisements, a move that might have devastated Mego had the toy manufacturer not managed to pre-sell units from the first round of commercials. Classic Action Jackson: limited from the outset, hemmed in by sternly unimaginative bureaucrats, left to do only what he did. I was unaware of any of this at the time, obviously, yet in retrospect it makes a kind of grim sense. A.J. could never truly compete, but in my imagination he soared. He was mine, though I also intuited that he was lesser. I wonder now if my affection for underdogs, the marginalized, and those less popular began in my identification with Action Jackson. I didn’t only get by with him, we flourished together, even as I wondered if what I was playing with was an imitation, a pretender with a low ceiling. In 1974, the Montgomery Ward's chain sold an Action Jackson figure for the rock-bottom price of 99 cents. He had two right feet. I might’ve tried to make something heroic out of that.


~~

Of course, I wonder if I’m over-interpreting this, a toy fatefully delivered to my childhood basement. Yet small, seemingly trivial events in adolescence can have lasting impact. In his story “Rose,” Andre Dubus writes, “We like to believe that in in this last quarter of the century, we know and are untouched by everything; yet it takes only a very small jolt, at the right time, to knock us off balance for the rest of our lives.” Whether I asked for him or he arrived unbidden, Action Jackson landed in my basement. Dwarfed by G.I. Joe, he was a legend in my mind.

Eventually I outgrew Action Jackson, and he disappeared from my life. I’d often play with him with my best friend Karl, and when Karl’s family moved to Illinois in 1974 a certain era ended. I can recall dressing the doll in a white lab coat sewn by my mom for a diorama I assembled for school—he was Thomas Edison, inventing stuff. Was there anything A.J. couldn't do? For years afterward I found evidence of Action Jackson strewn about the basement: a snow shoe; a black boot; a pistol. A year or so after the Jungle House was produced, the toy was retrofitted as a Planet of the Apes playset. It did much better business.

All images via Mego Museum.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

"Knowing I had to know"

There are some bands to whom I'll always return, and some writers. For the past week or so I've been savoring Tiny Love, the complete collection of Larry Brown's short fiction, just out from Algonquin Books. (Brown died in 2004.) Though I know all of these stories by heart, save for the six previously uncollected, I continue to marvel at Brown's talky and intimate language, his sparse but evocative narrative details, and his lovely, fucked-up characters—men and women, mostly men, caught between their good intentions and their demons, between the knowledge that what they're doing is messed up and their inability to stop messing up. Brown wrote about drunks and derelicts with genuine respect for their suffering and their regrets, dramatized them with humanity and dimension, and that, I think, is his great legacy, and that generosity of spirit is among the reasons why I return to his work. He wrote about his characters' excesses and indulgences—in drink, sex, solipsism, general disregard for the requirements of adulthood—not as romantic fuck-you's or decadent stays-against-The Man but as ambivalent, lived-in responses to low-ceiling fates, to the daily dramas and tragedies brought about by alcoholism, though I don't think Brown used that word too often when conceiving of or talking about his characters. He did struggle with alcoholism himself, and was honest about it to friends and interviewers, if not always with himself. He also had a remarkable ability to evoke the landscape of northern Mississippi as both external to and deep within the characters; they loved and breathed it as weather. And though Man versus Nature might be the well-worn way to describe his characters' dilemmas, the line between those men and women and the lovely though brutal, Naturalistic world they lived in was so narrow as to be invisible.

This time through I'm reeling at the novella "92 Days," the third section in his book Big Bad Love, published in 1990. Leon Barlow is a fiction writer who obsesses over his work (his writing, that is, not the work that he has to do, mostly painting houses, in order to earn the money he needs to survive), drinks and smokes too much, fights with his ex, sits in bars until closing time and then leaves those bars and awakens usually in his or a buddy's truck in a ditch, high in the hills, bruised, covered in mud and mosquito bites, every hour after leaving the bar a fading blur. After one typical rough night, Barlow wakes up, and starts writing a story about a "woman and a man with a little child going down a sidewalk late at night." He imagines that they're in New Jersey or somewhere like that, the street's dark, and it's raining. He wonders what's going through the little girl's head, a girl who didn't choose these parents or this life or this dark street, but now has to run to keep up.

The novella ends with a moving passage that reveals the deep affection Brown had for his characters, the genuine desire he had to somehow fix them, or if not that, to acknowledge them, and the tenuous distance he was able to put between these people he knew so well—with whom he drank nightly, whose addictive problems he shared—and himself as their clear-eyed chronicler. Writing and redeeming these marginalized, tough-to-like people was Larry Brown's reason for living, in addition to his wife and children.

The girl's hair "was long, brown, and her arm was stretched out in front of her as she held onto her mother's hand, and her feet were flying."
I kept that image with me, desperation, flight, fear.... I went to the refrigerator and got a beer. I sat back down at my machine. I had to find out what they were running from. I had to find out if the little girl was going to be safe. I didn’t know if she would be or not. But whatever it was she was running from, I knew I had to save her from it, and that I was the only one who could do it. They were running, running, the cars going by, and I could see the slippery sidewalks, and the lights in the stores, and I could see my mother and my father looking back over their shoulders at whatever was chasing us, and I ran as fast as I could, terrified, not knowing how it would end, knowing I had to know.
That startling, and inevitable, shift from the fictional to the autobiographical, the origin of the impulse to write, to attempt to make art, is profoundly moving, Brown at his honest best. He was aware that his stories, in their fierce reckoning with dejection and ugliness, were difficult for some to read, that they "hurt people too bad to read it. Because it was too honest. And too brutal some say. And the only way I can really defend myself against any of that is to say, ‘Well, yeah it’s brutal, but I think that it’s honest.’ And what I think you’ve got to do is share this experience with these people. That's what I’m writing about. That’s what the story is about. And you just can’t tack a happy ending on things."

~~

Here's Brown on the inspiration he found in the bars in and around Oxford, Mississippi, an excerpt from Guy Hawkins's terrific documentary The Rough South of Larry Brown, portions of which can be found here.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

Tomorrow's a long way off



"The vinyl single has suffered recently and is now, for all intents and purposes, extinct."

So wrote Thomas Ryan in 1996, in American Hit Radio: A History of Popular Singles from 1955 to the Present. Ryan begins his wide-ranging book with Fats Domino ("Ain't That a Shame," 1955) and ends with Bruce Springsteen ("The Streets of Philadelphia," 1994), in between raving about his favorite songs, placing music in the context of pop culture and social history, and all the while charting the slow, inevitable death of the 45 rpm single. The evidence was pretty clear: CD sales had clipsed vinyl by the late 1980s, and overtook the cassette in 1991. Yet something surprising happened around the dawn of the next century: the single came back. With the unprecedented rise of iTunes, legal and illegal downloading, and streaming, artists again led with singles, not only as promotions for forthcoming albums but self-standing joints, too. But like all of us, Ryan wasn't blessed with the powers of prophecy in the mid-90s. "With the ideal format no longer readily available, the whole idea of a 'single' can be brought into question," he laments in his introduction to American Hit Radio. "The technology that has given us the compact disc and the compact cassette may have destroyed twelve-inch album sales, but it totally annihilated the seven-inch single. Outside of specialty shops, seven-inch singles have become nearly impossible to find."
As a result, individual songs cannot be marketed properly. New “single” releases are readily available on cassettes as “cassingles,” and on CDs as “CD singles,” but neither format adequately replaces the seven-inch single. First of all, since space limitations are not a problem, both formats are often padded with an unbearably dull series of alternate mixes. Worse, these “single” formats are identical in appearance to their full-length counterparts, making them seem like a bad deal when compared to the collection they are extracted from. Most buyers would surely opt for the whole Magilla instead of settling for the less satisfying single. Besides, you can’t stack ’em. The most harmful aspect of this, though, is the resultant unavailability of individual classic songs.
Ryan adds that this development—which, again, felt pretty permanent at the height the CD era—marked "a serious change in the way pop music is marketed. In the past, it wasn’t unusual for a song to appear solely as a single with no album appearance whatsoever. For example, many of the Beatles’ songs were originally marketed strictly as singles. Today, it is rare indeed for a hit song not to be embedded into a full-length “album.” But what are music fans who want a copy of 'My Love Is Alive' or 'To Sir with Love' supposed to do, particularly if they are reasonably certain they don’t want to purchase a heavily padded, “greatest hits” collection of either Gary Wright or Lulu on CD or cassette (provided that one is even available)?" And here Ryan voices the real concern that he and so many others faced in the mid-90s:
Although we hear this music every day, we can’t even figure out how to buy it. What’s the deal here? Has this music become the exclusive property of radio? It is something of a paradox that radio has become the last stronghold of classic pop while it is simultaneously murdering it. Modern radio can no longer do justice to these songs. In fact, sometimes it can kill a song outright.
Ryan notes that unless you were fortunate enough to live within the broadcasting range of a progressive station—blessedly, I was—the primary way to hear "diverse and stimulating radio is to channel-surf through the dozens of restricted formats that now control the airwaves." I can still recall vividly my disappointment when I'd turn on the radio in the car in '86 and happily catch the Georgia Satellites' "Keep Your Heads to Yourself," only to recognize with a sinking heart that I'd tuned in at the song's end. I didn't own the single or album; when would I hear it again?

Now, I can grab my phone and...etcetera. No need to rehash the advances we luxuriate it now, only to note that the facts Ryan grimly outlined in his book radically transformed within a decade. I'm not knocking Ryan for any kind of shortsightedness—none of us knew this was coming, and few of us with Clinton in the White House would've predicted the rebirth of vinyl (as of this year, sales are at a 30 year high!) Look at the catalogue of most indie record labels, Record Store Day, or any merch table at your local R&R venue: singles are back. We can learn to love the inevitable fade-out of our favorite single, but we can't guess what's coming.

More than 600 pages later, in his Afterword, Ryan cements his pessimism, his stone-faced sighing amusing to read nearly a quarter century down the line. "The vinyl 45 is all but dead, and is substituted by a variety of other marketing methods, none of which possess the allure (or admittedly, the limitations) of the 7-inch record."
Radio stations are programming from both compact discs and cassettes, so just because a station defines itself as a hit radio station no longer means that it plays only singles. The same is true for the consumer. With the ease of programmable CD players, there is little advantage to purchasing an individual track, which can cost fully half as much as an entire album. Without doubt, the long-playing compact disc (as well as its tenacious cousin, the cassette), has become the format of choice.
The future, tomorrow? Well, tomorrow's a long way off, the Shangri-Las reminded us in a 1966 single.



45 singles wallpaper image via Wallpaper Safari

Friday, November 29, 2019

Silhouette

I woke up around 5:30 the other morning, unfortunately a pretty common occurrence. As I lay awake the usual litany of concerns and anxieties mounted and crested. ("In a real dark night of the soul, it is always three o'clock in the morning," wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was just in a different time zone.) I got out of bed and walked quietly through the house, the chairs and tables materializing out of the semi-dark, various LED lights like calm fish under water. I looked out our kitchen window, which faces northeast, and a glimmer of sunlight was lifting over the tree line. And here's why this utterly ordinary moment mattered to me: unbidden, I thought of another person in my place, two hundred, three hundred, eight hundred years ago, standing quietly but embroiled in internal anxieties, watching the sun come up. A sense of peace and calm came over me, as I was both humbled and rendered, for a moment, universal, or eternal. Not me, but a person. Not Joe but a human. Pettiness lifted. Concerns lifted. I became a silhouette and for that brief moment that was all that I needed.


Photo by Li-Ji.

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Charlie Watts is good, ain't he


Mike Edison thinks that Charlie Watts is dynamite.

OK, that's out of the way. There have been countless books written about the Rolling Stones. I've lost count of the ones that I've read, but I know what the best ones are, and I can now slot Sympathy for the Drummer: Why Charlie Watts Matters among them. Edison's excitable tribute to the Stones' unflappable drummer is smart, funny, and comprehensive, written with palpable affection and a drummer's love for the game. Edison's thesis is not entirely surprising—Charlie Watts, a jazz cat by taste, always swung behind his kit and looked tastefully sharp while doing it—but his examples are consistently illuminating. Edison illustrates how Watts was always evolving within the Stones' basic blues-based rock and roll template, bringing jazz sensibilities to his backbeat, gifted in knowing intuitively when to hold back the tempo and when to push it, both onstage and in the studio. Having listened to and marveled at Watts down the decades, Edison's greatest discovery is that, as a drummer, if you play to the melody then you don't have to keep time, a wonderfully abstract yet graphic and powerful way to describe Watts's greatness, his feel for playing to the sensual and the fluidly lyric rather than to count-ins and bars and measures. This, and playing slightly behind Keith Richards's guitar rather than with Bill Wyman's bass, ultimately gave Watts his unique and irreplaceable sound.

If you know Edison from his late and lamented podcast Arts and Seizures or have run into him in a bar—happily, I've been his guest on each of those occasions—or from his earlier books, you'll recognize the propulsive, voice-driven, italics-exuberant writing style in Sympathy for the Drummer. I hear Edison's voice when I read, and had to actively slow down that voice in my head—the book reads as if Edison's holding forth at the bar or at his own joint with his records strewn about his feet, and a great pleasure is allowing yourself to be caught up in Edison's enthusiasm. A drummer himself, Edison's love for Watts never devolves into hagiography because he's genuinely, and regularly, startled and moved by Watts's authenticity and classiness, both as a musician and as a man. Edison dutifully recounts the infamous moment in the early 1980s when a besuited Watts decked Mick Jagger, nearly sending him out of the hotel room window into a canal below, and Watts's surprising descent into speed and heroin abuse during that same period, but Sympathy isn't interested in gossip or myth, but in how an unprepossessing man playing a tiny jazz kit can detonate his backbeat in stadia around the world, and how his playing organically moves within a song's sensual ebbs and flows. Watts is a hard man to know—famously modest and private—and so Edison does the smart thing: like the best music writing, his begins with a simple question—in this case, Why does Watts matter?—and lets the music provide the answers. And something else the book shares with the best music writing: it sent me back to the Stones' music, a catalog I know absurdly well, to listen with fresh ears to Watts's unique turnarounds, fills, and elastic grooves.


Edison writes for both the Watts-obsessed (I'm guilty as charged) and the general Stones fan, and among the great revelations in the book are the wide-ranging influences on Watts's drumming; from obscure early jazzmen and blues drummers to Big Band bashers, Edison outlines knowledgeably and accessibly the sturdy, hard-to-see roots beneath Watt's drum seat. Sympathy also offers insight into the mysterious chemistry of a band, and serves as a helpful history of the Stones from their early, tiny-club gigging to peaking in the late-60s/early-70s to the malaise in the 80s to the recent-decades' worth of sporadic recording and worldwide touring. Watts has been consistent throughout it all: always game to play, fiercely loyal, an ear cocked to the particularities of song. Some readers unfamiliar with Edison's style might blush at his repeated use of "anticipation not penetration" as a sexual metaphor for Watts's intuitive style of playing—to my ears that's Edison's charm. He's never afraid to remind us that rock and roll is as much about fucking as it is about anything else, and Watts, though not a conventional sex symbol by any measure, always seemed to understand this, no doubt with a requisite eye-roll. Edison's smutty tone is hilarious, and performs a necessary de-styling of Watts, who's debonair, yes, but also tuned to the sexuality inherent in give-and-take rhythms and syncopation, to the anticipation of the thing. Check Watts's wry grin when he's playing.

Like any book extolling the virtues of a beloved musician, Sympathy for the Drummer is bound to set debate alight. I for one am still not sold on Watts's reliance on his china, or trashcan, cymbal in recent decades, though Edison's argument that Watts was, in his inimitable style, bringing the blues into the future, is nearly persuasive. (Still: too much, I say.) And a fun parlor game to play at home is to list the songs or moments that Edison missed, or chose to skip: my fave Watts moments include the impossibly cool four-bar close at the end of "Confessin' the Blues," from 1964, and his atmospheric and lyric, somehow cinematic playing throughout the epic "Moonlight Mile" from '71. Edison argues that to his ears the last truly great Stones song is "Had It With You" from the otherwise limp Dirty Work in '86; a worthy contender for sure, though I might go with "Thru and Thru" from '94's Voodoo Lounge. (Etcetera. I'm looking forward to hashing this all out with Edison next time I see him.)





Also Edisonian are the many funny and whip smart one-liners and observations throughout, Edison's writerly equivalents to Watts's sharp snare shots:
As Albert Einstein and Charlie Watts have successfully demonstrated, time is a fungible quantity. In the most human of terms, you wouldn’t want to make love with someone who fucks like a metronome, so why would you want to play rock’n’roll like one? 
... 
Charlie’s rim shots didn’t sound so much like machine gun fire as much as they did a sprang of bullets bouncing off of marble walls during a bank heist—they rang of danger and were impossible to predict. He was never about muzzle velocity anyway—his charm lay in the danger of the ricochet.  
... 
There is some kind of molecular chemistry at work when it comes to bands, strong bonds and weak bonds, and this is why Charlie and Keith and Mick matter. It is like building a water molecule: hydrogen and oxygen are plenty sexy on their own, but put them together and you can go swimming.  
... 
[On playing along at home with Watts on the band's latest album, Blue & Lonesome] It was a hard reality check. I felt handicapped. Physically challenged. The tempos were maddening—the urge was always to push it, but the Stones’ magic was holding it back. Anticipation and penetration. Charlie Watts didn’t rise to the occasion, he rose with it.
Mike Edison gets it. He's produced an entertaining, thoughtful, funny, and frankly overdue book about how and why Charlie Watts matters. Pick up Sympathy for the Drummer and revel in the timeless style and unique gift of one of rock and roll's greatest drummers.
POV shot. From the Exhibitionism museum exhibit.

Wednesday, November 27, 2019

Three things

"Rock 'n' roll starts between the legs and goes through the heart, then to the head. As long as it does those three things, it's a great rock song," John Mellencamp


Photo by Christian Patterson

Sunday, November 24, 2019

I am telling you only how it was

gazing back
There's a meme going around this week in which people post images of themselves from the beginning and the end of the 2010s, an end-of-decade cousin of sorts to people tweeting their greatest single accomplishment over that same ten-year span. Forty years ago Joan Didion took a similar vantage point, closing out the 1970s by reflecting on where she'd been and who she was in the tumultuous 1960s and where she was then, in Los Angeles, at her typewriter. "I am talking here about being a child of my time," she writes in the brief "On the Morning After the Sixties" in The White Album, her sixth book, published in 1979. She recalls her days as a student at Berkley in the 1950s—she was born in 1934—and how quaint so many of the details of that decade seemed to her at the end of the Seventies, suggesting the "extent to which the narrative on which many of us grew up no longer applies," a melancholy and disturbing discovery that every person makes at one point in her life. Also: history is personal, hardly a revelation until it's revealed to you for the first time with the clarity of an epiphany, and you wobble on your axis for a moment. "We were all very personal" in the Fifties, she writes, "sometimes relentlessly so, and, at that point where we either act or do not act, most of us are still. I suppose I am talking about just that: the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man's own blood. If man was bound to err, then any social organization was bound to be in error. It was a premise which still seems to me accurate enough, but one which robbed us early of a certain capacity for surprise."

In her characteristic way, Didion then pulls wide: "To have assumed that particular fate so early was the peculiarity of my generation. I think now that we were the last generation to identify with adults. That most of us have found adulthood just as morally ambiguous as we expected it to be falls perhaps into the category of prophecies self-fulfilled: I am simply not sure. I am telling you only how it was."

Later, she gives an offhand narrative summary description ("I got out of Berkeley and went to New York and later I got out of New York and came to Los Angeles") observing that what she'd subsequently made for herself over the course of the 1970s was "personal, but is not exactly peace." In Didionesque cinematic precision, she then recounts the fates of her fellow Sixties cast members: 
Only one person I knew at Berkeley later discovered an ideology, dealt himself into history, cut himself loose from both his own dread and his own time. A few of the people I knew at Berkeley killed themselves not long after. Another attempted suicide in Mexico and then, in a recovery which seemed in many ways a more advanced derangement, came home and joined the Bank of America's three-year executive-training program. Most of us live lives less theatrically, but remain the survivors of a peculiar and inward time.
She ends with: "If I could believe that going to a barricade would affect man's fate in the slightest I would go to that barricade, and quite often I wish that I could, but it would be less than honest to say that I expect to happen upon such a happy ending."

What I like here is how Didion, at her essayistic best, blends precision with ambiguity, a kind of clarion shoulder-shrug, the essential quality of the human condition if I have a vote. That Didion would view her Sixties persona skeptically is of a piece with her clear-eyed take on most things, but also a reminder that history is as personal as it is social, deeply and uniquely felt on the inside, a feeling often at odds with what the contemporary taste-makers are telling us we should feel, or did feel. Didion's ambivalence at the fates of her cohorts is personal to her as an individual in time, but universal also. Things happen, we label it in retrospect, decrying it or celebrating it, both in exaggerated terms. Meanwhile, here we are in the present mess. How will we feel in ten years, looking back? 



Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Joyful return

When I was a kid in the early 1970s, our family inherited a stack of albums including Introducing the Beatles and Beatles '65; both arrived without jackets, both beat up and scratchy as hell. I loved them immoderately, and learned to love music because of them. I have a distinct memory of listening to Beatles '65 in our basement, under fluorescent lights and a drop-ceiling, and playing "Baby's In Black," recognizing that the heart-sending harmonies in the chorus will return again in a minute. In my mind this was a First Recognition, an Origin Story, a Myth (and likely Precious, to boot), but I'm probably collapsing a series of memories, eliding, composing. None of that matters much: the die was cast. Experiencing the formal beauties of a pop song before you can articulate what structure is, before you can understand sound as song, before you learn what a "sea shanty" is and what it means to rip one off when a band's pressed for product up against a Christmas deadline, before you learn everything there is to know about that band and listening to everything they recorded, from demos onward: a body's pleasure with the mind catching up, panting to know. Those moments are rare but can be eternal. Mine are, as are yours. When I see myself as an eight-year-old in that suburban basement, eyes and ears going mad as the record spins, I see less a moment from my past than a tableau that transcends time and space. Heady stuff, but it starts in the heart.


Label via discogs

Friday, November 8, 2019

What do you hear?

For the January 1973 issue of Creem devoted to the Rolling Stones, Lester Bangs wrote a piece titled "I Only Get My Rocks Off When I'm Dreaming," in which he reassess his take on Exile On Main Street. Like many at the time of its release, Bangs felt that the album was muddy and unfocused, mixed oddly and generally underwhelming; he came around to the album later, eventually loving it. Though he regretted missing seeing the band on the now infamous '72 tour, he was critical of what he saw as the tour's financial crassness and of the growing if inevitable distance between the band and their fans, a "phalanx of concentric circles" made up of "mostly nonuniformed bodies which kept the Stones permanently insulated." He added: "Just like Dante, if a trifle more sleazy and less important." In the process of reevaluating Exile, Bangs quotes some of his favorite lines, filtering his growing dissatisfaction with the band's princely self-regard through the attitude and stances in their songs. Maybe it was tinnitus, but Bangs got some lyrics wrong. Then again, there was no lyric sheet with Exile, and with Mick Jagger's voice mixed notoriously low, it became a party game of sorts attempting to decipher many of his turns of phrase. (She comes every time she pirouettes over me?? Well, that one was right)

At one point, Bangs tosses off an observation, pursuing it no further, but it stuck with me. "Most of us didn’t get the real words, because at their most vulnerably crucial moments they were slurred and buried in the tides of sound," he remarks.
Jagger had to sing it that way, in "Sway” and again in much of Exile, because that is the way his pride works. Besides, anything else would make it all too concise and clear—like putting the lyrics on an album cover, which is the most impersonal thing any rock ’n’ roll artist can possibly do.
That strikes me as an interesting contradiction. You'd think that supplying a lyric sheet to an album would be a personal gesture, an invitation from the band to the listener to get closer, to hear, and share, exactly what the singer's singing. But to Bangs it amounts to impersonality, a kind of neutral intimacy. I guess what he's getting at is that what we hear when we listen to a song without its lyrics at hand, often mangled, misheard, and wildly off, is what means the most to us, is the most deeply personal. What Jagger wrote and then sang might mean something to him—or also, you know, being Jagger, not—but what means more to me is the language that the song spoke with when I heard it, either a snippet in passing or in a sustained, deep listen. Sometimes a misheard lyric is what, in fact, we need to hear, without realizing it, and the "correct" words can feel off, wrong even.

Like the vague disappointment you feel when the person you imagine as a novel's character is played by the wrong actor in the adaptation. (Casting director, get the fuck out of my fantasy.) The graphic artist and writer Scott McCloud gets at something analogous with his take on amplification through simplification: as readers, we more strongly identify with a cartoonishly simple face than with a detailed, realistic face. “When we abstract an image," McCloud notices, "we’re not so much eliminating details as we are focusing on specific details by stripping down an image to its essential ‘meaning'." Less my weird uncle or my gym teacher, more a universal man.

So where Hendrix wrote Excuse me while I kiss the sky on the left, you hear kiss this guy on the right. Right? What you wanted or needed to hear, what you giggled at and dismissed or identified with strongly. What's wrong felt true.

The danger here is that a song's lyric—or a poem or essay or painting—might come to mean anything I want it to mean, a kind of relativism that's the death of an artist's agency, That, I steer clear from with urgency. But I'm sympathetic to what Bangs says, as it's a long and mysterious journey from pen to ear.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Shake it some more & some more

Every once in a while, a song will land on you that you didn't know you couldn't live without. In late 1965, Tony Sheridan and The Big Six issued the single "Shake It Some More" on Polydor International. By the middle of the decade, Sheridan was a has-been—had he really been a been? He was, of course, a popular fixture on the beat music scene in Hamburg, West Germany in the early 1960s where he was infamously paired up with a frightfully young Beatles in the studio for a handful of tracks, released in 1961 under Sheridan and The Beat Brothers (and in a million more iterations down the decades). Like so many musicians on the U.K. and northern European rock and roll scenes, Sheridan was laid waste by the Beatles meteoric success, and as the decade roared on was largely forgotten. (Sheridan was visited upon by luck more than once: on tour in April 1960 with Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran, he'd angled for a car ride with the two headliners but was refused. That fateful ride ended in an accident that killed Cochran and left Vincent badly and permanently hurt.)

Sheridan
Sheridan released several singles, EPs, and the odd album in the 1960s in various styles and approaches, but remained, unfairly or not, in the shadows. He obviously wrote "Shake It Some More" with the pop market in mind. (If you're interested in the story of Sheridan's backing band, The Big Six, Nick Warburton's got you covered here.) The tune bears hallmarks of the Dance Of The Week era, already unfashionable by the time Polydor issued the single, yet to my ears "Shake It Some More" transcends the origin of its composition, to paraphrase Joyce Carol Oates. Sheridan and his band get their hands around something eternal in this simple, three-chord-based, garage-cha-cha tune, and play it loosely but with swinging propulsion; it's recorded well, too, with terrific dynamics. "Shake It Some More" does just about everything a rock and roll song has to do: gets you up, moving and grinning, encourages you to forget the shitty things in your life for a few minutes, reminds you that this song's always playing in the background somewhere if you'd only pay attention. Redemptive, that. The words are children's-book simple: one two three four shake it some more, five six seven eight don't you be late, hey shake it baby, shake it right now 'cause I feel alright now. On the right night, one man's nonsense is another's bible verse, not simplistic so much as elemental—eternal, I'd say, in the sense that anyone might've urged those lines, perhaps in a different language, in a different idiom, but with the same cheery invitation: c'mon let's get up.

"Shake It Some More" is, of course, only one of many, many like tunes from the beat group era, and I don't really know why it stuck on me and has become a longtime favorite. Partly its obscurity, partly the Sheridan link, but mostly the perpetual rocking beat, the moving clarity of it all. I arrived at the song in a fun way, as you do. The Swingin' Neckbreakers taught me the tune first on their debut Live For Buzz in 1993. Virtually the next week, it seemed, Lyres issued a version of the tune on a b-side. Serendipity! The needle landing at the same spot twice, which lightning never does, or so goes the myth, anyway. I dug both versions and commenced a fruitless search for the original 45 that lasted many years. I finally tracked down a copy via discogs without paying exorbitantly. Decades-worth of scratches and all, here's a simple, eternal beaut:


Here's a terrific video of Sheridan and his band performing the song on the German Beat Beat Beat television show in 1966. Sheridan's selling it, though the limitations of his charm and idol-esque look are apparent. The dancers? They're an odd blend of eagerness, resentment, and bafflement, but from the looks of it things are loosening up at the end:


~~

Meanwhile here are the Neckbreakers' and Lyres' versions. Who wore it best?




Photo of Sheridan via Alchetron.

Thursday, October 31, 2019

In the books

I have grave reservations about the state of Major League baseball and the dubious folk in charge, but I also got out to the park this season and enjoyed myself at, the major and minor league levels, and wrote a book about the greatest living baseball writer. And yet....

So, last night it was simply nice to reflect on the pleasures and disappointments of a long season. Here are my Dad, brother Phil, his son Matthew, and me at Washington Nationals game on Father's Day in 2006 at RFK Stadium. (A young Ryan Zimmerman, in his second year, hit a game-winning homer.) Three generations of ball fans: my Dad lost both the Brooklyn Dodgers and the Washington Senators in his life, so last night’s championship was sweet indeed. Phil and his son are baseball nuts and, amazingly for a born and bred Marylander, Matthew’s a lifetime Astros fan. Not a good night for him; he and his dad fought for the lucky spot on the couch all night. He’s off to college next year.

Congrats Nats. And I’m happy for you, Dad! 


Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Bah Hallows

When I was a kid—eight or nine—I went out trick or treating, trailed by an older brother and his friends. My brother warned me not to run too far ahead. I of course ignored him. No more than three houses away from my own on Amherst Avenue, at the corner, a couple of older kids wearing stocking masks jumped out from behind a tree, grabbed me and threw me down, snatched my candy and bolted. I remember my brother running to me, and laughter, but the rest of the night is lost to memory. In my many retellings down the years, to friends and acquaintances and to the ceiling at two in the morning, I ran to my bedroom soon after the incident and, embarrassed and scared and ashamed and also angry, though I'm not sure I admitted to that response yet,cried the night away. I've never gone out for Halloween since. I tried the next year, but my hands cramped up and I could barely hold the plastic jack-o-lantern basket by its handle. I told everyone that it was too cold out. In fact, I was scared.

None of this maters or is important to anyone but the spectators in my interior cinema house, which oddly entertains the same guys every night. What's interesting to me is how over the decades I've likely amplified the incident, the way memory does. Van Gogh urged artists to "exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague." Scary proposition, that, when one's more interested in self-mythologizing than in telling the truth. The essential that I've exaggerated is Poor Joey, assaulted on Halloween, scarred and unable to continue darting down dark streets for candy; the obvious I've left vague is that the incident was likely less harrowing than I've made it out to be, is, in fact, hackneyed. It occurred, and it sucked, but was no more than harmful than any other act of juvee misbehavior suffered by unlucky kids everywhere. I used it as a pitying excuse to call attention to myself every October, and what's strange and not a little unnerving is that I now identify as a Not A Halloween Guy. I still love giving out candy at the door (though sadly the demographic in our neighborhood now skews toward retirees or the near-to, not young families), still turn up "Monster Mash," but I gave up on Halloween parties in college and later, and hardly revel in this time of year as millions of others do, virtually and otherwise. It's become a perverse identity, likely bound to issues I have with socializing, joining, wearing costumes—integral, melancholy aspects of my personality, all.

Careful what you wish for, Poor You, as you mythologize your origin story. You might end up missing a lot of fun as you grow to recognize the limits of self-pity. Bah Hallows.

Sad Pumpkin by Michelle Milla via flickr.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Ignore everything





Really, little needs to be written about the Rolling Stones anymore (Mike Edison's forthcoming book excepted!) yet I'm always open to surprises, and when the most recent unbidden Stones immersion called unto me, I obeyed.

I've been re-reading Keith Richards's superlative Life, struck again by its humor, honesty, and surprisingly clear-eyed take on the epic sweep of his experiences. Dope was Richards's religion, or the religion that chose him. From the late 1960s to roughly 1980 Richards was a functioning heroin addict, the drug like the weather around him, both a taken-for-granted presence, easy to ignore, and the very atmosphere necessary for his survival. He writes about his addiction as one might write about living with a physical handicap or tending a large estate for a living: it was his defining identity, and his job, and he took it seriously and not without some measure of self-reflection. Maintaining as lifestyle. Richards's passages on dope's appeal and its sly but ultimate stranglehold on him, and his various attempts to turn it away for good—but how do you keep out the weather?—are among the greatest that I've read in the long tradition of drug literature. That image of the purest of pure dope in the safe behind the wall, and Richards waking up with bloody fingernails after having spent the night clawing the wall to get at that phantom safe, while remembering none of it, is chilling, and only one of several harrowing episodes he confesses.

But I was also reminded that Richards's best writing in Life comes when he holds forth on his other consuming passion. I'm always on the lookout for great definitions of notoriously-hard-to-define rock and roll, and Life delivers. On the mystery of rhythms and evocations in song:
There’s something primordial in the way we react to pulses without even knowing it. We exist on a rhythm of seventy-two beats a minute. The train, apart from getting them from the Delta to Detroit, became very important to blues players because of the rhythm of the machine, the rhythm of the tracks, and then when you cross onto another track, the beat moves. It echoes something in the human body. So then when you have machinery involved, like trains, and drones, all of that is still built in as music inside us. The human body will feel rhythms even when there’s not one. Listen to “Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley. One of the great rock-and-roll tracks of all time, not a drum on it. It’s just a suggestion, because the body will provide the rhythm. Rhythm really only has to be suggested. Doesn’t have to be pronounced. This is where they got it wrong with “this rock” and "that rock.” It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.
Great stuff. Writing about his band's peak years in the late-1960s and early-70s as songs came pouring out, sinewy and dimensional, Richards boasts, "We felt then that it was impossible that we couldn’t come up with something every day or every two days that was what we did, and even if it was the bare bones of a riff, it was something to go on, and then while they were trying to get the sound on it or we were trying to shape the riff, the song would fall into place of its own volition."
Once you’re on a roll with the first few chords, the first idea of the rhythm, you can figure out other things, like does it need a bridge in the middle, later. It was living on a knife edge as far as that’s concerned. There was no preparation. But that’s not the point; that’s rock and roll. The idea is to make the bare bones of a riff, snap the drums in and see what happens. And it was the immediacy of it that in retrospect made it even more interesting. There was no time for too much reflection, for plowing the field twice. It was “It goes like this” and see what comes out. And this is when you realize that with a good band, you only really need a little sparkle of an idea, and before the evening’s over it will be lat beautiful thing.
He describes the composition of his signature song, "Happy," as purely accidental—most of the band weren't even around to cut it, as the unbidden song came in a burst. "Great songs write themselves," Richards remarks. "You’re just being led by the nose, or the ears. The skill is not to interfere with it too much. Ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow it where it takes you. You really have no say in it, and suddenly there it is: 'Oh, I know how this goes,' and you can’t believe it, because you think that nothing comes like that. You think, where did I steal this from? No, no, that’s original—well, about as original as I can get. And you realize that songs write themselves; you’re just the conveyor."

Ignore intelligence. That phrase should be emblazoned on guitar cases everywhere. "When you’re listening to music, you can tell how much calculation has gone into it and how much is free-flow," he continues. "You can’t do the free-flow all the time. And it’s really a matter of how much calculation and how little you can put into it. Rather than the other way round."
Well, I’ve got to tame this beast one way or another. But how to tame it? Gently, or give it a beating? I’ll fuck you up; I’ll take you twice the speed I wrote you! You have this sort of relationship with the songs. You talk to the fuckers. You ain’t finished till you’re finished, OK? All that sort of shit. No, you weren't supposed to go there. Or sometimes you’re apologizing: I'm sorry about that. No, that was certainly not the way to go; Ah, they're funny things. They’re babies.
Let's eavesdrop on Richards ignoring intelligence while letting "Happy" happen:

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Where we want to be

"Much is expected of the World Series," said Roger Angell.

This year I feel as excited about a Series matchup as I have in a long time. Stellar pitching down the rotation, stout defense, and potentially explosive bats on each side. I'm pulling for the Nationals for my long-suffering Dad and MD/DC friends' sake, though I can see the Astors taking it, also. (I've got friends on that side of the aisle, also.) I can't predict an October marvel like the sixth game of the '11 Cardinals/Rangers World Series, in which the Rangers were twice one strike away from winning the Championship—Angell's excitable game notes below—but we can expect a well-played, competitive series. 

Nats in seven.

Read all about Angell's World Series writing in No Place I Would Rather Be: Roger Angell and a Life in Baseball Writing.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Old news

Yesterday in my creative nonfiction workshop a student offered that the ending of Joan Didion's essay "In Bed," felt clichéd. We'd been having a lively discussion, and he seemed hesitant to bring up the observation. I got it. These are accomplished essays we're reading; some of them are "famous." How can they be clichéd? I found myself at first hesitant to agree with my student, but then realized, on site, well, yeah, sure, we're all big fat clichés, Joan included. That is: our discoveries and epiphanies, those cloud-parting moments that startle and sometimes redeem us, and that drive us to write or exclaim to our friends or take a solitary walk or stare at the ceiling were experienced by someone else yesterday, a decade ago, a hundred years ago.... We're all really just enacting the myth journey of humankind, with tweaks here and there given our cultural or gender identities, perhaps, or membership in groups—say, family—with rapidly shifting definitions. But even those twenty-first century identities will soon be stepping through the same old stories.

In the essay Didion's describing one of her debilitating migraine headaches, and the "usefulness" that follows the agony once that agony lifts: a reawakening to the beauty of the ordinary, ignored world. "For when the pain recedes, ten or twelve hours later, everything goes with it, all the hidden resentments, all the vain anxieties," she writes.
The migraine has acted as a circuit breaker, and the fuses have emerged intact. There is a pleasant convalescent euphoria. I open the windows and feel the air, eat gratefully, sleep well. I notice the particular nature of a flower in a glass on the stair landing. I count my blessings.
Cliché? OK. The paradox of art-making, I guess: what's old feels new. The blessed relief for Didion and the surprising revelation that pain might have a use beyond torturing us sure didn't feel hackneyed to her when she experienced them, and, moved, felt compelled to write about it. Here's another cliché: all clichés originate in head-lifting moments from somewhere in the eternal past. And though my experience is no more unique than yours, my epiphanies feel like breakthroughs, sudden insights, that are mine only. Until I look around. But still, it keeps us writing, talking, rushing to someone to share the news. That old cliché.

Photo via pinterest.

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Free to sing my song

The Stones in '65
On September 6, 1965, two days after concluding a brief but frenetic Irish tour and less than a week away from a swing through Germany and Austria, the very busy Rolling Stones gathered at RCA Studios in Hollywood, California and swiftly recorded four songs, "I'm Free," "Blue Turns To Grey," "Gotta Get Away," and "Lookin' Tired." The last of these, an uptempo blues, was never issued, while "Blue Turns To Grey" and "Gotta Get Away" became album tracks that were never played by the band onstage. Only "I'm Free" had much of a life after these sessions. The song was first released on Out Of Our Heads in the U.K. on September 24, 1965, then issued in the U.S as the b-side to "Get Off My Cloud" and on December's Children (And Everybody's). The performance has always sounded under rehearsed to my ears. Charlie Watts (aided and abetted by session musician James Alexander on tambourine) makes a very rare mistake leading into the third eight-bar bridge ("so love me, hold me..."), and the line "I'm free to sing my song though it gets out of time" sounds like an in-joke. Yet led by Mick Jagger's cool and the sunny drone of Keith Richards's and Brian Jones's guitars and Jones's organ, the song imparts a laid-back cockiness, a blend the Stones pulled off like few others. I'm free any old time to get what I want, Jagger sings-sneers, and that presumably means the song itself, which the band owns at the end despite their tentative playing. Jagger's free to choose whom he pleases, the perk of a pop star, and who's to stop him? The song's assurances don't need an amped-up band to hype or defend them; this easygoing performance will do nicely, thanks.

Out Of Our Heads (1965)

Yet beneath the song's studied cool lay the irony that the band was hardly at liberty—just take a glance at their exhausting mid-decade recording and touring commitments—and was going to find the limits of personal and social freedoms tested graphically throughout the decade. Speaking on camera during that Irish tour, Brian Jones described fame as a "first-class ticket" and then lamented, "On the other hand, there's not much physical freedom. We have to choose very carefully where we go, where we socialize, where we go for holidays, because of our peculiar sort of success." Four years later, the song still obviously had something to say to the band, and they unearthed it for the free Hyde Park concert on July 5, 1969, Mick Taylor's first public appearance with the band. (Jones died on July 3.) The Stones would go on to perform "I'm Free" several times on their infamous 1969 tour of America, dropping the tune in and out of the set list. The crunchy guitars and loose groove give plenty for Jagger to sing on top of, his claims to agency no less privileged as the noisy decade closes down.



~~

I was reminded of all of this as I reread Stanley Booth's epic and incomparable The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, an account of that '69 tour that culminated in the the disastrous Altamont show, at which Booth was vividly present. Among the many threads Booth pulls through his book is the relevance of "I'm Free" as a social statement, as a boast with teeth. "The song, written by Mick as a declaration of sexual independence, now seemed to be about many kinds of freedom," he writes, the decade closing in him. Later, he's between shows at Oakland and San Diego, the book's narrative momentum building ominously, and he reflects, "The days were starting to have a uniform strangeness; they all took place in the dark, we lived from dark to dawn. Each night we went someplace new and strange and yet similar to the place before, to hear the same men play the same songs to kids who all looked the same, and yet each night it was different, each night told us more. In three days, the Stones had played to nearly eighty thousand people. None of the shows had been without problems, and yet the screams got screamed, the sweat sweated, the shows done. That might be the whole point, the only victory might be in simple survival."
Or so it might seem if Mick didn’t keep leaning out over the stage each night, singing, as if it were a Sunday School song, “I’m free—to do what I like, justa any old time—and I ain’t gonna give you no bullshit—ain’t gonna give you no lies—we’re free—you know we all free.” It never sounded true. If it were true, true just once, if ever you had the feeling that you could let go, jump up, sing “Honky Tonk Women,” dance, do what you like, without the fear of a cop’s club or [Allen] Klein’s mop-handle against your skull—that would be a victory. As long as Mick kept saying “we all free,” that was what he had to achieve. If he wouldn’t say that, if he’d settle for less, then maybe victory would be easier; maybe there was a simpler and easier victory. Maybe.
Altamont, '69
Maybe. The band arrives at Altamont, and Booth's sitting on an amp onstage for the show, a witness to the chaos and the collapsing of civility and one man's liberty. Jagger's claims in "I'm Free," suspect to Booth throughout the tour, sour in the face of violence and menace, and grew in irony as the band successfully downplayed their role in the nightmare. Booth describes Jagger exhorting the unruly Altamont crowd: "After a moment he went on briskly, 'Well there's been a few hangups you know but I mean generally I mean ah you've been beautiful—'in a lower tone—'you have been so groovy—aw!' (brisk again) 'All the loose women may stand and put their hands up—all the loose women put their hands up!'"

Booth adds, "On this night no one would think of playing 'I’m Free,' though that had been the whole idea of the concert, to give some free glimmer to Ralph Gleason’s rock-and-roll-starved proletariat and to get away from the violence of the system, the cops’ clubs, Klein’s mop handle."
The biggest group of playmates in history was having recess, with no teachers to protect them from the bad boys, the bullies, who may have been mistreated children and worthy of understanding but would nevertheless kill you. The Stones’ music was strong but it could not stop the terror. There was a look of disbelief on the people’s faces, wondering how the Stones could go on playing and singing in the bowels of madness and violent death. Not many hands were in the air, and Mick said, “That’s not enough, we haven’t got many loose women, what’re ya gonna do?”
Meredith Hunter, stabbed to death by a member of Hells Angels, experienced the limits of freedom in a harrowing and irrevocable way; his murderer turned freedom upside down and shook out its noxious dredges. In a span of a few years, the tone of Jagger's lyrics had moved from petulantly boastful to grimly sardonic.

Recently, Booth spoke about the Stones and his book with Nathan Wilcox on the Let It Roll podcast. Wilcox mentioned that Booth had talked about "I'm Free" over and over again in the book, wrestling "with the implications of it, and them playing it." He asked Booth to talk a little why the song "sort of stuck in your craw that whole tour."
Booth: Well, I mean, "I'm free" is an enormous thing to say, it's a very...it's a huge declaration.... 
Wilcox: Yeah, he's declaring freedom that he can't have. 
Booth: That he can't have, that nobody can have, certainly not under those circumstances. I mean Mick, I know him, he's my friend, we've known each other forever, but he has written some very bad songs, and he's quite willing to do them, you know?
~~

Scroll ahead thirty years. The Stones are touring the globe on their enormous Voodoo Lounge Tour that begins in January in Mexico City and ends in August in Rotterdam, Holland. Between July 23 and 26 they duck into Estudios Valentim de Carvalho in Lisbon, Portugal to record a handful of songs, including a reworking of "I'm Free." Brian Jones's been dead for nearly three decades. Mick Taylor's long gone. Bassist Bill Wyman is out, Daryl Jones is in. In the studio, the band's joined by longtime side musicians Chuck Leavell on keyboards and Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer on backing vocals. Eager to give the next inevitable concert album a twist, the band is re-recording old tunes and a few blues covers in quiet, acoustic-based arrangements, their take on a "unplugged" release. (In According to the Rolling Stones, Watts remarked that the resulting album, Stripped, is "the best-played record we've made for years," citing in particular the rework of "Not Fade Away" as "fantastic.") This take on "I'm Free," cut thirty years after the original, rolls smoothly, without much point, impressively played given the fact that the band hadn't been featuring it on the tour. Watts and the band now roll effortlessly into and out of the bridge, Leavell's organ and Fowler and Fischer's vocals contributing a lilting swing to the song. The guitar solo, played bitingly in the original, meanders, half-interested.

Stripped (1995)

What's at stake? Not much. Floating pleasantly atop its cultural irrelevance, the performance encounters little that pushes back against it, the freedoms that Jagger sings about now permanently his, in no danger of being snatched away by the establishment, The Man, a clinging girl, mom and dad, whoever Jagger was nose-thumbing when he first sang the song at the age of twenty-one, the age of many of the students in my classroom. In '95, a millionaire many times over, secure and positioned and surrounded my creature comforts, Jagger may well have been considerably freer than during his band's first few years, but his boasts of independent liberty and taking-what's-mine sneer are affected, applied like stage makeup, essentially meaningless in that there's little in his public life, at least, to argue against his bragging. He's playacting at swagger, with none of the dangers of earlier decades at his heels.

Criminal? Hardly. A good tune's a good tune, goes the old song. The band's allowed to play and release whatever they want. I can buy it, listen to it, or not. That it's impossible to hear the same things in these two versions of "I'm Free" says a lot about the Rolling Stones and the passing of time, and yet right now someone is writing a song or a rap or a street poem, banging a tune together with a band or a lone guitar or a mixing board, and boasting about grabbing at freedoms just out of their reach, feeling not safe but endangered, and dangerous. Free to sing their song, get what they want, that old story which matters tremendously every time and everywhere it's told. The journey that will change that song's meaning among shifting contexts will start anew. What will the next thirty years have to say about that?

~~

In 2006 a handful of DJs and musicians, including Moby, DJ Shadow, and Jellybean, remixed "I'm Free" in support of the Stones' Beacon Theater show, and, unsurprisingly, the song soon found its licensed way into other money-making endeavors. It was used in a U.K. commercial for a Renault SUV and, most ironically, in a television commercial for the Chase Freedom credit card, the word "freedom" now laboring under the weight of numerous contradictions and definitions and promises, not the least of which of being a future of sunny potential shackled to debt. I'm free to do what I want any old time. At what cost?



The Stones in '95






Top photo of the Rolling Stones, 1965, Masons Yard by Gered Mankowitz via Taschen
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