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'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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Nice article. Not a favourite track by them but it is good to spend some time on this type of songs.

Maybe this cover can bring some light or perspective to your thoughts.