Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

The Rolling Stones:
Can't Get No Satisfaction

The night a friend in California called and told me about Altamont, I was having dinner with a woman I'd met a week before--just when the crowd at the speedway was beginning to gather, in fact. We had sat in my apartment and listened to Let It Bleed, and as Mick Jagger sang out the climax of "Gimme Shelter" to Merry Clayton--"Love, sister, it's just a kiss away, it's just a kiss away"--I touched her for the first time. There were contradictions there--did I love her just because I wanted to kiss her?--and contradictions within contradictions--did Mick really mean that?--but I ignored them as always. The Rolling Stones epitomized the thing I loved most in the world, rock and roll, and they could induce me to ignore anything. I played their records all the time.

The phone call from California changed that. In the year or so after Altamont--the end of 1969, all of 1970, and into 1971--I almost stopped listening to the Stones, and whenever I did, the contradictions welled up in me. Admittedly, my reaction was uncommonly intense, and most of those who shared it had always dug the Stones as symbols, not as a rock and roll group. Their response to Altamont was comparably abstract.As Mick Jagger told an interviewer recently: "Of course some people wanted to say Altamont was the end of an era. People like that are fashion writers. Perhaps it was the end of their era, the end of their na´vetÚ. I would have thought it ended long before Altamont." Yet one must suspect an artist as subtle as Jagger of being disingenuous here, as if he were ever anything else. Writers focus on Altamont not because it brought on the end of an era but because it provided such a complex metaphor for the way an era ended.

Time: the final month of the decade that spawned that unprecedented and probably insupportable contradiction in terms, mass bohemia, popularly known as the counterculture. Occasion: On America's ultimate frontier some three hundred thousand bohemians come together with their chosen images, five formerly lower- to middle-class Englishmen who fuse Afro-American music with European sensibility. Denouement: An Afro-American bohemian is murdered by a lower-class white Hell's Angel while the Englishmen do a song called "Sympathy for the Devil."

As civil war this sequence may have been small potatoes--the dope snuffs in the interstices of San Francisco's black Fillmore district and hippie Haight were a lot worse--but as a work of art it was exquisite, the culmination of the Stones oeuvre, not to mention a great movie script. Keith Richard, the stud to Jagger's sybarite, acknowledged its aptness in his own rough way: "Altamont, it could only happen to the Stones, man. Let's face it. It wouldn't happen to the Bee Gees and it wouldn't happen to Crosby, Stills and Nash."

Richard may be rough, but his use of the passive "to the Stones" is also a trifle disingenuous. After a century of psychotherapeutic speculation we ought to understand that if something can happen only to you, you are probably helping it along. Not that the evasion matters. If it is typical of the Stones' genius that their responsibility is difficult to pinpoint, it is typical of their burden that everyone who's into blame blames them anyway. After all, Altamont was as much the Grateful Dead's show as it was the Stones'. The Stones consulted with the Dead when the event was conceived, and recognizing that a free concert in California was Dead turf, scheduled them to perform last, although in the end the Dead fell back before the bad vibes. The Angels were--and still are--the Dead's friends, and the Stones' Altamont coordinator, Sam Cutler, went to work for the Dead when it was all over. Yet no one ever accused the Dead of laying their star-tripping bummer on Woodstock Nation West--least of all me. Ignoring the contradictions once again, I instead found myself transformed into a Grateful Dead freak.

I ignored the contradictions, but I was quite aware of them. Even as I stomped out the key lines of "St. Stephen"--"Talk about your plenty, talk about your ills/ One man gathers what another man spills"--I recognized how smoothly the Dead Americanized volatile intellectual imports like karma and eternal recurrence. Only within a culture as benign and abundant as that of Northern California could anything real and humane accompany such vast cosmic notions, but it did, and the Dead were its highest manifestation. They were not uncomplicated men, but within the controlled environment of the concert hall they generated a joyful noise that went beyond complications, and I was happy to sing along with Jerry Garcia on "New Speedway Boogie": "Things went down we don't understand/ But I think in time we will."

The catch was that I already understood--understood that giving the Angels police power at the hub of that sprawl was a criminally na´ve extension of the American karmic principle, popularly known as do-your-own-thing. But I also understood that if the Dead were na´ve, then Mick Jagger--who accuses others of na´vetÚ, remember--was probably something nastier. I would call it criminally ironic. Jerry Garcia's serenity is religious, and smug; Jagger's detachment is aesthetic, and jaded. Like most Stones fans, I felt more in common with Jagger, so after Altamont I got it on with Garcia. He was from another sphere--I felt no responsibility for his errors. Jagger had been doing my dirty work for years.

The phrase "dirty work" is fortuitous--suggesting working class, baby work out, down and dirty, dirty-minded--but too pejorative at the outset, for above all, the Stones were and are the greatest rock and rollers ever. For pure rock and roll the only conceivable competition comes from Chuck Berry--not Elvis or Little Richard, not the Beatles or Creedence of the Dead. The Stones' devotion to rock and roll turned us on and brought us through. If the Dead soared beyond their own complications, then the Stones rolled right over the contradictions. They always gave us a rocking good time, and they had a good time themselves while they did.

But the contradictions were there. Good times were always at the heart of rock and roll, absolutely, but the good times had to be won, like anything else. What has made the Rolling Stones so special is their understanding of how long and paradoxical the struggle for really good times must be. Unlike the American folkies--their more privileged and romantic analogue--the Stones were always antiutopian. They never idealized, and they never expected to be pure as a consequence, they were never put off by the commerciality of rock and roll. In fact, having been released from some of the dreary stiffness of the English class system by the tough, joyous physicality of their Afro-American music, they were if anything eager for whatever material benefits might accrue, though they certainly weren't counting on them.

Most of this the Stones shared with the Beatles. Because both groups perceived American affluence and music from a distance, they understood how very vital it was, and even more important, both were wise enough to intuit that their distance from the Afro-American source would be a necessary and authentic part of whatever they did with it. In order to be itself, English rock and roll had to stand outside itself. For the Beatles this insight was anything but ominous. Basically optimistic and rooted in American pop, they manifested their sense of distance in silliness, fun, play. But the Stones came from a darker, angrier place.

Anyway, Mick did. Although he first found it hard to choose between rock and roll and the London School of Economics, it would be a mistake to all him an intellectual--just like Bob Dylan, he doesn't permit it. But even if he never thought of it in such terms, the way Mick acted out his distance from the music he loved was a measure of his alienation, both from himself and from his native culture. Of the others, only Brian Jones matched Mick's occasional desperation. Keith was your basic straight-ahead rocker, and Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were typical musicians right down to their fondness for jazz.

But all the Stones were rebels, by commitment as well as by necessity. They flaunted their clothes and hair, their collective sneer, and their music itself. It is often observed that the black-oriented rhythm-and-blues they preferred was more openly sexual than the Beatles' pop rock and roll, but what really set it apart was the project of self-definition it implied. Like so many bohemian rebels, the Stones sought correlatives for their own uniqueness that no one else had found first. They liked not only rhythm-and-blues but obscure rhythm-and-blues, and if the Beatles rebelled into sexuality, the Stones conceived sexuality as a means to a larger rebellion.

Early analyses of their music veered between two poles--Jagger was either a great blues singer or a soulless thief--and both were wrong. Like so many extraordinary voices, Jagger's defied description by contradicting itself. It was liquescent and nasal, full-throated and whiny. But it was not what Tom Wolfe once called it, "the voice of a bull Negro," nor did it aspire to be. It was simply the voice of a white boy who loved the way black men sang--Jagger used to name Wilson Pickett as his favorite vocalist--but who had come to terms with not being black himself. Of course, Jagger picked up a defense mannerism along the way: He always sang with a curl of his lubricious upper lip. His style was an audacious revelation. It was not weaker than black singing, just different, and the difference always involved directness of feeling. Jagger didn't so much sing Muddy Waters' "I Just Want to Make Love to You" as get it over with, and although he really seemed to wish us "Good Times," he made the prospect sound doubtful where Sam Cooke enjoyed the wish itself.

But even as Jagger equivocated around the usages of black singing, and around the lyrics themselves, he rocked. Even when the Stones were as crude and out-of-tune as their detractors claimed, they made us shake our moneymakers. Their insistence on beat and volume was so aggressive and single-minded that they drove off the tender-minded altogether, which was the whole idea. Whatever nuance we thought we pinned down in Jagger's singing--lust or tease, self-confidence or self-mockery--he would most certainly baffle us one convolution later. Only the hard physical reality of the music was certain.

For those who heard them this way--and we were no more explicit about it than they were--the Stones were fab faves indeed, but just how many of us there were was unclear. For the first year and a half of Beatlemania the Stones were the number-two English group only in publicity--their sales lagged behind the Dave Clark Five's and Herman's Hermits' and barely stayed ahead of the Kinks' and the Animals'. Then came "Satisfaction." It was the perfect Stones paradox--the lyrics denied what the music delivered--and it dominated the summer of 1965. Driving home from rainy retreats, vacationing parents and their children shouted out "I can't get no" in unison while older brothers and sisters decided that the middle verse was about a girl who won't put out because it's her period. A whole country was brought together, sort of, by Mick and Keith's anthem of frustration.

Suddenly, the Stones rebellious project of radical self-definition was becoming a mass movement--against everything that kept the world within our reach and out of our grasp, everything that stopped us from making felt possibilities real. Mick and Keith now wrote most of the material. They voiced the enthusiastic hostility of the new mass bohemianism more directly than the rhythm-and-blues artists, who usually muted their hostility because they were too busy just surviving to pursue hopeless battles. The Stones and their constituency were sure enough of their own survival to covet something better, but the Stones, at least, were much too realistic to expect to achieve it. Their anger was almost part of a vicious cycle.

In the end, in fact, their anger was directed not at the cruelties of politics and economics so much as at a metaphysical joke. The Stones wanted what they couldn't have and felt detached even from their own desire. Mick accepted his inability to sing from as deep in his heart as Wilson Pickett, he even reveled in it, but he wasn't sure he liked it, not deep in his heart. Having found the courage and insight to define his whiteness in relation to black people, he still resented having to do so, because at one of his many levels he was pure libido--he wanted everything, and he was arrogant enough to believe he deserved it. Black or white was no fairer a choice than good or evil.

The Stones' attitude toward women was especially ambiguous. Their realism stemmed from the tough antiromanticism of rhythm-and-blues, which asserted that sex was good in itself (I'm a king bee, buzzin' 'round your hive, and I just want to make love to you) and connected to love (we got a good thing goin'), and that love involved pain that was deeper and more complex than pop heartbreak. But almost as soon as Jagger and Richard began to compose, they created a persona whose hostility to women rose above and beyond the call of realism. The protagonist of "Heart of Stone" wasn't just a little red rooster strutting his stuff or a heart-pained lover for whom blue had turned to gray, and he wasn't just tough, either. He was hard, bearing the same relationship to the blues stud that the metallic incursions of the Stones' music did to real rhythm-and-blues. It's almost as if women in all their contradictory humanity symbolized the conditions of life which were the ultimate target of the Stones' anger. Or maybe it worked the other way around.

In any case, it built from there. By the time of the Stones' ascendancy-in-exile--the three-year period following their 1966 tour when they were banned from this country due to drug arrests--the heart-of-stone man who kept stupid girls under his thumb and then discarded them like yesterday's papers seemed to have become Mick's basic character. Actually, the Stones celebrated their share of heroines--some as autonomous as the elusive (hence imaginary?) Ruby Tuesday--and Mick's more likable rhythm-and-blues stud got his share of the action, including classic songs like "Goin' Home" and "Let's Spend the Night Together." Moreover, many of the anti-woman songs could be construed as class revenge--Mick the real (albeit rich) finally enabled to lay open the vacuity of his former economic oppressors.

Yes, the beauty of the Stones was that they always left themselves an out. There was no need to take their sexism literally. No matter how Mick's characters seemed to exploit his stray cats and Siamese cats and back-street girls and factory girls, chances were he wasn't any more sincere or one-dimensional than usual. After all, Mick wasn't even male in the usual sense. The most sexually exciting man in rock had always been the most androgynous, deliberately counterposing his almost girlish stage demeanor to Keith's droogy leer. In fact, all the Stones had posed in drag on a forty-five jacket back in 1966. So even when Mick performed "Midnight Rambler," that psychotic little showpiece, it could be said that he was merely exposing the petty rape fantasies of his male audience for what they were. Yet no matter what music historians will say, that wasn't the way his male fans--not to mention his female fans--could be expected to take it. Maybe this was obtuseness, but it was also common sense. After all, the spate of antiwoman songs that appeared between 1965 and 1967 can be passed off as a devastating catalog of sexist stances, but Keith's explanation ought to be kept in mind: "It was a spin-off from our environment . . . hotels, and too many dumb chicks."

The 1969 tour was a triumphant exploration of the complexities of the Stones' stance. All that irony and enigma was magnified into a complete drama of good and evil, aspiration and frustration--a joyous, bitter celebration of what could only be designated The Truth. With an omega emblazoned on his black shirt and an Uncle Sam top hat, Jagger took each of us as far as he or she wanted to go. Contradictions within contradictions--Uncle Mick could always show you one more. The triumphant sexist of "Under My Thumb" became the desolate supplicant of "Love in Vain." The nasty triumph of "Midnight Rambler" turned into the candid need of "Gimme Shelter." As for Altamont, it was simply the final contradiction in a long series.

It was final because it went against the whole purport of the Stones' drama. The truth was that the world was compounded of good and evil, so that any undertaking as utopian as Altamont was doomed by definition. If the Stones audience didn't understand it that way, it was because the Stones themselves, in all their multileveled contradiction, were unwilling to come out and tell them. They would suggest it, yes, embody it, but they wouldn't make it plain, because the nature of The Truth is that it isn't plain. If a fan wanted to take Mick's struggle with male roles as an invitation to midnight rambling, well, that was the nature of the game. Like any bohemians--like any artists, perhaps--the Stones had always been disinclined to relate to the mass of their followers. The Stones were too arrogant, too idiosyncratic. Yet they had helped create a movement around their own bohemianism, and that part of them that was pure libido wanted not only to sweep regally through the alien land where they had found their roots, divesting it of several million dollars, but also to prove that they were part of all they had helped create. A part of them wanted to be good guys.

They failed abjectly, at least in the short run, but it is na´ve and dishonest for their former admirers to blame them unless they also blame themselves. All of us who reveled in their irony, all of us who pleasured ourselves in their art, all of us who pursued romantic fantasies under their partial and contradictory pretenses, are just as responsible. Until we acknowledge our own acquiescence in their decisions, the Stones have a right to minimize their own responsibilities as adamantly as they do.

For no matter how they minimize it, the experience has changed them. Sticky Fingers, released in 1971 but recorded much earlier, went even further in the direction of aesthetic image exacerbation than had marked their 1969 tour. The single, "Brown Sugar," was at once a brilliant exposure and blatant exploitation of the racial and sexual contradictions of their stance, and "Moonlight Mile" commented definitively on the relationship between sex, love, and distance from self.

But the Stones who are touring the country right now are--almost--good guys. They are less arrogant, less gleefully greedy, and more clearly concerned that their tiny portion of utopia--concerts for their still-expanding audience--be achieved as fairly and efficiently as possible. Both live and on their new album, Exile on Main Street, they are more into music and less into their own image. Especially on record, Jagger has receded a little into the background, and Mick Taylor, who was almost invisible as Brian Jones's replacement on the 1969 tour, has come forward a little. Taylor is younger and has roots in the new tradition of boogieing jam, so this is a move toward the audience. It's not as if the Stones have consented to join the movement they half-wittingly helped create, but they seem ready to relate to it, and somehow that doesn't come off as a cop-out. When such dedicated artists move honestly toward their fans, you believe that love may be just a kiss away after all.

Newsday, July 1972
Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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