October 13, 2021

THE ROLLING STONES CANCEL THEMSELVES:

If you go to Muscle Shoals today, you can almost see the mark where the Stones reached flood tide, where, in the course of two days [in December of 1969], they cut some of their most iconic sides. It started with “Brown Sugar,” which Jagger goofed with in Australia but finished here, which is probably why it plays with so many taboos. It’s a slave owner telling his story in the language of his chattel; the blues reflecting on its own antecedents. In it you hear the African Gold Coast, the middle passage, the auction block, the cotton fields. Once again, Jagger put himself in the place of the old blue-eyed devil, a “scarred old slaver [who] knows he’s doing all right, [you] hear him whip the women just around midnight.” Even Mick couldn’t get away with that today. But the power of a song is to tell many stories at once. “Brown Sugar” also means interracial sex—the working title was “Black Pussy”—as well as heroin, which cooks to golden molasses. “I watched Mick write the lyrics,” Dickinson said. “It took him maybe forty-five minutes…. He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand. I’d never seen anything like it. He had one of those yellow legal pads… and when he had three pages filled, they started to cut it.”

—Excerpt from The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones by Rich Cohen (2016).

The key phrase there is “Even Mick couldn’t get away with that today.” Flash-forward five years:

First, the good news. Despite the recent death of drummer Charlie Watts, the Rolling Stones are back among us, playing a series of sold-out US stadium shows between now and Thanksgiving. It’s not just that the three surviving band members, now all in their seventies, refuse to grow up. They seem actually to live in a time warp: in an era when most rock stars dress like they work at UPS and offer a relentless diet of screwed-up nihilism and phony salves, the Stones are still out there in their skimpy, Day-Glo T-shirts and leather pants, serving up great meat-and-potato rock songs garnished with lyrics about sex and drugs, and generally carrying on like it’s 1967 all over again.

Now the bad news. For the first time in 50 years, the Stones have dropped their iconic — and latterly ‘problematic’ — classic hit ‘Brown Sugar’ from their repertoire. For once, it’s not even a case of a public figure falling prey to a relatively few malcontents venting their spleen on social media. Instead, it seems the Stones have taken the initiative and canceled themselves.

What’s up with the song? Musically, it’s a libidinous party rave-up, which purists might call derivative, but which still zips along like a Maserati. Unfortunately, the lyrics are a smorgasbord of every taboo subject likely to cause palpitations in today’s woke listener.

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Will the Stones now drop ‘Brown Sugar’ for good? I don’t know. I hope not. They used to stand in opposition to precisely the sort of nauseating smugness that would have us only patronize entertainers on communally approved lists, shop primarily at officially sanctioned outlets, and in general deport ourselves as beacons of moral virtue. Somehow I’m reminded of the time in 1974 when the politically active Bianca Jagger challenged her husband to write a song with a ‘serious message’. Mick’s response was a defiantly raucous number with the title “It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll (But I Like It).” I notice the old codgers are still doing it on some nights of their current tour, so perhaps there’s hope for us yet.

“The Rolling Stones cancel themselves,” Christopher Sandford, Spectator World, yesterday.

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