Thursday, September 08, 2005

Keith Don't Go
This week's column. A desperate, last minute riff on the Stones and their new album. My fodder, both for blogging and columns has been dwindling lately due to circumstances I'd rather not blog or columnize about but suffice to say I hope for renewal soon.
I'd just been to the doctor, swallowed antibiotics and swigged some industrial strength cough syrup but there was one more tonic I needed and Dr Chan couldn't help. Only the CD store where I found the Rolling Stones latest disc, Bigger Bang was really able to start me up.
Not counting a forgettable live disc (why didn't they stop with Ya's Ya's) A Bigger Bang is the Stones' first fresh release since 1997's Bridges to Babylon. Eight years and it's been worth the wait.
There are purists and naysayers who will say that Mick and Keef haven't released anything worthwhile since Exile on Main Street, or perhaps Some Girls. But these are niggling trolls not worthy to pass judgement. Ignore them for they are not believers. They are heretics, mere insects not fit to lick Keth Richards' snakeskin boots, much less his radioactive liver.
No matter where I am or what condition my condition is in, a new Stones album is a deeply personal event. A sacrament ever since I first cut myself underneath a thumbnail while slitting the shrink wrap from The Rolling Stones, Now! in February 1965. Jagger and Richards hadn't yet come into their own as songwriters but their reworkings of obscure American blues and r&b tunes from the likes of Bo Diddley, Willie Dixon and Otis Redding crawled inside my bones like nothing -- short of Suzy Quigley adjusting her short skirt in 4th period civics class -- before. Consider Mick drawling and snaking his way through Down Home Girl: ``Lawd I swear/the perfume you wear/was made outta turnip greens/and everytime I kiss you girl/it tastes lahk pawk 'n beans.''
Never mind that at that time none of the Stones had probably seen or tasted turnip greens, or pork and beans that didn't come from a can -- neither had I. And irony of ironies, it took five scruffy white Brits to introduce me to America's black musical heritage when I scrutinized the liner notes and song credits and returned to the record store searching for the roots in the form of Otis, Willie, Howling Wolf et al.
For that alone I am forever in their debt, despite the hassles and increasingly ridiculously high financial prices I've paid to see as many concerts as possible.
The first time was in 1969 or '70 when I stood in line in intermitent rain for nearly six hours armed with nothing but US$6.50 for a ticket and a bottle of Boone's Farm strawberry wine and two bags of Doritos for nutrition to see them in a venue normally used for livestock exhibitions. Later my friend who drove me to the show also got his first traffic ticket on the way to the show, which added another US$50 to his cost. But it was worth it to see Mick flogging the stage with a leather belt under blood red spotlights for a menacing Midnight Rambler.
The last time was 2002 when I booked two tickets online, paid several hundred dollars with a Rolling Stones credit card and took a porn actress as a date. A porn star date for a Stones gig. No brag, just fact and there simply ain't nothing better.
Between the shows, though, it's been the songs have sustained me; usual suspects such as Jumping Jack Flash, Gimme Shelter and Sympathy for the Devil never fail as does all of Exile on Main Street right down to the unfortunately titled Turd on the Run and obscure one-offs like Jiving Sister Fanny or a magnificent (and largely overlooked) number from Bridges to Babylon called Saint of Me.
Back in my flat and almost flat on my back from the Hong Kong crud, I carefully peeled open Bang and reverently stored away the promotional geegaws that came with it: two mock dog tags, one with the lips and tongue logo, the other stamped with CD's title. I put them carefully next to the expired Stones credit card, a pick from Keith Richards' X-Pensive Winos tour and other sundry Stones geegaws collected through out the years. They are talismans that follow me everywhere I travel, like an old voodoo medicine bag to keep the hoodoo and bad juju at bay.
The only song I'd been aware of prior to cracking open the disc was one that had caused some minor controversy in the US and had been fodder for rightwing columnists who hadn't actually heard it but were desperate for material and the chance to recycle the hoary quips about the Rolling Stones using walkers and canes for the latest tour.
It's called Sweet Neo-Con and suffice to say rhymes ``hypocrite'' with ``patriot`` and the `s' word over a a raw, almost skeletal blues arrangement. But even a die-hard, Stones-loving liberal like myself will have to admit it's probably the weakest of the 15 tracks. Good for pre-sale promotion but, yeah, in terms of musical political commentary it's no Street Fighting Man or even Sweet Black Angel.
What the outraged pundits overlooked, though, was a more subtle and eerie Iraq-related track called Dangerous Beauty, which seems to have been inspired by the shameful photos of US Army Private First Class Lynndie England dragging a naked prisoner by a leash.
While anyone who saw PFC England's sneering mug wouldn't call her a ``beauty'' it's clear from lyrics such as ``In your high school photo/You look so young and naive/Now I heard you got a nickname/The lady with the leash ... Are you one bad apple in a box/Dealing out electrical shocks/I saw the gloves are coming off'' that Mick isn't necessarily singing about Condoleeza Rice.
The other 13 songs mostly bring satisfaction, particulary the down and dirty stripped down harp-drenched blues of Back of My Hand and the chugging swagger of the opening track, Rough Justice artfully shot through with Ronnie Woods' stinging, swiveling slide guitar work. Laugh I Nearly Died recalls the spirit of Miss You and to an expat far from home and listening alone has an a cappella chorus shot through with meaning and longing: ``Been wandering far and wide/Wonder who's gonna be my guide'' chanted repeatedly until it fades slowly away.
I thought Mick was speaking for me and to me for a moment.
But then I realized I had a head full of narcotic cough medicine and a small fever. Still, Bang is perfect medicine. In other words, just what the doctor didn't order.
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