The Sway of the South

Finding High Fidelity

There are few albums with better openings than “Sticky Fingers” by the Rolling Stones. Seven fuzzy chords, unmistakably played in Keith Richards’ signature open tuning, ring out tremulously. Then drummer Charlie Watts breaks the reverie with a crisp pop on the snare, bassist Bill Wyman starts churning away, and the band is off, strutting and snarling, as if hurtling through the cotton fields of the American South in a Bentley S3 Continental. In 1971, the Stones—with their British cars, thick accents, and skinny jeans—were distinctly foreign to American audiences. But on “Brown Sugar,” they took a few simple chords, a wailing sax, and a whole lot of bravado, and burst through the Atlantic and across the Mason-Dixon Line as if they owned the land.

This is exactly what I hoped to do, nearly 40 years later, in the summer after senior year of high school. In the spring of that year, my friends and I decided to plan a big road trip together, away from the tedium of ten periods a day, from curfews and familial obligations. College was around the corner with all of its glorious freedom. As a group, we were coming out of our shell, spurred on by the success of our absurd punk-pop band that was gaining school-wide recognition. This was the beginning of the best times of our lives, we told ourselves. Let’s travel, do stupid things, and remember them forever.

It was in this idealistic mindset that I adopted “Sticky Fingers” as my soundtrack. The Beatles, with their astounding arrangements and harmonies, had always been my favorite band. But what the Stones lacked in musical intricacy they made up for with sheer force. Bruce Springsteen said that Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” kicked open the door of his mind; the first two chords of “Brown Sugar” razed the path to what I was sure at the time would be a rebellious adolescence. Even though I was jumping only from one wildly successful British rock band to another, the Stones packed a different kind of punch and a whole new attitude.

“Sticky Fingers” was a revelation. The first few times I listened to it all the way through I was underwhelmed. It seemed a little too short and scattered and not up to the rigorous songwriting standards of Lennon and McCartney, but I found myself listening to the album quite a lot anyway. Most of it didn’t have to do with the songs themselves but rather with they way they were delivered. “Wild Horses” is a fairly standard ballad with simple chord changes and melody, but when Mick Jagger raggedly mumbles over Keith Richard’s prickly strumming, the song becomes defiantly poignant. And I listened to “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” less for its melody and more for the four-and-a-half-minute blues freak out at the end, which is light on substance but rife with a possessed energy.

The Stones were on my mind as I sat on my friend’s roof in late senior year, discussing our grand plans for the summer. Several of my friends wanted to make the customary backpack trip through Europe, but I wanted to go south. I wanted to escape the bleak, cold and painted black cities of the North to take in the fresh air. “I could’ve stayed here for days,” wrote Keith Richards about the South in his autobiography, “Life.” “You walk out and there’s sweat all over you and perfume, and we all get in the car, smelling good, and the music drifts off in the background. I think some of us had died and gone to heaven.” I began to have daydreams about local bars with old blues musicians, cornbread, and ribs and driving down little dirt roads, blasting “Bitch” on full volume.

The trip, of course, never panned out. It was a far-fetched idea with little to no concrete details or funds. I spent that summer bumming around at home and taking care of my sister. And after that, I went to college, went to class, and did my schoolwork, and things were entirely normal. I never quite found the crazed spirit of the Glimmer Twins in me. But I still listen to “Sticky Fingers” as a faint promise of an eventual personal metamorphosis. Every break when I go back home, my friends mention the trip and declare that it will happen the coming summer. It probably won’t. But no vacation could ever live up to the road trip that is “Sticky Fingers.” The album is motivation to be more assertive and a reassurance that my next personal breakthrough is “just about a moonlight mile, on down the road.”

­—Staff writer Andrew R. Chow can be reached at andrewchow@college.harvard.edu.

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