"A woman's thighs will be your guillotine." --Georg Buchner
THE ROLLING STONES have been rocking for 17 years now, ever since Mick Jagger met Keith Richards on the subway and told him, "I dig to sing." It's easy to forget just how long ago and far away that is, but network news was only 15 minutes long then, people didn't know that cigarettes caused cancer, and Sonny Liston was not only alive but heavyweight champion of the world. There were no pocket calculators, and no Cuisinarts, and students had to wear ties to the dining halls at Harvard. It makes the Rolling Stones, along with Johnny Carson, Muhammad Ali, and Bruno Sammartino, our greatest eaters of artistic yogurt, the reigning longevity-kings of our culture.
Emotional Rescue is the Stones' latest release; it joins Black and Blue and Some Girls to establish the sound and direction of the band in the '70s. The band has always changed its character when a new guitarist joined the core group of Jagger, Richards, drummer Charlie Watts and basist Bill Wyman--the oeuvre is most easily divided into the Brian Jones years, the Mick Taylor years, and the Ronnie Wood years. The Taylor years were the best, the time when the Stones established themselves as The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the world, and some critics will never stop pointing that out. But there's really no point. The sound the Stones have created over the last five years, and refined in Emotional Rescue, is still damn good, if less than original--the musical equivalent of what Weber would call "the bureaucratization of charismatic leadership." And if bureaucratic rock and roll sounds ugly and a tad paradoxical, it's hard to see what else, with a 46-year-old bassist, was left for the Stones to do.
On a technical level, the Stones are better than ever. Jagger has acquired wonderful command of his voice; he sings with nuance and a remarkable adaptability to different lyrics and styles. He is our Sinatra. Watts now reigns as undisputed King of the Skins; his jazz- and reggae-influenced drumming is the band's gasohol. Watts single handely saves at least two songs on the album from mediocrity and lifts one to brilliance. The bass playing is at times superb, and probably Ron Wood's; elsewhere it is merely workmanlike, and probably Bill Wyman's. Over the years the Stones have acquired a nonpareil corps of sidemen, and sax Bobby Keys, harmonica Sugar Blue, and Keyboards Nicky "Jamming with Edward" Hopkins and Ian Stewart perform with their customary elan. The production and mix are dazzling. Only the guitars are inadequate; if the rhythm guitar and short fills work as well as anyone's, the leads are, unfortunately, hopeless. Whether they are Keef's or Woodie's is irrelevant; neither one, apparently, can manage it.
AS ROBERT PALMER pointed out in the New York Times, the album might have been titled Some More Girls. Like the last album, Emotional Rescue is about getting fucked over by bad girls in the Big City. The album opens with an astonishing track called "Dance: Part One," full of bass and salsa horns and studio effects. It begins with a drunken Jagger-Richards conversation on a streetcorner outside their New York studio:
Jagger: Yaaah, what am I doing standing here on the corner of West Eighth Street and a Sixth Av-en-ue? Aaaaargh.
Keef: You're askin' me.
Jagger (oblivious): Nothin'. Keef, wha', whatchadoin'.
keef hails a cab.
Jagger: Aaaaaaaargh, I think the time has come to get up, get out!
And then the song rolls along with the meter running and the twin refrain: "Get up, get out, get into something new" and "Ooooooh, and it's got me moving." In short, it's the Stones' finest statement yet of urban rootlessness and mutability, a world where nothing counts unless it's brand new and fast-moving, a gaseous world, a great nebula, where nothing is complete or permanent except New York's concrete garbage cans, where even "Dance" is only "Part One."
"Dance: Part One" is a disco track; and it seems appropriate at this point to write a little in defense of disco. Disco never got much of a press, expect from people like Time; Rolling Stone ran a disco issue at the insistence of publisher Jan Wenner, whom Jagger once described to Chet Flippo as "that cunt of a boss of yours," but it went over like a suckling pig at Passover. Rock critics have always worn their contempt for disco as a sort of cachet of superior taste, and it's always seemed more than a little unfair, particularly because: a) disco is the state-of-the-art in Black music, and there are no Black New Wave bands outside of the ska revivol and no prominent Black rock critics and few white disco bands; b) disco remains the most popular music in America, despite critical limousines rushing it to the grave, as is evidenced by the playlists of the largest AM radio stations, the Number One hit of the summer, "Funkytown," and the continued success reported by discos across the county. Rock critics dislike disco because it is essentially sensual of affective music completely dissociated from the cerebral cortex; it is anti-intellectual, whereas rock and roll, and particularly New Wave, is intellectual, or at least can be intellectualized about, which is exactly the business of a rock critic. In the crudest sense, you could fuck to disco but you can't fuck to rock and roll. For that, at least, it deserves tolerance.
The world of "Dance: Part One" becomes personified on the rest of the side; the Dynamo becomes the Virgin or, more precisely, the Whore. Women, or relationships with women, are the stuff of experience, and all experience is a woman. Evidently, Jagger is still obsessed with his divorce, and "Summer Romance," "Send It To Me," and "Let Me Go" al concern breaking up. "Summer Romance" is the apotheosis of the summer song, jumping like a convertible with tight shocks on the way to Jones Beach. "Send It To Me," a bizarre reggae tribute to Motherhood and the women of the Warsaw Pact, begins with a guitar quote from Duane Allman and rollicks right along, like "Summer Romance," in the general form of what might be called "good time music." But it's not-it's bad time music trying to put the best face on things, with the unmistakable note of a man trying to convince himself. The horror resurfaces with "Let Me Go," a track with rockabilly roots, sinister Link Wray guitar licks, and a dose of psychopathology. "I find it hard to be cruel with a smile, don't you?" sings Jagger, and you remember that they wanted him to star in A Clockwork Orange. That's what's genuinely scary about The World According to Jagger: when chaos rules, the hero has no choice but to join it, and outdo it.
Side One finishes with "Indian Girl," a pleasantly poignant ballad with a fine horn arrangement by Old Stones associate Jack Nitzsche. Frankly, I can't get a handle on it--it seems to be a vague diatribe against Soviet imperialism and Fidel Castro. Which would make sense, since both Castro and Jagger were recently named to the list of the Ten Coolest People in the World*. Rivalry, then, would explain it.
* THE TEN COOLEST PEOPLE IN THE WORLD: