When I first started blogging, I filled the empty spaces between compelling new releases with historical reviews primarily covering Oasis and the four bands I heard most while growing up: The Beatles, The Kinks, Jethro Tull and The Rolling Stones. With the first four names on that list, I just randomly picked an album based on mood or time of the month, but for reasons I don’t remember, I decided to do The Stones’ albums in chronological order. Because I was primarily interested in exploring the work of the Jagger-Richards songwriting team, I skipped the first two albums and began with Out of Our Heads. I liked learning how The Stones developed as the years progressed, following straight lines and detours along the way. I remember feeling pretty good after reviewing Sticky Fingers, one of their best, and I looked forward to Exile on Main Street, an album that was unfamiliar to me because it was curiously missing from my father’s collection.
I hated it. Still do. I think it’s a fucking mess of an album, a background-music-party-disc created in a heroin-induced haze.
“Why didn’t you warn me, you bastard?” I screamed at my father.
“I thought you’d figure it out when you didn’t see it in my stacks. What the hell did I send you to college for, anyway?”
Exile on Main Street turned me off to the Stones for a long, long time, and I had no intention of ever reviewing another Stones record as long as I could still sashay over our lumpy planet.
Then my gorgeous, voluptuous, damn-I’d-like-to-fuck-her-right-now partner put Some Girls on her list of Desert Island Disks. It reminded me how much I hated ending The Stones’ series on a down note, so I decided to see if I could pick up where I left off. I listened to Goat’s Head Soup, and came away with feeling that “Angie” is the second-most overrated song in history, right after “Stairway to Heaven.” I took one look at the cover of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and said “Fuck that.” Black and Blue didn’t grab me either.
I should have trusted my partner’s instincts. Some Girls turned out to be WAY better than I expected, though my initial reaction was utter confusion.
The confusion arose from the consensus opinion that Some Girls is The Stones’ “punk album.” I listened to it and sure as hell didn’t hear anything that sounded like The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols. Not one song clocks in at under three minutes, not one song is played at hyper-speed, and if we’re talking punk in 1978, where the hell is the anarchist rage? Punk is also characterized by intense, hyper-active drumming, and one look at Charlie Watts would tell you he’d be the last drummer on earth to go manic on the kit.
If punk did have an influence on Some Girls, it encouraged The Stones to get back to the basics. Some Girls is successful because The Stones rediscovered their sweet spot: cheeky R&B-influenced rock ‘n’ roll marked by a healthy dose of humor, with a touch of country thrown into the mix. The songs on Some Girls could have appeared on any of their albums released during their peak period, from Aftermath to Sticky Fingers (except for the psychedelic detour in Their Satanic Majesties Request). The Stones somehow managed to go backward while moving forward at the same time, for unlike a trip down Nostalgia Lane, Some Girls feels fresh, alive and immediate. Part of the reinvigorated sound came from Ronnie Wood’s ascension to full-member status, but most of the credit for the album’s compelling combination of looseness and sass goes to Mick Jagger, who rediscovered his writing and singing chops just in time to save The Stones from bargain bin irrelevance.
Jagger clearly has his mojo working on “Miss You,” a song that should have been subtitled, “Goin’ Home Revisited.” While that lengthy tune from Aftermath about unfulfilled libido seems disconnected from both time and space, “Miss You” features an insistent, libido-tickling rhythm that I could grind to all fucking night. Trapped in the context of the times, many listeners described this as a disco song, ignoring the simple fact that if disco had never been invented, The Stones still would have come up with a song like this sooner or later due to their passion for American soul and R&B. Instead of the over-the-top orchestration we hear in too many disco numbers, the layers in “Miss You” are a combination of blues harp (courtesy of Sugar Blue) and cool sax (by way of Mel Collins). Collins’ solo helps urbanize the piece, reinforcing the New York feel of the album. Meanwhile, Sugar Blue spends most of the song repeating the melodic refrain until the very end, when he finally steps into the spotlight and delivers a deep-soul solo that expresses the theme of emotional longing more effectively than words ever could. With Jagger on fire and Bill Wyman delivering one of his most active bass parts, “Miss You” sends a clear message that The Stones are in the groove and feeling it.
The title “When The Whip Comes Down” initially excited this kinky girl, but alas, the song has nothing to do with the more refined erotic arts. What it does have to do with is being gay, and while you might think my bisexuality might give me some magical insight into the psyche of the gay male narrator, the life experience of a bisexual woman is as far apart from the experience of a gay male as I am from celibacy. While pure lesbians tend to view bisexual girls with feelings ranging from distrust to hostility, most heterosexual men I’ve met are okay with bisexual women because they think they’re going to get a threesome in the bargain (NOT!). Gay males, on the other hand, are much more likely to get the shit beaten out of them by the same guys who want to get into the sack with my partner and me. Since I grew up a few blocks from The Castro, gay men are a part of my definition of “normal,” which has sometimes blinded me to the shit they have to deal with—it’s unthinkable to me, so it takes a while to register.
Here Jagger conjures up a gay dude who abandons L. A. for the Big Apple to become a “garbage collector,” a euphemism, not an occupation. While the move raised his status from “faggot” to “gay,” the attitudes of the populace are anything but an upgrade (“Wherever I go they treat me just the same”). While we all have to sacrifice something in order to make a living, our hero faces more workplace hazards than the average moke:
Yeah I’m going down Fifty-Third street
And they spit in my face
I’m learning the ropes
Yeah I’m learning a trade
The East River truckers
Are churning with trash
I’ve got so much money
That I spend so fast
Having been spat on by homophobes a couple of times while out with my girl, I’m befuddled by the hero’s willingness to turn the other cheek and write it off as part of the deal . . . but this was 1978, less than ten years after The Stonewall Riots and only five years removed from the change in the DSM that ended the status of homosexuality as a mental disorder. To make a living in such an environment, he is forced to work the streets, where the men who are “churning with trash” seek someone to relieve their secret burden:
Yeah, some called me garbage
When I was sweeping on the street
I never roll
Oh I never cheat
And I’m filling a need, yeah
I’m plugging a hole
My mama’s so glad
I ain’t on the dole
Both buyer and seller are part of the garbage cycle, and like the movement’s adoption of the formerly pejorative word “queer,” our hero wears his “garbage man” status like a badge. Economics student Mick Jagger even assigns him a sense of legitimacy by giving him credit for his sensitivity to the laws of supply and demand with the fabulous pun, “I’m plugging a hole.” But even with his stellar work ethic and commitment to quality customer service, he’s still a homosexual in a heterosexually-biased culture and the whip is always going to come down . . . again, again and again. A damned courageous song for its time, “When the Whip Comes Down” features a non-stop relentless attack with dual guitars and as much energy as Charlie Watts can muster. It’s still not punk, but hey, it’s The Stones rocking out, so who the fuck cares?
Next up is the cover of The Temptations’ classic, “Just My Imagination.” I approached this song with great trepidation, fearing another lame copycat attempt at the Motown sound as in “My Girl.” My trepidation vanished about four lines into the song when it hit me that the arrangement was pure garage, just a bunch of guys in the studio playing around with a song that caught their fancy. Stripping the song down to its essentials and playing it at a faster tempo actually allows the listener to better appreciate the melody and chord progression of the song, and while The Temptations version will always remain the gold standard, I have to give The Stones credit for revealing the fundamental structure that made “Just My Imagination” a great song in the first place.
Some Girls wouldn’t be a great Stones album unless they pissed somebody off, and with the title track they wound up pissing off both the usual suspects (feminists and Christians) as well as the Reverend Jesse Jackson in his dual roles of civil rights activist and shepherd to the flock. Before we get into all that hoo-hah, I want to say I love the feel of this song. Most of it is a two-chord pattern with plenty of drone, a mesmerizing combination that allows the three guitarists (Jagger included) and Sugar Blue a lot of latitude with fills and responses. The original cut ran twenty-three minutes, largely because of its vast improvisational potential. That potential is what put The Stones in hot water with the Purity Police, as Jagger improvised the most offensive lines in the song.
We all know that Jagger and Richard were big league Johnny Appleseeds, offhandedly shooting their wads in various locales making up a large part of the planetary landmass. We also know that many women were desperate to fuck rock stars, and while some really thought they were in love with their idols, we can assume that the majority of the women plunked by The Stones were probably motivated by pecuniary considerations. Fucking groupies is often a mutual exploitation arrangement where both parties use the other to get what they want: sex, money, property, notoriety, whatever. The evidence from various interviews indicates that members of The Rolling Stones had indeed been engaged in sexual escapades with groupies, that they fucked available women wherever they could find them on multiple world tours, and had no discriminatory restrictions related to race or color. They were equal opportunity fuckers, and for all I know and with the flurry of scientific advances in the study of erectile performance, they may still be.
What The Stones do in “Some Girls” is simplify their experience by using stereotypes, always a dangerous practice, but not all that much different from what The Beach Boys did in “California Girls.” The first set of stereotypes in “Some Girls” are a catalog of the different manifestations of female greed in various cultures (French girls want Cartier, Italian girls want cars, American girls want everything in the world). These are pretty tame accusations; the first two are backhanded compliments (French and Italian girls are style-conscious, well, duh) and the third is a teeny dig at American materialism. We then learn that English girls are prissy (another stereotype that has the positive connotation of “selective”) and that white girls are funny and sometimes annoying (as are all girls). I can’t see any of these targeted groups calling for a Stones boycott based on such lightweight jabs.
Then they clearly cross a big red line:
Black girls just wanna get fucked all night
I just don’t have that much jam
Chinese girls are so gentle
They’re really such a tease
You never know quite what they’re cookin’
Inside those silky sleeves
Whoa, dude! I’m hearing that you think black girls are primitive animals who still hear the jungle cry and can’t control their instincts . . . and that you’ve been watching too many movies depicting Asian women as “devious Orientals.” What? Say that again! “It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who heard the entire lyric of the song in question. No insult was intended, and if any was taken, we sincerely apologize.” Hold that thought . . . let me scan the lyrics for supporting evidence . . . no, I’m not seeing anything there. Sorry . . . I missed that, Mick—could you repeat that please? “If you can’t take a joke, it’s too fucking bad.” Getting a little touchy there, are we? Okay, let’s accept your argument that you were just trying to have fun and you didn’t think people would be stupid enough to believe you meant what you said. Then why did you later change the lyrics in live performances to eliminate those lines? And while I have you here, why did you change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” for Ed Sullivan? You’re just going to stare at me, Mick? Why can’t you just admit that you blew it by not providing a stronger context and move on? Hey, I defended you over “Under My Thumb,” I stood up for you after “Stupid Girl” and I even went to bat for you on “Brown Sugar.” But Mick, this time . . . if satire was your intent, you really should have done a better job of establishing the narrator as a blind, insensitive jerk right from the start. Maybe if you’d moved that verse with the lines “Some girls give me children/I only made love to her once” we would have understood we were dealing with an irresponsible asshole and heard the lines through that perspective . . . if that’s really what you intended.
Intent is pretty clear in “Lies,” a dual-guitar ass-kicking ripper of a song where The Stones rock for no other purpose except to rock. Flipping over to Side Two, we get a nice change of pace with the hilarious, “Far Away Eyes,” a pure country number marked by Ronnie Wood’s outstanding pedal steel guitar and Mick Jagger’s approximation of a hicksville accent. Speaking of stereotypes, naïve people the world over believe that California is a place of sand, sun and liberal mores, but there’s a good-sized chunk of California where it feels like more like Oklahoma than Malibu. “Far Away Eyes” satirizes hick culture and its strange mixture of fervent Christianity and loose sexual morals, presented here as relatively harmless, but this was long before anyone realized that a group of stupid, superstitious people could coalesce to elect an equally stupid blatant racist to the most powerful job in the world:
I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, you know you always have the Lord by your side
And I was so pleased to be informed of this
That I ran twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord
I had an arrangement to meet a girl, and I was kind of late
And I thought by the time I got there she’d be off
She’d be off with the nearest truck driver she could find . . .
Of course such a loser wants a girl with “far away eyes,” because stupid is as stupid gets.
It’s back to kick-ass mode with “Respectable,” a song Jagger described as a “Punk meets Chuck Berry number.” We’ll ignore the attempt at relevance-oriented marketing and simply congratulate The Stones for giving us another number that hauls serious ass. It’s followed by the Keith Richards confessional, “Before They Make Me Run,” which deals with his legal and personal struggles with heroin addiction. Keith can’t sing worth shit, but the song has a certain vulnerability to it that makes it charming, and Ronnie Wood’s steel pedal guitar sounds even better in a rock context.
Some Girls features one of the strongest finishes of any Stones album, beginning with the semi-slow number, “Beast of Burden.” Keith Richards came to the studio with a shell of a song and relied on the rest of The Stones to flesh it out. The prerequisite for such an approach is the musicians have to be able to easily slip into the groove, and this is where the remarkable chemistry between Richards and Ronnie Wood pays off huge dividends. There is an instrumental-only take on YouTube that I absolutely adore and highly recommend. You’ll hear Keith on the right channel and Ronnie on the left, but what you may not notice (because the guitar work will immediately draw you in) is Charlie Watts playing the base rhythm with the clear punctuation the guitarists need as a foundation for their explorations. The musical dialogue between the two guitarists as they trade off lead and rhythm roles and integrate harmonic solos into the mix is a fascinating journey—you can hear them sensing each other out, one offering a possible direction and the other responding almost immediately to the new musical idea. In many ways, I prefer the instrumental version to the original, but I do think Jagger does a damn good job with the emotional content as he sings at the higher end of his range. The lyrics that pop out at me are those that define the “real man” paradigm—men are expected to be hard enough, rough enough and rich enough, and anything less than enough simply won’t do. Putting aside the double entendre of “hard enough” for a moment, I’ll point out that the paradigm is the source of all toxic masculinity. The men who commit acts of domestic violence don’t act out of a position of power but from feelings of inadequacy about those three qualities, and lacking any kind of self-awareness, blame the broad for all their troubles. In this song, the narrator is a gentler sort of fellow unlikely to resort to violence, but it’s still tragic that he has to live with perceived inadequacy because of a dated philosophy of what it means to be a man. I also hope that those who whine about The Stones’ allegedly unrelenting sexism will take note that Jagger placed the gent in the position of supplicant, begging for attention from a woman who holds all the cards. Power in relationships is not always dictated by gender or worn-out rules of behavior.
We end with my favorite song on Some Girls, the marvelously manic “Shattered.” We’ll get to the New York-in-the-70’s aspect of the song in a sec, but there’s one tiny passage I can’t restrain myself from singing at the top of my lungs whenever I hear it, because it is the relentless message of my inner consciousness bursting through the layers of bullshit I wear as I go about the world trying to make a living:
Work and work for love and sex
Ain’t you hungry for success, success, success, success
Does it matter?
Yes, I work and work for love and sex and THAT matters. I have no hunger for success and that DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL. Work leaves me in tatters! Shattered! Let me the fuck out!
Back to the real story . . . Jagger says he wrote the lyrics in a New York taxi, and there’s no reason to doubt his word. The Stones had been spending more time in New York City during the 70’s, and the Big Apple of the 70’s was nothing like the sanitized and safe version of New York that exists today. The city was in deep financial doo-doo, the infrastructure was falling apart, crime was commonplace and tensions between the various ethnic groups and political factions were at their peak. I recommend the book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mailer if you want to learn more. Note that Mailer’s story of New York’s decline is integrated with the ascension of the Yankees under Steinbrenner, Martin and Reggie Jackson, so if you’re not into baseball, forget about it, and by the way, I don’t want to know you.
Jagger’s sprechgesang commentary on the state of Gotham is expressed with sincerely-felt disbelief at the craziness of it all: how can a place with so much wealth and power seemingly self-destruct before one’s eyes?
Pride and joy and greed and sex
That’s what makes our town the best
Pride and joy and dirty dreams and still surviving on the street
And look at me, I’m in tatters, yeah
I’ve been battered, what does it matter . . .
. . . Don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up
To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!
You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown
What a mess—this town’s in tatters, I’ve been shattered
It should be noted that The Stones didn’t flee New York in response to the decaying environment. Even in its worst times, there is no place on earth as endlessly compelling as New York, whether you like it or not.
What makes the song so compelling is the combination of Jagger’s maniacal vocal, the simple but remarkably effective two-chord riff, and the haunting, almost random appearance of low-voice vocals in the background (shattered, shay-oobehy). The feeling of a song unstuck in time and space is intensified when Charlie Watts does a virtual disappearing act and limits his activities to the high-hat—when that happens, I feel like the lights have suddenly gone out and I’ve lost all connection to reality. Brilliantly arranged and expertly performed, “Shattered” is a remarkable expression of the modern just-beneath-the-surface madness we all feel as we make our way through the inexplicable worlds we have created.
While I’ve think they’ve taken the farewell tour thing way too far for way too long, Some Girls is a piece of The Stones at their best—rocking, rolling and riffing with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. It ain’t punk in terms of genre, but as my father will righteously claim with all his heart and soul, The Stones were the original punks, with a stellar record of defying the stricter social norms of the time.
And though Mick Jagger is now Sir Michael, had nice things to say about Maggie Thatcher and still supports the Tories, he still had his moments—and Some Girls contains some of his best.
As my readers know, my usual practice is to listen to an album three times without distraction before I touch the keyboard. I have to confess that I have not followed that practice with The Best of Muddy Waters, but I’m still going ahead with my review. Before you accuse me of violating my sacred oath as a music critic who has repeatedly differentiated herself from the pack of lazy, insufferable, assembly-line losers who dominate music criticism today, allow me to explain.
I have been listening to nothing but The Best of Muddy Waters for four days straight. I listened to no other music during that period, though I will admit that I was distracted during some of those plays. Here is the full analysis:
|Activity||# Times Played||# Times Listening While Otherwise Distracted||(B-C) = Total Valid Listening Experiences|
|Making myself look beautiful in the morning (2 hours)||3||2||1|
|Walk/Metro to Work (40 minutes)||1||0||1|
|Decompressing from conversations with assholes from the States during working hours||2||0||2|
|Walk/Metro to apartment (40 minutes)||1||0||1|
|Getting ready to go out to dinner (90 minutes)||2||2||0|
|Dinner (90 minutes)||0||0||0|
|Fucking, two days, two hours per fuck||(6/4) = 1.5||1.5||0|
|Last cigarette, winding down (45 minutes)||1||0||1|
I think listening to the album intently twenty-four times qualifies me to write this review, and I would further argue that listening to this intensely erotic album during sex validates my status as an MWCP (Muddy Waters Certified Practitioner).
After four days, I’m still not tired of it. I’m looking forward to writing the review because I always listen to the music while I write. I can’t wait to hear this album again! I’m in the exact same space inhabited by two young Englishmen fifty-two years ago, as described by Ted Gioia in Delta Blues:
When Keith Richards ran into his childhood pal Mick Jagger on a train in 1961— another one of those legendary encounters discussed above— he was struck forcibly by the Muddy Waters album in his friend’s possession, and they spent most of the rest of that day listening to it in silent rapture.
There are many reasons why The Best of Muddy Waters is so addicting. While Muddy Waters would never rate as a guitar virtuoso in the same vein as histrionic stylists like Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen, I can’t think of many guitarists whose sound possesses (in Gioia’s words) “tremendous vitality . . . he could drive a performance single-handedly.” Muddy’s vocal range is equally limited, but he has one of the most expressive and attention-commanding voices I’ve ever heard. Like Miles Davis, he wasn’t afraid to surround himself with the best musicians in the business, and if you’ve got Little Walter on harmonica, you’ve got the best harp player who ever breathed. The songs themselves are stunningly direct expressions of deep desires and emotions without any intervening bullshit. But more than anything else, Muddy Waters and crew played like they meant it—the music has an authenticity that is becoming increasingly rare in our auto-tuned and patched recording universe. While there are more extensive collections for connoisseurs, The Best of Muddy Waters is not only a solid representation of Muddy Waters’ best work but a fabulous introduction to Chicago blues (and to blues in general).
“I Just Want to Make Love to You”: This song has been covered by music practitioners and pretenders all across the spectrum: Adele (yecch!), Mungo Jerry (wow!), The Righteous Brothers (you’re kidding!), The Stones and, most famously, Foghat. None of these versions come close to capturing the true feel of the song. Written by Willie Dixon, one of the great songwriters of all-time and one of the horniest sons of bitches who ever sported an erection, this song is unique in the annals of romantic overtures because of its absolute commitment to real man-and-woman sex where both parties are equals and cultural roles don’t fucking matter.
I don’t want you to wash my clothes
I don’t want you to keep our home
I don’t want your money too
I just want to make love to you
There’s no game playing here and none of the silly, cutesy-wootsy courting rituals classically associated with seduction. The man doesn’t demand fidelity (“I don’t want you to be true”) and he doesn’t use the woman because he’s on the rebound or because he’s had a bad day (“I don’t want you ’cause I’m sad and blue”). Unlike most guys, he’s not trying to prove what a stud he is, bragging about his alleged prowess. The message is, “Let’s fuck, baby!” sung in a tone of pure, uncontaminated desire. I’ve had a lot of guys mouth the message, only to find out when the prick hits the pussy that they’re self-conscious poseurs. Muddy’s approach is pristine, sublime lust, and you just know he’s going to deliver the goods. The supporting players are simply outstanding right from the get-go, with Otis Spann’s piano forming a call-and-response with Little Walter on the harmonica over the throbbing bass of Willie Dixon, the rhythm guitar of Jimmy Rogers and the subtle drumming of Fred Below. When Little Walter hits his solo, he begins with a long blast on the harp that sounds like he’s holding that first deep thrust for a few seconds before he makes his moves. Adele? She can go fuck herself. This is the real deal. Cigarette!
“Long Distance Call”: I melt at the introduction to this song, a little duet with Muddy and Little Walter that intertwines elegance and soul. I don’t think Muddy hits a single note on the scale; it’s all sweet blue notes and bent chords that simmer with emotion. The interplay between harp and guitar continues throughout the song, with neither party taking the lead but both giving each other plenty of room to maneuver. If you want to hear what it’s like when two musicians are on the same wavelength, this is it.
“Louisiana Blues”: Opening with an equally fabulous guitar-harp duet, this number captures more of the Delta feel than your typical Chicago blues number. One of Muddy’s compositions, he sings here about unnamed troubles that are pushing him to New Orleans to “get me a mojo hand” (a hoodoo amulet containing a spell or prayer to ward off the troubles). While he’s in The Big Easy he’s going to take advantage of the opportunity and get himself a little poontang: “I’m ‘gon show all you good lookin’ women/Yes, how to treat your love.” When Muddy calls out, “Let’s get back to New Orleans, boys,” the instrumental passage that follows calls up an image of a rickety porch where the farmhands are relaxing with some music after a long, grueling week in the fields. Muddy was the key link between the Delta blues and the Chicago blues, and “Louisiana Blues” is a good example of how that played out. Once again, the interaction between Muddy and Little Walter is simply breathtaking. Damn, I love it when musicians really connect!
“Honey Bee”: Ted Gioia notes that “Eric Clapton studied Waters’s recordings, and felt that a major breakthrough in his guitar playing came when he could imitate part of the bluesman’s ‘Honey Bee.'” Muddy is a difficult guitarist to emulate, in part because blue notes are challenging all by themselves, and in part because of his unusual attack: playing mostly single notes using open tuning with a slide on his pinky finger. To further complicate matters, his fills are often achieved with a Delta finger-picking style rather than a guitar pick. He was also blessed with unusual dexterity that enabled him to snap off notes with precision. Now, take all of that and add his intuitive-emotional feel for the blues and it’s no wonder Clapton must have felt his entire soul light up when he managed to copy a small passage from “Honey Bee.” The buzzing on single notes and the vibrato pièce de resistance are absolutely stunning displays of guitar magic. Since I couldn’t emulate Muddy in my wildest dreams, my attention tends to turn to the lyrics, where once again he sings of sexual mores that defy the rules of the game:
I hear a lotta buzzing, sound like my little honey bee
She been all around the world making honey
But now she is coming back home to me
While most male songwriters of the era (and beyond) would have implied (because of censorship) that women like Honey Bee are trampy, no-good sluts, Muddy doesn’t say a word about revenge or putting her in her place for spreading her sweet nectar all over the world. He accepts that she had to sow her oats, too. “I don’t mind you sailing, but please don’t sail so long,” is an honest expression of his desire to be with her and an astonishingly generous and forgiving remark.
“Rollin’ Stone”: The real source of the band’s name, this is a traditional number that Muddy made his own with a few lyrical additions and his inimitable style. “Rollin’ Stone” was Muddy’s first Chess record, and the hiss on the track gives it a delicious time machine feel. The track features only Muddy and his guitar, and that simplicity reveals the strong core of his musical personality. Man, this fucker had power and presence! Throughout most of the song he stays firmly planted in the key of E, but both his guitar and vocal explore the entire scale rather than sticking to the notes dictated by the chord. This is the essence of the modal approach that I’ve talked about in my jazz reviews, so if you’re uncomfortable with all that music theory gibberish and you want to understand what I mean by “modal,” just listen to this song and how Muddy uses most of the notes between the root and the top of the scale. Back to our story . . . the absence of drums and bass is a huge plus in this piece, because it allows Muddy to play the song the way it feels rather than have his emotions forced into measures. Sometimes his notes and chords are suspended in defiance of the march of time, and those are beautiful moments.
“Rollin’ Stone” is a song about allowing one’s sexual drive to serve in place of traditional ambition:
Well, I wish, I was a catfish
Swimmin’ in a oh, deep blue sea
I would have all you good lookin’ women
Fishin’, fishin’ after me
Sure ‘nough, after me
Muddy is now in the Honey Bee role, wandering down the road, stopping to satisfy a married woman before letting his libido carry him to the next liaison. One of Muddy’s themes is that his essence was foreshadowed prior to birth by gypsies and old women; here he winds up a “rollin’ stone,” and like Honey Bee, he’s going to share his love with the world. The predestination in this case has nothing do with being trapped as in a caste system, instead the message is “there’s a part of me that just is what it is, like it or not.”
“I’m Ready”: I believe that the entire sorry history of the human race revolves around two words: male testosterone. When male testosterone levels rise to the point where they overtake logic and reason, men respond in two ways: they make love or they make war. I firmly believe that if Ms. Stick-Up-Her-Ass Condi Rice had crawled under the cabinet table and given Bush, Cheney and the boys blow jobs, there never would have been wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. She probably would have blown all the fuses in Dick Cheney’s bionic heart, and today he’d be remembered as a man who gave his life for peace instead of one of the biggest assholes in American history.
Willie Dixon understood this, and he wrote about it in “I’m Ready.” Muddy’s testosterone levels are off the charts as he struts around like a cock (rooster) in this number. He knows his existential choices are sex or violence:
I got an axe handle pistol on a graveyard frame
That shoot tombstone bullets, wearin’ balls and chain
I’m drinkin’ TNT, I’m smokin’ dynamite
I hope some screwball start a fight
‘Cause I’m ready, ready as anybody can be
I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me
All you pretty little chicks with your curly hair
I know you feels like I ain’t nowhere
But stop what your doin’ baby come over here
I’ll prove to you baby, that I ain’t no square
Because I’m ready, ready as anybody can be
Now I’m ready for you, I hope you’re ready for me
When Muddy sings “I hope some screwball start a fight,” he nails the essence of a man whose hormones are boiling and he’s got to either kick some ass or get some ass. The crucial line for me is when Muddy sings to the pretty little chicks, “I know you feels like I ain’t nowhere,” a very perceptive line. I know very few women who are dumb enough to be attracted to male swagger; most of us think it’s cute, a term that encompasses the underlying meanings of “laughable” and “Come back when you grow up, sonny boy.” We know that guys with that attitude will lose it in about thirty seconds; the stance is pure bluff. When that same man chooses to kick some ass, he becomes even more of a pathetic joke. Give it up, guys! You’ll be much more content in a social structure based on female domination!
The music is smoky-bar-perfect, a sexy swing with a groove that makes you smile. When Little Walter takes center stage, I imagine him playing a harmonica that’s six feet long, because there’s no way you can get a sound that big out of such a compact instrument. Jimmy Rogers does some very nifty work on second guitar as Muddy puts most of his testosterone into the vocal.
“I’m Your Hoochie Coochie Man”: A hoochie coochie man is one with a track record with the ladies, and Willie Dixon reveals the secret behind studliness in this classic number. Before the pharma companies hooked men into buying Viagra, there were good old-fashioned hoodoo remedies like a black cat bone and a mojo and herbal remedies like “Johnny Concheroo,” a root. Most guys don’t advertise the fact they may be using Viagra, so it’s really generous for Willie to let the guys in on the secret! The classic stop-time blues structure is perfect for an expressive singer like Muddy, and the drama it creates really adds fire to the piece.
“She Moves Me”: Muddy falls under the spell of an aggressive, dominating woman who gets drunk, calls him a dumbbell and tells him he’s a square, but to him she’s pure magic. I love the way he can’t explain her power, because if power can be explained, it isn’t very powerful, is it? The refrain, “She moves me man, honey and I don’t see how it’s done” is a sublime expression of how a great woman can melt a man’s heart and stiffen his penis by taking detours around his logical brain. His opening lick of very blue notes is played almost submissively; he’s past the bravado of “I’m Ready” and is ready to serve! My kind of man!
“I Want You to Love Me”: Opening like a slow tempo version of The Yardbirds’ “I’m a Man,” this is one of my favorite expressions of the philosophy of true love: it’s not about manipulation, playing games and trying to entrap someone, it’s about choosing: “I want you to love me, baby/Love with your own free will.” It’s also about giving it all and not holding back because of insecurity or self-consciousness, “I want you to love me baby/’Til I drop dead from your love.” I’m cool with that, as long as you’re on the bottom, dude! Backup harp player Walter “Shakey” Horton does a damn fine job on this track.
“Standin’ Around Cryin'”: This is another call-and-response with Little Walter, who uses that harp to express the inexpressible emotion that the lyrics can’t possibly capture: those deep feelings that hit you in the gut and make you feel a bit dizzy, as if the world around you has shifted in a heartbeat. This and “Still a Fool” are the bluesiest numbers on the album, in the down sense of the word.
“Still a Fool”: Definitely more Delta than Chicago despite the electric guitar, there’s a point where I think Robert Johnson’s ghost has slipped into Muddy’s body. What makes it Delta is the tendency to use the root chord to explore the mode and the imagery of trains and crossroads. Muddy gives one of his most intense vocals on the album, as if he’s in a deep trance as he feels his way through his troubles and the image of the long, tall, willowy and unfortunately married woman at the source. A bravado performance.
“I Can’t Be Satisfied”: This is the most primitive recording of the lot, originally a song that was part of the Library of Congress recordings made when Muddy was first discovered in the Delta. I’m in total agreement with Ted Gioia’s description of this song as a pivotal moment in blues:
And if his previous country blues had looked back to Son House and Robert Johnson, this passionate performance anticipates the future of the blues, with its sassier, more independent attitudes, its celebration of raw appetite, not softened by metaphor or coy allusions as in so many earlier blues songs, but presented with unprecedented starkness. Even Muddy’s own later move to Chicago is hinted at in its opening phrases. “Well, if I feel tomorrow like I feel today/I’m gonna pack my suitcase/And make my getaway . . . This is no lament over bein’ mistreated, but something far more carnal in its origins. “I never been satisfied,” Waters proclaims, his bottleneck drawing out wavering moans from the guitar behind his vocal.
His riffs also communicate that sense of restless confidence, as he moves over a large piece of the fretboard with sprightliness. He leaves the melody for spoken voice on the “I could never be satisfied” lines, a technique that was very common with the Delta crowd and makes it feel like you’re sitting right there on the porch with the guy. It’s a toe-tappin’, head-shakin’ kick, just Muddy and the guitar, and a blessed artifact of musical history.
When I start listening to blues this intently, it usually means that I’ve entered my annual blues jag. I don’t think that’s going to happen, for the mood that sparks that jag is contemplative and introverted, and I’m not feeling that way at all. In fact, I’m feeling pretty sprightly these days! I think that what drove me to Muddy Waters was a deep yearning for authenticity, for the sound of musicians making a full commitment to the art and for a few moments of genuine human communication in a world that’s drowning in bullshit. The fact that Muddy is one of the great erotic artists in any genre made the experience that much sweeter.
I think I’ll play it just one more time.