Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Shine a Light

Our boys went off to sleep-away camp last week. Actually, what's closer to the truth is to say that we drove the kids to camp, unpacked their stuff and tried to get a sense of which counselors were nice and likely to get the big tips when we picked the kids up at the end of July. (It will not be the one who insisted that my older son take the bed with the broken springs, which was also closest to the bathroom.) My husband made my younger son's bed and I made my older son's. Both kids informed us that they had no plans to change their sheets during the four weeks they would be away so we might as well take their second sets of sheets home. And our older son looked at his fleece jacket and directed me to take it home---he had packed a sweatshirt and didn't need a sweatshirt and a jacket. My brother, who was there settling in his oldest son, pointed out that the 14-year old girls' bunk was about ten feet away so we probably didn't have to worry about our teenage boys being cold this summer.

I love hanging out with my boys but that drop-off day for camp was a long time coming. Our kids finished school the second week of June and during that unscheduled two week period between school and camp, we took in one unexpectedly good Broadway show ("American Idiot,"), two excellent movies ("City Island" and"Get Him to the Greek"), one wretched movie ("Grown-Ups"), endless video games, a trip to the wax museum and not enough trips to the pool. During that time, our three friends from China visited for five days, our dog celebrated her fourth birthday, and we were host to a young, female guinea pig named Ralphie.

My older son's French teacher had gotten the kids a guinea pig as a reward for speaking nothing but French for twenty classes in a row. The kids took care of the GP during the school year, and once summer came, Ralphie became the property of the parents (Merci, Madame.) The kids divided up the summer; my son got the guinea pig the second week she was available.

The guinea pig made that kind of squeaking, rustling noise that makes you want to call the exterminator. I tried not to stare at her; my older son insisted that she stopped dead in her tracks whenever she heard me coming. My kids and their friends from China spent a lot of time petting Ralphie and cleaning her cage; we bought her more hay and treats and I kind of, sort of started to feel affection for her, until I noticed the little brown pellets she left on the cream-colored rug after the kids took her out to "play." After that, I counted the days until the next mother came to claim her.

As a result of spending time with all those mammals, I hadn't been alone in a while. My husband and I took two cars to get all our kids' stuff to camp, so on the way home, it was finally just me and my head. Instead of thinking about BP's oil spill, Elena Kagan's hearing, Darci Kistler's retirement, Wimbledon, the World Cup or the end of Larry King's Q&A sessions, I listened to to the Rolling Stones, non-stop, for an hour an a half.

Like lots of baby boomers, I spent a lot of time during the 70's and 80's listening to the Stones. I was a sheltered, middle-class girl and I only owned one of their albums---"Hot Rocks." I wasn't particularly wild-- I never went to one of their concerts or thought about getting high to one of their songs---but I loved "Satisfaction," "Let's Spend the Night Together," "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and "Sympathy for the Devil," and I loved to watch Mick Jagger strut and purse his lips, and Ronnie Wood and Keitih Richards bounce off each other. I have cycled through a lot of infatuations with various bad-boy musicians---Eminem, TI, Slash, even Russell Brand in "Get Him to the Greek"---but Keith Richards and I share a birthday, and he's always been my favorite. That said, I wasn't particularly knowledgeable about any of the Stones---for a while, I thought Wood and Richards were half-brothers and I got the bios of Brian Jones and Mick Taylor mixed up.

After college, I stopped paying attention to the Stones and started listening to Yaz, the Eurythmics, Joan Armatrading and the Fine Young Cannibals. Twenty-five years went by, and then a few weeks ago, I started listening to the Stones again. In March, I discovered Peter Wolf, former front man for the J. Geils band, in a Wall Street Journal story about his new album, "Midnight Souvenirs." I ordered the album and once I started listening to him, I couldn't stop. After playing" Watch Her Move," "There's Still Time," and "Overnight Lows," a zillion times, I bought Wolf's earlier album," Sleepless." "Sleepless" didn't sell many albums when it came out in 2002, but Rolling Stone magazine named it one of the best 500 albums of all time. Every song is memorable, beautiful and thought provoking. Try listening to "Never Like This Before," "Homework," "Too Close Together" and "Run Silent, Run Deep," and see if you don't feel cheerful---or at least cheerfully more pensive. Keith Richards sings and plays guitar on "Too Close Together." This is a raunchy, funny song and you can hear the good time these guys are having while they play.

The liner notes alone on "Sleepless" are worth the price of the album. You get a sense of how and why musicians work well together---and why they sometimes don't. About "Too Close Together," Wolf writes:
The phone rang in the studio. 'Keith should arrive sometime after 5 p.m,' was the message. At 4 o'clock, in rolled several beat ups amps and two old guitar cases. At 5 o'clock someone arrived to set up Keith's equipment. At 6 o'clock another delivery of vodka, ice and several cases of orange soda. 7' o'clock someone came around to check on the amps and make sure the ice was still cold. Around 8 o'clock came the man himself, hat, scarf, cigarette in one hand and large duffel bag in the other. Keith doesn't just come into a room---he captures it.

Watching Keith work in a studio is quite amazing. He doesn't just play a song, he circles it from every direction. Besides being such a distinctive and generous musician, he is one of the most charismatic and entertaining storytellers with a razor sharp sense of humor---when Keith is on a roll, there's nothing quiet like it.

"Too Close Together" doesn't sound much like a Stones song but" "Nothing but the Wheel" does, probably because Mick Jagger is singing back-up and his voice is so distinctive. In the notes, Wolf writes:
This was originally a ballad that I first heard as a demo and it always reminded me of something that could have been a track on the Stones "Exile on Main Street" record. It really meant a lot to me when Mick offered to sing on this track.

When I hear his performance, it always makes me smile. He is a very disciplined and an extremely hard worker. His vocals are always filled with such a distinctive charm, personality and swank.

I had never listened to "Exile on Main Street," which the Stones recorded in the basement of Richards' rented villa, NellcĂ´te, in the South of France, in the early 70's. They were trying to avoid paying taxes to the British government, Mick was waiting for his first baby with Bianca to be born, and Keith and his then-girlfriend were raising their son Marlon and sampling various substances. Apparently, it was a heady, intense, environment that brought out the best and worst in them. The Stones re-released "Exile on Main Street" a couple of months ago, and a lot of it is fabulous. There are two versions of "Loving Cup," and "Soul Survivor" on the second disk (though both are better on the first disk), and on the second disk, "Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)" will have you tapping your foot and singing along. "Following the River" is a mournful, apologetic break-up song, and "Shine a Light" is fantastic: Part gospel, part rock, it has an extended piano solo that is just gorgeous. In my fantasies, the "Shine a Light" lyrics are about Keith's new baby and Mick writing a song to sing to the baby at the christening. Here are the first and last stanzas:

Saw you stretched out in room ten-o-nine
With a smile on your face
And a tear right in your eye
Couldn't seem to get a line on you
My sweet honey love.

May the good Lord shine a light on you
Make every song you sing your favorite tune
May the good Lord shine a light on you
Warm like the evening sun."

In reality, “Shine a Light” is about Brian Jones' ultimately fatal drug problem. After listening to "Exile on Main Street" again and again, I started listening to "Jump Back," the best of the Rolling Stones' songs from 1971-1993. The album includes "Start Me Up," "Brown Sugar," "It's Only Rock 'n Roll," "Miss You," "Emotional Rescue," "Beast of Burden" and ""Waiting on a Friend." The liner notes give some insight into how the Stones feel about each other: Their addictions, their feuds, their recoveries, their tours, their collaborations within the band, their admiration of other musicians, and their attitudes towards various girlfriends, wives and kids.

I particularly love the way the Stones sing about their kids, and then try to play down why they're singing about their kids. Talking about the 1973 song "Angie," Richards says,
I don't think you can write really interesting rock n' roll songs if you can't get into ballads and slower stuff. I'd recently had my daughter born, whose name was Angela, and the name was starting to ring around the house. But I'm not into writing about babies. Angie just fitted. I mean you couldn't sing Maureen.

Well, you could, but then he wouldn’t be singing about his new baby. Mick Jagger had a similar explanation for the 1976 song, "Fool to Cry."
This dates from the period when I had a young child, my daughter Jade, around a lot, calling me 'daddy' and all that. It's another of our heart-melting ballads, a bit long and waffly at the end maybe, but I like it.

Pumped on all these minor insights into the Stones, I ordered Richards' new memoir, Life, due out this fall, and the DVD "Shine a Light," Martin Scorsese's 2008 documentary about the Stones. Scorsese filmed a concert in 2006 that was held as a 60th birthday celebration/fundraiser for Bill Clinton's climate change foundation. The trailer for the movie is short and awesome, but the full length movie is a bit of a long haul. There is some funny, old footage of the Stones in their jaunty, deliciously provocative, drug-soaked prime. At one point, a TV interviewer asks Richards and Woods, "Who's the best guitarist?" Woods looks down at the floor and says, "He knows I am." Richards looks right at the interviewer and says, "We're both pretty lousy but together we're better than ten others."

“Shine a Light”doesn’t include a live performance of the Stones singing "Shine a Light" but it does include great close-ups of the Stones' wiry, muscular bodies, their eyeliner, their sweat, their wrinkles, their cigarettes and their egotism as they strut around the stage, flirt with each other, talk to the audience and put on a show. Richards smokes and looks happily wasted, and the movie includes a curious gyrating session between Jagger and Christine Aguilera. You just can't see these two getting together off stage. But the beginning of the film, where the Stones meet the Clintons, is very funny, and Richards is sweet, innocent, and childishly polite as he looks Hillary Clinton's mother's right in the eye and says, "Hi, Dorothy." The highlight of “Shine a Light” comes when Jack White of the White Stripes goes out on stage and plays "Loving Cup" on acoustic guitar with Mick Jagger. He looks thrilled and awed, and when he comes back to take his bow, he's chewing gum.

Needless to say, my kids don't like listening to the Stones. I can't blame them---the Stones aren't struggling or rebelling anymore and they don't really rap. They haven't been arrested or gone to jail recently, and they're basically old and rich. In his divorce settlement, Ronnie Wood was estimated to be worth $70 million and Jagger's fortune hovers somewhere around $250 million. Jagger is a grandfather several times over and Richards is two years younger than my mother and mother-in-law. But they can still make you want to dance. My husband and I went to Tanglewood over the 4th of July weekend with a group of good friends, sat on the lawn and listened to James Taylor and Carole King. (I would normally write, we "saw" them in concert but they were so far away, we couldn't see them at all.) I grew up listening to JT and Carole King and logged many more hours listening to them than I did the Stones. Their folksy, feel-good songs are great for generating a happy, mellow vibe. But on the way home from the Berkshires, we listened to the Stones' "Start Me Up," "Angie," "Miss You," "Emotional Rescue," "Beast of Burden," and "Waiting on a Friend." It's only rock 'n roll but---you know you like it.

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