A Night on the Town

Not Rated

Any critic worth his salt comes to an almost mystical rapport with certain artists. When the melodies and lyrics of such performers float across the mind late at night, they are resented by the cynical journalist as much as they're treasured by the sentimental fan (no good critic is less than half of either), but there's no way out.

For me, Rod Stewart is such an artist. Because he is, it's becoming increasingly difficult to separate what I bring to his albums, in the way of hopes and illusions, from what he's truly offering. So, while I can say with considerable assurance that A Night on the Town is among Stewart's most splendid efforts, it's hard to be certain what my reasons are. Are these lines as deep as they feel, or as inconsequential as they look?

I'm a fool for ya baby
My pride won't let me stay
I'm a fool for ya honey
But I'll come back any day

The seduction isn't in these words, of course, but in Stewart's utter exultation as he delineates every romantic's dilemma. Still, there's no logical or technical argument to substantiate my passion or justify my faith. I only know that this music makes me feel larger, fuller, more alive. And if that isn't what it is for, it's not for anything.

But this album's best song, "Tonight's the Night," is defensible both logically and technically. One of many tributes to Sam Cooke, Stewart's soul music inspiration, it is also his closest approximation of that sound. The strings, for once, are perfect — only Cooke or Stewart could swing through such syrup with so little effort and so much power. The guitar figure has the kind of pop elegance that characterized Abbey Road; the drumming is as confident as the singing.

This classic soul structure is used, with as much canniness as Stewart has ever displayed, for a lyric unique in all his writing. "Tonight's the Night" is a blissful love song, capturing the feeling of the beginning of a relationship with the grace Stewart has more commonly applied to love's end. Here are those perfect moments in the beginning when everything is possible:

Don't say a word, my virgin child
Just let your inhibitions run wild
The secret is about to unfold
Upstairs before the night's too old

Such pleasures never last long — if "Tonight's the Night" is about the first few weeks of sexual passion, the rest of the album is about the rest of a lifetime. But the promise of "Tonight's the Night," its tenderness, gives greater resonance than ever before to the catastrophes which inevitably follow Stewart.

Cat Stevens's "The First Cut Is the Deepest" does the job, marred only by an utterly banal guitar solo. But no one can handle feckless love better than Stewart. He treats it as it is, with more complicated emotions than simple self-pity, though with a full measure of that, and blame is spread evenly or not at all. "Fool for You" is cut from the mold that gave us "Maggie May" and "You Wear It Well," but neither the music nor the situation has worn out. In his heart, Rod Stewart, like Smokey Robinson, remains the young innocent, tender to the soul, naive to the end. Even when bitter, he's gentle: "I'm gonna leave my records and a forwarding address/Ain't you glad, honey, that I'm offa your chest." No matter how ugly the end, as he leaves he really believes what he whispers: "Guess I'll always love ya, all my life."

The hilarious but more than half-serious "The Balltrap" reminds us how gruesome the conclusion of a great love affair can be. But even nightly jilted, Stewart refuses to give up without a fight. "The Balltrap" is a fine slice of Faces-level rock & roll, driven by Fats Domino piano, wacky horns, a turbulent slide guitar. It is also the album's only original rocker. This hurts the album's "fast side" and, beyond that, the division into rock and romance suggests that Stewart's not quite dispersed his old group's ghost. The quality of the nonoriginal rock is another problem — here's where my personal attraction to his music creates confusion. I like the idea of doing "Pretty Flamingo" as a mock tango, but no one else I know does. And I prefer Ron Wood's version of "Big Bayou" but like "The Wild Side of Life" better than Hank Thompson's country classic original. "Trade Winds," the ballad that closes the fast side, is more banal than incongruous. Maybe he'd better get a new band quick ... or devote himself entirely to slow and mid-tempo songs.

The final song on the "slow side" is proof enough that he can work that form as well as anyone who's ever sung or written rock & roll music. "The Killing of Georgie, Part I & II" is among the best songs Stewart has ever written and absolutely the bravest. Here is the pink-suited, rooster-coifed rock dilettante laying it on the line for friendship, not even love. Here is one of rock's leading androgynes writing a breathtakingly tender song about the murder of a gay pal without flinching. I have left it for last not only because it is Stewart's breakthrough as a composer but because I am more than a bit in awe of it.

The music alone would make "Georgie" a major achievement. The double-time, chantlike vocal is reminiscent of Bob Dylan's recent approach, but with all the melodiousness Dylan discards. Its female doo-wop chorus, accelerated like Lou Reed's "Walk on the Wild Side," is supported by a delicate web of guitar, organ and string figures that is totally Stewart's own.

What counts more is the matter-of-fact concern he brings to the story. The best rock songs are moving ever closer to good prose fiction — for proof, a listen to Born to Run, the best parts of Desire or "Memory Motel" will suffice — and "Georgie" too is written completely within this style, at least before its watershed coda. As in Springsteen's "Back-streets," Dylan's "Mozambique" and Neil Young's much different "Tonight's the Night," what's at stake is loyalty, friendship — the ethical motifs of the western movie. When Georgie dies, Stewart remains cool, but there's an ache in his voice and a shadow in his words that tell you this tale is breaking his heart:

Out of a darkened side street came
A New Jersey gang with just one aim
To roll some innocent passerby ...
Another kid, a switchblade knife,
He did not intend to take his life
He just pushed his luck a little too far that night
The sight of blood dispersed the gang,
A crowd gathered, the police came
An ambulance screamed to a halt at 53rd and 3rd
Doo doo doo Doo doo doo Doo doo doo

The jolly chorus is awful, as though the Stones had decided to do "Heartbreaker" as a novelty number about the pleasures of mugging. That's how Stewart tries to leave us, the classic rock & roll dilettante quoting a piece of Georgie's street philosophy about nothing mattering but the moment. But the final line betrays his real grief: Georgie was a friend of mine.

This is Stewart's real strength: a working-class eloquence, a belief in the simplest truths that won't let him get caught up in the canonization of mere punks and gangsters. That simple sentence is just the thing that makes him great, redeems his failures and gives all who listen something for which there is no substitute.

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