Q: Do you think the music of the Rolling Stones has an overall theme?
A: Yeah. Women.
With Bob Dylan no longer bringing it all back home, Elvis Presley dead and the Beatles already harmlessly cloned in the wax-museum nostalgia of a Broadway musical, it's no wonder the Rolling Stones decided to make a serious record. Not particularly ambitious, mind you, but serious. These guys aren't dumb, and when the handwriting on the wall starts to smell like formaldehyde and that age-old claim, "the greatest rock & roll band in the world," suddenly sounds less laudatory than laughable — well, if you want to survive the Seventies and enter the Eighties with something more than your bankbook and dignity intact, you'd better dredge up your leftover pride, bite the bullet and try like hell to sweat out some good music. Which is exactly what the Stones have done. Though time may not exactly be on their side, with Some Girls they've at least managed to stop the clock for a while.
This is no small accomplishment. It's not a big one either. Thus far, the critical line claims that Some Girls is the band's finest LP since its certified masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, and I'll buy that gladly. What I won't buy is that the two albums deserve to be mentioned in the same breath. (Listen to "Tumbling Dice" or, better yet, "Let It Loose" from the earlier record, and then to the exemplary "Beast of Burden" or "When the Whip Comes Down" from this year's model, and tell me that the passion, power and near-awesome completeness of the 1972 performances are in any way matched by the new ones.) Instead, Some Girls is like a marriage of convenience: when it works — which is often — it can be meaningful, memorable and quite moving, but it rarely sends the arrow straight through the heart. "It took me a long time to discover that the key to acting is honesty," an actor told the anthropologist Edmund Carpenter. "Once you know how to fake that, you've got it made."
For the most part, the Stones "act" superbly on the new LP. They've stripped down to the archetypal sound of two or three guitars, bass and drums (and, more importantly, ditched the vacuousness of Billy Preston), and it's wonderful to hear the group blazing away again with little more than the basics to protect them. Everything's apparently been recorded as close to live as we'd want it, and the overdubbing and extra musicians have been kept to a minimum. But at their best, the Rolling Stones used to play and sing a brand of rock & roll noir as moody, smoke-filled and ambiguous as the steamy and harmful atmosphere of such film noir classics as The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep. Where Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were once a pair of Humphrey Bogarts (or, in keeping with Some Girls' imagery, Lauren Bacalls), they're now more like — who? — Warren Beatty and Robert Blake. Gone is the black and white murk, and the vocals are way up in a nicely messy but pastel mix. While the Stones may have gone back a dozen or more years for the sound and style of the current album, what they've really done is to reshoot Rebel Without a Cause as a scaled-down, made-for-TV movie. The rebellion — with the exception of Richards' powerful "Before They Make Me Run" — lacks a certain credibility, and the cause is simply survival. (If you don't think that credibility is a major issue here, you haven't seen any of the band's recent concerts, most of which have been poor.)
With their eerie dual commitment to irony and ecstasy, the Stones, as rock critic Robert Christgau has pointed out, have always been obsessed with distance. On Some Girls, however, the distances are too great, and it would take a far better singer than Mick Jagger to bridge the gap between the notoriety of his jet-set lifestyle and the straightforward, one-man/one-woman sentiments of true love he expresses in "Miss You" and the Temptations' "Imagination." Or to make convincing his despair in "Shattered," a fine, scathing song about New York City — a locale that figures prominently on this record. (Rod Stewart has a similar problem now, and punk rockers like Johnny Rotten and the Clash are correct to bring it to our attention.) Because Jagger is such an excellent singer, he almost makes you believe everything he says, but it's that "almost" — which wouldn't matter at all if he weren't a Rolling Stone, i.e., the best — that keeps Some Girls from going right over the top. Too often, we're faced with a question that goes well beyond the usual some-tension-within-the-material-is-necessary argument and into the area of, why is this man lying when he's obviously pleased as punch with himself and is getting roomfuls of satisfaction? After all, if you don't believe that Jay Gatsby really loves Daisy in his divinely crazy way, what good is it?
That said, Some Girls has more than its share of highs and only one real low (the condescending and silly "Far Away Eyes," which makes even the country-rock of Firefall seem swell). "Respectable" takes a close look at the peculiar position of the Stones, circa 1978, and boasts lines like these:
We're talking heroin with the President
Yes it's a problem sir, but it can be bent...
You're a rag trade girl, you're the queen of porn
You're the easiest lay on the White House lawn...
before it inexplicably begins to lose interest in itself. "When the Whip Comes Down" and "Lies" are a neat combination of white heat and old hat, while "Miss You," "Imagination" and "Shattered" are a good deal better than that. And the title track is every bit as outrageous ("Black girls just want to get fucked all night/I just don't have that much jam") as everyone says. This song may be a sexist and racist horror, but it's also terrifically funny and strangely desperate in a manner that gets under your skin and makes you care. On "Some Girls," Mick Jagger sounds like he's not only singing like Bob Dylan, but about Bob Dylan: "I'll give ya a house back in Zuma Beach/And give you half of what I owe."
"Before They Make Me Run" and "Beast of Burden," Some Girls' hardest-hitting songs, are sandwiched between "Respectable" and "Shattered" on side two. It's probably presumptuous to suggest that these four tracks are about the present predicament of this stormy band, but I think they are. When Keith Richards sings, "Well after all is said and done/Gotta move while it's still fun/But let me walk before they make me run," there's no doubt he's talking about the music, his drug bust and the possible end of the road, about which he writes brilliantly ("Watch my taillights fading/There ain't a dry eye in the house..."). And when Mick Jagger implores,
Ain't I rough enough
Ain't I tough enough
Ain't I rich enough
In love enough
Oooo, ooh please.
he's got to be thinking about himself and the Rolling Stones, among other things. It's too bad the answer to all his questions isn't an unqualified yes. In a better world, it should be.