Love in Vain: Dylan and the Stones in the Seventies

A second look at 'Street Legal' and 'Some Girls' after harsh initial reviews

The Rolling Stones
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The Rolling Stones
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If there's one song that will memorialize this summer, it's "Miss You" by the Rolling Stones. You hear it on the radio almost hourly, and everyone in your life seems to be walking down the street to its beat. "Miss You" is an intensely erotic rock & roll ramble that exemplifies the polish, power and passion of the Stones. It's a track that equals "Tumbling Dice" and "Brown Sugar," and may even set new standards for the band.

These days, I also find myself singing the words and humming the melodies of the new Dylan songs. Especially these lines: "Señor, Señor, can you tell me where we're headin'/Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?" Behind these lyrics, an entire Billy the Kid soundtrack is in motion, with mysterioso counterpoints between strings and keyboards. "Seems like I been down this way before/Is there any truth in that, Señor?"

"Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)" is Dylan's strongest, most convincing look at life in America since Highway 61 Revisited. When he sings, "This place don't make sense to me no more," I feel the way I did when I first heard "Desolation Row."

The reviews of Street-Legal, Some Girls and two Stones concerts in Rolling Stone were exceptionally negative and, in many ways, seemed based on a weird hostility and bitterness. Greil Marcus (who reviewed Street-Legal), Dave Marsh (who wrote about the Rolling Stones in concert) and Paul Nelson (who reviewed Some Girls) are among the top five or six rock critics in the world. But Marcus' and Marsh's articles were ad hominem attacks.

Marcus on the Dylan LP: "Most of the stuff here is dead air . . . wretched performances . . . [Dylan] speaks to the woman like a sultan checking out a promising servant girl for VD . . . he's never sounded so utterly fake . . . intolerably smug . . . an imitation of caring that couldn't fool a stuffed dog."

Greil Marcus is saying that Street-Legal is completely without merit, lacks a single song good enough to redeem the effort, and is nothing but junk. Not only that, but Mr. Dylan is insulting to women! Mother of God!

However, "Baby Stop Crying" and "Is Your Love in Vain?," the two numbers that don't pass Marcus' "proper respect" test, are among the record's finest: simple, direct expressions from a man who knows love and the ambiguities of commitment only too well. They are songs about lost love – throwing it all away – and, what is even more compelling, the fear of love.

Street-Legal is definitely a mixed bag. But I hear mostly very strong songs – far higher than Dylan's recent average. And, as a whole, this LP is his most comprehensive comment about our current state since Blonde on Blonde.

Bob Dylan is once again trying something new (as he's done with every album). But what we have here is something more tentative than we're used to, because this record represents a very ambitious move, and a very deliberate one. Dylan is going back through all his vocal and instrumental styles. The tracks are filled with obvious echoes from Highway 61 Revisited, Nashville Skyline, et al.: "Where Are You Tonight?" nearly metamorphoses into "Like a Rolling Stone" at least three times. He wants to meld these styles into one: a style that isn't merely full, but is ultimately pure.

Dylan's voice is more expressive than it's ever been, and his mastery of phrasing has reached a level of sophistication that's simply stunning. But the ambitiousness of Street-Legal has apparently made the artist too hesitant about reaching for his goals – in fact, he shies away from the challenge. The problem is finally a musical one: you can't make a great LP with a twelve-piece band in six days, which is essentially what Dylan has tried to do. The new album is badly recorded, badly engineered, badly mixed. The drums sound like shoe boxes, the vocals drift on and off mike, etc. And no one has bothered to take the time to fix things up.

Dylan needs a producer. In 1969, with a six-man rock & roll band, you could go for the groove. But in 1978, when our ears have become attuned to technical improvements and superior studio techniques, it's unfair of any artist to give either himself or us less than the best. Arrangements for a twelve-piece band take time, thought and care. If Dylan were to walk into the studio tomorrow and record the same set of songs, the results would be twice as good because his band has been on the road for three months now, benefiting from the time and care that this music clearly needed.

The bitterness toward the Dylan album has much to do with Renaldo and Clara, a film I skipped because of the anger it caused among those who saw it. The movie created a backlash which caught Street-Legal. Dylan apparently didn't care about his audience.

Bob Dylan is moving back to the rock idiom, always my favorite of his periods. And though he can still set most of his own rules (as he did in the past), a lot of new rules have also been lodged, which is how it should be. And that's what I think Dylan must deal with first, no matter what else may be said.

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Dave Marsh on the Stones concerts in Philadelphia and New York City: "[They're] now just another good rock band . . . their show is frequently very dull . . . very average . . . it's clear that these Stones can only barely do it at all . . . the extremely tedious middle section of the show, in which the Stones promote their new album like latter-day Framptons . . . 'Respectable,' for instance, is just a rewrite of 'Rocks Off'. . . . What the program really did point up is how much the quality of the group's material has slipped. . . .  lackluster . . . boring."

Any serious critic who says the Rolling Stones are just another "average" band practically invites us to question all his judgments. I'd like to have the names of five bands better than the Stones. Marsh also complained that "the focus is still too incessantly on Mick Jagger" (when was it ever not?), and then turned around and bitched that, in 1975, "Jagger was obliged to take frequent breaks, and these were the slackest moments of all." Well, which do you want, Dave? A lion-taming act could have hopped onstage while Jagger rested. Finally, Marsh lets it loose: "Jagger wears blazers and golfing caps onstage these days, which is reminiscent of nothing so much as Bob Hope – or Jerry Lewis, in The Delicate Delinquent."

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The two shows that Marsh wrote about were indeed less than the Stones have given us in the past. I saw the New York City date, skipped Philadelphia, but had the good fortune of seeing the band in a 3400-seat movie theater in Passaic, New Jersey, where they were hot and unstoppable. (The too few small dates on the tour were a special treat. Their new material was the high point of the concert in New Jersey. Keith Richards played his ass off, and Bill Wyman rumbled every seat in the house. It was obvious that the Rolling Stones still cut it and can be the best rock & roll band performing today.)

However, gigs like the 90,000-seater in Philadelphia and the end-of-the-tour dates in Anaheim and other megabuck stadium stops were unanimously regarded as second-rate stuff. Maybe Led Zeppelin can come across to that many people at that great a distance, but the Stones can't, and they know it. But rather than play for five nights at, say, the 18,000-seat Los Angeles Forum (which would have given their fans a better show, but might have reduced gross box-office receipts by $250,000), the band went for Fort Knox. That was the point of the 1978 tour: cleanup time at the superbowls. But, boys, the price of that extra quarter-million – split six ways, after commissions and taxes – is bad reviews. And you deserved them.

Even in optimum settings, the Stones, as a live band, had real problems this year and didn't meet the standards they set on their previous American tours. Above all, Keith Richards' performances were erratic: many nights, he barely played at all. And since he, more than anyone else, is the musical force behind the Stones, the band suffered without his guitar playing. I'm sure this fact must weigh heavily on them. I think the Stones' new songs are stunners, but, with Richards out of commission, both the fans and the critics would rather hear "Midnight Rambler."

It was a poor Rolling Stones tour, and I'll grant that Dave Marsh (who happened upon two really inferior shows) had a point. But I still feel that his review was based more on his own partisan zeal than on what he actually saw and heard.

Despite the disappointment of the tour, most of the rock audience (which, by early August, had purchased 3.6 million copies of the new record in the U.S.) immediately understood that Some Girls was "the band's finest LP since . . . Exile on Main Street." Paul Nelson's statement, quoted above, was quite direct. However, his preamble to that conclusion was embroidered with the Sturm und Drang of imagined deliberations within the band regarding the strategic necessity to buckle down and "sweat out some good music" with which "to survive the Seventies and enter the Eighties."

Nelson dwelled on matters of age and credibility that he felt caused the need to make an indisputably great album. My guess is that the Stones conceptualized their problem (a six-year stretch of mediocre product) in a much more prosaic manner. They probably said something like this:

Last year more than seventy albums went platinum, but our own LPs have been pretty lukewarm. So, goddamn it, we find it a little embarrassing and painful to be taking a back seat again to Linda Ronstadt, Boz Scaggs, Peter Frampton and so on. Normally, we wouldn't give a shit, but these platinum artists are raking in royalties the likes of which we've never seen. Fuck the Eighties, we're old hands at this, so lets get it on.

Nelson was concerned whether Some Girls was as good as Exile on Main Street, a "certified masterpiece." In his opinion, it wasn't. According to him, the new album lacked "the passion, power and near-awesome completeness of the 1972 performances." He questioned the Stones' sincerity and their image as he perceived it: "the gap between the notoriety of [Mick Jagger's] jet-set lifestyle and the straightforward . . . sentiments" of the new record.

Jagger, based on what Nelson gleaned from the idiot winds of the media, was being thematically dishonest in these songs. But if we buy what the media tell us, how can we possibly not realize that these "public" themes are precisely what Jagger is talking about on the new LP? For the first time in a long while, Mick Jagger is being absolutely unhesitant in addressing the contradictions and questions about his own life, the life of his band, his jet-set reputation – all in all, a pretty wide front.

More than any of their recent records, Some Girls is Mick Jagger's. He wrote most of the melodies, most of the lyrics, and the obsessions are his. Everything here fits with what I know about Jagger and what he's been through since the last LP: divorce, the reaffirmation of being a Rolling Stone and life in New York City.

Some Girls is sensational. The Stones were never the band to make a perfect album (and "Far Away Eyes" is the obvious weak link here), but "Beast of Burden" is stunning, and "Imagination" ranks with any Motown cover version they've done since "My Girl." "Shattered" is the best thing anybody's written about New York in ages. "Respectable" is honest, cruel, too personal, too public – as truthful as anyone ever gets. And while "When the Whip Comes Down" may not be as dramatic as "Midnight Rambler," there's a much subtler and broader reality to it because there are more male hustlers among us than Boston stranglers. Murder may be more romantic, but compulsion is probably more real.

This record is so good because the band has something to say. That's where the whip really comes down, and that's what makes Some Girls a masterpiece.

Ironically, one of the reasons why Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh and Paul Nelson panned Bob Dylan and the Rolling Stones with such invective is because these critics care so much – not only about Dylan and the Stones but about the entire spectrum of rock & roll. They grew up with it in the Sixties, so maybe it's now necessary for them to slay their figurative fathers and look for new heroes.

I doubt whether it's either as simple or complex as that, but I do know that when you really care about something and feel it's let you down, you're liable to write about it with the most extreme criterion: love or hate, betrayal or rebirth, the best or the worst. That's why they go off the deep end sometimes.

(It's interesting that these critics extravagantly praised Bruce Springsteen, possibly to the point of hurting him, and that they spent enormous amounts of energy in their fascination with punk rock, calling it the "music of the Seventies," even though it probably won't make it to 1980.)

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I think they blew it with their reviews of Dylan and the Stones, which is why I'm putting my two cents in. To say that Street-Legal isn't as good as Blonde on Blonde or that Some Girls is no match for Exile on Main Street doesn't really tell us anything.

Any attempt to assess the merit of the current state of rock & roll that focuses on this kind of debate does injustice not only to the artist concerned but also to other important rock acts who deserve to be included in such a discussion: Bob Seger, Jackson Browne, Rod Stewart, Van Morrison, the Eagles, Neil Young, to name a few.

What we are wondering is whether the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan can still produce work at the level of their earlier, explosive peaks, and whether or not they still have the same kind of relevance to our lives. To put it more bluntly, have our old idols become outdated old-fashioned, or, worse, merely commercial?

In one way or another, the three reviews I have taken issue with have raised questions about the importance and worth of artists who we assume to have put out their best work in the Sixties. Dave Marsh frames this in terms of who is "the greatest rock & roll band in the world." Greil Marcus rides roughshod over Dylan because "he ain't what he used to be."

Critical discussions – historical, social, moral – that ultimately revolve around the point of things not being what they used to be are useless. To argue otherwise is to deny the aging of the observer and the observed and to ignore the fact of change.

On the Fourth of July, I saw Bob Dylan play Paris and he was better than I've ever seen him. He closed his show with these lines: "May you stay forever young."

This story is from the September 21, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 274: September 21, 1978
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