Love in Vain: Dylan and the Stones in the Seventies

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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.)

Album Review: Bruce Springsteen, 'Darkness on the Edge of Town'

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.

To read the new issue of Rolling Stone online, plus the entire RS archive: Click Here

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