Although the Rolling Stones now sing about their children and families as often as their stupid girlfriends, we still try to retain our old image of them, under our thumbs and out of our heads. Musically, the Stones aren’t the same band anymore, either, although the continued use of the same rudiments — the drumming, the ceaseless riffing, the vocal posturing — might make it seem otherwise at a hasty glance. But the band that made Black and Blue isn’t the same one that made 12 x 5 or even Aftermath. But that doesn’t mean today’s Stones are not a great band playing great music. They’re a different sort of band, playing a different kind of music.
When Mick Taylor joined, more than a guitar style changed, although what changed may have had less to do with the new guitarist than seemed obvious. By 1969, the Stones had already begun their break from simple blues and rock, remember. And even though the technically adept, emotionally sterile Taylor has been replaced officially by the rock archetype, Ron Wood, it is still fatuous to imagine the clock turning back. For at least five albums, the best Stones songs have relied on strings, horns, keyboards and eccentric vocal combinations as much as on guitar, bass and drums. No guitarist could change that. But the audience — and in a sense, I suspect, the Stones themselves — still expects each album to contain some traditional guitar rock. In a way, Black and Blue is an admirable album just for its refusal to bow to the past. A few songs here try to sound like “Brown Sugar” and “Tumbling Dice” and those few aren’t the best ones.
Still, the Stones have problems. Keith Richard recently has seemed to run out of melodic ideas altogether and, like the majority of their post-Exile on Main Street repertoire, the new numbers are based on loose riffs rather than tight song structures. Consequently, the music lacks energy. (The lack of energy has been written off to age, but that is absurd. Like the Who or any rock band, the Stones are obsessed in their way with age and time, but unlike the rest, they’ve matured with confident gracefulness. For Soul Survivors, I guess, dying before you get old is simply not relevant.)
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What has really dissipated the Stones’ enormous energy is a lack of organization and control. This is most obviously displayed as a production flaw, although the lack of song structure is a symptom, too. The Glimmer Twins (Jagger/Richard’s nom de production) kept control of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll until the end, when “Fingerprint File” finished things with unredeemed self-indulgence. This time, they’ve lost control; it took them too long to make the record, and the weariness shows.
Too much of Black and Blue picks up the trail of “Fingerprint File.” “Hot Stuff,” which opens side one, and “Hey Negrita,” which opens side two, are intricate funk jams, fusing reggae, Latin rhythms and the Meters’ brand of funk without achieving the focused mood of “Fingerprint File.” Some of the playing is exceptional — on “Hot Stuff,” Charlie Watts might be playing .44 magnums instead of drums — but it never coalesces to slam the message home.
A producer’s more objective voice could have made the difference. Merely resequencing the songs would have helped. In the middle of a side, the repetitive sameness of “Hot Stuff” or “Hey Negrita” would have seemed less portentous, at least.
There is plenty of good stuff left, although all of it is marred by the need for fuller, firmer instrumentation. “Hand of Fate,” which isn’t as melodic as the Stones riff usually is, is brought to life by a blistering Wayne Perkins guitar solo and Jagger’s incredibly live vocal. “Crazy Mama,” the wild little rocker that closes the set, is hot stuff. It sounds as out of control as the Faces, although Wood doesn’t play on it. (He’s “in the band,” but he only plays on two songs.) The lyrics are marvelous: “‘Cause if you really think you can push it/I’m gonna bust your knees with a bullet.” Those two are the only hard rockers on the album, and the only time Jagger pulls the standard macho-demonic act, too. The former is perplexing news, but the latter may be regarded by one and all as a good omen.
Jagger’s new role is as a professional singer, and he’s great at it. “Melody” ought to be a tentative experiment with Billy Preston’s jazzy keyboard sound. Instead, it’s a triumph, Jagger’s voice swooping and snaking around Preston’s piano and harmonies. If Black and Blue leaves us nothing else, it is the knowledge that Jagger has become a total pro in a way that, of rock’s great white vocalists, only Rod Stewart and Van Morrison can match. This, with the album’s two ballads, “Fool to Cry” and “Memory Motel,” is material he can sing with pride until he’s 50.
“Fool to Cry” harks all the way back to the confessional style of one of Mick’s original influences, Solomon Burke. He talks and cries through the number, riding against the waves of Nicky Hopkins’s string synthesizer. Stalked by the same lonely terror that haunts so many recent Stones numbers, Jagger is consoled and sometimes berated by his daughter, his woman, his best friends. He opens with a neat, oblique comment on his own parenthood, another sign of his maturity. But what is finally striking about the song is that Mick Jagger is now living up to his inspirations. He tried to match Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye for power in his younger days, and failed brilliantly. Older and wiser, he proves their equal as a singer of ballads.
For “Memory Motel,” a sort of return to “Moonlight Mile,” the stops are all pulled out. Once more, Watts propels the tune with his drumming. The story begins when Mick meets a girl before last summer’s tour. (The real memory motel is near the house in Montauk, Long Island, where the band rehearsed.) But it soon becomes entangled with his recollections of the tour.
The singing is nothing less than spectacular. Jagger is powerful in his yearning, almost a supplicant. But the real revelation (as always) is Keith Richard, who sneaks in some really touching lines:
Mighty fine, she’s one of a kind
She got a mind of her own
She’s one of a kind
And she use it well
This is a perfect description of Keith Richard on last summer’s tour, racing forward to sing “Happy” and running the show with more poise than he’s ever been given credit for.
But “Memory Motel” is more than just a vignette or two. In the end, it becomes the perfect agony-of-the-road song, for it dwells not just on the difficulties of touring, but also on the ultimate joys: As Watts moves in like a locomotive, pushing the song upward, Jagger explains in one brief flash what it’s worth to him, what keeps him coming back for more: “What’s all this laughter on the 22nd floor?/It’s just some friends of mine/And they’re bustin’ down the door!” There’s no way to capture the exhilaration he expresses as his pals roust him from his reverie, lifting him away from his cares. For that one moment, at least, Jagger feels his music as deeply as he ever has.
I remember often these days how long it has been since rock was essentially a fad. Yet we still treat it cavalierly, dismissing careers on the basis of a single disliked album. We are often cruelest, too, to those who have given us most, seeing only the short term, and forgetting that we deal with careers now, not just one-shot hits. Black and Blue may not be the invincible Rolling Stones of our dreams, but that is also a virtue in its way.
Black and Blue leaves me remembering the first important lesson I learned from the Stones: “Empty heart is like an empty life.” This may not be the same band which told us that, but those sullen teenagers would recognize this one, and be proud.