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50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones
As the 50th-anniversary milestones for the Beatles and the Rolling Stones fly off like calendar pages in an old film, even the stuff of barroom debates gets elevated into book-length exegeses. At least that's true on the evidence of Beatles vs. Stones, by John McMillian, and Rocks Off: 50 Tracks That Tell the Story of the Rolling Stones, by Bill Janovitz. The good news is that despite some flaws, each of them justifies its extended treatment of essentially irresolvable disputes. They manage to make their cases in balanced, informed, yet still passionate terms. And, best of all, when you're done, you don't need to worry about a crippling hangover.
At a New York dinner party a couple of years back, a beautiful woman - who else would dare? - teased Mick Jagger: 'Everybody's either a Beatles person or a Stones person. Which are you?' Characteristically inclined to repel even deadly serious questions with an eye roll and a shrug, Jagger took this one straight. 'I'm a Stones person,' he replied.
That response is telling. Ever since they pulled ahead of the Fab Four on the hipness front in the late '60s, the Stones have been weary and resentful of Beatles comparisons. In fact, the bands were frenemies from the start. Jagger hilariously describes being intimidated by the Beatles in their leather coats when they came to see the Stones perform in their very early days. And as Londoners, the Stones would forever be gobsmacked by having to stand in the shadow of a quartet from, of all provincial places, Liverpool. While Allen Ginsberg asserted that the Beatles made Liverpool 'the center of the consciousness of the human universe,' Keith Richards saw it somewhat differently: 'I mean, Liverpool is . . . as far as London is concerned, it's Nome, Alaska.' The Beatles, to be fair, could be equally dismissive of their surlier rivals: 'I think Mick's a joke, with all that fag dancing,' John Lennon once sneered.
Nonetheless, the Beatles' pre-eminence is undeniable. Far more than a band that you might like or dislike in relation to any other, 'the Beatles are a phenomenon,' the Stones guitarist Brian Jones once evenly stated to a British journalist. In the '60s rock solar system, they were the sun around which everything else revolved, and the Stones benefited too much from the Beatles' reflected heat to be able to deny it. As far as America is concerned, without the Beatles' breakthrough, there could have been no Rolling Stones. When it counted, the Beatles wrote a hit song for the Stones, talked them up in interviews and helped get them a record deal. Later on, the two camps would stagger their record releases in order not to hurt each other's sales.
John McMillian, who teaches history at Georgia State University, negotiates these thickets with insight, care and a willingness to unsettle cliches. He can be fussy at times, as when, for example, he asserts his objectivity about his book's subject with a blithe 'I don't try to adjudicate the question here. . . . I'm not a rock critic; I'm a historian.' (True: He's far better at unearthing surprising material than making musical judgments.) And his writing can occasionally lurch into academese. Neither the Beatles nor the Stones, he observes, 'articulated, or proved willing to defend, a coherent political cosmology.'
That said, even the most gnarled and intransigent veterans of the Beatles-Stones debates will emerge enlightened by this book. McMillian is a scholar of the '60s underground press, and his deft references to those far-flung sources demonstrate how profoundly these bands' songs, statements and actions roiled the counterculture. It's hard to imagine any artist, musical or otherwise, having as direct a social impact today. And even if McMillian refuses to adjudicate the argument he investigates, he provides plenty of ammunition for you to wage the war, whichever side you're on.
Bill Janovitz, a musician (he sings, plays guitar and writes songs in the band Buffalo Tom) as well as a critic, has a somewhat different perspective from McMillian in Rocks Off. In his introduction he writes, 'And so that is how I present this book, as an unabashed fan.' He lives up to that self-assessment. But do we really need six pages on 'She Was Hot'? Um, no.
Still, as barroom raconteurs go, Janovitz is an extremely engaging companion. Like any list book, this one is an argument in search of a readership. Come on, 'The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man'? Are you kidding? Where's 'No Expectations'? 'Plundered My Soul' makes the cut, but not 'Keep Up Blues' or 'No Spare Parts'? That's crazy!
But just when you're about to suck down that fifth bourbon and close out your tab, you realize Janovitz has a larger aim. 'The songs are not all necessarily my favorites; they were chosen, in part, to tell the story of 50 years of the band,' he explains. Now, that rationale is no less a fire-starter than claiming to compile the 50 'best' Stones songs, but it does account for some of the book's strengths and weaknesses. Providing extensive historical context for 50 songs inevitably makes for a certain amount of repetition. That's less of a problem, of course, if you're not reading the book from start to finish, as this reviewer felt obliged to do, but dipping into it as curiosity and inclination lead you to particular songs.
That historical context is an important aspect of the book's great appeal. In the section on 'Sway,' a lesser-known song on 'Sticky Fingers' that is a favorite among Stones aficionados, Janovitz makes reference to the deaths of Brian Jones, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, as well as the drug problems of Keith Richards and Jagger's then-girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, all to demonstrate Jagger's tough-minded conviction that 'if you live that 'demon life,' you have to expect such outcomes.' The entry is both smart and feeling, and it deepens our comprehension of the song. Janovitz has a touching, and entirely uncritical, fondness for Richards's rickety ballads, and he often finds a rough-hewed poetry when writing about them. Discussing Nicky Hopkins's lovely piano part on 'Coming Down Again,' for example, he describes how the 'guitars hang and flutter around it like a tattered cape on a scarecrow skeleton.'
Finally, the measure of 'Rocks Off' is not how unassailable Janovitz's song choices are. They're not. His 50 differ from mine and very likely will from yours. But he is consistently illuminating, not only defending his songs well, but inspiring you to think more strenuously about the selections you would add or delete. His tone is neither truculent nor condescending; he just wants to expand your appreciation of a band and music that he loves. The ability to inspire such thought and feeling is why so many people still care about the Stones - and the Beatles - even after 50 years and counting.
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