Monday, September 14, 2020

Star Star | Lefsetz Letter



“Goats Head Soup” was a disappointment. The opening cut, “Dancing With Mr. D,” was not on the level of other album openers. That’s where the Stones shined, can you say “Gimmie Shelter,” can you say “Brown Sugar”? Then again, “Rocks Off,” which kicked “Exile” off, was not superior, then again it was better than “Dancing With Mr. D” and it was followed up by the better “Rip This Joint,” the ethereal “Shake Your Hips,” the vastly underrated (and my favorite on the LP!) “Casino Boogie” and the album side finished with “Tumbling Dice,” whereas “Dancing With Mr. D” was followed by the nearly lame, sans energy, “100 Years Ago” and then the dirgey “Coming Down Again,” which sounded like everybody involved was on drugs, which they probably were, but the first side ends with the album’s two keepers, my personal favorite, “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” and the classic “Angie.” “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” began with Billy Preston’s exquisite clavinet and then the way Mick sang “The PO-lice in New York City”…you were instantly closed. As for “Angie,” can we say “Sweet Black Angel” on “Exile” was better? “Sweet Black Angel” was made by a band that didn’t care what you thought, you could only peer in on their world, you wanted to get closer, whereas “Angie” was obvious.

As for the second side of “Goats Head Soup,” it was Johnny Winter who made “Silver Train” famous, not that he improved on it that much, the original just sounds thin, there’s no punch. But “Hide Your Love” is the second side surprise, once again Mick’s vocal enchants and intrigues, the way the words are thrown off, but the secret sauce is the piano, played by Jagger himself. No one ever talks about “Hide Your Love,” it’s one of only two cuts on the album that doesn’t get its own Wikipedia page, it never got played on the radio, but if you were a dedicated fan it got under your skin and you never burned out on it. And the next track, “Winter,” was also a winner, as was track number nine, “Can You Hear The Music,” with its hypnotic groove, albeit also druggy and low key, akin to “The Rain Song” on “Houses of the Holy.” These three cuts in the middle of “Goats Head Soup” are the heart of the LP, they’re what sustains when the rest falls away, when you tire of the rest you still want to hear these three.

But not the closer, “Star Star.”

This was when the Stones were the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band, the ’72 tour proved it, they lived up to the hype, they were at the apotheosis and as a result of their royal status they got endless reams of hype, which the band was good at anyway, and we could not stop hearing about this song “Star Star,” only then it was referred to as “Starf*cker,” back when to swear on a record was still taboo. So, we anticipated the cut, promoted for nearly a year, even though it had to be renamed “Star Star,” and the result was…flat. A lame Chuck Berry-influenced cut that wouldn’t make anybody erect, wouldn’t get the juices flowing in the most eager of groupies. There was no bottom, no punch, as for the chorus…yes, they used the f-word, but that was about the only appeal of the track, it wasn’t that it was bad, but it was a throwaway, we waited for THIS?

Now the Starmaking Machinery cannot let a dollar fall by the wayside if it’s there to be had, especially if you’re already a star, therefore we get unnecessary product that actually impinges on the reputation of the original. Not only is the remix of “Goats Head Soup” superfluous, it’s offensive. Instead of being cohesive, certain instruments stick out that were just part of the fabric of the original. God, the music business would rewrite the Ten Commandments if it thought it would move a few more Bibles. So, who is excited about this project? NOBODY! Not one single track of the remix has a million streams on Spotify, hell, five of the ten cuts don’t even reach 100,000. And except for the three “new” cuts on CD2, nothing on the rest of this three CD set even breaks six figures. Then again, this is not about streaming, but sales. To collectors. God knows why. They didn’t play it to begin with, like too many Stones albums “Goats Head Soup”‘s sales faded nearly immediately.

But what is funny is the last CD is live, a previously much-desired recording known as “The Brussels Affair.” Funny how when something is in plain sight it’s not so desirable. But this is what interested me.

Unlike today’s acts, the Stones were and still are rough. Today’s acts are seamless, at least those that play the arenas, they believe the audience expects it. They don’t wait to warm up during the set, they deliver from the first note, but not the Stones. Having said that, I must say in this case “Brown Sugar,” the concert’s opener, is surprisingly good. But “Gimme Shelter” contains little of the ethereality of the original and never quite gels, but thank god it’s not the dud of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” later in the set, which starts off slow and…never gets going.

So, I’m going track by track, trying to get a sense of the performance, the show. “Happy”…it’s full of energy but it’s ragged, Keith’s vocal is shouted and substandard and if you want to give the band the benefit of the doubt you can nod your head and compliment it, but in a world where there’s an unlimited amount of music available at your fingertips if you can make it through once that’s enough.

And I’ve seen the Stones kill “Tumbling Dice.” On the ’75 tour at the Forum. They were rough and then they finally locked on, I’ll never forget it, they found a groove that’s not even extant in the original. But they didn’t reach that peak here.

And then came “Star Star.”

Now this is the last number I’m excited about hearing, it’s hard to polish a turd, but…immediately what blasts out of the speakers is a fluid guitar sound that is straight out of the Chuck Berry canon, BUT BETTER! My attention is caught immediately, I’m just waiting for this sound to come back. But really it doesn’t reappear in force until the second verse.

And it’s clear, this is the secret sauce, this is MICK TAYLOR!

You can make a good case that “Beggars Banquet” is the best Stones album, it’s certainly the one that takes the most risks. Despite the famous openers on both sides, the high energy “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Street Fighting Man,” it’s the quiet acoustic cuts that seal the deal on this masterpiece.

And for all the people who laud “Sticky Fingers,” my favorite is “Let It Bleed.”

Neither of these albums featured Mick Taylor, but when the axeman is firmly ensconced in the band they become the biggest in the land, the biggest on the PLANET!

Then comes “Exile.” Then comes “Goats Head Soup” and “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” and Mick Taylor quits. And the band is never the same. Sure, “Some Girls” is a comeback after too much middling material, and there’s an occasional great track, like “Memory Motel” off “Black and Blue,” but the band never reaches the height of the Mick Taylor years ever again. They let him come out on the 50th Anniversary tour to play a few numbers and he killed and he was the highlight but now when you go to see the Stones it’s about getting a notch in your belt more than the actual music, who’s performing on stage.

But it wasn’t only Mick Taylor, it was Jimmy Miller, who could somehow channel the Glimmer Twins, get them to focus, as soon as he worked with the band they cut “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” an unexpected summer smash of ’68 and he worked with the act through “Goats Head Soup.”

In other words, it’s the little things that make the difference. This is why you don’t mess with masterpieces, why you don’t try to improve art. This happens all the time in the restoration of paintings. In the name of getting rid of grit and grime the end result has none of the feel of the original. Do no damage. And the same deal with remixes. Excellence is funny. Once it’s perfect, you don’t want to touch it. And anybody who creates and doesn’t know when to stop…is not creating A+ material. A+ material is channeled from the gods, you’re in a trance and when you wake up you realize if you touch what you’ve created again you ruin it.

Now it’s not like this live performance of “Star Star” is the best thing you’ve ever heard. Actually, if you just cherry-pick it you probably won’t be impressed. You need to start at the top, with “Brown Sugar,” and then “Star Star” will jump out at you, it’s a revelation. It’s live performance. When suddenly the outfit fires on all cylinders, transcends, when the whole building levitates, when you leave the rest of the world behind, when the only thing that counts is RIGHT NOW, as the mellifluous sound permeates your skin and gets you jumping.

Now if you were at this show and you were a groupie, if you had access, you’d be eager to spread your legs for some of this juice.

Oh, don’t get your knickers in a twist, don’t bring out the politically correct police. I just point you to this article:

“The Real Penny Lane Has a Few Things Left to Say About ‘Almost Famous'”:

The groupies were not “Band-Aids.” And they knew what they were getting into and they were PROUD OF IT! I know, that might not be the way you want it to be, but Pamela Des Barres has made a living on her groupie exploits, she’s more famous than some of the musicians she bedded.

Access. That’s what we wanted back then. There was no Instagram, no social media. You never got to meet anybody, never mind get backstage.

Now the lyrics of “Star Star” make sense:

I’m not gonna recite them here, they’re too dangerous, kind of like “Stray Cat Blues,” Mick Jagger is fully aware of what he’s singing. Then again, this song is personal even though it was broadcast to millions. Who exactly was this woman, what exactly happened? And Ali MacGraw and Steve McQueen?

And rock and roll was always about sex, and the truth is so many of the legends got into the business for this very reason, to get laid, it’s the only way women would find them attractive, if they got up on stage and played music.

Not that you had to be at the venue to get moist. Maybe a dark basement. Maybe a living room after dark with all the lights turned out. Maybe even a high school dance. If the right song was played, if the performance was hot enough you’d be surprised what could transpire. Never forget, music INSPIRES!

And then “Dancing With Mr. D” swings live more than it does on wax, the band is in a groove.

And then Mick rips off “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker),” his vocal puts the track over the top all by itself, the backup vocals are kind of lame, but when Mick comes back in, whew!

And “Angie” is more resonant live than on “Goats Head Soup.” It comes alive, full-bodied, it’s human.

And just when you think the band is cruising on the edge…

It doesn’t.

But that moment in “Star Star,” it’s such a surprise.

And if you go to see the Stones today it’s the same thing. They play stadiums but at heart they’re a bar band, just one with much better songs. They need a few beers, some crowd energy, to find their groove, to lock it all in, and then they turn into the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band.

It takes cojones to risk it, to play without a net, without hard drives underpinning the whole performance. It’s about capturing lightning in a bottle, that’s what the great records contain, lightning, as do the great live performances. And the truth is this performance of “Star Star” is about as good a live cut from the Stones released repertoire as it gets, there have been too many of these double albums that were not memorable, many only required one play, I know, because I bought them. That’s the magic of Mick Taylor…the rest of the band had to keep up with him! Yes, a star lifts the performance of the rest of the group, of the team. You’re inspired to be better. Sure, Mick and Keith wrote almost all of the material, and Keith has created some cool sounds, but Mick Taylor has been almost completely forgotten. Then again, he couldn’t make it without the rest of the group. But it’s hard to be the new guy, no matter how long you’ve been involved, just ask Jason Newsted, you’re nearly a hired player, you constantly get crapped on, you’re not allowed into the inner sanctum populated by those who grew up together, who sweated together on the road to success.

So what we’ve got here is a forty seven year old relic.

Don’t forget, back then you had to go to the gig to see the band. You were either there or you were not. And every night the performance evaporated when the lights came back on. You weren’t sure what you’d get, something subpar or the show of your life.

And it was the rock and rollers who got the girls. No one knew who ran the bank, there was no tech, there were no billionaires.

We gave it all up for rock and roll, not only the girls.

And if you listen to this performance of “Star Star,” you’ll know why.


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