“I Ain’t Jed:” The Rolling Stones’ “Angie,” as understood by me as a 10-year-old

stones

A farmer at the end of a hot afternoon. He has dirt on his face, sweat stains on his rough-hewn shirt and a dark cast to his eyes. He gazes across the field to his house, where his young wife kneels over the laundry basin, kneading and scrubbing. The man winces and shakes his head and whispers three words:

“I ain’t Jed.”

What does this mean? Who’s Jed? Why does the farmer look so guilty when he repeats the phrase, then adds a second thought — “When will these clouds all disappear?”

The Civil War has just ended. The farmer fought for the Confederacy, then came home feeling traumatized and confused. His wife is confused, too — their courtship was quick and they married just days before the farmer left for the battles. Years passed, and when he came home he seemed to be another man altogether; broke, dispirited, left-handed  Sometimes she imagined he might be an entirely different man than the one she had barely gotten to know during the south’s glory days. All the dreams they’d held so close, seemed to all go up in smoke. Is that what he’s talking about?

“I ain’t Jed, I ain’t Jed.”

I’m listening to this in 1973. I’m an energetic but slightly off-center 4th grader, running the playground with songs in my ears and a crazy imagination in my head. But how the hell did this spooky Civil War story erupt in my brainpan? There are similar stories in French folklore (including the one that inspired “The Return of Martin Guerre”) but I was a public school student who read mostly of Henry Huggins and Encyclopedia Brown. And yet my imagination was apparently scripted by the dark-eyed madman Ambrose Bierce.

No wonder I always think of “I Ain’t Jed” as the lost fourth act to “Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” in which the solider survives and finds his way to this familiar southern crossroads, where a house and a lonely wife waited a soldier’s return.

Soon he’s standing at the bottom of the porch stairs. His wife looks up and smiles, but her shoulders arch, her face tightens and then the smile is tentative at best. The farmer looks into her eyes, firmly but softly confirming the woman’s doubts over and over again. He’s not Jed. He’s really not Jed. So ain’t it time for him to pack up and go? After all, he has spent the last seven months pretending to be a man he’s not. Is that man a complete stranger to him, or is he the same physical presence, only now subsumed by the terrors of the battlefield?

Her eyes overflow. Is she shocked or relieved? Or both? Or maybe she doesn’t care about Jed anymore. Or cares about him so much that she can sense his essence beneath the dirt and sweat and perpetually furrowed brow. Who cares how much money you have in your coat when love feels good and true? None of this is spoken, it’s all in the tear now tracing the dusted seam on her cheek. He sees this and it spurs a gout of words, feelings he’d tried to keep hidden for so long: the sweetness in her kisses, her all-consuming beauty. He’ll do anything, leave immediately or stay forever, if she would just tell him what she wants. “Come on, baby, dry your eyes!”

The song swings to a finish. The farmer has come to life, at least for now. He clomps to the porch and she stands to greet him. They come close and he puts his hands on her shoulders, feeling her strength, but also her vulnerability. If he can do one thing right in his god forsaken life he wants her to be happy, and this requires him to be honest, no matter the cost.

As the image fades we have no idea what happens next (Very Biercian, don’ you think?). We’re left with that prickle of uncertainty, but also a glimpse at something just tickling the eastern horizon.

Maybe he is Jed, after all.

Maybe we’re all Jed.

FIN

 

 

Pride and Joy and Dirty Dreams – the beautiful urban skank of "Some Girls"

Some girls are so pure, some girls so corrupt….

(Updated to include the afore-forgotten “Before They Make Me Run.”)

If you love the Stones — and you really should, if you’re listening to the right albums — this is what you’re thinking about. The wicked songs. The unreptentant portraits of killers, rogues and devils. Scarred old slavers who know they’re doin’ alright. (Hear ‘im whip the wimmin, just around midnight!) Which isn’t to say that Mick, Keith and co. are personally misogynistic, let alone racist. But they do know a thing about sin, and about sinners. And they know where power comes from. And also who killed the Kennedys. That would be you and me, friends. And you haven’t figured that out yet, well, in 1978 the Stones had another portrait of laughter, joy and loneliness and sex and sex and sex and sex to offer. And 32 years later it still rocks: A testament to the whole idea of moral and artistic transgression.

Start with the album cover: the front is a faux-wig display, only the products are extremely cheap and ugly, and the models are mostly the Stones in drag, (e.g., classic headshots tarted up with lurid red lipstick and other creep-showtinting), with famous female sex symbols (Farrah F. Majors; Lucille Ball, Liz Taylor) tossed in, mostly to piss off FFM, LB, LT and their assorted handlers, legal reps, etc. etc. If not for the wigs, then for the even-more-lurid bra ads on the back, or (jeezus!) the pocket profiles of the bandmembers, whose bios are actually old fan mag profiles of mid-century film stars, only with the relevant Stone’s name subbed in. To wit:

CHARLIE WATTS: This beautiful and talented showgirl, model and actress hasn’t found a man who fits her rigorous specifications for a husband. Says the cautious Watts: “I have no regrets…I would rather be lonely than sorry….”

Get the idea that Miss Watts may not be all that into guys in the first place? Hmm. The point being (I think), that lies, hype, beauty and shame have always existed near the surface of glam showbiz. So take a deep breath, turn on the hi-fi and lay the needle into the groove. And Oh. My. God.

Transgression the first: “Miss You” is a freakin’ disco song, maaaaan. The album’s lead single dropped at the height of the “Saturday Night Fever” craze, and your serious rock fans were beside themselves: The Stones were praying at the altar of Andy Gibb! And Lipps, Inc.! They had, in other words,gone disco! (e.g., black; slick; possibly gay) The outrage was as palpable as it was stupid. And not just because all that death-to-disco jive was such thinly-veiled racism/homophobia, but also because no song with Charlie Watts playing drums could fail to swing, even if it’s straight foot dance music. And then you’ve got Keith and Ron Wood goosing the guitars, and the afore-unknown street musician Sugar Blue  on harmonica, all of them working from a five-note riff that feels as old and angry as the blues itself,well, it ain’t exactly “Blame it On the Boogie.” Particularly considering that the whole affair brows around another classic tale of Jagger-centric  heartbreak and urban decadence. Here he is, a grown man (with a necktie to pull on) sulking in his CPW apartment over love gone wrong, only to be interrupted by a call from drunk friends promising to come round with a case of wine, a handful of super-friendly Puerto Rican girls, and a promse to “make some fool-around, you know, like we used to!” What could that entail? I don’t think we want to know, considering what we’ve already learned about those girls who are “just dyyyyyin’ to meeetchoo!“) . Instead, focus on how raw the groove feels, and how desperate Mick’s yelps and wails sound: “Ooh, baby why’d you wait so long/Won’t you….COME HOME! COME HOME!” Does he really feel that sad without about-to-be-ex-wife Bianca? Umm, well, no. As we’re soon to discover…

“When the Whip Comes Down“: But first, the tale of a gay street hustler, set to two chainsaw chords (and a brief modulation for the guitar solo) “Yeah, mama papa told me I was crazy to stay/I’d be gay in New York, but just a fag in L.A. . . .”  And onward to the streets of Gotham, where our hero gets spit on, called garbage and (unstated but obvious) made to endure the whips and slaps of kinky closeted patrons. He is, nevertheless, unashamed and unbowed. And, strangely, uncorrupted: “Yeah, some called me garbage when I was sleepin’ on the street/But I never roll, and I never cheat/I’m fillin’ a need/Yeah, pluggin’ a hole/My mama’s so glad I ain’t on the dole….” Some vibrant double-entredes there. But the real point is that even street hustler has ethics, which is more than you can say for the people whose garbage is lwashing down the East River, and the hypocritical moralism that then (and, let’s face it) still governs life in NYC and everywhere else in our family values-centric (ahem) nation. Live performances  heard at some stops on the ’78 tour included a bonus verse that name-checked the then-governors of the man’s home states: “Mr. Rockefeller, he won’t give me a loan/Mr. Brown, he don’t want me back home/Well, I love my mother and she love her son/It’s so goddamn hard to get back where you started from/When the whip comes down….

“Just My Imagination”: The Temptations at their sweetest, shoved into the dirt and kicked around by a bunch of coked-up Stones. The album track is nearly perfect, spare, swinging and full of fire. But the seven-mintue live version from Detroit’s Masonic Hall (listen to it here) may be one of their greatest live moments. Consider the rolling groove Watts and Wyman create, a perfect foundation for the interwoven guitars and the threaded, hotwire solos; the vocal that edges from sweetness to a seething intensity, when Jagger bites down hard on the tune’s climactic line: .“In reaaaaallllity…SHE DOESN’T FUCKING KNOW ME!!!/Awwwww! Fuck it!”

He’s kind of kidding. But also kind of not, which feeling he explores to even more absurd and offensive lengths in “Some Girls,” the title track, which kicks off next with a stuttering guitar riff that, in an instant, establishes a swaggering two-chord blues riff set off by Sugar Blue’s nasty-assed harmonica. The topic is women, their various quirks, delights and (mostly) complications. Imagine a Dr. Seuss book gone  horribly wrong: “Some girls give me diamonds/Some girls buy me clothes/Some girls give me children I never asked ’em for….”  And it gets worse: “Some girls take the shirt off my back/And leave me with a lethal dose!” More and more, and all of it performed and sung with the sort of leer that the Mick we always knew — the public Mick, the staggering stud, the king of what some hysterics called Cock Rock — would employ when discussing the women in his life. And he knows this is what you’re thinking, which is what he must be thinking when he edges toward the tune’s shameful climax, a kind of off-hand reduction of the female species, from the point of view of a sleek, cheerful devil. “French girls, they want Cartier/Italian girls want cars/American girls they want everything in the world you can possibly imagine!” Well, maybe that’s not so bad. But hang onto your wig hat. “White girls, they’re pretty funny/sometimes they drive me mad.” Then, the entire album’s serio/comic/screw all y’all defining moment: “Black girls just wanna get fucked all night (actual gasp from Keith)/I just don’t
have that much jam…” 
Yes, it’s the worst possible thing a person could say. Racist, misogynistic, purposefully provocative. It’s that last part that matters the most: Everyone already knew, or thought they knew, how wicked young Mick had been for so long. It’s hateful, and also (to that point) the secret of his success. Who dissed the women of the world? Well, after all, it was you and me.

Which understanding probably inspired the next full-throttle asskicker, “Lies.” They’re rocketing so fast, Mick is screaming with such fervor, you can barely make out a word of it. “LIes! whispered sweetly in my ear/Lies! How do I get out of here!?” My favorite part comes near the end, when the singer’s fervent scream breaks into a yelp. “Lies, lies you dirty Jezebel/Why, why, why, why don’t you go to Hellll?!?

At which point we oldsters had to get up and flip the record. Good timing, actually, since you needed a moment of silence to get over that last one. But then everything changes: A slack rhythm guitar, the gentle cry of a steel guitar, and country Mick shuffling around in slack-jawed yokel mode, in search of a “Far Away Eyes.” Straight-up country, it seems. Only Mick is talk-singing in a kind of Cockney-cracker accent that underscores how quietly, yet blisteringly sarcastic the whole affair is. He’s going up the country, rumbling down the dusty Californian highway. Ah, the modern American frontier!  God’s country! Full of promise! And also idiots who not only take comfort in radio preachers, but also send them their hard-earned cash money! “And the preacher said, ‘you know, you’ve awwwwlways got the Lord on your side!’/And I was so pleased to be informed of this/That I ran 20 red lights in his honor/…” The chorus, performed by an entire chorale of rough-hewn Stones, appeals to the down on their luck, the downright disgusted, a whole Tea Party of them, saluted by a drunken mob of Brit millionaires who are too wasted to even harmonize right. No matter, our cheerful, rock-headed driver (so pleased to be listening to the “colored radio station”) knows hel has Jesus on his side. All this thanks to the Church of the Sacred Bleeding Heart of Jesus, to which he gladly sends ten of his crumpled dollars, and is soon rewarded by a prayer especially for him and  “…the girl with…well, you know what kind of eyes she got!

Vacation over. Because now we’re back at Stones central, digging the myth from the inside out, distinctly circa 1978 and at the height of their jet-setting/high society notoreity. Remember when Bianca was gamboling with Canadian president Pierre Trudeau? Remember when sex with Mick was de rigeur for every 5th avenue debutante worth her diamond-crusted coke spoon? And none of it seemed to affect their growing authority among the professionally powerful and buttoned down? Oh, they were so “Respectable.” Only it sounds so different set to warp-speed drums and fuzzed-up guitars and Mick bellowing at the top of his lungs. “So respectaaaaable!-huh. So Respectable-huh! So delectable-huh…..” Oh, and Bianca? This one’s for you, and apparently President Trudeau, too: “You’re a rag-trade girl, you’re the queen of porn/You’re the easiest lay on the White House lawn/Get out of my life! Don’t come back.”

Keith, on the other hand, expects no easy benedictions. He’s chosen a whole other path, through the roller coaster of booze, pills, powders and scheming narcotics officers. I think “Before They Make Me Run” is Keith’s most distinctive song of all, given how rhythmically and musically unexpected the cheery central chord progression is, and how magically the bluesy plaint he offers fits on top, and how unblinkingly forthright (if at times oddly self-pitying) he is about his louche lifeways. “It’s another good bust/another good frame” he grumbles, though it’s hard to imagine why anyone so enthusiastic about his recreational medications would require cop-generated evidence to bust. Whether Keith’s internal chemistry is any law enforcement’s agency is a whole other issue. “Wasn’t looking real good but I was feelin’ real well!” Keith proclaims at one point, apparently describing those years in the early ’70s when he was nodding out, losing his teeth, looking like death not-quite-warmed-over as a result of his habits. “I’ll find my way to heaven/’Cause I done my time in hell,” he says. So no regrets? Thirty-two years later I think he’s right. He’s still alive, he’s still doing a lot of what he was doing then (it appears). Keith wins. And so do we, if you really focus on how wonderful his guitar sounds here. Was it the smack that gave him that opening riff? An absence of smack? Whatever. It’s fantastic.

Next up another hit single, and deservedly so, the swingin’ “Beast of Burden,” which finds Mick alternately flirting, seducing, strutting and shaking his head. “Ain’t I rough enough?/Ain’t I tough enough?/Ain’t I rich enough, in love enough?/Please, please, please...” Circa 1978 the answers were: Yes, yes, yes, yes and okay.

Finaly, another sui generis masterwork: The thrumming street poetry satire tour of New York City itself, described in tones of civic and moral disaster. Welcome to “Shattered.” And really, go ahead: “Bite the Big Apple/Don’t mind the maggots!” Mick and Keith are here, at home in the funky, broken apart world of Abe Beame’s New York. “Look at me — I’m in tatters!” You could spend hours marveling at the interplay between Wyman’s bass and Watts’s drums. It’s all in the groove, and all indelible, even though the tune itself has no melody to speak of, and the lyrics veer in and out of meter, and the only thing holding it together is this mood of loving contempt and the backup chant of “Shadoobee, shattered. Shadoobee, shattered.” . New York is a living hell, and they couldn’t be happier, or more comfortable: “Don’t you know the crime rate’s going up, up, up, up UP!/To live in this town, you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!” And at this point in the game, Mick and Keith were exactly that. Tougher than the devil. Certainly tougher than your lame-ass moral dudgeon. Work and love and greed and sex, that’s what made those boys the best. Pride and joy and dirty dreams, still surviving on the street. And look at yourself, yo.