Monday, May 6, 2019

Stones That Roll: Rocks Off

Rolling Stones: Rocks Off

Of all of the Rolling Stones songs out there (and eventually, we had to get to them on this theme, amirite?), I chose this one for a few reasons. First, because of the title, which gives me a double dip at the theme, second, because I happened to hear it on the radio the other day, third, because it is a kick ass song, fourth, because my favorite Rolling Stones lineup included Mick Taylor, and finally, because a horn section makes any song better.

“Rocks Off” is the opening track from Exile on Main Street, an album many consider the Stones’ best work, although apparently Mick Jagger doesn’t agree. The album was recorded mostly in a villa in the south of France in 1971 (with some songs and overdubs recorded later in Los Angeles), and the recording process was notoriously chaotic, as a result of significant indulgences in bad habits and a corresponding lack of diligence on the part of all involved. Thousands of pounds of heroin reportedly made their way to the villa each week, and because of rampant absenteeism, many songs were recorded with session musicians or people playing different instruments than usual.

Whether by intention or not, “Rocks Off” is the perfect opening track for an album that was born from the Stones’ darkest behavior. It rocks like crazy, is terribly recorded, sounds murky, has vocal and instrumental parts that sort of meander in and out of the mix, is sexually suggestive, but also filled with dread and ennui, and it includes one of the great lyrics of all time—and one that seemed to exactly typify the state of mind of the band at the time: “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me.”

Most people don’t live the “rock and roll lifestyle,” and that is probably a good thing. Most of us live pretty conventional lives—we go to school, go to work, raise a family, whatever. Obviously, that’s not true about everyone, and most of us have had our periods of less than stellar behavior, but I think it is fair to say that the levels of debauchery that the Rolling Stones engaged in during the late 60s into the 70s is well beyond the levels that most people experience (or survive). And that is, probably, the reason why we mythologize the substance abusers, the hotel destroyers, the sexual experimenters, and the other outlaws of rock and roll, despite the fact that much of their behavior is, on its face, unworthy of such treatment. I find it hard to imagine, for example, any parent saying to a child, “here’s a guitar and some heroin, and if you work hard at both, someday, you might be as great as Keith Richards.” But we do lionize these performers not only because many of them create the music that we love (although some are just horrible), but also because of the vicarious thrills we get from them. Like why riding a roller coaster is so much fun—you get the excitement of danger, without the actual danger (for the most part).

Would I like to have spent months in a villa in the south of France recording an album with the Rolling Stones? Sure, although lacking any actual musical talent, I’m not sure why I’d be there. But would I have liked to spend the time drugged, debauched, frustrated and exhausted? Definitely not. But am I glad that the Stones, their sidemen, and crew did, so that I could listen to Exile on Main Street? You’re damn right I am.

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