John Hellmann

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1927

Rejecting the banalities of their own culture and adopting instead the more realistic, if less "noble" and comfortable, attitudes of the black American ghetto resident, the Stones laid the foundation for the counter-culture by translating these black attitudes into an attractive image for alienated white youth. The importance of this...

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Rejecting the banalities of their own culture and adopting instead the more realistic, if less "noble" and comfortable, attitudes of the black American ghetto resident, the Stones laid the foundation for the counter-culture by translating these black attitudes into an attractive image for alienated white youth. The importance of this black "blues" influence is nowhere more apparent than in the argot of the Stones' lyrics, and an examination of the existence of a black blues lexicon in the Stones' lyrics provides a unique method of studying the Stones' acceptance and extension of black urban cultural attitudes. (p. 367)

Jagger's fascination with what his father … called "jungle music" extended to a deep interest in the blues argot. He has been quoted as saying that lyrics are not very important in rock music, but his own admission that he used to put his head to the speaker until he had deciphered all the blues lyrics as well as the obvious effort and skill that go into his own lyric writing belie this.

In the blues records Jagger was indeed discovering a "jungle argot," a language of an urban jungle of alienation and repression. If, as a British middle-class youth, he could not fully comprehend this jungle, he could relate to it in a real and powerful way. (p. 368)

To fully comprehend the implications of the Stones' lyrics, one must perceive the significance of this blues argot from which they draw, as well as the way in which they have developed their own version of it. This influence is first and most obviously apparent in the black vocal intonations of Jagger's definitely un-British singing voice. Indeed, his expressive intonations sometimes render the lyrics almost superfluous. But one can achieve a more developed and fruitful understanding of the Stones' lyrics through a study of the actual lexicon and phraseology of the black blues argot.

The most basic characteristic of that lexicon and phraseology is its vivid and almost uniformly sexual imagery. It is an argot built on symbol and metaphor, and an argot obsessed with the sexual act and its sundry implications. (pp. 368-69)

The black composers of the blues wrote lyrics in concrete language, not because of any "symbolist" theories but because they needed and wanted to avoid the meaningless "big words" of a dominant culture that held them in ignorance and contempt….

[When] the blues musicians began to record their "race" music in the early twenties, they were faced with the artist's age-old problem—censorship. Early blues lyrics were usually exceedingly direct, rarely avoiding the common street words for sex and excretion. Even though the early blues musicians were recorded primarily for the black audience, the puritanical laws of white America could not allow such language to be committed to plastic. The blues musicians found themselves resorting to and increasingly thinking in terms of thinly disguised metaphor and certain "code words" commonly recognized among blacks. For example, "jelly roll" was used countless times for either the vagina or the sexual act itself because of its sweetness and its rhythmic design. "Yas-yas," a common black childhood term for ass, was used extensively as a euphemism, instantly recognized in the ghetto but innocuous to the white censors' ears (this term was to turn up many years later, prominently displayed on the cover of a Rolling Stones album). (p. 369)

The Stones began their recording career by "covering" songs originally written and performed by the black American rhythm and blues groups. Focusing particularly on the angry "city blues" typified by Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, they introduced white British and American youth to the menacing animal-sexual imagery common in black music. Their first album included Slim Harpo's "King Bee," a song built on the phallic implications of the "bee" and the female implications of the "hive." They soon after topped Britain's music charts with a song originally recorded by Howlin' Wolf, "Little Red Rooster," another example of animal-sexual imagery. They also adopted the machine-sexual imagery characteristic of the "city blues" as they recorded the Crickets' "Not Fade Away" with the surging rhythm of Bo Diddley, a rhythm that bolstered the lyrics' comparison of the size of the singer's "love" to that of a "cadillac."

The Stones have continued to use this "sexual boasting" aspect of the blues argot throughout their long recording career, which now spans nearly ten years, an unheard-of period for a rock group. While they have written most of their own material since 1965, the most blatant examples of this particular imagery have repeatedly shown up in various traditional forms. For instance, in "The Spider and the Fly" Jagger uses a common metaphor in the blues argot to spin a personal story of an after-show seduction, identifying himself as a leering spider seducing a willing fly who likes the way in which he holds his "microphone." (pp. 370-71)

Besides the possibilities for concrete sexual assertion, however, the blues argot also continued to provide the Stones with a means of expressing through "code words" those experiences that were still considered too offensively real for the dominant white culture and by the adults that determined the ethics of that culture. In 1965 they released "(I can't get no) Satisfaction," often considered the classic example of rock and roll. Despite Jagger's deliberate slurring of the lyrics, censors eventually managed to decipher references to attempted seduction in the words "tryin' to make some girl." But the song had already become too established to suffer significantly from any attempt at banishment, and Jagger was later quoted in Time as bragging that the censors had failed to understand the real "dirty" line, in which the girl tells him that he had better come back the following week, because she is now on a "losing streak."

"Losing streak," an apparent coinage by the Stones for the menstrual period, thus served the same function that early black ghetto terms like "jelly roll" and "coffee grinder" had served the blues musicians—through metaphor it avoided censorship and achieved a basic emotional connotation. Later examples of Stones' coinages of varying degrees of originality, conceived in the vein of the blues sexual metaphor, are "parking lot," "brown sugar," "stray cat," "eating off my plate," and "who's driving my plane?" They have used these more-or-less original terms in combination with traditional ones of the old blues like "kick in the stall," "lemon squeezer," "monkey man," "rider," "cherry red," and "toys" to create lyrics that use a unique but subtle variation of the blues argot. (p. 371)

[The] Stones have not merely borrowed the "code words" and slang or added new words to it. Having the advantage of a fair amount of education and the sophistication acquired from years of world travel and exotic experiences, they have brought to their use of this essentially lower-class argot a radically different dimension. Their sophisticated, conscious use of the argot has enabled them to achieve in some of their best songs a simultaneous emotional catharsis and detached analysis. Two of the most remarkable examples of this are the songs "Midnight Rambler" and "Monkey Man" off the Let It Bleed album.

"Midnight Rambler" is a sado-sexual nightmare that draws the listener into a vicarious enjoyment of unrestrained mastery over his frustrations. In its cruel and bombastic language it is firmly in the traditions of the power-seeking sexual fantasies created by the oppressed but angry black composers of rhythm and blues, its knife-wielding fantasies being especially similar to such old blues songs as the one that promised an unfaithful woman that the singer would cut his initials into her intimate parts.

"Rambler" is an old black ghetto term for an inveterate criminal, social misfit, or sexually promiscuous male. All three of these notions are intrinsic to the dominant white adult culture's view of the black man and the Rolling Stones. Thus, this term of black ghetto argot has provided the Stones with a ready-made vehicle for a song about the psychic rage and conflict of the id against societal repression. A reference earlier in the song to shutting the "kitchen door," incidentally, is also a use of the black blues argot, for in the world of the blues metaphor the "kitchen" is the home of sexual activity.

While the terminology and thematic conflicts of the song may be rooted in the black ghetto argot and experience, the intellectual analysis and sophistication implicit in the song are not. Like the "Cutting My ABCs" quoted above, "Midnight Rambler" provides a sado-sexual release—a dream conquest of the illusive and frustrating (when performed on stage, it is highlighted by Jagger whipping the stage with his belt). But unlike the old blues song, the Stones' composition goes further in providing a more complex context for the fantasy and a more detached and analytical attitude: a number of comments are made about the midnight rambler by himself, and the voice of the repressive super-ego, which keeps insisting restraint on the id with the words, "don't you do that, don't you do that," enters the song.

This example shows how the Stones have made use of, altered, contributed to, and at times expanded on the possibilities of the blues social argot. Another example of their sophisticated use of this argot is found in "Monkey Man," a song in which Jagger makes a series of comments about himself and the other Stones that on the surface appear unrelated and even nonsensical, punctuated repeatedly by the assertion that he is a "monkey."

This lyric combines traditional blues terms ("monkey man," "lemon squeezer") and Stones-coined blues-type metaphors ("cold Italian pizza") with an intellectually sophisticated wit that is most obvious in their reference to the Stones' "satanic" image…. But the depth of this song cannot be realized without an understanding of the blues argot terms used. "Lemon squeezer" is a term derived from the black ghetto metaphor for the penis—a "lemon." Bessie Smith is famed for her line, "I'll squeeze your lemon until the juice runs down your leg." Thus, lemon squeezer represents either a vagina or a helping hand of indeterminate sex.

Most interesting and central, however, is the term "monkey man." According to Paul Oliver, an established expert on the blues, "monkey man" had three more-or-less definite layers of meaning. First, the monkey often represented the black man against the white "baboon." The "monkey man" was, however, also a term for the effeminate male. Mick Jagger is noted for his sexually androgynous stage act and is undoubtedly aware of the public suspicions of his possible bisexuality. Thus he is playing with his image. More complex than this is the use of "monkey man" to refer to the relatively light-skinned West Indian Negroes that the American black found not only effeminate but also unfortunately attractive to his women.

This meaning of the term, when understood in the context of the public image of Jagger, opens up a deeper understanding of the lyric. Women's liberationists have often attacked the Stones for male chauvinism, deriding their sexually boastful lyrics as examples of "cock-rock." Likewise, "straight" society has labelled the Stones as representatives of Satan's values, while the counter-culture has sometimes viewed them as revolutionary messiahs. Through a highly sophisticated playing with the earthy wit of the blues argot they are rooted in, the Stones manage to laugh at themselves and simultaneously debunk these various accusations and adulations. They just "want to play the blues." (pp. 372-73)

John Hellmann, "I'm a Monkey: The Influence of the Black American Blues Argot on the Rolling Stones," in Journal of American Folklore (copyright © 1973 by the American Folklore Society: reprinted by permission), Vol. 86, No. 342, October-December, 1973, pp. 367-73.

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