Mick Jagger Jonathan Cott - Essay

Jonathan Cott

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Exalted indifference. Innocent malice. Careless cruelty. It is these ambiguous mixtures of emotion which we find in songs like "Play with Fire," "Back Street Girl" and "Star Star"—a mixture revealing the disturbing yet fascinating quality of a child grown up too soon, like a six-year-old dragging on a cigarette. And it was this "child" who dangerously explored the ever-lurking but disapproved world of sex and drugs in songs like "Under My Thumb," "Sister Morphine" and "Monkey Man."

Yet when the Stones were at their most exploitative, they seemed their most liberating, because we became aware of the reversal of that social and psychological pathology by which the oppressed identify with their oppressors: We sensed that the Stones, from their position of indifferent power, were singing the voice of the hurt and abused, thereby magically transcending all humiliation barriers ("But it's all right now / In fact it's a gas").

And in the guise of that distant, irresponsible child who continually rejected all appropriate modes of feeling ("I'm hiding sister and I'm dreaming"), the Stones revealed secrets about ourselves and our world. From "Get Off of My Cloud" and "19th Nervous Breakdown" to "Mother's Little Helper" and "Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby," the Stones once and for all pulled open the blinds, exposing—while both celebrating and attempting to exorcise—the demonic ghosts of the Oedipal family romance and of all forms of social hypocrisy, so that we could see that the emperor and the empress were really wearing no clothes.

But when the Devil appeared at Altamont, his Satanic Majesty—with a little help from his friends—disillusioned us and helped to destroy our idea of the Stones. What had been young and distant was now too weary and too near. Art and life became commingled and confused in both the minds of the group and its audience. And it was Exile on Main Street—the last Stones masterpiece—that powerfully and compendiously summed up both the history of the music of the Sixties and the breakdown of the culture that supported and was sustained by it. (p. 34)

Jonathan Cott, "Back to a Shadow in the Night," in Rolling Stone (by Straight Arrow Publishers, Inc. © 1975; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 195, September 11, 1975, pp. 34-5.