Paul Williams

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2343

The purpose of this article is to put the Stones in their place: arm in arm with the Beach Boys and Dylan as creators of some of the greatest music produced in the West in this century.

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"Something Happened to Me Yesterday" is still capable of dragging the most ambiguous and profound emotions out of me. I don't know what it means, but I know enough things that it means to know that few songs have ever been written to equal it. You don't need to have done acid to know that the simplest and most important experiences can never be spoken of. "Something" expresses that unspeakableness with perfect humor, implies it, hints at it, trombones and choruses it. It is musical genius.

It is also forgotten. Forgotten in the sense that it isn't on the greatest hits albums, isn't performed at the concerts, isn't mentioned in the tedious books … that exploit the Stones' current image: bored jet-set decadence. Coke and cock. Mick Jagger the great performer. Ho hum.

The image is keyed to survival, commercial survival, ego survival. It is tuned to the times. But it has little or nothing to do with the courage, the desire to explore, the leaps into the unknown that created the early albums, that ended apparently forever with the last and greatest rock 'n roll album of them all: Let It Bleed. (p. 47)

From early 1965, when I first heard "The Last Time," until 1970 …, the Rolling Stones spoke with my voice. They stood by my side and gave expression to my feelings almost every day of the five most exciting years of my life….

"Satisfaction" was and maybe is the ultimate expression of adolescent experience…. It's a universal expression of dissatisfaction, directed at God, society, the mirror, the girls on the street—but at the same time that it announces the undefeatable presence of frustration in the teenager's life, it also proclaims the phenomenal power and energy dammed up behind that frustration. Frustration is common to adults and adolescents, but the incredible sexual/spiritual energy of adolescence is a secret only known to young people. That's why "Satisfaction" became our national anthem….

"Jumping Jack Flash" is also the song of spring, rebirth, the unexpected return of strength, energy and self-confidence after despair and defeat. "I was drowned, I was washed up and left for dead … I was crowned, with a spike right through my head … But it's all right now, in fact it's a gas. I'm Jumping Jack Flash, it's a gas gas gas!"

"It's all right now"—that's the first conscious thought of the exhausted swimmer-through-life as he looks around and realizes he is again on solid ground, in one piece—and then comes "in fact," the miracle moment of transition: "It's all right, in fact it's a gas!" Hey man, I made it, I never thought I would and here I am … and suddenly out of the exhaustion comes a surge of proud energy: "Hey! I did it! I'm great! Isn't life fucking beautiful?" It's a classic experience, renewal, rediscovery of self, and the Stones' song is so great it not only expresses it perfectly but can even trigger it. Hooray! (p. 48)

The Rolling Stones, during their fat years, constantly gave and then reinforced the impression that they were going through the exact same life experiences as me and coming to the same conclusions—and that at the same time that they were precisely me they were also infinitely-more-than-me, all-wise, all-experiencing, all-encompassing.

Possibly it would be fair to say that the Stones played an older-brother role in our lives, assuming that the amorphous group of (male?) Stones fans that I think of as "us" were mostly teenagers at the time the Rolling Stones arrived on the American scene in 1964. (The Stones were already in their young 20's.)

At any rate we/I identified fiercely with the Stones (as they came through on the records; nothing else mattered—maybe because there was less rock media in those days) from 1965 in my case through the end of 1969, when I felt I knew exactly what they meant by "I hope we're not too messianic, or a trifle too Satanic, too … I am just a monkey man, I'm glad you are a monkey woman too babe."

Not that there's any big mystery about what they're saying on the surface level … but the implications, the attitude, were so precisely what I felt I wanted to say to all my friends, applied in such neat detail to the whole scope and texture of my life….

Which, even if I was slightly mad, is the sign of great art; and oh so many of us including the Stones (the evidence is Let It Bleed) were slightly or more than slightly mad together at that time. And trying to let each other know.

At that time. During this period of five years the Stones always seemed—to me and virtually everyone else I knew and cared about—to be exactly on time, obscenely, miraculously, impossibly on time since the songs were necessarily recorded and written many months earlier. I attribute this to synchronicity, to genius, to selling their souls to the devil which is what any great artist must do for the duration of his genius. I do not for a moment believe that the Stones only seemed to be on time—such a notion violates my world-view. The Stones were on the bus, they were part of the trip, they read us the evening news.

And a comment.

And that news was so true, and so incredible, it blew our minds every time. "Everything is going in the wrong direction, the doctor wants to give me more injections, giving me shots for a thousand bad infections. And I don't know if they'll let me go …" A close look at these words reveals absolutely nothing. But the song ("Connection," from Between the Buttons) is one of the cleanest, tightest rock songs ever recorded … and the enormous impact of that sound drives the words far deeper into the subconscious than they could possibly go otherwise. "Connection, I just can't make no connection / And all I want to do is to get back to you."

The words take on sinister and cosmic implications. The possibility of a drug connection is there, of course, and also the general awareness that we never really know what's going on…. (pp. 50-1)

But the words are not the song. The sound is so strong and appealing, we are almost forced to receive the song on a profound level, to find a profound level to receive it on. And we do. We did. Like a huge surge of electrical energy, we jump the arc, make the connection. Loving the song, we take the words and find their meanings for us. Not an artificial act in any way, but the truest form of creation, and a powerful clue to the mystery of how rock songs affect us so deeply.

The music, which is non-cognitive, moves us and creates a pressure for truth. If the words of the song are properly ambiguous and sufficiently attractive, they then serve as the natural cognitive channel for release of this pressure, they become meaningful, in a deep and personal sense. "All I want to do / Is get back to you" is just the sort of simple phrase that can take on universal meaning, beauty and profundity, if the listener wants it to….

A very different, but equally magnificent moment—perhaps the most sophisticated the Stones ever achieved (which seems odd, because it was so early)—is recorded in The Rolling Stones Now, their third album. [The] album as a whole offers the listener a special world, a world of endless (this is one of the few albums you can play over and over again, until it literally wears out) subtle and rich delights. It is the world of the Stones' experience of American r&b, probably … the most profound emotional experience of their collective lives.

And it is the personal experience of listening to and loving the music that permeates this album and makes the Rolling Stones what they are. The direct influence of the music is also here, of course, the style and attitude of singing, of playing guitar, of working together as a group…. (p. 51)

When I say [Let It Bleed] was the last rock album, I don't mean the last Stones album … or the last good album in the rock field. I mean it was the end of an era. After Let It Bleed there was no longer anywhere to go, and, for that matter, no one to go there….

Now Let It Bleed wasn't a causative agent in any sense, it was just on time, an expression (not a reflection because too simultaneous) of the moment. The Beatles broke up, Kent State and the deaths of Joplin and Hendrix were right around the corner, Charlie Manson had done his thing, and so forth. But still we didn't yet know that it was really all over, that the not-so-straight line we'd been climbing higher and higher up to this point was about to vanish and whatever came next would not be part of the same continuum. And Let It Bleed expressed the moment not through any direct sense of loss but rather through being the absolute highest expression of our collective energy yet, enticing us off the edge and jumping off with us.

And when that moment of total abandon finally comes, after all the wondrous but only apparently total moments before it, you know, somehow, that this is it and that "total" means abandoning even abandonment, this is the peak, climax and finish of the whole thing, utterly liberating, joyous and lonely.

So the ecstatic tension of "Gimme Shelter" becomes the sweet, sad release of "You Can't Always Get What You Want." The invitations are still there on Let It Bleed ("Don't you want to live with me?" "You can be my rider, you can come all over me …"), in fact stronger than ever, but the farewells are there in the same breath: "Everybody's got to go." "It's just a shot away." "He said one word to me, and that was 'death.'" And I am still intimately involved with Let It Bleed, perhaps more than any other album of that five-year blitz…. (p. 52)

[In] retrospect I'd still have to say [Sticky Fingers] was some kind of comedown, in the sense that that equally great but disorganized album, Out of Our Heads, was a comedown after the perfection (music of the spheres) of The Rolling Stones Now.

The fact that some albums are themselves perfect (Now, Buttons, Bleed) and others only contain perfect songs (Heads, Fingers) is unimportant in itself. But chronology is vital in comprehending the impact of rock music (just like if you were alive in Beethoven's time, and really heard the fifth sonata only after becoming intimate with the fourth one), and what makes Let It Bleed such a significant moment is: a) that the Stones have never yet equalled it (in fact, in my opinion, the most recent albums don't even stand up to Sticky Fingers); and b) no one else has equalled it either, not for me, not—I suspect—for my generation of rockers.

The texture of our lives has changed in a profound way in the last few years. Looking back to the last moment when everything was without question totally mad and awesome / ecstatic, and getting better every day, I think a lot of us would agree that that moment was December '69/January '70 (Year One) … the era of Let It Bleed. Unless some new social breakthrough occurs, and unless the Rolling Stones then release an album which perfectly expresses the spirit of that breakthrough, Let It Bleed must stand as the last of the Stones' rock miracles….

[Exile on Main Street], a big double-set with arty cover and blues pretensions, just never grabbed me, the music seems garbled and doesn't seduce me, doesn't speak to my secret reality. This time there aren't even perfect songs, just perfect moments inside the songs, and it's not enough. Neither is Goat's Head Soup, the 1973 offering, despite one and a half authentically magnificent tracks: "Angie" and the latter part of "100 Years Ago." The Stones are still good, no question about it, but they've lost their musical preeminence, dimmed their courage and imagination, or allowed it to become dimmed. They don't have much to say. They've lost their immediacy.

It doesn't matter. After a peak must come a decline; and we can, if we wish, hope for another, higher peak, but regardless we can be eternally grateful for the one we had, the indescribably high place we went to together.

The Rolling Stones today (the 1974 single, "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (But I Like It)," is fair but no reversal) are master musicians who've outlived their myth. They are their own descendants, the inheritors of their former mystique the way McCartney and Lennon are characterized still as ex-Beatles. For now, we are pointing to a very specific period when we speak of the Stones' greatness. But we are pointing at a kind of greatness no other rock musicians could even claim to have approached. And for the rest of their long lives, the generation who grew up with the Stones, who will eventually rule the country etc., etc., will be shaped and guided by the music that touched them in their formative years.

And future generations who discover this music, who do and will have a relationship with it completely different from those of us who lived through it in chronological context, must also find, I believe, that it is great. The musicians/composers known as The Rolling Stones have already, as of this moment, produced a body of musical work that will live forever. (p. 53)

Paul Williams, "It Wasn't only Rock 'n' Roll (and I Liked It)," in Crawdaddy (copyright © 1974 by Crawdaddy Publishing Co., Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), November, 1974, pp. 47-53.

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