Stoned Again And Again (A Semi-Obsession With The Rolling Stones)

jumpin-jack-flash-coverIn the summer of 1968 I did a stint as a counselor at a boys’ sleepaway camp nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. It was a good gig. I liked the kids in the bunk that I oversaw. And for some reason they seemed to like me. The air up there in the mountains was fresh, the water in the camp’s lake was clean and inviting and the female counselors in the nearby girls’ camp were cute. Like I said, a good gig. The best thing of all during that summer, though, was completely camp-unrelated. It was a tune that I heard for the first time ever while lying one evening on my bunk cot. A new song, it exploded from my teeny-weeny radio, and for the rest of my Berkshires sojourn I flipped that radio’s dial as often as possible each day, seeking out the music that had blown me away. Whenever I found it, which was pretty often, I shook my head in disbelief and let it rock me anew unmercifully. And you know what? To this day, a mere 48 years later, the tune has just about the same effect upon me. We’re talking The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash, birthed in the era when those British lads were idolized, really mattered and were flabbergastingly creative, writing and recording amazing new songs prolifically and seemingly with ease.

Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP -- Getty Images
Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP — Getty Images

In 2016 the Stones are still idolized, at least by some. But really mattering and in possession of creative zing? Those days passed the Stones by long, long ago. Sure, the boys, who range in age from 69 (guitarist Ronnie Wood, a longtime but not original Stone) to 75 (drummer Charlie Watts) haven’t broken up, and for each of the last five years they’ve toured a decent amount, rocking ferociously on stage (meaning, they remain fairly active and haven’t lost their chops). Problem is, though, in concert they are nothing more than rehashers of their own well-worn classic material. And that’s because, when it comes to composing and then recording new songs, they’re plenty constipated. Guys, I’m going to ship 20 cases of prune juice to your manager’s office. You need it.

Hey, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, all of whose tree rings number about the same as those of the various Stones, continue to gift the world with albums of original material. But the Stones? Nah. The only album of new bonbons they produced this century was 2005’s A Bigger Bang. And in 2011 they managed to record and release two more original songs. The well dried up after that. They do have a studio album coming out next month, but it’s filled strictly with cover versions of old blues numbers. Apparently they had entered the studio to try and crank out an album of newbies, but got nowhere with that. Trying to salvage the sessions in some way, they fell into a blues groove, jamming on numbers composed by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues guys, and ended up with enough material for an album. I bet the record (Blue And Lonesome) will be good. But me, I’d much rather have the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards songwriting team on fire like they were looong ago. Who knows? Maybe it’ll happen again. Prune juice works.

Right, it’s kind of weird that I know about all of this Stonesy stuff. But I do. And the reason is that, in my wondrous dotage, I am, as I’ve been for nearly forever, a dopey fanboy of the Stones, though far less fervent than I used to be. I rarely play their albums at home anymore, something I once did religiously. But I keep my Stones jones alive by regularly checking up on their musical and other escapades on Google News. Did you hear, for instance, that Wood became the father of twins earlier this year? Or that Jagger will become a dad for the eighth time, at age 73, when his decades-younger-than-him girlfriend gives birth soon? Ah well, small news items like those fit comfortably into my small brain cavity. Decades ago I probably wouldn’t have thought my semi-obsession with the Stones would continue this far into eternity. Similarly, Jagger, when he was in his twenties, used to say that he couldn’t imagine performing rock and roll beyond age 30. So I guess I don’t feel too goofy about following him and his bandmates on their continuing trip. We spit at Father Time’s wrinkled face!

the-rolling-stones-we-love-you-london-3My best Stones moments in a while came recently courtesy of WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station adept at playing just about every style of music you can name. The morning DJ announced that she was spinning songs that originally had come out together on seven inch 45 rpm vinyl singles. In other words, she was playing sides A and B from a bunch of singles. When I heard her offer up the Stones’ Ruby Tuesday/Let’s Spend The Night Together something sparked in my head, turning my thoughts to another Stones 45 that I’ve always thought of as one of the ultimate singles, and whose two tunes I hadn’t heard in at least a few years. Released in 1967, during the Stones’ brief foray into psychedelia, We Love You and Dandelion found their most meaningful home on that single, as neither ever was part of a regular studio album. They did, however, eventually take up space on some of the greatest hits and compilation discs that the band is talented at issuing unnecessarily often. Great, great songs they are, despite being among the group’s lesser-known efforts.

I used to own the seven inch We Love You/Dandelion single. No more. My collection of 45s, unlike that of my vinyl albums, long ago found new abodes and/or an assortment of landfills in which to reside. Therefore, thank the stars above for YouTube, to which I turned to please my ears soon after the tunes popped into my mind. They sounded as good as I remembered them. Blessed with catchy-as-hell melodies, swirling and cascading vocals and pulsating instrumentations, We Love You and Dandelion set my head a-boppin’ and my mind a-floatin’. As always, shivers ran up and down my back as the songs’ high harmony vocal interweavings kissed the sky.

We Love You arrived in the wake of Jagger’s and Richards’ 1967 drug bust, short-term jailings, trials and, in the end, very light sentences. It was both a thank you to Stones supporters and a poke at the British legal system. Dandelion is less heady, a harpsichord and drum-driven relative of children’s songs aimed at anyone who likes to smile and groove. Both songs swell with musical daring, panache and beauty. I can’t recommend them enough. Such being the case, clicking here is what you’ll want to do to listen to the former, and here for the latter. I accept your thanks in advance.

 

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Ashes: Lindi Ortega’s Great Song Heard In The Great Outdoors

This is a story about life’s little surprises, about how one thing leads to another. In this gentle instance an unexpected impulse to relocate my duff from indoors to outside resulted in my hearing a song that I can’t get out of my head.

There’s something naturally relaxing about sitting outdoors when the weather is pleasant. Some people sit in parks, some on beaches, some a few feet from doors to their homes. One of my pals lives in Philadelphia in an old comfortable house, a sprawling place with a front porch. On evenings when the Philadelphia Phillies are taking the field, my friend positions himself in a porch chair, balances a small radio on a table beside him and turns on the Phillies station. He remains there till the game is over. This routine helps him stay calm.

A scene at dusk: Cheez-Its, iced tea and portable radio on the deck table behind my house. Photograph by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin
A scene at dusk: Cheez-Its, iced tea and portable radio on the deck table behind my house.
Photograph by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin

I should emulate my friend’s fresh air example more often. I used to sit outside frequently, mostly on the deck behind my house, but haven’t much in the last few years. Most of my sitting and downtime in that stretch has taken place on the sofa in my living room. On a recent Monday night, however, a powerful urge to visit the great outdoors came out of nowhere, and so I stepped onto the deck as dusk was settling in, and sat at the deck table. The temperature was ideal, the evening peaceful. At least ten houses are within 100 feet of the deck, but they became less and less visible through the trees as blackness approached. These were conditions that agreed with my inner yearnings. That is, I felt isolated, away from it all. And three things made the scenario even better: Food, beverage and music. Munching on Cheez-Its,  sipping iced tea and, most important to this story, listening to my portable radio, I was as relaxed as I’m capable of becoming. The radio was tuned to WXPN.

In the Philadelphia region WXPN is the go-to station for rock, folk, blues and nearly any other non-Ariana Grande musical genre you can name. XPN plays everything from The Beatles to Mavis Staples to Caetano Veloso to Laura Marling. And the station makes it a mission to keep up with the continual avalanche of recorded music from established and never-heard-of-them-before musicians. Airing on XPN as I sat beneath the stars and amidst pulsating fireflies was a program showcasing nothing but new songs. And the tune that issued from my radio at about 9:00 PM swept me from my state of relaxation to a much higher plane.

There are certain songs over the years that infatuated me from the moment I first heard them. In 1968 it was Jumpin’ Jack Flash, by the Stones. To this day it stirs me up every time I hear it. California Stars, by Billy Bragg and Wilco (and lyrics by Woody Guthrie), brought me to my knees in 1998. I’ve added another number to the list of instant infatuations, all praise to WXPN’s new music show. The song is Ashes. Its singer and writer is Lindi Ortega. Ashes overwhelmed me on my deck. I think that the calm within and without me had unlocked fully the doorways to my emotions and ushered Ashes in. From its opening notes, Ashes in a good way made me shiver and melt. It went straight to my truest spaces.

I had come across Lindi Ortega’s name in print in the past but wasn’t familiar with her music. As I’ve learned, she’s a Canadian now living in Nashville and plays and composes smart country-hued material à la Emmylou Harris and Patty Griffin. With Ashes she and her production team have created a wonder, a stirring song about the need for love, the pain of loss. The heartbeat bass lines, the steady tension-inducing drumming, Lindi’s pleading and impassioned vocals that grow as the song develops, the soul-gripping guitar solo at the song’s three minute mark . . . Ashes to me is perfection. “Darling, this is madness, why don’t you come back to me?/Don’t leave me in the ashes of your memory.” Indeed. Indeed. When Lindi next appears in or around Philadelphia I’ll be at the show. For now, I’ll listen to Ashes on YouTube, where Lindi has gifted it to the world in advance of its release next month on her album Faded Gloryville. I recommend that you do the same. Here is Ashes:

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