Tuesday, 19 January 2016

The Rolling Stones: 50 Years (and the art of physical homage)

In rock ‘n’ roll parlance, I “paid homage” to a paperback copy of this book.

We were in Melbourne for Christmas, being hosted for the big feast by my niece’s generous Italian in-laws, and sleeping (for want of a better word) in a seemingly flash Airbnb in a nearby suburb.

We soon found out the house wasn’t as flash as we thought. Melbourne was 40-plus in the day and still 30 at night, and the house's aircon had only one setting: Freezing Blizzard with Deafening Jet Engine Roar. The windows were all conveniently painted shut lest any fresh air find its way inside. Even worse, the bedroom lights could never be fully turned off, there were no forks and the stove needed someone to keep their hand on the knob the whole time you were cooking.

In fact, the only well stocked part of the whole house was the bookshelf, which included amongst its decent reads several rock biographies. Not one of the books had ever been opened however, let alone read, and I felt that was sad.

I started reading The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years by Christopher Sandford because I remembered a Keith Richards comment that learning open tuning was transformative, like the shutters being lifted on how to actually play guitar. As a sloppy spare-room guitarist, I was normally happy to knock out folk standards and the odd bluegrass tune, but had been generally reluctant to take on the mysterious art of fiddling with the tuning keys to get deep inside the blues.

But just the week before, my guitarist son had shown me a couple of songs in open D, including Prodigal Son, the Reverend Robert Wilkins tune the Stones “paid homage” to on Beggar’s Banquet – without attribution or payment by the way.

So, as I struggled to lift the shutters on open tuning, I thought I’d take inspiration from Keef and delve into the Stones bio. Once I started I couldn’t stop, but we had to go back to Sydney I had barely scratched the surface. Still, as we hadn’t slept at all, I felt I was owed a bit of compensation, and so I applied the “homage” rule.

I assumed the bit where Keith learned how to play open tuning was in his tender years in Dartford. But in fact, it was only when Ry Cooder sat in on a recording session that Keith wondered what the hell he was doing, and Cooder showed him all aspect of open tuning, even getting the groove going with a riff that sounded “very much like” the intro to a later Stone’s hit, Honky Tonk Women. Sandford covers himself by stating there is “absolutely no question of piracy on Keith’s part”.

However, one paragraph later he reports how Cooder was less than impressed with the “homage” they paid his riffs:
Cooder went ballistic a year or so later and publicly charged the Stones with stealing his best licks. “They’re bloodsuckers, man.”
He wasn’t the last to complain about not being credited for co-writing songs, and even if the collaborators did get a mention, it never transferred into royalties. Brian Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor was particularly disillusioned by his inability to get inside the brackets with (Jagger/Richards), and left the band largely because of it.

It wasn’t just riffs they borrowed: wives, concubines, girlfriends, girlfriends’ boyfriends – all seemed up for grabs. But after a few hundred pages of the non-stop sex and drugs and rock and roll I got tired. I can only imagine how they felt!

At least they showed admirable stamina.

(Simon & Schuster)

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