Arm-wrestling the Midnight Rambler to a draw
August 23, 1972
Last November I read an article in Harper’s by Professor William Irwin Thompson of the Humanities program at York University, Toronto, entitled “Planetary Vistas.” It was prefaced with three italicized analogies, the first of which ran as follows:
“Imagine insects with a life-span of two weeks, and then imagine further that they are trying to build up a science about the nature of time and history. Clearly, they cannot build a model on the basis of a few days in summer. So let us endow them with a language and a culture through which they can pass on their knowledge to future generations. Summer passes, then autumn; finally it is winter. The winter insects are a whole new breed, and they perfect a new and revolutionary science on the basis of the ‘hard facts’ of their perceptions of snow. As for the myths and legends of summer: certainly the intelligent insects are not going to believe the superstitions of their primitive ancestors.”
We left Massachusetts the day of the first snow, for Africa. I will not tell you what country we went to because the next time I need to lick my index finger and hold it up to the solar wind I won’t want a gallery. Suffice it to say that it was the geographical ozone of the pre-Saharean mountain wilderness, a place where the map makers fudge and the guides shill. We did not know what we would find where we were going which was just as well since in the ozone if you think you know where you are going you will get lost but if you don’t know where you are going you may lose yourself. We drove toward the Sahara on a corugated track that was wider on the map than it was on the ground. An hour after the sun went down it might as well have been midnight and when after 50 kilometers of pre-Saharean zilch we turned a switchback and the Fiat headlit the rusted-out exoskeleton of an upside-down Land Rover, we realized that the end of the road would not be when the road disappeared — the one we were on hadn’t appeared in the first place — but when it became more treacherous to try to turn around then to keep on going, that what is terminal about the end of the road is not that it stops you, but that past it you may go further than you can.
“I could really dig finding a place where there was mountain music,” I said.
“Like in that Leary book,” Alison said.
We had holed up for a few days that summer with a husband and wife dealer team in the Santa Cruz hills and they had a copy of Timothy Leary’s “Prison Notes,” in which the acid exile tells how novelist and ab initio way-station on the hash trail Brion Gysin had taken him from Tangiers into the Rif Mountains to hear the piping and drumming and singing of the Master Musicians of Joujouka who, Gysin had discovered, still celebrated — on the pretext of the Muslim Ramadan — the Roman Lupercalia, the annual feast of Pan, patron of forests, pastures, fields, and flocks. “The World’s Oldest Rock and Roll Band,” Leary, blown quite away, called them.
“Too much to ask,” I said.
We had long overdriven the odometer reading that should have put us in a village with a small inn before we came in sight of a group of buildings, windows dark as a pre-Saharean midnight, which we took to be the hotel. “Check-out time,” I announced, and began to backtrack four or five hours to the last place we had stayed. When I went forward the Fiat bottomed out on the mount between the wheel-ruts; when I went back the Fiat began to slip down the embankment toward the desert floor several thousand feet below.
So, we stopped and waited for an intervention.
The geographical ozone is a realm of supraordinary synchronicity so we didn’t have long to wait. Down the hillside came a flashlight, carried by — why, a waiter, of course, in a white coat, carrying a towel over his arm. He motioned us in the direction of a switchback so steep it looked like a hill you would build a switchback to climb. It led to the parking lot of the hotel. We were not burdened by relief any longer than was necessary to step into the entrance hall of the place, a long room with a bar at the end. Along the left-hand wall sat two young German couples staring goggle-eyed at the opposite wall along which were sitting 12 young Berber men, mumbling, moaning, and grunting, occasionally coming into phase rhythmically just long enough to resolve a melody, then lapsing into a silence whose discomfort they attempted to relieve by much adjusting of burnooses and subrespiratory chuckling.
“Too much — ,” I said, taking my seat opposite them.
” — to ask,” said Alison.
The boy behind the bar brought us a bottle of wine. Delightful boy. Most remarkable boy.
We drank it.
He brought us another.
We drank it too.
Still the burbling up and down of rhythms and melodies. Some tentative finger-tapping on table tops. Some clapping of hands. Silence. And then, at length, a young man at the far end of the room spoke.
“Bon soir m’sieur madame. Est-ce que vous connaissez … ‘Sex Machine?’ ”
It was the only time I had ever felt like I needed a drink when I was already drunk.
“Oui,” I managed.
Affirmative aahhing and urrhing from underneath the hoods across from me.
“Par Zhems Bquun?” he asked. Zhems Bquun? Oh!
“Oui. Oui Oui,” I ouied.
“Pourriez-vous le chanter?” he asked.
I tried to sing it as best I could — I did James Brown all right, but the Famous Flames parts were sort of rough. When I was done they all shook their hands out of their burnooses and applauded.
”Maintenant, connaissez-vous ‘Hold On, Ahm Comingue?’ ” said he for whom it was too much to ask.
“Oui,” I said, “mais nous desirons vous ecouter!”
“Non,” he laughed, and spoke to the others. in Berber. “Non, non, non,” said the others, laughing.
“Oui!” I insisted.
“Non non non,” he said.
“Oui, nous voulons que vous chantez pour nous.”
‘N’est pas possible.”
“Je vous en prie, messieurs!”
“Nous vous en prions,” he said. “Nous ne pouvons pas chanter comme Sam et Dev.”
“Non! Pas Sam and Dave!” Oy. “Votre musique — un chanson, er, natif!”
“Uhh — un chanson … local?”
“Nous ne vous comprenons pas,” he said apologetically.
“Mmmm — un chanson de ce ville-ci.”
“Est-ce que vous voulez dire, un chanson folklorique?”
So that’s what they call folklore in French Africa — la folklore.
“Oui, oui, bien sur, folklorique, oui, s’il vous plait.”
And they immediately struck up an air, 12 voices insinuating a song composed exclusively of grace notes arranged in syncopated triplets. It was unquestionably the most folklorique sound I had ever heard. And, strangely, I found it evocative of the Rolling Stones: How thoroughly bizarre, I thought.
When they were done, my interlocutor, who, it turned out, spoke French because he was the teacher at the elementary school — the darkened “hotel” we had come upon — asked if I could teach them a song.
“Est-ce que vous connaissez,” I asked, “les Rolling Stones?”
The question drew as blank a blank as I would have expected 10 minutes before if I had thought to ask, “Pardon me, my new-found Berber friends, but do you happen to be acquainted with Stax-Volt product, most especially that classic Memphis tune ‘Hold On, I’m Coming’ by that hot buttered soul man, Mr. Isaac Hayes?” No, these particular tribesmen had never heard of les Rolling Stones.
Nevertheless, I tried, to teach them “Paint It Black,” which seemed to resonate with the song I had just heard — Nyaa-nyaanyaa-nycia-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa nyaa- nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-nyaa-aah . . .
The Berbers stared at me like the Germans had been staring at them.
“I see a red door and I want to paint it bla-ack … “
“A very German sentiment,” observed one of the German men. “In Germany zey vont to paint everyzing black.”
The Berbers just couldn’t get behind the Rolling Stones. As we sat there across that oddly shaped culture gap, at some points yawning abysmally and at others overlapping, the door opened and a slight young Berber man swaggered in. Suddenly the 12 began to clap and cheer and stamp their feet and laugh heartily.
My first thought was that this was their sarcastic greeting to a friend who had been out in the oasis making it with Aisha the Coleman lamp fuel-seller’s daughter.
Instead, the newcomer threw off his burnoose, cocked a hand on his hip, and, as an enormous flute appeared from under one burnoose and drums appeared from under others, began to sing in a piercing reedy tenor with the 12 booming in with a choral response every other verse.
The applause had been the pre-Saharean rhythm section’s welcome to their lead singer, who had begun to wail not merely immediately but, seemingly, retroactively. This resonance with the Stones’ stage act and those with the music that followed were so concordant that I saw there was no point in teaching them “Paint It Black,” that they could already paint it any color they wanted. Too much to ask!
Retroactively he had us on our feet, Jews and Germans dancing with Arabs, and I would have pinched myself but I knew I wouldn’t feel anything. I can’t describe the double-time shimmy-shake circle-dance he did as he sang because I was trying to do it too hard myself while simultaneously trying unsuccessfully to drink wine faster than I was sweating it out. How long this went on I cannot tell you. The ending of each song save the last was the beginning of another; the dance never stopped until it was done. Then the Berbers went home and the Germans and us went to sleep in the hotel’s bedroom
That’s right, its bedroom.
I awoke in terror at some ghastly hour of the morning, flashing forward to trips I hadn’t taken yet. The bedroom was filled with psychomorphic squid ink, and as I held onto the floor I felt like the Desert Nasties were snuffling up to me like grim shades of the beneficent forest creatures who snuffled up to cop a visual on newborn Bambi in the movie of the same name. “Here on the edge of Forget It where the technosphere’s penetration into the biosphere is at least energetic,” they said in unvoiced tones of pre-Saharean menace, “there is nothing to interfere with your reception of our emanations. You paranoid twerp, the life-cycle of this plant will expunge Man before he manages the opposite. If you think your kind’s puny dereliction of mysteries of their own invention has weakened the vital powers of the Zone, tell us what you think of these little green apples!”
And the floor began to fall away at the speed of darkness and me with it and I said to myself oh boy, don’t I get one telephone call to a party of my choice? And I struggled to fall fast enough to be able to hang in close enough to the floor to climb onto it and walk toward where I remembered the door should be and step —
Outside and close it on the Nasties. Whew. But now the cold gust off the desert was blowing on me naked and hung over and the air was cacophonous with dogbarks and donkeybrays and I decided I was going to go back inside and go to sleep, anti-matter Bambi-snufflers or no.
I went back inside and lay down. “Back for more, with your hand-wringing fantasies?” asked the Desert Nasties.
“Aw, go fuck a duck,” I said, and went to sleep.
Summer will come again to those who are hot for it, I dreamt. I have informed myself of my rites.
We awoke in daylight, dressed, and went outside. We could see for the first time that the town was built on a steep hill. As we stood there a single line of women dressed in black appeared around a corner and began to file down the zigzag of switchbacks.
“Qu’est-ce que c’est que ca?” I asked the boy.
“Une femme a mouru pendant le nuit,” he said.
We watched the procession pause at a doorway as the woman’s shrouded body was brought out. They resumed their descent, carrying her to a rocky knoll just outside the town. There they lay her down and piled rocks on her and keened over her and consigned her to the desert.
I decided that the Nasties who had visited me earlier that morning were ill-tempered outriders of the perambulatory vortical presence that had sucked the woman’s juice out of her. I don’t know that the Berbers call that mortifying infundibulum but we Hebrews call it Moloch Hamovess, the closest English translation of which is, Midnight Rambler — as in, ev’rybody got-ta go.
Soon a film crew arrived, complete with Arabs in tinted aviator glasses, bell-bottom trousers, and faded denim jackets. They interviewed an old man and his donkey. What was it that the Nasties had been saying about the penetration of the technosphere? The musiciens folkloriques of the night before trickled into the morning-after parking lot. We looked at each other like we had all balled together, which essentially, we had. Too much to ask, but not a moment too soon.
Shortly after our return to Babble-on, I discovered that while we were gone Rolling Stones Records had released a disc called “Brian Jones presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.” Well what do you know. Seems Jones and his Nagra recorder had been escorted to Joulouka Tatoof by Brion Gysin in 1968, but it was only now that the Stones had their own label that they could get the master he made released — too late for Brian, who was found floating face-down in his swimming pool in mid-1969. The album included a text by Gysin:
“Pan, Bou Jeloud, the Father of Skins, dances through eight moonlit nights in his hill village, Joujouka, to the wailing of his hundred Master Musicians. Down in the towns, far away by the seaside, you can hear the wild whimper of his oboe-like raitas; a faint breath of panic borne on the wind. Below the rough palisade of giant blue cactus surrounding the village on its hilltop, the music flows in streams to nourish and fructify the terraced fields below … All the villagers dressed in best white, swirl in great circles and coils around one wild-man in skins. Bou Jeloud leaps high in the air on the music, races after the women again and again, lashing at him fiercely with his flails … He is mad. Sowing panic. Lashing at anyone; striking real terror into the crowd. Women scatter like white marabout birds all aflutter and settle on a little hillock for safety … They throw back their heads to the moon and scream with throats open to the gullet … Pipes crack in your head. Ears popped away at barrier sound and you deaf. Or dead! Swirling around in cold moonlight, surrounded by wild men or ghosts. Bou Jeloud is on you, butting you, beating you, taking you, leaving you. Gone! The great wind drops out of your head and you hear the heavenly music again. You feel sorry and loving and tender to that poor animal whimpering, grizzling, laughing, and sobbing there beside you like somebody out of ether.
“Who is that? That is you.
” … Up there, in Joujouka, you sleep all day — if the flies let you. Breakfast is goat-cheese and honey on gold bread from the out door oven. Musicians loll about sipping mint tea, their kif pipes and flutes. They never work in their lives so they lie about easy. The last priests of Pan cop a tithe on the crops in the lush valley below. Blue Kif smoke drops in veils from Joujouka at nightfall … ”
I could hardly be surprised at the kinship of the music on this record to the music we had danced to — such reserves of surprise as I still had were exhausted that night. The charts were different, shall we say, but the bomp was syncopated in the same hypnagogic way.
The album stiffed, of course. Music that people stoned on gelignite kif have danced to for eight nights a year for 4000 years could hardly be expected to engage the attention of rock critics, rack jobbers, and prog/rock playlisters.
I was out at the farm in Walled Lake, Michigan, where Creem, America’s Only Rock and Roll Magazine, is put together, marshaling my faculties for a series of journalistic encounters with the Rolling Stones tour. Dave Marsh, the noted Teenage Dwarf, who edits Creem, flew into a rage at my eagerness. “It was Brian! The Stones are nothing without Brian. You’re going off to see a band with a hole in it!,” and he dragged me off to Ann Arbor to see a screening of “The TAMI Show.” Topping the bill of that kinescope of a 1964 telecast were the Stones complete with Brian. All I could see was a blond kid with a winning smile and losing bags under his eyes, strumming a guitar.
“Well?” pressed Marsh, dwarfishly.
“My gazoogo was not flonged, if that’s what you mean,” I said.
I guess I expected that the music of the Rolling Stones live and in person would sweep me off my feet. Instead it planted me more firmly on them. It was an ultrasonic brain enema, kilo-hertzing loose the scud of 50 per cent jive and 50 per cent bullshit and making me kiss it bye bye. It was was menschische music and I could not value it more highly.
But the audience response disappointed me to where I was flying to Detroit on my own nickel in the hope that I would be able to see the Stones perform before a live audience. I don’t mean that the audiences I saw didn’t hoot and holler and do a little light trucking in situ. I mean that in New Orleans the night before the Mobile date we went to Crazy Shirley’s on Bourbon Street and they were snake-dancing to Papa Celestin’s Original Tuxedo Jazz Band, but there was no snake dancing at any Stones concert. I mean, I watched Jagger try again and again to get an audience to sing along on the refrain to “Sweet Virginia,” the one that goes, “Come on, come on down, you got it in ya/ Uh-huh/ Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes,” before giving up late in the tour, and that I’ve seen solo accordionists at bas mitzvahs get more people to sing along. I mean it wasn’t long before Jagger stopped asking the audience to “kiss the person next to you” and that I’ve seen people do weirder things to each other on the Simon Sez-so of Borscht Belt tummlers.
I didn’t expect each audience to become a de Broglie wave of ecstasy — hmm, well, okay, maybe I did expect each audience to become a de Broglie wave of ecstasy. Why shouldn’t I have? “You gotta move,” the Stones had sung on their last album, and for this tour they had composed music to move by, music too powerful to capture on a piece of vinyl, which is why a lot of album reviewers do not consider “Exile on Main Street” their fave rave.
My first analysis was that the audiences’ stolidity could be accounted for mostly by the fact that the tour management’s attempt to democratize the ticketing procedure — $6.50 top, computer-assigned seats, etc. — had created the first rock audiences chosen under the McGovern reform rules, i.e. what do you expect — 90 per cent of us have never been to one of these things before. (And upon all of us in discreet votaries of rock and stroll, O Orpheus, the curse of the Underground Gourmet: May you stand on line forever hungering to sup at the table you sold maps to.) The audiences were for the most part too stunned at being in the presence of the Rolling Stones to react — it was, after all, like seeing a resurrection right before your eyes, in that everything the Stones stand for is dead and gone except, wonder of wonders, themselves. In meaner moments I chalked it up simply to the endemic callowness and inbred lethargy of the generation that dogged the footsteps of mine, slogging along zonked on Sopors. Kids today etc. etc. etc.
Which led me back to the liner notes of the Joujouka album and a reconsideration of whether it was possible that there was something lacking in the Stones’ music that sapped its power to actualize the rhetorical imperative “You gotta move” so that people would simply have to move.
“I don’t know if I possess the stamina to endure the incredible, constant strain of the festival,” wrote Brian Jones. “Such psychic weaklings has Western civilization made of so many of us.”
When I first considered the Joujouka album, I assumed out of hand that Jones’s flirtation with the music of the Moorish highlands was nothing more than late ’60s pop-star dilettantism, that it was nothing more than late rites practitioners wore fur vests and lolled about sipping mint tea and copping tithes. But having seen this tour and re-read that liner note, I began to wonder whether Brian hadn’t been searching the African hills for the musical root of incredible, constant strain, looking to incorporate that root, collected first-hand, into the Stones’ music along with other African musical roots that had been transshipped from Gambia to Virginia to the Mississippi delta country to Kansas City and Chicago, arriving as “de blues,” and thence by post to Richmond, England, none the better for wear. Was “Joujouka” recorded as a sample of a transhistorical eight-day full-tilt boogying rhythm track for the rest of the band to cop licks from like they had from old Chuck Berry sides? Did he as rhythm guitarist and multi-instrumentalist intend to build a set of chops into the band’s music that would have the same effect on audiences as the raitas had on the Joujoukans, i.e., “striking real terror into the crowd,” the Lupercalian panic we read about in “Julius Caesar”? That would expose those who were not got to move to themselves as psychic weaklings, made so by Western civilization? That would turn every Rolling Stones performance into a rite?
We won’t know whether the Teenage Dwarf was right for the wrong reason or wrong for the right reason because Brian Jones is no longer with us, such a psychic weakling had Western civilization made of him. The question is far from moot, however: The Master Musicians of Joujouka are still there, as are the Master Musicians of the Rolling Stones. On the last two American tours there was no rhythm guitarist “replacing” Brian Jones — Mick Taylor plays second lead, augmenting the impact of de blues on audiences; at times he seems to play a blues track, as much a part of the Stones’ music as the bass track or the lead vocal track. I am beginning to think that it is arguable that the entire body of de blues, from Robert Johnson’s “Love in Vain” as recorded 50 years ago in a San Antonio hotel room to the Stones’ version as performed July 26 at the Garden, is a music of, by, and for psychic weaklings — wound-down entropic insect-winter music.
I know that a bunch of kids in a desert hill town made sounds that put my rear in gear and somehow activated in me the vestigial ulterior consciousness that some of us have more of and some of us have ess of, and that within hours I had arm-wrestled the minions of the actual Midnight Rambler to a draw. I doubt many people were forced to have that kind of experience in the aftermath of the concerts on this tour, though, that Gambler rambles throughout this land as he does in no other, and baby, it’s no rock ‘n’ roll show, and how much you w11nt to bet he’s beefed up his security since Wallace got shot?
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 15, 2020