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In the Sahara, Searching for the Rolling Stones

Arm-wrestling the Midnight Rambler to a draw

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:

ANALOGY ONE

“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.

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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.

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“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.

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”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!”

“Eh?”

“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.

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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 … “

Pre-Saharean zilch.

“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.

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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.

The 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.

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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.

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***

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.

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***

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.

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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?

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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?

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Gimme Shelter: Blowing Up a Movie to Solve a Murder

Blowing Up a Movie to Solve a Murder

December 25, 1969

SAN FRANCISCO — “Is anybody besides me seriously worried about what the Hell’s Angels might do to us if they find out we’ve got footage of the killing?” Albert Maysles asked. “I mean, when that sequence is blown up, there’ll be a full-face picture of the actual slayer. Look, Stanley, if you were the particular guy in question … ”

“I’d kill your ass,” Stanley Goldstein shot back with a tart grin.

“I was never really sold on the idea of doing a straight tour film of the Stones,” David Maysles said. “What we actually have is a mystery story, you realize. A detective story, sort of.”

Last Thursday, I was awakened early by a phone call from David Maysles in New York. He explained that he and brother Albert, who had been authorized to film the gigantic free Rolling Stones concert at the Altamont Speedway on December 6, had just viewed a portion of their color footage showing the fatal encounter between Meredith Hunter, an 18-year-old black youth who was shown to be armed with a revolver, and a stocky, knife-wielding man dressed in a Hell’s Angels tunic. The two Maysles Brothers, along with a small technical crew, David said, planned to fly here that evening to resume filming and to confer with officials of Young American Enterprises, Inc., the company that claimed to represent the Stones during their American tour. Could I rent a limousine and hire somebody to handle their luggage, and meet them at the airport for a talk?

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I could, and I did. A jump-seated black Cadillac was secured from Gray Line Tours, and I engaged Greg Curtis, a young writer from Texas, to serve as chief baggage grip.

The TWA flight that night was late, and Greg and I were both a little antsy; in the course of our phone conversation, David had mentioned that his party would be traveling, at the insistence of the Stones’ management, under the protection of two armed bodyguards.

“The Stones’ mafia,” David had explained with a nervous laugh, and the pair of bodyguards lived up to the advance billing as they preceded the film crew off the plane; they were both big, tough-looking, taciturn men with coldly staring eyes and unmistakable bulges under their jackets.

The Maysles Brothers came out shooting,” with Albert, who resembles a kind of Mr. Peepers with character, manning a mammoth, shoulder-rig camera, and David, wearing head phones and a purple shirt with epaulettes, picking up the sound with a shotgun mike. David made the round of introductions. Others in his party included cameraman Ron Dorfman, all-around trouble-shooter Stanley Goldstein (one of the prime movers and shakers at the Woodstock Festival), and a freelance still photographer named Michael Alexander.

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After a series of stop-and-go camera takes, we all headed for the limousine. David, Albert, Stanley, and I rode in the lead Cadillac to the Hotel Mark Hopkins. A second car was hired to accommodate the bodyguards and the rest of the crew. Greg stayed behind to collect the luggage, most of which was scheduled to arrive on a later flight.

All the way to the Mark, which is located near the crest of Nob Hill, David and Albert plied me with questions about the after-effects of the Altamont debacle. I found the process of being “interviewed” somewhat bizarre and not a little bit disorienting; in the end, I felt something like a human out-take from “Medium Cool.”

Our appearance en masse in the sumptuous lobby of the ultra-staid Mark caused the night clerk to blanch. “I don’t think that cat appreciates us using his hotel as a movie set,” Ron Dorfman said, grinning lopsidedly and continuing to shoot away. Since there’d been no hostile welcome by the Angels, as had halfway been expected, the mood of the party quickly turned high carnival.

Somebody in the Young American organization — John James, Ronnie Schneider, or Michael Scotti — was supposed to have made reservations for the Maysles crew under the name “A. Hitchcock.” No reservations had been made. A doddering bellman let us into John James’s small apartment while the decision was made about what to do next. Albert wandered into the bedroom and came back out, laughing aloud: “Know what’s sitting on the table beside ole John’s beddy-poo? A can of Sof-Stroke. Do you suppose he’s trying to tell us something?” A call to the desk disclosed that Ronnie Schneider had turned in for the night: the desk clerk didn’t know where either James or Scotti were. Stanley — “Stanley G. Logistics,” as David called him — was dispatched downstairs to arrange for a suite. “Charge it to A. Hitchcock,” David called after him. “No, seriously, charge it to James — we’ve already sprung for the air fare out here.”

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Three stewardesses who had been on the TWA flight from New York knocked for admittance. “Let’s have a party,” they pealed in unison. The group crowded into the small room now numbered 10 people; there weren’t enough chairs to go around. After talking to somebody on the phone, Mike Alexander told David the crew had been invited to view some films the following evening. David frowned: “Well, thanks, but no thanks. I don’t like to watch films much any more, except what we’re actually working on. I don’t have any sense of the history of films, I guess.”

Everyone prepared to move to the suite Stanley had rented, two flights down on the 10th floor. “Oh, shit, man, what’re you doing?” Stanley roared at the bellman, who had removed all of John James’s clothes from the closet along with our coats. After the damage had been undone, we descended to the new quarters by the fire stairs to avoid waiting for the single elevator in operation.

“Yeah, this is much more like it,” David said, yawning and stretching out on the living room carpet. “Hey, I’m starving, though. Can we get a meal for everybody from room service?” ”It’s almost 2 o’clock, David — they’ll be closed up for the night,” Stanley said, shaking his shaggy head no. “Well, Christ, we can’t fast for the next six hours,” Albert complained. Mike Alexander volunteered to put together a movable feast at David’s Delicatessen. Stanley handed Mike $80 in bills: “Get enough food, beer, and soft drinks for 15, 16 people, okay?”

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Greg Curtis came in to report that 11 pieces of luggage had failed to arrive. “It may have been dropped off over in Oakland,” he suggested hopefully. “Shit, shit, shit,” Stanley raged, racing for the phone. “That’s most of our raw stock and equipment. We can’t function without that stuff.” Somebody began passing a small, elegant pipe around. “You may wonder why I’ve assembled you here at this unseemly hour,” David quipped, imitating Richard Burton. He followed up with an impression of Mick Jagger at Madison Square Garden: “Well, all rot. New Yock Citeh. Far aht?” Somebody flipped on the color tv set; frequency patterns blipped up, up, and away.

Across the room, Stanley was attempting to place two long-distance calls at once. “Stan’s about to levitate,” Albert said, winking and grinning. Mike Alexander returned with two carts of food and $35 change. “Now just listen to me, man,” Stanley bawled into the phone, “If you don’t connect me with the flight operations officer in one minute, I’m going to call the fucking FAA.”

By now, it was early morning. Ron Dorfman was sprawled out asleep on the carpet, and one of the stewardesses periodically dozed off and snapped awake on the couch. After eating, I phoned for a cab. David suggested that I return to the hotel “around 9-ish” for the meeting with the Young American people. By the time I arrived home, that left me two hours to sleep.

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***

Nine-ish on Friday morning. Mike Alexander peered morosely out the window at the rain below. “It’s going to be a great day for shooting exteriors, Albert,” he muttered, scratching his bare belly. “All you’ll need to do is bounce your lights off of the sky and punch a hole in the reflector to let the rain pour through.”

Albert Maysles looked tousled and still half-asleep: “Has anybody seen my shoes? I can’t seem to find my shoes. Oh, well, I guess they’ll turn up. Listen Ron, maybe you’d better rouse Stanley, right? He’s going to have to get a move on after that lost luggage.”

Stanley was asleep on the couch. Gently, Ron tapped him on the shoulder: “Uh, Stanley old chap, could I talk to you about something? Could I talk to  you about getting your ass up?” Irritably, Stanley rolled over onto his stomach and growled, “Fuck off.” A couple of minutes later, groaning piteously, he sat up and began to dress.

“Listen, we’re going to have to hire a public stenographer sometime today,” David announced to the room at large. “Yeah, to prepare that contract,” Stanley answered. “Have we retained Mel Belli to represent us yet, by the way?” “Public stenos cost $75 a minute,” Ron joked. David grimaced: “By the way, what’re we paying for this suite a day? A hundred dollars, you think?” He turned to me, spreading his hands: “Christ, we’re doing all of this on spec, you know. It was the same thing with ‘Salesman’ — we put all our own bread into that film, too.”

After various delays, Stanley hustled off to the airport to check on the errant luggage and the rest of us trooped up to Ronnie Schneider’s suite on the 14th floor. Also present at the meeting were John James, a cheerful balloon of a man, Michael Scotti, who resembles the young George Raft, and the two bodyguards who had escorted the Maysles crew from New York. One of the men carried his pistol in his hip pocket, and both took pains to stay out of camera range. Two tables littered with a dozen plates of coagulating breakfast remains gave the room an eerie, beggar’s banquet flavor. The ambience of power present was as strong as an odor; you knew that these men had only to lift the phone and whatever was asked would be delivered by someone with his hand stretched out for a crinkly tip. But the Stones promoters also exuded another air, sadder, wearier, as if they existed nowhere except in the airless anonymity of hotel rooms. I was suddenly glad that I lived out in the section of the city a friend bad once derisively dubbed “the Queens of San Francisco.”

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John James started the conversation by announcing that his organization had settled property claims with “perhaps 90 per cent” of the Alameda County ranchers who had complained of damages in the wake of the concert. The sum paid out, he said, represented “about a tenth” of the $500,000 originally sought. “Those damn idiot farmers, some of them were complaining that their cows had swallowed beer bottles,” one of the bodyguards sneered. “Cows with beer bottles in their stomaches. Sheeit.”

Ronnie Schneider was asked what the Stones’ reaction to the slaying had been. Speaking in a hoarse, basso rasp, he said, carefully: “Grief, disgust … the Stones didn’t really know what had happened at first, couldn’t grasp what’d occurred.”

“What happened, just happened,” James interjected. “There’s simply no infallible way to bring together 300,000 people without the possibility of violence arising. The Stones only wanted to thank their American friends for making their tour so successful. Every possible precaution was taken, given the hurry-up circumstances of having to move from the Sears Point raceway to the Altamont site at the last possible minute. I blame that development squarely on Filmways, Inc., which owns the Sears Point track. At the last minute, Filmways made exorbitant demands on the Stones for the use of the grounds, demands that were so outrageous they couldn’t be met. We did the best we could under the circumstances. Richard Carter, who owns the Altamont track, hired 100 uniformed security guards. We hired 100 more.”

What about Sonny Barger’s claim that the Angels had been hired as security guards for $500 worth of beer?

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“Nobody from any of the three organizations promoting the concert paid the Angels anything,” James snapped testily. “Maybe the Angels brought their own beer, who knows? But Sam Cutler, the Stones’ road manager, tried to get the whole bunch of them off the stage repeatedly throughout the day.”

“Look,” Schneider put in, “one lone guy pulled a gun, and in the ensuing confusion, he got himself killed. What if there had been regular city cops up on the bandstand? Five people might’ve been killed, see what I mean? The Stones paid out a quarter of a million dollars to put on an event for everybody to enjoy. Why shouldn’t the Stones get a film out of it to help repay some of their expenses?”

As the interview continued, a streak of stunning-looking girls paraded in and out of the room. “Our groupies in residence,” James snorted with a wry laugh. One of the bodyguards was clowning around with a woman’s red wig. “Let me know before you begin to shoot again,” he ordered Ron Dorfman, “so I can go and hide in the john or someplace. I mean it, I ain’t shittin’ you, kid.”

“You guys in the press,” Schneider said to me with a hint of metal in his voice, “you all say pretty much what you please, whatever we do or say. That’s why I — why all of us — rarely if ever give interviews. Hell, 17 or 18 different guys have tried to get through to us since we’ve been here, and we wouldn’t talk to any of them. You’re the first reporter we’ve seen, so I hope you’ll be fair and accurate about what’s being said here ”

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Scotti, who had remained silent until this point, asked to go off the record so he could freely discuss the legal and security problems the Maysles Brothers faced. After I agreed, David described the footage showing the slaying. James groaned: “Jesus, just having that sequence is like sitting on a powder keg.” David nodded: “Yes, I know. Death, we found out, is very quick.” “I saw the killing take place,” Albert mused moodily, “but I didn’t personally shoot it. It was so ugly, I just didn’t want to. The truth is, at this point, we don’t know precisely who did shoot the sequence. We had about 18 freelance cameramen working for us on the day of the concert.”

The off-the-record discussion followed. Concluding that simple possession of the film implicated the Maysles Brothers as material witnesses to a homicide, Scotti, looking pale and grim, called the Alameda County sheriff’s department, and within minutes two plainclothes detectives, Robert Donovan and J. N. Chisholm, arrived at the suite. Scotti described the footage to the officers in general terms, and then whisked his entire entourage, bodyguards and all, back to New York by plane. David made arrangements for his associate, Porter Bibb, to ship a copy of the sequence here from New York via air express.

“Wow — the old crud just hit the fan, didn’t it,” somebody murmured softly after the plainclothesmen had left.

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On Saturday afternoon, the footage was screened for the two officers and an Alameda County assistant district attorney at Francis Ford Coppola’s ultra-sophisticated new film facility, American Zoetrope. The sequence was shown repeatedly, frame by frame; it proved to be grisly, explicit, and harrowing to watch.

Afterward, David asked the detectives, “Can we film the grand jury, do you suppose? No? Damn, maybe we can get the foreman to talk outside the jury room, what do you think?”

Late in the afternoon, the officers left to take the film print to the Alameda County police lab for enlargement. When it was feasible, they said, the blown-up photos would be presented, along with any other evidence that had developed, to the grand jury in order to secure an indictment.

For the slayer of Meredith Hunter, the crud had indeed hit the fan.

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming 2

Maysles Brothers Gimme Shelter filming controversy

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES NEWS & POLITICS ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES

Stones & Angels: Viewing the Remains of Altamont

Stones & Angels: Viewing the Remains of a Mean Saturday
December 18, 1969

SAN FRANCISCO — On the morning of December 10, a scattering of friends and kin gathered in a foggy cemetery in the bedroom commuter community of Vallejo to bury Meredith Hunter, who had just turned 18. Hunter was the apparently drug-freaked young black man who’d been kicked and stabbed to death before thousands of impassive spectators during a brawl involving the Hell’s Angels at the mammoth free Rolling Stones concert in the Livermore Valley five days earlier.

Hunter’s murder took place, Lord save us, while the Stones were playing “Sympathy for the Devil.”* At press time, no arrests had been made in connection with the slaying, although it was reliably reported that the Maysles Brothers, who were authorized to film the concert by the Stones management, had shot the grisly episode in its entirety.

Similarly, the Alameda County sheriff’s department reported no leads in the search for the hit-and-run slayer of Mark Feiger and Richard Savolv, both 22 and both from New Jersey, via Berkeley. The two men were killed after the concert when an auto leaving Altamont Speedway plowed into their group, huddled around a campfire. Several other young people were critically injured in the accident.

Two days after the concert, Sonny Barger, president of the Oakland chapter of the Angels, called disc jockey Stefan Ponek at KSAN-FM, defending the Angels’ strong-arm tactics at Altamont. Barger’s statement was broadcast live:

“The Stones hired us to act as security for $500 worth of beer. That Mick Jagger, he used us for dupes. We were the biggest suckers of anybody. I’m not no peace creep by any sense of the word. I’m a violent cat when I gotta be, but I don’t really wanna be. I’m bum-kicked by the whole trip. I don’t like what happened… Some of those dudes out there, they started kicking and trying to destroy our bikes, and that made it personal. They got thumped. They got got. There ain’t nobody going to kick my bike. It’s my life and all I got. You love that thing better than anything in the world…”

Despite Barger’s flat claim that his group had been hired by the Stones personally, the report persisted that Rock Scully, ex-manager of the Grateful Dead and himself reputedly a former outlaw biker, had made the deal with the Angels. Another report named Emmett Grogan, founder of the now defunct Diggers and an advance man for the concert, as the principal negotiator of the arrangement.

Not with the intention of placing blame — Meredith Hunter was dead and buried, after all, and that couldn’t be undone by singling out the dolt who’d invited the wolves into the chicken house — but in a more or less plodding effort to string together the facts for the record, I settled down with the phone book close at hand and began asking the burning question of the week: who, exactly, had involved the Angels in the concert?

Jo Bergman, the Stones’ girl friday, was unavailable for comment. Perhaps she’d left town, I was informed, perhaps she hadn’t, who knew? Sam Cutler, the Stones’ Cockney road manager, who, curiously, had been left behind when the group flew back to London, was wherever Rock Scully was; in any event, neither was available for comment. Emmett Grogan was unavailable for anything.

The day following Hunter’s funeral, I managed to talk briefly with Chet Helms, top dog at the Family Dog rock ballroom on the Great Highway and one of the concert’s organizers. I asked Helms what formal connection he’d had with the event. “Victim,” he shot back tersely, “Just another victim.” And did he know who had engaged the Angels to serve as cut-rate rent-a-cops? Helms hesitated, then answered in a flat, weary voice: “I’d prefer not to make any comment on that. I don’t want to get into messing people’s lives around.”

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Following through on a tip from John Sagen, a member of the rock group West, I contacted Laurel Gonsalves, who works in the advertising department at Rolling Stone magazine. She said she’d worked for the Stones in early efforts to set up the concert, but had withdrawn when the project deteriorated in organization. She referred me to John Burks, Rolling Stone’s managing editor. In a windy, rambling monologue, Burks conceded that, yes, he knew who had hired the Angels, but he hadn’t yet decided what stance to take about releasing the information.

At the suggestion of Steve Pillster, who lives deep in the heart of the labyrinthine rock circus in Berkeley, I called the Grateful Dead’s headquarters in Marin County. The call was accepted by a girl named Susan, who went on to identify herself as a member of a “family” called Alembic, which manufactures rock sound equipment. She said that Alembic and the Dead, who share the same quarters, had held a joint meeting early in the week and unanimously agreed not to discuss the question of who had hired the Angels. At the mention of the Stones, Susan painted it emphatically black: “The Stones screwed us all over royally. The Dead paid all of their own expenses to fly to Altamont and back by helicopter, and then they weren’t allowed to play. They put out money that hasn’t been reimbursed, and now they’re flat broke. The Stones are just not nice people, you know? I guess you should expect shit like that from the Angels — they’re totally devoted to violence.… One of them, Terry the Tramp, was nice to those of us who were working on sound, but the majority of those dudes were just crumby animals. They felt righteous about what they were doing, I guess — sanctioned, sort of. The whole bunch of them stayed around the bandstand until 4 a.m., getting drunker and drunker and punching out anyone who got in their reach. They burned all the packing crates for our spotlights, and at one time they threatened to set fire to the stage, but I guess they got loaded and forgot about it. A great, great many people got hurt out there. Even though I had a pass, I was bodily thrown off the stage by the Angels twice in a row. I guess they were just feeling mean, and I was handy.”

Could she give me any specific details about the meeting between Alembic and the Dead?

“Well,” she faltered, “I guess you could say that Emmett Grogan defended the hiring of the Angels… and I guess Rock Scully did, too.”

After two days of incessant phoning, I developed an acute case of dialer’s cramp and decided to drop the burning question. Nothing — and far too much about the feverishly neurotic ambience of the Bay Area rock milieu — was revealed. In the end, three different people, all in a position to know, confirmed the identity of the person responsible for involving the Angels, but in all three instances they spoke off the record, not for attribution because of fear of retribution. The summer of love, it occurred to me, had taken place in another country, and besides, the old bitch was dead.

As the week wore on, the casualty list mounted in the aftermath of the mass gathering at Altamont. Belatedly, it was revealed that Mick Jagger himself had been assaulted by a shaggy blond kid when the Stones arrived by helicopter at the race track. “I hate you, I hate you,” the unidentified boy reportedly screamed, lunging at Jagger and clouting him on the head. Flamboyant attorney Melvin Belli, as it developed, had also been roughed up by an Angel near the bandstand, and Denise Jewkes, a singer with the all-girl rock group, the Ace of Cups, had suffered a fractured skull after being hit by a thrown beer bottle near the performance area. Denise was four months pregnant, but her doctors were hopeful that she wouldn’t lose her baby.

Inevitably, threats of litigation surfaced. An irate group of ranchers from the Altamont area, led by a spokesman with the ironic name C.W. Tripp, estimated damage to their properties in excess of $500,000. Tripp told newsmen that the group planned to file damage suits “all the way up the line as far as we have to go… and that means the Rolling Stones and their managers.”

The Alameda County Board of Supervisors also leapt into the fray, moving to revoke the use permit granted to Richard Carter for the operation of Altamont Speedway and threatening damage claims against the concert’s promoters to recoup more than $100,000 the board had to pay to county law enforcement personnel for overtime duties during the weekend of the concert. Carter, who had managed a faltering operation until the Stones event put his shabby drag strip on the map, outlined grandiose plans for staging future rock festivals at the race track. “I think if we do another festival,” he beamed confidently at a press conference, “the first day of spring would be fine. That would give us time to make some preparations.”

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On Friday, blindly following an impulse, I drove back to Altamont to view what can only be called the remains. At the 80-acre site, a few volunteer scavengers, stick figures in the hazy distance, were still picking up the tons of garbage littering the bald brown hills. Vast expanses of the scrubby slopes were scorched black where bonfires had been lit. Neighboring fences sagged and gaped under a dismal, overcast sky.

Surveying the empty amphitheater from a trash-strewn hilltop, I tried to comprehend exactly what had happened on that now bloodied ground below me a week before. The event sired by the Stones had been vaster than the mind could readily grasp, garishly colorful, mostly peaceable, frequently frightening, and perhaps well-intended. The end result was a mountain of litter, scores of injuries, a sea of stolen cars abandoned on the access roads to the track, thousands of bad drug trips, extensive damage to surrounding property, and four violent and senseless deaths.

Driving back to the city in a hammering rain, I couldn’t help recalling what somebody had remarked to Ralph Gleason early in the week: “There was no love, no joy at Altamont. It wasn’t just the Angels. It was everybody. In 24 hours, we created all the problems of our society in one confined area — congestion, violence, dehumanization.”

* Editor’s Note, December 6, 2019:
Half-a-century on we know that Voice contributor Grover Lewis got a few facts wrong, a major one being that Hunter’s murder occurred not, as he reported, during “Sympathy for the Devil,” but while the Stones were playing “Under My Thumb.” Still, we can cut Lewis some slack because he was working in that age before the easy recording of damn near everything on one’s iPhone. Back in those days, when reporters saw things just once, in real time, maybe with a tape recorder handy but generally with nothing more than a steno pad and pencils, “Sympathy” made more sense as a murder soundtrack than “Under My Thumb,” that beat-heavy paean to unbalanced relationships. Even Rolling Stone magazine, more than six weeks after the fact, in its January 21, 1970, issue (aptly headlined, “Let It Bleed”), still didn’t get it right, offering a blow-by-blow account of each song in the concert:

“Sympathy for the Devil”:
They stopped in the middle. A skirmish had broken out at stage left. This was the knifing/stomping of Meredith Hunter, perhaps 25 feet from where Jagger pranced and sang, then stopped. To one observer 20 feet to Jagger’s rear, the glint of the long knives was clearly visible. So, if the Stones were looking, they saw it too. The same observer spoke with several others who were onstage (as did Rolling Stone), and none, except for the onstage Angels, claim to have seen a gun.

The Maysles brothers’ documentary, Gimme Shelter, which clearly revealed the exact moment of the killing, was released on December 6, 1970, but commentators continued to make the same mistake, reiterating the myth that “Sympathy” had killed the Sixties. In 2010, the Voice ran Lewis’s article again, online, without noting the fact-check error. When we produced the last print edition of the paper, in September 2017, we finally ran a correction on the Contents page: “The Village Voice regrets the error. And the hyperbole.” —R.C. Baker

Report from Altamont Rolling stones Concert

Report from Altamont Rolling stones Concert 2

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES THE FRONT ARCHIVES Violence

The Rolling Stones at Altamont: Day of the Angels

Day of the Angels: Let It Bleed!
December 11, 1969

ALTAMONT SPEEDWAY, Alameda County, California — All across the scalded brown hills looming above this seedy, out-at-the-elbows drag strip located 50 miles northeast of San Francisco in the monotonous, sepia-tone wastes of the Livermore Valley, there hung in the already polluted air the mingled odors of burning grass and patchouli oil, that heady, almost suffocating body scent so favored among the now nameless nomads who used to be called the hippies.

In the course of the day — last Saturday — four babies were born in the midst of the multitudes assembled here, and an undetermined number of expectant mothers suffered miscarriages.

That evening, four people from the throng died violently, three of them by violent accident. The fourth, a still-nameless black man, was kicked and stabbed to death in full or partial view of a crowd that various professional head-counters put at between 300,000 and 500,000 people — quite possibly the largest throng ever assembled for a rock music event anywhere in the nation, including Woodstock.

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The immense crowd had come together, on less than a full day’s notice, for the long-promised and often-canceled free Rolling Stones concert, first planned for Golden Gate Park, then scheduled at another equally remote racing strip in Sonoma County on the coast. On again, off again, it seesawed for a time, and here comes your 19th nervous breakdown.

As soon as the Altamont site was selected on Friday, the hordes began to arrive by the tens of thousands, virtually in tandem with the fleet of rented trucks ferrying in electronic equipment for the sound system and raw lumber for the stage. Early arrivals staked out choice vantage points in the parched grass near where the stage was being frantically erected in the natural amphitheater adjacent to the race track stands. The overnight campers found (1) no public water supply, (2) no stable food concession, and (3) scanty sanitation facilities. On Saturday, I saw men and boys by the score urinating against a fence near the long queues leading to the line of portable johns.

With some friends, I arrived at the mingle, mangle, and jam of the amphitheater well before noon. We’d had to walk four miles after a grinning California highway patrolman directed us into a parking space on a feeder road off U.S. 580 with the good-natured crack, “Rock festival to your right. It’s outasite.” Along the march route to the performance area, dope of all shapes, sizes, and colors was being openly dropped, smoked, bartered, and sold. The only police in sight were the far-too-few highway patrolmen, who were concentrating exclusively on directing the nightmarishly snarled traffic. Over a squad car radio came the report that a nude man had leapt into the line of traffic from an overpass on the highway, and required ambulance assistance. “I’m Mick Jagger’s brother — ball me,” a stoned kid bawled, groping at a passing girl’s breasts. With a panicky look, she shoved him away and hurried on.

In the crush of the amphitheater, my friends and I found a place to sit perhaps a quarter of a mile away from the bandstand. I scanned the crowd with zoom-lens binoculars. The sheer magnitude of the gathering was awesome and, as the day progressed, not a little disquieting. In the main, the audience struck me as benign, passive, and unutterably stoned. But more than once, I had the troubling feeling that if the mammoth crowd was itself capable of feeling anything on a mass gut level, the mass gut immediately devoured its own feeling, swallowed up by its very enormity. It wasn’t a good feeling to feel.

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Sam Cutler, the Stones’ Cockney road manager, took the mike a few minutes before noon to plead access for a truck attempting to deliver music equipment. “If all the cowboys will get off the Hertz van, please…” A cluster of kids clung to the sides of the truck in order to get into the already perilously packed area near the stage; only a scattering of the easy riders dropped off as requested. Cutler shrugged and said, “All right, then, let’s all have a party.”

The speed-oriented rock band Santana opened the program. During the group’s second number, which sounded depressingly like its first, someone hurled an empty wine bottle at the stage. Slivers of glass rained across the platform. The band’s guitarist broke off playing and savagely cursed the heckler. An unidentified stage functionary took the mike to request that the Hell’s Angels come onstage to serve as a security force. The Angels didn’t hesitate; strutting and preening in their colors, lugging cases of beer with them, they swarmed onto the platform in a cadre 40-odd strong. At that precise instant, nobody — Sam Cutler included — could have had any way of knowing it, but the “party” was already well on the way to being over.

After a characteristically lengthy delay, the Jefferson Airplane followed Santana. Nothing, but nothing, went right for them. To begin with, they sounded maddeningly off-key. Then, just as they were beginning to pick up a little altitude, a nude black man, obviously freaked out, somehow managed to clamber up on the apron of the stage. An Angel braced him, and the black man clumsily threw a punch that didn’t connect. Four Angels kicked and beat the man to his knees and, still flailing at him, dragged him off stage. There was ominous surging and shoving in the tight-packed throng near the platform. Grace Slick crooned over and over, “Please sit down, people, please sit down.” The band continued to play a mechanical semblance of “The Other Side of This Life,” with Grace lividly improvising: “Find yourself someone to love, but don’t fuck him around.” At the song’s conclusion — it just sort of went away after a while — Jack Casady, trembling with emotion snapped caustically, “Will the Angels please note that when somebody’s freaking out, you don’t help him by kicking the shit out of him. I’d also like to announce that Marty Balin was punched unconscious in that little comic number you just saw staged and I’d like to say—”

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At the rebuke, the Angels charged bullishly into the band. It was a sick, scary moment as fists flew and bodies blurred in a confused tangle. When the pandemonium ended, only Grace was left untouched. Sam Cutler grabbed an open mike and requested that all “unauthorized people” — meaning the Angels — leave the stage immediately. The Angels defiantly stood their ground. Somehow the Airplane managed to get through “Volunteers of America” — dedicated “to all those people who wouldn’t let us play in Golden Gate Park” — before abandoning the stage.

In the audience, a rusty-haired kid from Fresno shrugged fatalistically: “The Angels are just red freaks, that’s all. Those dudes used to be heavy, man, but nowadays they’re stone geeks. That’s what reds’ll do to you.”

While the Flying Burrito Brothers rousingly jammed the kicks out of “Six Days on the Road,” the nude black man reappeared at the border of the stage. The Angels made a half-hearted grab at him, but this time some friendly longhairs led him off in the direction of the medical tent.

Since I’d promised to call in a report on the day’s doings to Howard Smith at WABC-FM, I went searching for a phone. I found one — exactly one telephone for perhaps a half million people — in the firm grip of a local radio newsman who explained that he couldn’t relinquish it for a minute because, in addition to his own news chores, he was coordinating the helicopter flights landing and evacuating the performing rock groups. “Sorry pal,” he smiled wanly, and for a lingering moment I almost felt sorry for him.

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In the medical tent, I talked to the physician in charge of the volunteer first-aid operation, Dr. Richard Baldwin. A pleasant, round-faced man who looked close to exhaustion, he estimated that his staff had treated 300 bad-trip patients by the middle of the afternoon. “But the concert’s not over, you know,” he added in a soft, rueful tone. At the flap of the tent, a volunteer medic shook his head in wonder: “There’s enough bad dope changing hands in this field to paint and paper the whole Haight-Ashbury. Even bummer brownies. Who the hell ever heard of bummer brownies before?”

On stage, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young began their set unannounced. By now the platform was aswarm with more Angels than ever, despite Sam Cutler’s earlier warning that the bandstand might collapse under their weight. At times, the swaggering bikers and their old ladies obscured the performers from view. Inching my way back to where I’d been sitting in the crowd, I took a quick personal inventory of myself; I was wind-chapped and sunburned and shaken by the fracas onstage and more than a little pissed off that I’d have to drive all the way to Tracey, a ranching town 15 miles away, just to make a simple phone call.

The concert’s organizers had promised to conclude the program before dark, but the sun went down about 4:30 and there was no sign of the Stones. The crowd began to thin out, but not in large numbers. The Angels stood in a solid phalanx across the front of the stage, arms akimbo, glowering at the audience. Cutler announced, “The Stones positively won’t come out to perform while the stage is in its present state.” “Get off the stage, get off the stage,” a sizable portion of the crowd began to howl. None of the Angels budged, and the cry soon faded away.

After another tense delay, Cutler reappeared and surveyed the audience for a long, grave moment before saying simply, “I’d like to introduce your friends, the Rolling Stones.”

It was full dark now, scores of bonfires were flickering on the trash-strewn slopes, everybody present was standing and craning and suddenly the Stones were before us in a dazzling burst of noise and lights, Mick Jagger bumping and grinding in exquisite nastiness and rasping out “Jumping Jack Flash.” For the first time, the day seemed to have some significance. A frail young girl in wire-rimmed glasses standing near me in the crowd sang and danced in near-delirium: “Oh, Mick, I love you — you make me so excited. Everybody in the whole world is watching us — even God.”

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After the song, an Angel attempted to block Jagger’s path to the edge of the stage. Jagger stepped around him. “There’s so many of you,” he said, admiringly to the audience. “Stay cool now, and try not to move around too much.”

The prelude to the final trouble came a third of the way through “Sympathy for the Devil.” Apparently angered by hecklers in the first few rows, a half-dozen Angels swan-dived off the stage into the audience and began whipping heads. The music stopped abruptly. In a pleading voice, Jagger, who was wearing a long red robe, cried: “Everybody, brothers and sisters, cool out, listen to me, please cool out.… Is anybody hurt? Who’s fighting, and what for? We’ve got to stop this trouble right now.” After a few confused moments, the music resumed.

At that point, my friends and I gladly left the amphitheater so I could make my phone call in Tracey, which I did, which in turn threw us back into the heart of the post-concert bumper-to-bumper turtle derby headed toward Livermore and the city two hours later. It took us three hours to travel 25 miles. On the radio, we heard that the freaked-out black man the Angels had stomped had made his third and final appearance at the concert stage. The poor bastard had gone off somewhere and gotten himself a piece, and then he’d gone back and gotten himself kicked and cut to death for his trouble.

When we reached the Alameda county line, about a mile north of the amphitheater, I spotted a teenage girl wrapped in a poncho sitting alone on the shoulder of the highway. Something about her posture made me get out of the barely moving car to see if she needed a ride. She didn’t raise her head at the question. “Mister, I don’t need a ride,” she said in a thick, stoned slur, “I need to go to a hospital.” Involuntarily, her hand twitched out from under her poncho. Apparently she’d lit a cigarette some time back, and then forgotten about it. Her fingers were on fire.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES FILM ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Robert Frank and the Stones Movie You’ll Never See

A film title: “Cocksucker Blues.” It is 1972; we are with the Rolling Stones, in a big house somewhere in the hills around Los Angeles. Mick is lying on a bed. The camera pans down to his waist, and he begins to massage his crotch, in a slow, circular motion. He opens his pants and puts his hand inside. He moves it more deliberately and the camera comes in tight.

Keith Richards is standing up at a piano, playing a lovely gospel-blues. The camera cuts away; the music continues on the sound track. Keith reappears, and shifts to boogie-woogie with such perfect syncopation the frame seems to shake in time. Mick appears in Keith’s place, working out a ballad, note by note.

“ ‘Cocksucker Blues,’ ” says Marshall Chess, head of the Stones’ label. “Yeah, Mick wrote it on a contract he had to fill… He wrote it for a play in New York, ‘Trials of Oz’… He did it for a porno album we were gonna do. Dr. John wrote a song for it too, ‘How much Pussy Can You Eat’… ‘Cocksucker Blues’… Here, I’ll put it on.” He turns on a tape recorder.

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It is some song. Very hesitant, sung high and lonesome, more like “No Expectations” than any other Stones tune, and more like Hank Williams than that, the music has the ragged edge Mick gives to everything good he does. “Well, I wait in Leicester Square…/I was only talkin, to the light…” Then hard, angry: “Where can I get my cock sucked?/Where can I get my ass fucked?” And then very quietly again: “Well, I ain’t got no money but I/Know where to put it, every time.”

It’s beautiful. And it throws you, off, completely.

* * *

That is the opening of the legendary “Cocksucker Blues,” a three-year-old film by Robert Frank, the great photographer who came to the United States from Switzerland in 1947, and, after publishing his historic collection, “The Americans,” in 1959, gave up his first trade to make movies. Much of the cover art for “Exile on Main Street” was taken from “The Americans” and from Frank’s second book, “The Lines of My Hand.” Working with Danny Seymour, Frank then toured the country with the Stones in 1972 to make a film. But “Cocksucker Blues” has become a legend not simply because of its title, or be­cause it is about the Stones, or because (save for the Stones’ collaboration with Jean Luc Goddard in “One Plus One”) no rock and roll group has ever made a movie with an artist of Frank’s stature. “Cocksucker Blues” has become a legend because it has never been shown.

It was never shown because the Rolling Stones, who own it, don’t want it shown. The rumors why have been simple: Frank, it has been said, shot the Stones fucking groupies and shooting heroin. Prefacing his film with the disclaimer, “except for musical numbers, all events depicted herein are fictitious, and any resemblance…” and closing it with a cast listing (“Junky played by…”), Frank shot some Stones associates and hangers-on doing both, but not the Stones. That would, to most, make the Stones guilty by association anyway; it would also keep a good part of the Stones audience barred from the theaters. But Frank does not feel this is precisely why the Stones have locked his movie up.

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Jagger thinks the film is a downer; that it does not celebrate the Stones, nor show that they are the greatest rock and roll band in the world (as “Gimme Shelter,” for all of its horrors, pointedly did); that it would not bring fans shouting to their feet nor send them into the street shaking their heads in awe, which is clearly what a film about the Rolling Stones ought to do. Especially after Altamont. So Frank’s 16-mm foot­age, some in color, some in black and white, and his harsh, biting, mono sound mix, were replaced — by “Ladies and Gentleman, the Rolling Stones,” a straight concert document with brilliant quadraphonic sound, a film that failed to get the Stones across nonetheless. Frank made his movie anyway, and last Wednesday he drove to Berkeley and showed it for the first and possibly last time.

Tom Luddy, director of the Pacific Film Archive, the most resourceful and wide-ranging outlet for movies in the country, and his friend Jean­-Pierre Gorin, talked Frank into ad­ding the picture, unannounced, to a bill of two rock performance flicks. Frank made no money from the 900 people, mostly Berkeley students, who had shown up to see Cream’s “Farewell Concert” and “Mad Dogs & Englishman.” Frank arrived with his print following two hours of Cream, was introduced, and spoke briefly. “I made this film with the Rolling Stones in 1972,” he said. “It seems like 200 years ago. It was very difficult to make. I like it. I’m happy to show it, even if it isn’t completely… legal.” He laughed, the crowd laughed with him, and everyone settled down.

Once past the opening sequence, the movie settled down as well. Nothing really happened; the occa­sional memorable events and images had no context. The movie was seamless, and it convinced you that the tour it was tracking had no more shape than the movie. Frank did not judge, make points, conde­scend, sensationalize, or “human­ize.” He did not play for jokes, or horror either.

The crowd’s reaction was proof Jagger was right about the movie as far as he went. Almost any given close-up of Clapton or Ginger Baker in the execrably filmed and recorded Cream movie brought more conventional rock fan response than all but a few bits of “Cocksucker Blues.” Save for a stunning montage of Jag­ger in “Midnight Rambler,” shot in dark reds and edited in time with the song from footage shot at several different concerts, and the irresist­ible excitement of Mick and Stevie Wonder dueting on “Satisfaction,” the live music was brief and not too frequent. The sex footage, which included a nude couple humping in the aisle of a plane as the Stones, shaking maracas and tambourines, egged them on, was never erotic; it was, like most of what took place in the film, dispirited and forced, a matter of some people going through the motions.

And it was a sense of the Rolling Stones going through the motions that I took away from the film — that and a few outbreaks of life. In “Cocksucker Blues” one sees the Stones working hard, the way labor­ers and panicky businessmen work hard, but you never see them take any pleasure or satisfaction from their work, nor see them feeling out their genius and their unity as you did in “One Plus One.” You see the Stones, and everyone else, at play, if that’s the word: mugging for the cameras, trying out Frank’s gear. There is a fine shot of Jagger returning the salute of a TV recruiting sergeant. But except for a brief respite in a black pool hall somewhere in the South, no one seems to be having any fun. “Ah, to get away from all those people,” Mick had moaned a short time before, as the Stones, crowded with Bianca and Frank into two station wagons, headed down a two-lane highway, Mick telling tales of southern cooking as the cars passed a prison, and an arm reached out from a barred window, two fingers raised in a V the Stones might have seen, and might not have.

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The most appalling scene of the film is not the woman shooting up; not the girl outside Winterland San Francisco dully stating to the camera that she has no ticket, that if she doesn’t get one she’ll jump off the bridge, that her baby has been taken by the state because she was on acid and what’s wrong with a mother on acid who loves her baby for Christ’s sake the kid was born on acid — the worst scene is backstage in New York as, in color, Truman, Andy, Lee, and their troupe make their entrance, trying and easily succeeding in showing that they are far less interested in the “Rolling Stones” than in each other, and then Mick, in black and white now, running for his dressing room, raging, looking sick, yelling “Fuck you!” as a photographer pursues him, and then slumping down, cursing, “Bloody bunch of voyeurs!”

And from there I thought back to the pool hall: Charlie, shooting with a man who looked just like Muddy Waters; Mick, fooling with a pal, dropping a whiskey bottle, looking down anxiously, hearing a voice say, “That’s Southern whiskey, it don’t break easy,” and liking what he heard.

This is the only time in the movie that Robert Frank and the Rolling Stones in any way connect.

Frank’s deepest pictures are of men and women doing what they know how to do best, what they are most at home doing: attending a funeral, standing over a body on the road, waiting in a car pulled over to the side of the highway, picking out a song on a jukebox. They are pictures of people in tune with themselves and their world with the kind of solidity that implies that a profound choice about life has been made, or that there is no choice at all. It is this duality that makes Frank’s pictures at once beautiful and terrifying. They are pictures of men and women coming to terms with fate.

In “Cocksucker Blues,” outside of that quiet, magic pool hall, there is virtually no such thing. “25 years of looking for the right road,” Frank wrote in 1972, but he found on the Stones’ road neither anything that deserved the word fate, nor ever anyone at home. He found only a queasy inertia — the inertia of the frantic movement of the Stones on stage, and the inertia of them sitting in their rooms. That was something Frank could record, but that was all he could do with it.

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But there are moments that do have power, and that would matter should this film be seen. Those mo­ments speak for Frank’s genius, and for the Stones’, and for the way in which the Stones and Frank could not connect, because they are two moments when the artists work separately, solely on their own terms. First there is Mick, singing that title song; and then there is, in a way, just one more of Frank’s photographs.

Very early in the movie, in grainy black and white, the screen is filled with the poster of circus freaks Frank shot in the mid-’50s and which was used for the cover of “Exile on Main Street.” The camera pulls back, not merely slowly, but in almost imperceptible slow motion, until we see that the poster is a billboard on Sunset Strip, advertising the Stones’ new album. The picture seems to darken, as if it were a time-lapse photo and night is falling, and the camera pulls back slightly farther until the thick black outline of the car window from which the shot is being made is visible, and the car edges past the billboard, so slowly, until you have forgotten the billboard, and are transfixed by the car itself, which has taken over, and is moving on.

 

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES

Robert Johnson: The Sound and the Fury

An early member of the 27 Club, blues master Robert Johnson has been an object of veneration among such rock luminaries as Eric Clapton and Keith Richards since 16 of the roughly three dozen recordings he made in makeshift studios in the 1930s appeared on a 1961 compilation album, Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. “Poor Bob” — as the singer, guitarist, and harmonica player referred to himself on “Cross Road Blues” — has also been the subject of numerous biographies, of which Bruce Conforth and Gayle Dean Wardlow’s Up Jumped the Devil is the latest.

Looking to get past the tale of Johnson (1911–1938) selling his soul to the devil at a Mississippi crossroads in order to master the guitar, the authors have tracked down birth certificates, land deeds, medical records, and other documentation of the musician’s actual life. They recount interviews with Johnson’s contemporaries and family members, and dive into all manner of books and articles to convey the poverty and racism through which Johnson persevered to become a performer whose dynamic guitar playing and beguiling vocals could make a juke joint jump or turn a house party solemn. The authors give a sense of Johnson’s power with a quote from an occasional collaborator, Johnny Shines: “One time in Saint Louis we were playing one of the songs that Robert would like to play with someone once in a great while, ‘Come on in My Kitchen.’ He was playing very slow and passionately, and when we quit, I noticed no one was saying anything. Then I realized they were crying — both men and women.”

Jimmy Page once said, “The music of Robert Johnson has inspired a million riffs. The myth of Robert Johnson has inspired a million dreams.” In the winter of 1986, Village Voice contributor Greil Marcus related his own first encounter with the legendary musician: “Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.”

If Conforth and Wardlow’s book looks to sculpt an accurate portrait out of a fog of poorly kept records and embellished memories, Marcus, in his essay below, gets at the poetry of pain, grace, and joy that has kept Robert Johnson alive long after his one-score-and-seven years on this Earth had ended. —R.C. Baker

When You Walk in the Room

Almost exactly 50 years ago, in late November 1936, a 25- year-old blues singer from Mississippi made his first records in San Antonio, Tex­as: among them “Terraplane Blues,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Walking Blues,” “If I Had Possession Over Judgment Day.” In January 1970, just a month after Altamont, the all-day Rolling Stones rock festival, where I’d witnessed the worst violence I’d ever seen in the flesh, I walked into a record store, not looking for anything in particular; I just wanted to buy a record. I flipped through the blues rack and saw the name Rob­ert Johnson. It didn’t mean much to me; I’d noticed it as a songwriting credit on Cream LPs, for tunes called “Crossroads” and “Four Until Late.” The previous fall, I’d watched the Rolling Stones play a pristine version of “Love in Vain,” a track on their then new Let It Bleed, but I hadn’t known it was Johnson’s — for rea­sons I’ve never figured out, they credited it to someone called “Woody Payne.”

I was just starting out as a rock critic, though after Altamont I felt a hundred years old; I thought I ought to know where Cream songs came from, so I bought the Robert Johnson album, King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers. It was one of those moments when you get your life changed — like picking a college course that leads you to think for the first time, or walking thoughtlessly into a room and falling in love. I took the record home and put it on: I knew nothing about country blues. I knew almost nothing about the Deep South in the ’30s — I’d never even read Faulkner. All I had were memories of Life magazine photos of lynchings, Richard Wright’s autobiography, the autobi­ography of one of the Scottsboro Boys (both mediated through the ever-chang­ing Communist Party line on the “race question”). All I had, really, was a liberal upbringing, a lot of socialist realism. I brought virtually no context to the record. I simply took it home, put it on, and had my life changed.

I heard a sound I’d never heard before, but which, for some reason, I connected to. It was what Edmund Wilson called “the shock of recognition” — and for me, the “shock” has always been the realiza­tion that you have recognized something nothing could have led you to expect to recognize. The question turns out to be not what-makes-the-music-great, but why you recognized its greatness when, all things considered, you shouldn’t have understood it at all, or even stumbled upon it in the first place. I’ve been mar­ried for 20 years; sometimes, like anyone married that long, I wonder what my life would have been like if, on a certain meaningless day, I hadn’t walked into a certain meaningless room. Sometimes I think my life would be more or less the same; sometimes I think I wouldn’t have a life at all. I feel the same way about Robert Johnson. And it’s this sort of con­nection I want to talk about.

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Predictably, playing the Robert John­son album, I didn’t like his 1936 version of “Crossroads” as much as Cream’s 1968 version. Cream’s version was a firestorm; this was too quiet. As the album played, I read the liner notes. This is how they began: “Robert Johnson is little, very lit­tle more than a name on aging index cards and a few dusty master records in the files of a phonograph company that no longer exists.”

Those lines were poetry to me. I still think the cadence of the prose is pure poetry — the movement from “little, very little” to “no longer exists.” I turned the record over and stopped dead with “Stones in My Passway”; my nice living room was suddenly invaded by absolute terror. To get away from what was hap­pening, I read on: “Robert Johnson ap­peared and disappeared, in much the same fashion as a sheet of newspaper twisting and twirling down a dark and windy midnight street.” This wasn’t po­etry — it was corny — but it reminded me of the cover of Camus’s The Rebel, a picture that has stayed with me with far greater force than almost anything in the book itself. The cover showed a sheet of newspaper, with headlines in half a dozen languages, all carrying reports of revolution, upheaval, blowing down the street to nowhere. The Paris Commune of 1871, the Berlin revolution of 1918, Barcelona in 1936 — all events expelled from history by those with the power to get history written, published, taught, and censored, the incidents appearing, when they ap­peared in the record at all, like a list of perversions in a sex manual about healthy married life. What I’m trying to say is that I experienced those words on the Robert Johnson album, and Robert Johnson’s music, as an invasion of a world I had taken for granted — of an ur­ban, modern, white, middle-class, educat­ed reality I had taken as complete and finished, as a natural fact.

Robert Johnson‘s music was a rent in that reality, a violent rip, a negation, a no. I suddenly realized that I was sick of rock ’n’ roll; sick, after Altamont, of what it could do and what it had already produced. Altamont showed me blood, and death. I’d seen people beaten to the ground with lead-weighted sticks, seen naked people with their teeth knocked out, and I’d left the place only to hear on the radio that, as I’d stood behind the stage on top of a van to hear the Rolling Stones, a young black man had been knifed, kicked, and bludgeoned to death. There was death in Robert Johnson’s songs — but it always stopped short, stopped short at the point of choice. As I listened, full of ugly memories, Robert Johnson’s music talked to me as the voice of a new world, where everything was at stake, and nothing was resolved. Every choice was open, made real — what hap­pened was up to me.

Now, this was not socialist realism, or even liberal realism, which says that all people are products of great historical forces in a world they never made: that all people are sociology. Robert Johnson’s music wasn’t just a rent in the bourgeois life I’d lived; it was a rent in the theories of the leftists who’d fought against that life, who reached their high point in the ’30s, at the very moment Johnson was singing. The bourgeois view of the world said people like Robert Johnson didn’t count; the socialist realist view of the world said that he’d been made not to count, and that if by some miracle he’d made his voice heard, it was as the voice of the irrepressible will of the people — in other words, as sociology; as an individ­ual, he didn’t even exist. But this wasn’t what I heard. I heard a particular person, someone no sociological construct could have predicted, or even allowed for. Years later I would read Albert Murray’s comments on Bessie Smith — he said, more or less, that writers have tried to tie the expressive power of Bessie Smith’s music to the pain and suffering of black people in America, and then he wondered why, if this were so, 400 years of slavery and oppression, of pain and suffering, had not produced another Bessie Smith. Albert Murray, a black writer, was trying to rescue Bessie Smith from socialist re­alism; he was trying to grant her the subjectivity, the autonomy, that in the Unit­ed States is automatically granted any white artist. She was, Murray was saying, a genius. And, as Freud said, everyone knows genius is incomprehensible. Com­ing from the premier 20th century advo­cate of rationalism, that is saying something.

I wasn’t ready to deal with this — this sort of autonomy. Instead I tried to un­derstand the form — the genre, the sociol­ogy. I became obsessed with Mississippi Delta country blues — primitive blues, it was called in the notes to the Robert Johnson album. I learned a lot about it. I bought everything I could find. I learned about the first country blues performers to record, men much older than Robert Johnson: Charlie Patton, Son House, Willie Brown, Skip James, Garfield Akers. I heard a music that was rich, fierce, funny, and bitter. But I kept lis­tening to Robert Johnson, and what I learned still didn’t touch what he was doing.

I learned that blues had come into be­ing — was invented, was discovered, I don’t know the right word — around 1900, probably in the Mississippi Delta; wher­ever it came from, the sound was soon heard across the South. Everyone, black and white, who heard this new sound — ­all those with enough education to write down their thoughts on what they heard — said the same thing. It didn’t matter if it was some benevolent rich white woman or W.C. Handy of Mem­phis, who later named himself “the Fa­ther of the Blues.” They all had the same reaction, used the same words: “Weird.” “Strange.” “Eerie.” “Unearthly.” “Devil­ish.” “Terrifying.” “Not of this world.”

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The blues was something new. Just as Robert Johnson’s music had made a breach in my white, middle-class, modern world, around 1900 blues had made a breach in the known world of southern blacks. It wasn’t like the old field hollers, work songs, animal fables, ring shouts, gospel music, though musicologists have traced the lines back so that you’d think a breach had never been made. A leads to B and B leads to C, and who can deny it? But the testimony of those who were there is what counts — and what those who were there said was that they’d nev­er heard anything like this before, and they weren’t sure they ever wanted to hear it again. A white woman heard her teenage maid moaning to herself as she folded laundry — whatever the song was about, if it was a song, it wasn’t about laundry. W.C. Handy was waiting for a train late one night; two men sat down beside him and began to play; later he wondered if it hadn’t been a dream.

What was this? Robert Johnson at­tracted international attention in his life­time; Melody Maker ran a short item about him, bemoaning the fact that his record company wasn’t known for en­couraging protest songs. Obviously, blues was full of pain and suffering; therefore at its heart it had to be a protest against white oppression. On the page, that wasn’t hard to understand — why was the sound so hard to understand?

It was hard to understand because blues was not music born of oppres­sion, but of freedom. It was not a protest against “conditions” — ­against racism, lynching, sharecrop­ping, and worse — it was, like The Sound and the Fury, a protest against life.

Blues was invented by one of the first generations of black Americans not to be born slaves — to be born with the freedom of movement that from the time of Dan­iel Boone had been enshrined as the first principle of American life. They were among the first Afro-Americans to escape of their own free will the ties of home­town, home plantation, family, church — and, most important, work. The black church as well as white sheriffs pushed them back — and they pushed back against the black church no less than against white sheriffs. No, they said, I do what I like.

A whole new, common language grew up around that negation, that affirma­tion — “No, I do what I like.” It was a shared language of guitar riffs and lyric phrases (“My black mama’s face shines like the sun,” “The sun gonna shine in my back door someday,” “Minutes seem like hours, hours seem just like days”), a set of fragments reaching for some all-encompassing blues parable that every blues singer presented in pieces. You could say, as Peter Guralnick has, that the tradition itself, not the individual artist, was the poet, and the tradition grew up as a poetic opposition to playing by the rules. In that sense, of course, blues was a protest, but blues singers didn’t see it that way. They considered themselves free men, as good as anybody, better than most — if not better than most, freer than most. Their music was made out of a conviction that, like all Americans, they were masters of their own lives — or should be. When they ran into the limits of that mastery — the in­ability to hold a woman, to keep a dollar in hand, to live without fear — they found themselves face-to-face not merely with the particular racial, economic, or social conditions of the Deep South in the ’20s or ’30s, but with the facts of life. Those facts could be summed up in one: men and women are not at home in this world. It was the same fact that Herman Mel­ville had discovered in Moby Dick, that Faulkner was raging against in The Sound and the Fury, that the writers of Greek tragedies had chewed over more than 2000 years before. That was why, to those who heard it around 1900, the sound was strange, scary, confusing: the new blues singers were singing about things people had never wanted to talk about. For the first time, they were acting like free people, and running into the wall that separates desire from its realization.

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It took me a long time to understand this — or to believe it. For a long time, what I heard in Mississippi country blues, and always most intensely in Rob­ert Johnson, was a contradiction: the mu­sic reached me directly, went straight to the heart, seemed to call forth responses from the blood; but at the same time that music was impossibly distant, odd, and old. For black people in the ’20s and ’30s the Mississippi Delta was full of horses and wagons and ruled by peonage. There weren’t any telephones and there weren’t any toilets. No one was allowed to vote, and most couldn’t even dream of learning to read and write. The first contact most of these people would have with a world outside the one into which they were born was when their sons were drafted to fight in World War II — and many of their sons were given farm deferments, arranged by white landowners partly to in­sure that they never would see a world outside the one into which they were born.

But I’ve fallen back into sociology — the opposite of what I’m trying to talk about. I’m trying to talk about a different sort of distance, a different sort of oldness, a different sort of oddness. I was raised on The Twilight Zone TV show — Mississip­pi blues was twilight zone stuff. The sing­ers, recorded in their twenties and thir­ties, seemed in their voices to have been old before they were born. Robert John­son was a ghost — out of a past I had never expected to confront, he was years ahead of me every time I listened to his music, waiting for me to catch up.

I am writing about Robert Johnson be­cause if any of the things I have been saying are true, they are overwhelmingly, titanically more true of him and his mu­sic than they are of any other Mississippi blues singer one might mention. Once one has been through the tradition, many of the great singers and most of the countless minor ones — and scores of black men made records in the South in the ’20s and ’30s — recede into that tradi­tion: the tradition speaks for them: this means they become sociological. Their music makes sense sociologically — and after that, it may not make any other kind of sense, or, more important, make non-sense out of whatever preconcep­tions a listener might bring to it. Charlie Patton, considered the founder of Missis­sippi Delta blues, sounds like a founder. Son House sounds like an exponent. Skip James and Tommy Johnson, both of them with highly developed individual styles, sound like eccentrics, like isolates within a tradition itself isolated from the American mainstream, be it political or artistic, where history is supposedly made.

Now, compared to Skip James or Tom­my Johnson, Robert Johnson does not sound particularly individualistic. Com­pared to them, he sounds very tradition­al — and also as if the tradition, this par­ticular social/economic/religious/aesthetic happenstance, is meaningless, as if it had never existed. In his music you seem to hear what everyone else was reaching for, what everyone else was try­ing to say, what no one else could touch, what no one else could put into words, into the twist of a vocal, the curl of a guitar line — or for that matter into the momentum of a passage of prose, the scene of a play, the detail of a painting. Robert Johnson takes the tradition as a given, in the same way we take it as a given that people we meet will speak, eat, and sleep, and then goes beyond the tradition to such an extent that the concepts of speech, eating, and sleeping lose their meanings, or acquire entirely new ones.

Robert Johnson, his music says, worked and lived with a deeper autono­my than any other bluesman, all of whom came forth to affirm autonomy. He made his music against the limits of that au­tonomy, limits he discovered and made real, and he did so with more ferocity, and more tenderness, than any other bluesman, all of whom encountered simi­lar limits. The difference is this: all the other bluesmen dealt with that problem within the bounds of the tradition, within the bounds of the form of Mississippi Delta blues, speaking that common lan­guage. If the tradition allowed them to refuse the limits on their life, they ac­cepted the limited power of the tradition to deal with those limits, to make sense of them.

Robert Johnson did not do this. As an individual, sparked by the blues tradition to want more out of life than he might have otherwise demanded, he refused to accept the limits of the blues tradition itself — a tradition that, as an aesthetic form, at once inspired and limited his ability to make demands on life, to pro­test it. It’s said that when he started out he was a pest, a teenager making noise at houseparties and juke joints, a complete incompetent on the guitar, a joke. Then he went away, and a year later came back, still demanding that Son House and Willie Brown give him a chance to play in public. They laughed at him and left the room; he started to play. They turned around — and what they heard sounded as strange to them as the first blues had sounded decades before. It was like Vasily Rozanov’s metaphor for nihil­ism: “The show is over. The audience get up to leave their seats. Time to collect their coats and go home. They turn round… No more coats and no more home.” Right there, in the heart of the tradition, in the sociology of its everyday life, no one knew what was going on.

Blues was Robert Johnson’s lan­guage. It’s unclear whether he could read or write, but if he could, it was at a rudimentary level; blues was his only chance at self-expression, or making a mark on the world, of leaving it even slightly dif­ferent than he had found it. He mastered the tradition — he formally extended its guitar language, formally raised the level of song composition, deepened its formal possibilities for vocal strength and delica­cy. Yet he also found the tradition inade­quate — and you can hear this in his greatest songs, in “Stones in My Pass­way,” “Hellhound on My Trail,” “Come on in My Kitchen,” “Traveling River­side Blues.” The tension of wanting to say more than the tradition can allow explodes the tradition. “Stones in My Passway” and “Hellhound” do not sound like any other blues. It doesn’t matter how well any musicologist can trace their melodies or their lyrics back to any other performers. You run into a wall of emo­tional, aesthetic fact: sociology can ex­plain the Mississippi Delta blues, but it cannot explain Robert Johnson any more than 400 years of pain and suffering can produce two Bessie Smiths.

Most traditions of any sort decay, fall into ruin, wear out. It’s rare to see, to hear, any tradition actually be explod­ed — to be taken to a critical mass of pos­sibility and desire and then be destroyed. That’s what happens in Robert Johnson’s last recordings, made in 1937, the year before he died. It seems impossible that there could be any Mississippi blues after those last recordings — and, in a way, there weren’t. Nothing new; just refine­ments, revivals, footnotes. Many of Johnson’s more conventional compositions­ — “Sweet Home Chicago,” “Dust My Broom,” “Crossroads” — became blues and then rock ’n’ roll standards in the years and decades after Robert Johnson’s death; it’s interesting that almost no one has even tried to make a new version of “Stones in My Passway” or “Hellhound on My Trail.”

Once it’s really heard, Robert John­son’s music takes shape as a mystery — and, confronted with a mystery, the hu­man impulse is to try and solve it. Robert Johnson is no longer a name on an index card; since King of the Delta Blues Sing­ers was released, 25 years ago, almost every fact one might care to know about him has been discovered. There are enough facts for a full biography; not long ago there was mostly legend, tall tales, superstition. And yet Robert John­son’s music has not been reduced, has not been contained, has not been made sense of, not one bit. You hear a man going farther than he could ever have been ex­pected to go — even if you know nothing of the particular limits of Mississippi blues, you can hear those limits being smashed, or hear a man fall back violent­ly before them. What you hear is a strug­gle more extreme, and more fully shaped, than you can accept. So you begin to ask: what would it mean to want that much? What would it mean to lose that much?

Carlos Fuentes once spoke about the difference between literature that can be contained within the bounds of sociology and ethnography and literature that can­not. “Perhaps Babbitt and Main Street could only have been written by a per­fectly determined North American writer born in Sauk Center, Minnesota, in the year of grace 1885,” Fuentes said of Sin­clair Lewis. “But Absalom, Absalom!, Light in August or The Sound and the Fury could, in their mythic essence, have been told by a wise savage in central Africa, an ancient guardian of memory in the Himalayas, an amnesiac demon, or a re­morseful god.” Sam Charters, one of the first to write in detail about Mississippi blues, once wrote that only a black man living in the Mississippi Delta in the first third of the century could possibly un­derstand what Son House meant when he sang, “My black mama’s face shines like the sun.” Maybe that is true, in the same way that Fuentes’s words about Sinclair Lewis may be true. But nothing similar could ever be true about Robert Johnson, just as one does not have to be anything like Faulkner to understand what he wrote.

For all this, Robert Johnson remains a figure in a story that, as it is usually told, is already completed: that is, he is a so­ciological exemplar of an ethnographic cultural incident that makes complete sense within the bounds of American so­ciocultural ethnography. No one talks about Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson (or even D.W. Griffith, John Ford, and Howard Hawks) this way. They are discussed as people who took on the world and, for whatever reasons, made some­thing of it; what they made of it is what gets discussed, and discussed in the most wide-ranging way, connected to and informing anything that might connect to or inform it. Such talk makes their work richer, and the world richer, more inter­esting. But there are few American black artists discussed in these terms, and no blues singers. Formal objections are easy — how can you compare a handful of two-and-a-half-minute songs to Mel­ville’s books, or just Moby Dick? Can you actually say that there is a labyrinth as deep, as complex, in “Stones in My Pass­way” as in The Sound and the Fury? Maybe not. But one can say that Robert Johnson went as far, went far enough that the question becomes not how he got there, but what goes on there. ■

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CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Uncategorized

Up Close and Personal With the Rolling Stones

Can the Stones Still Cut It?

Two a.m. in a motel room in Wisconsin. The room is thick with dope and cigarette smoke. Peaple of various sexes crowd the room, among them the Stones. No one looks healthy. Keith Richard, as usual, looks mor­ibund, wasted, and vaguely dangerous. He is wearing a toothy-looking earring in one ear and incredibly expensive, incredibly scuffed snakeskin boots. People are drinking whis­key and wine, snorting coke through rolled up five-pound notes. and, occasionally, pop­ping amyl nitrate. One big fat bearded man in jeans and shitkicker boots sneaks up behind a heavily made-up young woman and pops an amyl nitrate capsule under her nose. Her eyes roll back and she almost keels 0ver. Then she pulls herself together and looks ecstatic. I am not ecstatic. I am not even slightly at ease. If someone pops one of those things under my nose, I know I’ll fall down in a hideous, gibbering fit. l feel the way I did on the first night of sixth grade dancing class back in Loveland, Ohio, where I was the only girl in anklets instead of stockings and Buddy Borger didn’t dance with me once. The coke I’ve snorted has intensified this feeling. The dope is decorating it. Mick Jagger is across the room, looking bored and small and unobtrusive. I would like to go over and talk to him, after all, I am a reporter and he is The Stone. I can’t do it. Every time I start to, my knees dissolve, as they have been dissolving, on and off, in his behalf for the past 10 years.

Finally, I give up the whole misguided adventure and slink off to my room, where I can read a murder mystery and try to feel less ridiculous. I am doing this, unsuccess­fully, when I hear a light tap at my door.

“Come in,” I say. The door opens, and it is Mick. He has a bottle of wine in his hand, and he looks tired and friendly.

“Hi,” he says, “would you like to talk?”

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***

A fantasy, of course. It ran through my head on a repeating loop for two weeks, from the moment I got the assignment to cover the first week of the current Stones tour of North America until May 31, when I checked in at the Royal Orleans Hotel in New Orleans, thereby entering the world of a Stones tour.

It’s tight, self-enclosed, and intense; you’re pulled into it like an astronaut into a black hole. Swoop! and you’re in another world, within the larger universe but essentially sealed off from it, with the Stones as its gravitational center and everyone else revolving around them in a continually shift­ing hierarchy. There’s no room, or time, for fantasy in that world; you’re too busy finding your feet. And besides, the fantasy was wrong, as I had expected it would be.

After dropping my bags in the furnished closet that constitutes a single room at the Royal Orleans, I went with another reporter, John Rockwell of the Times, to the Stones’ floor to pick up a press kit. (The Stones’ touring party —upwards of 50 people — is large enough that they can commandeer a floor of every hotel they stay at.) While we were there, talking with Paul Wasserman and Suzi Oxley, the tour press people, Jagger walked in. He looked haggard and homely, with a mouth too large for his face, which at that moment seemed deeply lined, and a head too big for his body. He is small — all the Stones are, and they look slightly miniature, like 18th-century men. But to say he’s unobtrusive is too definite.

 

He is less unobtrusive than visually elu­sive. The parts don’t quite fit together; the subtle disproportion confuses the eye. And he turns on and off more than any other person I’ve seen. The difference between on and off is the difference between a lit stage set and a darkened one.

And with Jagger, on and off isn’t simply the difference between the onstage persona and the offstage person. The onstage persona is always on: however many different char­acters or moods Jagger might convey on­ stage — sexual, clownish, menacing, he shuf­fles them like a deck of cards — each is distinct and readable. But the offstage person is not consistently off, and the face of the person flickers continually with the masks of the personae. Charm gives way to boredom, boredom to irony, irony to humor, with no apparent sequential logic, and in between are moments of pure blankness, when there is no expression at all on the face. Perhaps these are moments of privacy for an extremely public person; if so, they work. Because at such moments the ob­server is left with nothing to look at but that confusing disproportion, and so you tend not to register him at all. Jagger is probably one of the most widely photographed people in the world, and yet if he wants to — and assuming there aren’t hordes of forewarned groupies behind every potted palm — he can pass through a hotel lobby virtually unre­marked.

When Jagger came into the room that Saturday, he was a small, tired offstage performer asking his PR people a question. Then Paul introduced him to the reporters present, and the air zinged a little with that “oh, a star” tension that arises whenever any of the Stones is being introduced to someone. Jagger seemed to come into focus; he straightened and smiled and shook John Rockwell’s hand in an attitude of formal courtesy. When he turned and did the same with me, I saw that above the smile his eyes were like blind walls. It was interesting, even eerie, but not the sort of thing to dissolve the knees of any but the most determined sexual fantasist.

If one’s fantasies of Stones’ life revolve around sex and drugs, around play, the reality one finds on tour is work. This was particularly true during the first week of the tour, when the band was still pulling the show together. In the course of that first week, between June 1 and June 6, the Stones did five shows, two at Louisiana State Universi­ty’s Assembly Center in Baton Rouge (the Stones commuted back and forth from the hotel in New Orleans by air-conditioned camper), another two in the Convention Center in San Antonio, and an outdoor show at the 60,000-seat Arrowhead stadium on the outskirts at Kansas City. The night before the first concert, there was a midnight to dawn technical rehearsal at Louisiana State with the full band — the four Stones, Ron Wood of the Faces filling the space left by guitarist Mick Taylor, Billy Preston on keyboard, and 22-year-old Ollie E. Brown, who usually plays with Stevie Wonder, assisting on per­cussion.

After most of the shows that week, the Stones continued to work, listening to tapes of the night’s performance, singling out rough spots, rearranging the song order to minimize guitar changes, and trying to find solutions to their most persistent problem in large halls, which is simply hearing each other. The night before the outdoor show in Kansas City, they held another rehearsal to incorporate fresh material — including a new song by Keith Richard called “Be Sure the One You Need.”

These are the longest sets the Stones have ever done, running a little over two hours and containing between 22 and 24 songs. The oldest is “Get Off My Cloud,” which segues out of “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg” — a typical­ly paradoxical Stones juxtaposition — and the show concludes with a bombardment of rockers. All week long, you could see the show evolving on stage through the individual concerts, its parts knitting together into something organic and alive.

Not that any show was bad or any crowd disappointed, but the first concert had an air of labor about it. You could see the continual effort behind the music on the part of every member of the band; the seams were visible, and the show only really flew — that moment when the music seems to take over the musicians and send them as well as you spinning off into some musical outer space­ — during the last half-dozen numbers. At the next performance that evening, the show took off much sooner, less than halfway through and on a number that isn’t even hard rock, a version of “You Gotta Move” sung by Keith, Ron, Billy, and Mick. And two days later, with the first show in San Antonio, everything jelled. The band seemed loose and high by the second number (“All Down the Line”). Mick used every available inch of the huge, starflower-shaped stage, Keith grinned frequently (Garbo laughs!), and Ronnie Wood skittered around in circles like a speedy six-year-old. Even Bill Wyman, ordinarily a solemn man on stage, was seen to smile.

After the show, back at the hotel, every­one was exhilarated. It was evident that a tension had eased. And no wonder. Because that first San Antonio performance answered the uncomfortable questions that hang over this tour more than any other: Can the Stones still cut it? Are they slipping, is this the beginning of the end? Yes, they can, no they aren’t, and no, the end isn’t in sight. That show was one of the best rock shows I’ve ever seen, all two hours and 15 minutes of it, and the ones that followed were just as good. The Stones are in their prime.

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***

My favorite souvenir of the tour is a yellow armband, a cheap piece of ribbon with three words on it. The armbands were a source of both pleasure and paranoia. They first came to my attention Sunday evening after the first show. A room had been set aside at the LSU Assembly Center for the press to use. There were a lot of us there. I don’t think any Stones tour has been as heavily covered as this one is turning out to be, with anywhere from a half-dozen to two dozen radio, television, and print journalists following the tour at any given point.

Some of us were feeling a little out of sorts. It looked as if we were going to have to spend the time between shows — a matter of some hours — stuck in the press room. A hospitality room, where there was food and an opportunity to talk to the band and where we had been permitted to spend some time the night before, during the rehearsal, was off limits to the press. Or was it? Because as I was glumly considering the sadly empty state of my stomach and my notebook, Frank Conroy of the Times Magazine wandered by wearing some kind of yellow ribbon around his arm. Worse, he was drinking a beer. Then, Geraldo Rivera showed up, also wear­ing a yellow armband and eating a plate of food.

Paranoia, envy, and panic mingled in my brain. My worst suspicions were confirmed. Not all reporters were being kept away from the Stones, just some. Like me. I strained forward to read the words on Geraldo’s ribbon. Something about access. Access to rockstars? My god, I thought, that’s laying it on the line. Then he turned, and the words became clearly visible. In large gold letters, they said: NO ACCESS BACKSTAGE.

Access is a word I’ve never had much occasion to use; it belongs, however, in any reporter’s lexicon of a Stones tour, right next to Hierarchy and Paranoia. Access means access to the Stones, the pinnacle of the tour hierarchy. And worrying about that access is a reporter’s own special brand of paranoia on a Stones tour. I got an armband eventually, along with some of the other reporters. The armbands were primarily intended for photographers, and what they did was let you stand directly in front of the stage during the first two numbers, a joyous, ear-splitting experience. It is fitting that the only special badge of passage given to reporters on the tour was one that told you where you couldn’t go.

This kind of thing can make you feel slightly crazy, particularly if you’re a reporter who is a Stones fan. Even if you know that should the Stones prove horrible you will go home and say so, that doesn’t really quell the feelings of love, affection, and gratitude for pleasures past that are bobbing around embarrassingly in the back of your mind. While the Stones and the people around them are treating you gingerly, as if you might bite, you’re feeling like an over­enthusiastic St. Bernard who’s about to roll all over the floor with unwonted, and un­wanted, adoration.

The press was finally given access to the hospitality room that night. We were led in, over a period of a half-hour or so, in little groups of two and threes. It was a large collegiate recreation room. Bill Wyman, looking pretty and artificial in his stage makeup, played Ping-Pong with one of the touring party while Astrid Lundstrom, the striking blonde Swedish woman who has lived with him for the past eight years, looked on. Geraldo was over near the buffet talking to Bianca, who is tiny and exquisite and chic. “You look very beautiful tonight,” he said. “Thank you,” she said, in an incredibly husky voice.

In the center of the room, at a round table, sat Mick. He was wearing a T-shirt and jeans, and his eyes were almost completely obscured by the heavy black eye makeup he wore for the first two shows. (By San Antonio, Bianca had prevailed on him to change it to something lighter, which was smart; the black eyes were tacky, remini­scent of Alice Cooper, and they made him look blind and glaring on stage.) Sitting at the table with Mick were three British tabloid reporters and tour manager Peter Rudge; it was an informal press conference, and I sat in on it, resolving to be as un-St. Bernard-like as possible.

That, as it turned out, was easy. It was like a parody of the dumbest sort of pop star press conference, with everybody playing unnatural roles. Rudge, ordinarily a brusque man with the press, was alarmingly sweet — according to someone I spoke to later, because he’s going to be introducing a couple of his lesser groups into England in the fall and wants friendly coverage. The reporters, who had been sufficiently hard-assed and wisecracking back in the press room, now seemed afflicted with their own case of St. Bernardism. They were solemnly respectful, starting their questions with a ponderous, “Tell me, Mick…” and asking Jagger questions like did he feel that England was no longer a force in world politics? and what did he think should happen there? and what were his political views? Etc. ad dozium. He, in turn, distinguished himself by emitting such pearls as “I would like to see a social revolution (in England) but I dunno how you go about doin’ it.” He also said that he thought most people in England “have been enslaved by a stupid kind of materialism; they spend all their time watching telly.” As he said this, he gestured with his left hand, the third finger of which flickered with the light of a large, square diamond ring.

A moment later, one of the reporters asked, “Tell me, Mick, have you sung ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ since… then?

Thus respectfully was the touchy subject of Altamont broached. “Sure, sure, hundreds of times,” said Mick, cheerfully lying. “We were going to do it tonight, we just forgot.” And into the small silence which followed this absurd statement, he suddenly sang, in a high, sweet falsetto: “Please allow me to introduce myself…” Just the first line, nothing more. But then you remember the line that follows. A man of wealth and taste indeed.

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***

I see I am in danger of doing what reporters too often do — make Jagger seem like 90 per cent of the Stones. Theatrically, that’s true. He’s more than a singer, after all; he’s a performer and one who works at the level of spectacle, attempting to cast visual images large enough to reach people who may be sitting many hundreds of feet away from him.

But offstage, Jagger recedes, taking his place, along with Keith Richards, as first among equal Rolling Stones. Nowhere does this become so clear as on tour when you have a chance to watch the work behind the show. In one sense, the experience of that week was a process of watching the other members of the band emerge.

The first rehearsal evening at LSU was almost a capsulized version of the process. The rehearsal was supposed to begin around 9 p.m. It actually started three hours later because everyone thought Ronnie Wood was in someone else’s car, so a driver had to make the 90-minute run back to New Orleans to get him and bring him to Baton Rouge. Mick stayed backstage (no access rock stars); the half-dozen reporters present hung out in the hospitality room with various members of the tour and, as they came and ­went, the band.

Ollie Brown and Billy Preston came in, moved through the room looking like char­acters out of an Alvin Ailey ballet. They wear enormous Afros (Billy’s is a wig), and they are showy, dramatic-looking men. Ollie, who talked with frankly star-struck pleasure about being asked to join the tour, looked like a tough, flashy street dude, with his brightly studded jeans rolled up to show off high silver platform boots. Billy is older and more remote; playing Ping-Pong in slick, expen­sively tailored black trousers and yellow satin shirt, he might have been a rich young Harlem preacher on his day off.

Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman sat at a small round table in the middle of the room, and talked with reporters about the latest Stones album, Metamorphosis, and about the tour. The Stones are angry about the album, a collection of old, unreleased studio tracks put out without their cooperation by Allen Klein. “It’s nothing to do with us,” Charlie said, “the liaison was nil.” Bill called the album “just a load of junk, really” (in fact, it’s not that bad) and said that the Stones had put together their own album of unreleased material from the ’60s with songs dated and running consecutively from 1963 to 1968 — “so it’d have some historical interest, some sort of value for collectors” — but that Klein turned it down in favor of his own. “His isn’t as good, but he’ll make more money from it,” Bill said.

Bill Wyman seemed, in some ways, the most “normal” of the Stones. He was vir­tually free of that wary, slightly hostile tension that the Stones sometimes radiated around reporters, perhaps, in part, because the press tended to overlook him. Personally, this amused him. “‘Everybody says I’m so quiet, that I never talk. Know why I never talk? ’Cause nobody ever asks me any­thing.” Professionally, it isn’t quite so funny, although he was wry enough about it. “Take a movie like Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones. That’s what it’s called, and yet, y’know, you’re in it for about 20 seconds. Gets to feel a bit weird, that. You begin to think, well, what the fuck’m I doin’ here?”

Talking to Wyman, that night at LSU and in a private interview at the end of the week with him and Astrid, I was struck by his openness. He expressed emotions — affection for Astrid, the pleasure they take in raising his 13-year-old son, who will travel with them for much of the tour — with the kind of unself-conscious frankness that is surprising in almost any man but especially one who is — however silently — a star.

Musically, one associates Wyman and Watts, the oldest Stones; they provide the basic ground in which the Stones’ music is rooted. Offstage, that evening, they were like bad cop/good cop. Wyman was agreeable and talkative, inclined to a kind of mild humor; of all the Stones, he was the easiest to be around. Charlie, on the other hand, had the comic irascibility of a Dickens character. He has a reputation among the band for humor, and, he just now, he looks eccentric enough to be out of Dickens, amazingly thin, with a protuberant Adam’s apple and facial features sharpened by the fact that he has, for some reason, cut his hair so short that, with the small bald spot at the crown, it suggests nothing so much as a cross between a mad monk and someone who got out of Dartmoor Prison a week ago.

That night, as we talked about the design of the show — which was done by Robin Wagner in consultation with Mick and Char­lie — he seemed to respond to half our ques­tions with “Wottaya mean??!!” Then, hav­ing made it clear that the question was ridiculous, he would answer it. The last night I was on the tour, after doing the interview with Wyman, I ran into Charlie in the corridor and for once, he asked a question. He was looking at the remains of a room service buffet that Paul had provided for the press. “Wot’s this, then?” he asked, seeming interested. Assuming he was hungry, I pointed out a relatively unscathed avocado with crabmeat and suggested it was still edible. And sure enough… “Edible??!!” he howled, and then muttering something about how he certainly wasn’t goin’ to eat that ghastly stuff, he tromped off down the hall.

At one point during an informal interview with Charlie and Bill, Keith came blasting into the room with a small entourage, took one look at the reporters, and veered off to an upright piano standing against one wall and started pounding out a blues. It was like a metaphor for his whole relation to the world, to the press and to music. Throughout the week, I never once saw Keith alone; he was always with one or two people, often another musician like Billy or Ron Wood, and fre­quently a man named George Pappanjou. George remained a rather mysterious fig­ure; he avoids the press even more as­siduously than Keith does, looks rather like him, is said to be Hungarian, and was seen to keep Keith’s cigarettes lit and his glass filled; yet, when I asked one of the tour staff if George was Keith’s gofer — each star had somebody assigned to him in that capacity­ — she looked shocked and emphatically said no, George was Keith’s friend.

As for Keith blasting into rooms, well, he does. Offstage, Keith has the same intensity of presence as he does on, and so, of course, it stands out more. He’s amazing looking — all tatterdemalion satin jackets and flapping silk scarves, tight jeans, hollow cheeks, black artichoke hair, and huge iridescent eyes. He doesn’t look decadent; he looks vigorous and infernal, as if he just strode forth from the jaws of hell.

By the end of the week, it seemed odd that Keith could ever have been called decadent, with its connotations of decay and artifice and over-refinement; he seems utterly en­gaged in his work. The intensity of his involvement was evident onstage, where his role as the guiding force of the music was obvious. But the involvement was evident offstage as well. Night after night, some­times after spending an hour or so going over tapes of the night’s performance, he would slip off, with Ronnie or another member of the band, to listen to music somewhere and possibly to jam. He lives hard, and God only knows what exotic substances he takes along the way (the only drugs I saw that week were Paul Wasserman’s tranquilizers and my own), but his life seems to revolve around music.

Keith isn’t really as unfriendly as he seems, but it was intimidating to talk to him in a way that it wasn’t with Jagger. Talking to Jagger feels appropriate; he interacts with his public. Talking to Keith you feel a little as though you are bothering a busy man.

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***

During the reporters’ group conversation with Charlie and Bill the night before the first concert, Frank Conroy told an unflat­tering anecdote about a woman he described as “one of those high-pressure girl report­ers.” I know the woman he was talking about; she’s in her late thirties. Later in the same conversation Bill Wyman was talking about some studio work the Stones had done recently. Many of the songs don’t have names yet. “In the studio,” Bill said, “we call them any old thing, just to get a name on the box for convenience — ‘Dustbin Lid’ or whatever.” Then he described one song which was called “Vagina.” “It was ‘Cunt’ in the studio — not really, y’know, but because somebody had called somebody else a cunt, and so we used that. But then we didn’t want to write that, so we used ‘Vagina’ instead.”

Most of the time on the tour, I was just another reporter, neuter, doing my job while everyone else did theirs, but at moments like those, I felt self-consciously female, isolated and engulfed by an all-male world. The world of a Stones tour is very male. Out of a tour staff of 56, six were women. Of the half-dozen or so reporters following the tour that week, one was female — me. The result for a woman covering the tour is that you spend almost all your time with men; it’s a peculiar, alien sensation, as if you were visiting a planet where the female population had been de­cimated by an unnamed plague.

Of course, the plague does have a name — sexism. I had expected to encounter that, although not in quite the form it took in the Stones tour world. In the world that exists around the band, the sense you get is not the hey-honey-wanna-fuck mentality of an aggressively macho world where men are men and women are sex objects, but rather of a much younger sort of machismo, a world where boys are boys and this is their club­house so girls keep out.

It’s a world where it’s hard to imagine men and women simply being friends. Bill Wyman and Astrid Lundstrom were some­thing of an exception to this; their rela­tionship had a quality of friendship and mutual respect about it, and they seemed — ­and much of the time, literally were — some­what apart from the clubby, boyish atmo­sphere that most frequently surrounded the rest of the band. But their relationship reflects some old-fashioned assumptions. When I asked Astrid if she had a separate profession of her own, she said no, although she had considered modeling or acting — and then Bill broke in, saying, “I wouldn’t let her; if she got involved with something like that, she mightn’t be able to come on tour.” It was a striking remark if only because except at that point in the conversation, Astrid seemed very much Bill’s equal.

Feminism hasn’t made much more of an impact on the women who are part of the rock world than it has on the music itself, perhaps because that world is still so overwhelmingly dominated by men. I talked with some of the women on the tour about this, asking the most general sorts of questions about what it was like to work on the tour, and how did it compare with the rock world in general: They tended to confirm my impressions of the clubby, boyish atmosphere, but their reactions to the feminism implicit in such questions varied widely, from cautiously sympathetic interest to flickers of outright hostility. And every woman I spoke to at some point mentioned the groupies.

The hotels in San Antonio and Kansas City were besieged by groupies, not simply fe­male fans, but female fans on the make. Some of their clothes were incredible, the stuff of pornographic fantasy — barely opaque dresses with no backs, no sides, and hardly any fronts; halters that didn’t halt much of anything; constrictingly tiny short shorts; even one brief, weird arrangement of black leather and industrial zippers. They crowded the lobby like fervid mendicants, stalked the halls like big game hunters, but to no end. They were held at bay by double ranks of security forces, in the lobby and on the Stones floor of each hotel, while the Stones themselves stayed safely out of reach.

There was a kind of comedy to that scene, but it had its depressing moments. In San Antonio, as I came out of my room, I met a girl standing by the elevator. She looked very young, with a fresh round country face, and she was wearing an awkwardly fitting black evening gown that looked as if it might have come from her mother’s closet. Noticing my notebook and tape recorder, she asked me rather desperately if I knew where the Stones’ rooms were. I said I didn’t, less out of loyalty to the tour than out of embarrass­ment for her. As I started to get on the elevator, she called after me, in a kind of shriek, “Can you get me an autograph?” “No, no,” I said, jumping on the elevator as the doors closed, and for a minute I hated rock music and stars and sex and men and women, and I wanted to be somewhere else entirely. Not that there was anywhere else to go; running from that girl, I was just running from part of myself.

Then I ran right back into it. My interview with Jagger was scheduled for the last night I was on the tour, following the Kansas City concert. It had been a long week. I was tired; he would be too. As I headed off for his room, I was prepared for blank-eyed ordinariness, even relieved at the prospect.

Mick was sitting in the middle of his bed. He was tousled, the bed was tousled, the room was softly lit, and lovely classical music played from a radio by the bed. He looked tired and friendly, like nothing so much as some exotic little animal in its lair, gazing out from soft, blue-shadowed eyes and smiling with lightly painted lips. I felt bewitched, and for a moment, dizzy, lustful half-thoughts collided inside my head.

Then the phone rang, the moment passed, and I pulled myself together and set up the tape recorder. It was, after all, not Arden Forest, but Room 521 of the Kansas City Royal Sheraton, a place where, among other things, a serious interview might be con­ducted — and almost was, until Ronnie Wood came in.

He entered just as I was asking Jagger if he’d done any solo work; Jagger said that he had been doing some work of his own and that, in fact, he’d done a lot of it with Ronnie. As he and Ronnie started talking, the whole tone of the interview shifted. When I’d been talking with Mick alone, the conversation had had a quality of professional seriousness about it. He was the serious artist-performer, talking about how performing a song changes it, making it diminish or expand, how the best ones always grow in perform­ance, and how that was one of the things that made performing satisfying. But as he and Ronnie talked about their work together, they sounded like kids talking about their favorite hobby. It was lighthearted and funny and very young, a glimpse inside the clubhouse. Mick launched into a story about how if he’s got a song then he and Ronnie have got this studio with a drum machine and they go down there and they have a girl usually — he grins — and Ronnie says yeah, a girl engineer, and we lay down the basic track on guitars with the drum machine­ — and Mick says and we get the girl to run back the guitar track so we can sing the song — and I say, feeling somewhat confused but falling in with the general tone of things: Why a girl? Well, sometimes it’s Ronnie’s old lady ‘coz she’s there a lot (says Mick), or some­one stayin’ with her y’know, keepin’ her company while we’re locked away down­stairs (says Ronnie). And Mick explains: We need someone to do the machinery, just push the buttons, and we teach ’em that; they learn very easily. And sometimes they start comin’ jumpin’ out and playin’ the tambou­rine or somethin’ and y’say (he puts on a squawky Goon Show voice), “Git back to the controls, somebody has to play the guitar.”

There was more of this sort of thing, with much clowning around, and I found myself laughing even though the butt of all the jokes was girls-and-their-silly-ways. At one point Ronnie was talking about trying to explain to his girlfriend why it was a bother to have her along on tour; “You are a bother,” Mick interjected in a booming voice, “‘coz we don’t have more than one bathroom and your makeup is claustrophoberizing my fucking bath!!!” And then he toppled over on the bed, growling.

Funny machismo, but machismo just the same, and I asked Jagger if he thought the criticism of the Stones as macho was accurate. He said he thought the band was macho in a way, but the songs weren’t, or at least not since “Under My Thumb” and “Stupid Girl.” I had half-expected a sneer at the question itself; instead, he was polite enough until I brought up “Midnight Rambler.” “Midnight Rambler,” he said, wasn’t a macho song. Oh you mean it’s tongue-in­-cheek? I asked, thinking of the Stones’ way with irony. But no, it wasn’t tongue-in-cheek, either, he said. it just wasn’t a macho song. I suggested that it might be a great song, but it played with images of rape and wasn’t really a song a woman could sing. And he got very sullen and said a woman could so sing it, and even when Ronnie and I started talking about something else, Mick went on muttering that it wasn’t a macho song, just wasn’t fucking macho, that’s all, wasn’t. Seeing as how we’d degenerated to the level of five-year-olds in a sandbox, I prepared to retreat to a friendlier line of questioning. Too late. No matter what I asked about anything, the answers came out in grudging monosyllables. So I put on my adult reporter face and said, “Well, thanks very much,” and he put on his polite adult performer face and said, “My pleasure, ” and there you have some irony.

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***

After the San Antonio concert, someone asked Keith about the Stones’ image as a band — did he think it had changed since the last American tour, and, if so, to what? Keith said he was sure it had changed, but that he had no idea what the band’s image on this tour would be, he’d be interested lo see. Then he talked about keeping the show fresh, with continual song changes throughout the tour. “It’s more work,” he said, “but it’s the only thing that keeps you from getting slick.”

If there’s an image for the Stones this time around, perhaps it is to be found in the extraordinary length of their shows, the effort going into them, and the amount of touring the band is planning to do. According to Bill Wyman, they hope to tour more or less steadily for the next year or so “in as much of the world as will have us” on a one­-month-off, two-months-on schedule. If that’s true, it’s remarkable; the Stones haven’t worked together like that since the 1960s. The image of the Stones that I came away with at week’s end was simply that of a great working band, working hardest while they’re still at their best.

The Stones might act like kids sometimes, but they aren’t, and they know it. Bill Wyman, the oldest Stone, now refuses to give his age to the press. “I feel silly about that,” he said, when I asked him about it, “but… well, I’m afraid it might somehow hurt the band.” Jagger was asked so often on the tour about age that he began after a few days to brush the question aside a little wearily. “I can’t think more than a few years ahead,” he said at one point, sensibly enough. The same has to go for the whole group. Their future is the same as their working image, and both are identical to their music. Because it continually acknowledges the power strug­gles inherent in matters of love and politics, that music may not always please us. But it will have to do.

“Midnight Rambler” is macho. Worse, one of the onstage gimmicks the Stones are using for this tour is a huge white penis. It’s made of parachute silk and comes blowing up out of a trap in the stage while Jagger is singing “Starfucker.” He achieves some wit by punching and kicking the thing as it recedes into the trap, but mostly he rides it, and the gimmick seems sophomoric and second-­rate, devoid of the multiple meanings that one has come to expect from the Stones. It’s dumb, and you expect the Stones to be smart.

But even if it were smart I would still wish it weren’t there. My politics make me want to believe that they give all their money to the revolution, that they didn’t really mean that part about the stupid girl, that in real life they refer to all females over the age of 12 as “women” and never fail to vote for the Equal Rights Amendment when they’re in town.

I have a perverse desire to make good guys of them. It’s perverse not because they’re bad guys — and I’m talking about them now not as people but as artists — but because they’re both good guys and bad, selfish and giving, arrogant and abjectly sad, joyous and continually aware of the limited life span of any joy. It’s their com­plexity, their capacity for paradox that makes them great, that makes the music resonate year after year in the mind. I have an impulse to clean them up, make them tidy and undisturbing. But it’s only the disturbing artists who are important, who fire our imaginations so that their art gives rise to our own.

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Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES From The Archives MUSIC ARCHIVES Pazz & Jop

1978 Pazz & Jop: New Wave Hegemony and the Bebop Question

Given my pure mania for what must now be called new wave — punk, I will never forget you — the fifth or sixth annual Pazz & Jop Critics’ Poll ought to feel like a triumph, and in some ways it does. The 98 ballots received were almost half again as many as the previous high of 68, and a conscious attempt was made to avoid loading the panel with new wavers, with many freshpeople drawn from such citadels of tradition as Stereo Review, High Fidelity, Circus, and Crawdaddy (which I will call Feature the day Johnny Rotten — or John Lydon, okay — makes the cover). To a lesser extent than expected, I got my conservative response from those critics. But it was overwhelmed by a post-punk sweep to which more than 80% of the voters contributed with at least one selection.

Elvis Costello’s This Year’s Model is the biggest winner in Pazz & Jop history. Except in 1974, when there were a mere 28 voters, only The Basement Tapes has ever made over half the ballots, and Costello’s point spread — huge over the runner-up Stones and absolutely staggering over everyone else — is unprecedented and then some. But what’s even more remarkable is the rest of the chart. Last year, eight of the 30 finishers were directly associated with new wave; this year — not counting Brian Eno, the Cars, or Cheap Trick — the figure is 16. And now consider the non-new wavers in the top 20, where the poll is most reliable statistically. Eno produced No New York and Talking Heads and is referred to in a recent issue of Punk as “God”; the Cars may share a producer with Queen, but they share a&r, not to mention key musical ideas, with Television and the Dictators. Bruce Springsteen was a punk before there were punks — a “real” punk, as they say. Singer-songwriter Neil Young encored at the Garden with a reprise of his paean to Johnny Rotten, and singer-songwriter Warren Zevon is an excitable boy who has done Neil one better by encoring with “God Save the Queen.” Hard rock perennials Stones and Who both responded more or less explicitly to the punk challenge with their toughest records in years. The best album since 1971 (if not 4004 B.C.) by the venerable rock vanguardist Captain Beefheart responds to nothing except the weather, but the Captain was his own kind of new waver before there was an ocean, or a flag. And finally there’s Willie Nelson, the great exception, described by ace ballot annotator Tom Smucker as follows: “Nelson takes the crossover spirit of 1978 Country Music and crosses over so far with it he misses the mainstream entirely and ends up with an album that takes risks and gains integrity.”

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In part these monolithic results reflect the inactivity of a few major artists. Fleetwood Mac, Steely Dan, Randy Newman, and Jackson Browne all finished very high in 1977 and could probably have done so again this year. (Note, however, that Kate & Anna McGarrigle, number 13 in 1977, put the disappointing Pronto Monto on exactly one ballot. Though at least they got 10 points. Nicolette Larson, unaccountably named female vocalist of the year in Rolling Stone’s so-called critics awards, got only five from her supporter.) But even if Joni Mitchell and Paul Simon had pitched in, there would still be no doubt that for rock critics 1978 was a year in which to rediscover rock and roll.

Despite the wing of the movement represented in the poll by Nick Lowe and Dave Edmunds, who lead a band called Rockpile that played better than the Stones this year, I don’t buy the claim that new wavers merely revive the rock ’n’ roll verities. Still, in terms of spirit and structure the idea has its validity. The wit and the temper of Presley/Berry and Beatles/Stones, intensified by compact, catchy, rhythmically insistent music, abound on the best new wave records. What’s more, the same virtues are now being pursued with born-again fervor by the best of the non-new wave selections. For critics who have deplored rock’s increasing pomposity and blandness, this is a vindication. Rock and roll is our passion, and suddenly there’s more of the real stuff than at any time since rock criticism began.

As the ballots crossed my desk, though, I began to feel vaguely depressed. I’ve never thought it a critical virtue to nurture weirdness, yet for some reason I kept remembering the comment of convinced eccentric Tom Hull, whose 1977 votes for such cynosures as Blondie Chaplin, Kevin Ayers, Hirth Martinez, and Tony Wilson got lost in the consensus, but who this time placed nine of his 10 favorites in the top 30: “I haven’t heard as much odd stuff as in years before, and this list strikes me as pretty mainstream. Some mainstream, eh?” As fellow Pazz & Jop Poobah Tom Carson and I computed the Rs through the Zs, my depression got worse. It so happens that there are a lot of orthodox new wavers toward the end of the alphabet, including three of Trouser Press’s Anglophiliac cabal, and suddenly artists like Dave Edmunds (as Brit-purist as r&r gets), Devo (whose marginal early showing had encouraged us to hope they wouldn’t place at all), and Generation X (accomplished but by no means original — or principled — power-pop punks) were vaulting upwards. This was turning into new wave hegemony, and I don’t like hegemony of any sort. Not even the sudden success of my own favorite record of the year, Wire’s Pink Flag, warmed my heart.

For although I remain a gleefully defiant rock and roll fan — I’m sure the Ramones are one reason I’ve escaped the cosmic cynicism that affects many of my contemporaries these days — I’ve lived too long to feel comfortable with monomania. Rock and roll has always been eclectic, not to say cannibalistic, and in the bleak mid-’70s all but its most dogged (dog-eared?) critical adherents learned to translate that eclecticism into an enjoyment of other kinds of music. In my own case, habitual attention to the byways of pop was augmented by a certain tolerant fondness for the best of folk, curiosity about the more accessible downtown avant-gardism, and renewed enthusiasm for jazz. This year, I elected to exclude the latter two genres from my personal Pazz & Jop top 30, though I’ve certainly gotten more pleasure from David Behrman’s On the Other Ocean/Figure in a Clearing, Eric Dolphy’s Berlin Concerts, and several Sonny Rollins records than from many rock albums I’ve admired in 1978. My reasons were part formalism (rock still seems to me to connote songs and/or electric instruments), part humility (I don’t pretend to cover jazz or avant-garde music and am not entirely confident of my judgments), and part expediency (there were too many rock and roll records I wanted to list). But my decision didn’t stop me from rooting for Steve Reich’s (rather Muzaky) Music for 18 Musicians, which tied for 38th, or Carla Bley’s (loose but likable) European Tour 1977, which came in 54th.

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The major disappointments, though, were in black music. Whatever other genre distinctions you want to make (and they’re always fuzzy), it’s a weird switch to act as if black music (whatever exactly that means) is not rock and roll. If Motown was rock and roll, then so are the O’Jays and Donna Summer; if Linda Ronstadt and Randy Newman are part of the tradition, then so are Natalie Cole and Gil Scott-Heron. Rock and roll is a direct descendant of rhythm and blues, and so are soul, funk, middle-class black pop from Linda Hopkins to Ashford & Simpson, Philly-derived disco, reggae (less categorically), and jazz fusion and Eurodisco (less categorically still, since both are genuinely interracial styles with disparate forebears). All these genres share formal and cultural presuppositions with white rock. As in white rock, their virtues have been diluted and puffed up, and they rarely sustain over an entire album. But turn on WWRL for half an hour and they’ll still be there.

All this is so obvious I feel dumb writing it. But it bears reiteration in the year of Saturday Night Fever and its pathetic, homophobic rebuttal, “Disco Sucks.” Whatever the real dangers and deficiencies of disco as a genre and a mentality, some disco records do more than just succeed on their own terms, as dance music — some of them are wonderful rock and roll. The Best of the Trammps (ineligible for the poll, like all best-ofs) is rough, driving soul in the great tradition of Wilson Pickett; the Bee Gees’ side of Saturday Night Fever (which broke — broke the ice, broke records, broke the bank — in 1978 but is ineligible because it was released in 1977) is inspired silliness in the great tradition of “Carrie-Anne” and “Itchycoo Park.” But the disco-sucks crowd can’t hear that any more than they can hear a Charlie Parker solo or a Joni Mitchell song. These assholes are such fanatics that they seize upon the first hint of synthesized percussion or rhythmic strings or chukka-chukka guitar — hell, the first lilt — as proof that anybody from Bowie to Poco has “gone disco,” though most often the discos could care less even when it’s true. They turn the fatuity, monotonousness, and wimpoid tendencies of the worst (or most monofunctional) disco into an excuse for rejecting all contemporary black music except perhaps reggae, and I bet they don’t listen much to Otis Redding either. One hesitates to cry racism. But this is certainly a good imitation.

So although the sweep put my beloved Pink Flag in the running, it cost me Lee Dorsey’s Night People, which I’ve played as much as any album to appear this year, although under scrutiny it does come up slightly short on consistency and wit. Night People is a real fluke, a classic New Orleans r&b album a decade after the style peaked, a great rock and roll album by an artist who is now 54 years old. It finished 34th, one of four records by black artists that ended up between 31 and 35. Two of the others were P-Funk outings, Bootsy? Player of the Year and Parliament’s Motor-Booty Affair. Together with Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, the year’s leading black album way up at 27, they would add up to 192 points and top-10 status for George Clinton if that were the way things were counted. Oh well. The two other most successful black albums, Al Green’s Truth n’ Time (30th) and Ornette Coleman’s Body Meta (32nd), were released late in the year on labels with sporadic (Green) or almost nonexistent (Coleman) distribution and press coverage, and might have done better with more time for word-of-mouth. But that wouldn’t have shattered the new wave hegemony either.

One thing [that] might eventually challenge it would be a shift in the critical population, but although I sought out writers specializing in black music, there aren’t very many. Only 12 of my 98 respondents, including two disco people, fit the category, and these followed a much less predictable line than the new wavers. This is partly because only the best new wave artists are getting recorded, while the term “black music” encompasses the multitude of genres I’ve already listed and probably a thousand albums a year. But it’s interesting to me that of the 12, only three named black albums exclusively. In contrast there were 39 critics who named not one black album — not only new wavers but a great many middle-of-the-road Joni-to-Brucie rock traditionalists, including several writers who I know love black rock and roll. If it weren’t for Lee Dorsey, I would have been among them myself. Which seems as good a place as any to enlighten you with my own painstakingly calibrated top 30, which you will read on newsprint only because Rupert won’t pay for granite:

1. Wire: Pink Flag (Harvest) 13. 2. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 13. 3. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13. 4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 11. 5. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 11. 6. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11. 7. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 7. 8. Lee Dorsey: Night People (ABC) 7. 9. Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 7. 10. The Vibrators: Pure Mania (Columbia) 7.

11. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire). 12. Joe Ely: Honky Tonk Masquerade (MCA). 13. Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14. Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis). 15. Television: Adventure (Elektra). 16. Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia). 17. Al Green: Truth n’ Time (Hi). 18. Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 19. Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff). 20. Shoes: Black Vinyl Shoes (PVC).

21. Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum). 22. Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca). 23. Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song). 24. Willie Nelson: Face of a Fighter (Lone Star). 25. Bob Marley & the Wailers: Kaya (Island). 26. David Johansen (Blue Sky). 27. Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest). 28. Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt). 29. Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista). 30. Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island).

And just because it was such a good year, allow me to append the makings of a top 40 for those with sentimental attachments to that concept: Raydio, Steve Gibbons Band, Ornette Coleman, Albert Collins, Loleatta Holloway, Teddy Pendergrass, Bruce Springsteen, Rodney Crowell, Tom Robinson Band, Tapper Zukie.

Measured by the sheer number of terrific new records, it has been a good year, too, despite my misgivings — more than satisfying in black music and the best ever in hard rock. That’s right, folks, I said the best ever in hard rock. Which is the less ominous reason for this year’s new wave hegemony. Because blacks have always been treated like a second-class market, a cost-cutting, singles-oriented, let’s-lay-down-a-party-track-and-split attitude continues to damage the overall effectiveness of black LPs — the Raydio album, for instance, knocks the Bee Gees out of the box until its last two songs. That’s one reason six of the 13 black artists I’ve named are clustered in the addendum at the bottom of my list. But the reason so many new wave records are clustered toward the top — nine out of 15 — is simply that they’re so damned good. In its first flush of studio assurance, the new wave mentality has set off a creative explosion, especially in songwriting, and I just don’t believe in upgrading an album on political grounds. Because my rankings are based solely on some intuitive balance of listenability and aesthetic intensity, I was forced to conclude that any five songs on the Vibrators or Ramones LPs were of broader usefulness than the wonderful 11-minute scatalogical rap that opens Funkadelic’s side two. Similar judgments were made by a devotee of the more standard r&b-rooted hard rock, Dave Marsh, who would have listed Saturday Night Fever and Earth, Wind & Fire’s All ’n All had they not been released in 1977, but who finally decided that Candi Staton and Teddy Pendergrass didn’t quite cut it.

I’m gratified that someone like Marsh, who’s a lot more skeptical about new wave than I am, should find so much good rock and roll of his sort this year, because it reinforces my suspicion that everybody’s rocking harder. True, most music bizzers are relieved that the Sex Pistols have vanished into infamy; they still find the Clash strident and the Ramones simplistic, declaring such bands unacceptable to the imaginary consumer who personifies their own complacency and cowardice. But because it’s the nature of complacent cowards to hedge all bets — and because they want to prove they’re not, you know, square — they reassert their own putative attachment to “good” rock and roll at the same time, thus easing the sales breakthrough of ‘twixt-wave-and-stream bands like the Cars and Cheap Trick. A similar snap-to by old fans (including radio people) who had previously been backsliding into resignation makes quick, surprising commercial successes of Dire Straits (42nd in Pazz & Jop despite late-year release) and George Thorogood and the Destroyers (51st despite a small press list), spearheading a minor white-r&b revival. The more conservative critics, eager to be open-minded, find the new Elvis irresistible and become instantly infatuated with Nick Lowe, whose genius for high pop was inaudible to all but a few pub-rock experts three years ago, while the new wavers move on to the likes of Pere Ubu and the Contortions and love Captain Beefheart better the second time around. Meanwhile, more and more musicians play lots and lots of rough, tough rock and roll.

It’s only fair to add that Marsh himself does not share my sanguine mood. He’s afraid it’s all a last gasp, and for his kind of rock and roll it sometimes seems that way. An interesting statistical sidelight of the poll is the high points-to-voters ratio of Who Are You and (hullo! what’s this doing here?) Street-Legal. When this happens with records below the top 15, it usually indicates preemptive ballot-stuffing, a cultish determination to push the Real Stuff up there, which in earlier polls helped hype Eno and Dr. Buzzard and Kraftwerk but these days seems to be the defense of the mainstream. (Some mainstream, eh?) On the other hand, the 10 records in the top 30 that have gone gold — Stones, Springsteen, Young, Cars, Zevon, Who, Dylan, Nelson, Cheap Trick, Funkadelic — are mostly to Marsh’s kind of taste, including four in his top 10, and he also voted for 36-ranked Bob Seger, who spent the year trading in his silver bullets on something more fashionable. So maybe what the traditionalists are really worried about is that, like me, he suspects Willie Nelson is more likely than Pete Townshend (or Bruce Springsteen) to make good music till he’s 60. Maybe they too detect in the eyes of the Cars and Cheap Trick the blank gleam that gives away artists who are turning to platinum from the soul out. Or maybe it’s just that he’s not comfortable with the shift to the left himself. Three years ago Bruce Springsteen was young blood, the bearer of rock-and-roll future. Now he’s a likable conservative — the vital center, your favorite uncle, like that.

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This would seem to be a swing year. The truism that success on the Pazz & Jop chart isn’t exactly synonymous with success on the one in Record World is borne out primarily by new wavers, who contributed most of this year’s dozen or so stiffs. Not even Patti Smith, who with help from Uncle Brucie finally bagged her hit single, achieved gold, which in the year of trentuple platinum (Saturday Night Fever has sold over 30 million units worldwide) is beginning to strike many bizzers as a rather negligible commercial goal. But for the more poppish artists the prognosis is favorable. Patti came close, and Talking Heads is over 200,000 with “Take Me to the River” still breaking as a single, so who knows where that will end? This Year’s Model has also done 200,000 or so and Costello looks unstoppable — he’s got a better shot at going platinum eventually than Jackson Browne appeared to five years ago. Lowe and Edmunds, who sold zilch, are just as talented as Elvis, but less passionate, less ambitious, and less young; still, if Rockpile is willing to slog it, they’ll do all right too. So will Blondie, already a major [band] in Europe and Australia; if Devo doesn’t go the way of the Tubes, they will too, which I’ll try to convince myself is a mixed blessing.

For the others, however, things look bleaker, with the U.S. sales prospects of the two greatest bands to come out of this thing, the Ramones and the Clash, especially depressing. So far, all that the Ramones’ hard touring and good music has netted them is more hard touring, more good music, and a nationwide cult large enough to keep their road operation out of the red; the Clash are stars in England but have shown as little interest in America as America has shown in them. David Johansen’s solo debut sold disappointingly, and although his sudden professionalism is awesome and his company support unusually single-minded, whether his hip, hoarse New York style can ever make a real dent in these United States is beginning to seem questionable. Solo Tom Verlaine, now minus Television, will tend to his own kind of professionalism, which will most assuredly have everything to do with music (and words) and almost nothing with becoming a star. Ian Dury is so English that he’ll always be a fringe benefit here. And Wire and Pere Ubu, both of whom enjoy modest success in the U.K. (even though Ubu is as loyal to Cleveland as the Clash is to its safe European home), are currently without U.S. labels.

Finally, though, I’m not convinced that all this crass pro and con retains importance. I’ve discussed sales annually in this wrap-up not only because they affect artistic strategy and define what kind of community the music and we its fans inhabit, but also, of course, because they determine what records get made and thus enter history. But it seems clear (knock on plastic) that we’re over that bottom line for a while. Maybe the Clash, embroiled and embittered, will bollocks Britain; maybe the Ramones and David Johansen will finally lose heart; maybe Tom Verlaine will do one solo album and disappear; maybe Wire will go back to art school; maybe Pere Ubu won’t even put out records in Cleveland any more. But though any of those things could happen and one or two of them probably will, all of them won’t. Nor will every one of the more salable new wavers turn to shit before our very ears. This new kind of rock and roll is going to be around for a while.

If someone had told me five years ago that I was destined for cultism, I would have scoffed, or cried. Rock and roll was pop music, that was my line — it don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got that cultural resonance. And in a critic like Marsh, the idea that good rock must move an expansive, broad-based audience remains as powerful as any inborn aesthetic conservatism. But I’ve changed my mind, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the enthusiasm for jazz that the bleak mid-’70s rekindled in me had a lot to do with it. For, looking around me, I am reminded of nothing so much as what I’ve read about the twilight of the swing era. Swing was vital popular music into the ’40s, and some of its proponents — not just Duke and Billie, either — did great work until much later, although not usually in a big-band format. But when Frank Sinatra shifted public attention from the bandleaders, who were swing’s artistic standard-bearers, onto the vocalists, most of whom had little of his talent and less of his integrity, swing began to evolve into the fatuous pop music of Mitch Miller and Doris Day, the music rock and roll revolted against.

Long before then, however, two different groups of black musicians had staged their own revolts. The Kansas City style that had been sophisticated into big-band swing was also simplified into rhythm-and-blues, which many blacks and slowly increasing numbers of whites preferred for dancing. Aimed point blank at the new teenage market (sometimes in combination with country music), r&b of course turned into rock and roll. Meanwhile, somewhere to the other side of the pop-swing mainstream, renegade big-band musicians sparked by Charlie Parker invented the apparently undanceable, virtuoso jazz style called bebop. Shortly after World War II, the style enjoyed a brief vogue symbolized in the picture magazines by Dizzy Gillespie and his zoot suit. Despite that flurry, though, bebop never became massively popular, and some of its key figures — such as Thelonious Monk — had trouble earning a living at it. Yet somehow, by the late ’50s, the harmonic and rhythmic ideas that originated with Parker pervaded jazz-based music.

There are no perfect historical analogies, and the equation of bebop with new wave doesn’t come close, not least because when bebop began there was no bebop — no popular-music-as-art-music — and now there is. As someone who has regarded Charlie Parker as the greatest 20th-century American artist even at the height of his infatuations with William Carlos Williams and Chuck Berry, I get nervous just putting the comparison on paper. But I’ve been making it in conversation for six months now, and I know of no better way to explain what I see happening. The rock that has become America’s popular music is rotten from Olivia Newton-John all the way to Kansas. Good art and/or worthy entertainment will continue to be created within its various genres, but as forms they’re moribund. Inevitably, the new wave ideas will infiltrate these genres and pop hybrids proliferate; since hybridization has always been a means to good rock and roll — eclecticism, remember? — some of them may be quite exciting and the real stuff will keep happening. I don’t believe any more than I ever have that new wave will turn into the next big thing. But I feel certain that it will survive and evolve as an entity — the musicians will be there, with a community of fans to support them. Some of them may even age more gracefully than most rock and rollers.

One reason this comparison makes me nervous is that in several ways new wave is bebop’s obverse: can a black music of unprecedented (for jazz) harmonic sophistication really parallel a white music of unprecedented (for just about anything) self-conscious primitivism? But though a lot of new wave may be technically unsophisticated, not all of it is — the English punk moment was an extreme — and in any case rock-and-roll so-called sophistication has always been conceptual, not technical. What’s more, rock and roll has been exploring self-conscious primitivism as a means of making black-derived forms authentic for white people ever since Elvis Presley; sometimes, as in Eric Burdon, the results are embarrassing, but other times, as in the best one-take-and-out Bob Dylan, they’re magnificent. And it’s interesting that in a couple of ways the parallel really comes alive — because, in addition to the hostile bohemian stance assumed by both new wavers and beboppers, a corresponding musical strategy has served to repel potential fans of each vanguard.

The great jazz critic Martin Williams argues that Charlie Parker’s most decisive innovation was not harmonic but rhythmic — that the difference between a Parker phrase and almost the same notes played by Ben Webster was that “Parker inflects, accents and pronounces that phrase so differently that one simply may not recognize it.” While I can’t follow bebop’s harmonic permutations closely enough to judge with any certainty, that’s always sounded right to this unschooled bebop fan. Similarly, John Piccarrella has asserted in these pages that the essence of new wave is what he calls “forced rhythm,” a term that evokes the frenzied effect achieved by many otherwise dissimilar bands. And once again, that sounds right to me. But here’s another obverse: Charlie Parker swung with a vengeance, whereas new wavers — unlike Guy Lombardo or Linda Ronstadt, who simply don’t swing — don’t swing with a vengeance. Oddly enough, though, turned-off listeners have complained about the “frantic” quality of both musics.

The main reason I’ve never bought that stuff about new wave reviving the rock-’n’-roll verities is that new wave doesn’t sound very much like (good ol’) rock ’n’ roll. It’s too “forced,” too “frantic.” It’s this — combined with its disquieting way of coming on both wild (hot) and detached (cool), rather than straightforwardly emotional and expressive, another effect it often shares with bebop — that limits its audience, and it’s this that makes it so inspiring aesthetically. This isn’t just (blues-based) white music — it’s White Music, or maybe even WHITE MUSIC. Which brings us back, strangely enough, to new wave hegemony.

I believe new wave’s aggressive whiteness is a strength; I like its extremism, its honesty, its self-knowledge. But like the English punks, who love reggae as much as their own music, I’d consider myself some kind of robot if that was where my desires ended. And though I’ve made a case for all the black subgenres already, let me close with a zinger. Maybe, just maybe, if new wave is bebop, then disco is rhythm-and-blues. Once again, the analogy may be, er, slightly flawed — disco is a worldwide pop music, whereas r&b took a decade just to get beyond the juke joints and the “race market.” But both hard funk to the left of pop disco and Eurodisco to its right resemble, in their patterns of production and consumption, other eccentric, largely self-referential styles (reggae, for instance) that have contributed so much to the general vitality of popular music. And this is not least because the relationship of both styles to their audiences is unmediated by detailed attention from the mass media or informed critical scrutiny.

In the ’50s, r&b coalesced with bebop ideas in styles called “hard bop” and “soul jazz.” What do you think new wave disco might sound like?

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Finally, my thanks to all those who got their ballots in on time, with a few samples:

Bobby Abrams, Dale Adamson, Vince Aletti, Billy Altman, Colman Andrews, Anonymous, Lester Bangs, Michael Barackman, Alan Betrock, Michael Bloom, Steve Bloom, Jon Bream, Tom Carson, Brian Chin, Georgia Christgau, Jay Cocks, J. D. Considine, Noel Coppage, Bruce Dancis, Michael Davis, Robert Duncan, Lita Eliscu, Susan Elliott, Todd Everett, Jim Farber, Carol Flake, Mike Freedberg, Dave Frechette, David Fricke, Aaron Fuchs, Deborah Frost, Russell Gersten, Harold Goldberg, Toby Goldstein, Jim Green, Pablo Yoruba Guzman, Bob Hilburn, Geoffrey Hines, Richard Hogan, Stephen Holden, Tom Hull, Scott Isler, David Jackson, George Lane, Bruce Malamut, Greil Marcus, Dave Marsh, The Masked Marvel, Janet Maslin, Perry Meisel, Joe McEwen, Daisann McLane, John Milward, Rick Mitz, Teri Morris, John Morthland, Richard Mortifoglio, Fred Murphy, Paul Nelson, Jon Pareles, Fran Pelzman, John Piccarella, Kit Rachlis, Richard Riegel, Ira Robbins, Wayne Robins, John Rockwell, Frank Rose, Joe Sasty, Mitchell Schneider, Dave Schulps, Andy Schwartz, Bud Scoppa, Susin Shapiro, Bob Sheridan, Don Shewey, Michael Shore, Steve Simels, Robert Smith, Tom Smucker, Chip Stern, Geoffrey Stokes, Wesley Strick, Sam Sutherland, Ariel Swartley, John Swenson, Roy Trakin, Roger Trilling, Ken Tucker, Gregg Turner, Mark von Lehmden, Richard C. Walls, Charley Walters, Ed Ward, Paulette Weiss, James Wolcott, Jon Young.

VINCE ALETTI: USA-European Connection (Marlin) 10; Don Ray: Garden of Love (Polydor) 10; Musique: Keep On Jumpin’ (Prelude) 10; Voyage (Marlin) 10; Sylvester: Step II (Fantasy) 10; Alec Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: Romeo and Juliet (Casablanca) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; James Wells: True Love Is My Destiny (AVI) 10; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 10; Cerrone: Cerrone IV: The Golden Touch (Cotillion) 10.

LESTER BANGS: The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 30; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 20; Joe Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 15; David Johansen (Blue Sky) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 5; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 5; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 5; No New York (Antilles) 5.

TOM CARSON: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 18; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 15; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 12; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 7; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 7; Ian Dury: New Boots and Panties!! (Stiff) 6; Patti Smith Group: Easter (Arista) 5.

PABLO “YORUBA” GUZMAN: Parliament: Motor-Booty Affair (Casablanca) 15; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 15; Bootsy’s Rubber Band: Bootsy? Player of the Year (Warner Bros.) 15; Tito Puente: Homonajo a Beny (Tico) 10; Eddie Palmieri: Lucumi Macumba Voodoo (Epic) 10; Gil Scott-Heron and Brian Jackson: Secrets (Arista) 10; Chick Corea: Secret Agent (Polydor) 10; Tipico Ideal: Out of This World (Coco) 5; Van Morrison: Wavelength (Warner Bros.) 5; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 5.

STEPHEN HOLDEN: Keith Jarrett: Sun Bear Concerts (ECM) 19; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 13; Nina Simone: Baltimore (CTI) 12; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 11; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10; Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise) 9; Daryl Hall & John Oates: Along the Red Ledge (RCA) 8; Ashford & Simpson: Is It Still Good to Ya (Warner Bros.) 7; Gerry Rafferty: City to City (United Artists) 6; Wendy Waldman: Strange Company (Warner Bros.) 5.

TOM HULL: Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 15; Pere Ubu: The Modern Dance (Blank) 15; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 14; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 12; Blondie: Parallel Lines (Chrysalis) 12; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 9; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 8; Dave Edmunds: Tracks on Wax 4 (Swan Song) 5; Silver Convention: Love in a Sleeper (Midsong International) 5; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 5.

DAVID JACKSON: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 30; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 10; D. J. Rogers: Love Brought Me Back (Columbia) 10; George Thorogood and the Destroyers: Move It On Over (Rounder) 9; Sun Ra: St. Louis Blues: Solo Piano (Improvising Artists) 8; Joan Armatrading: To the Limit (A&M) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 5; 21st Century Singers: Sunday Night Fever (Creed) 5; Peabo Bryson: Reaching for the Sky (Capitol) 5.

GREIL MARCUS: Bryan Ferry: The Bride Stripped Bare (Atlantic) 30; Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 20; Lou Reed: Street Hassle (Arista) 15; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 5; Johnny Shines: Too Wet to Plow (Blue Labor) 5; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 5; Carlene Carter (Warner Bros.) 5; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 5; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5; Warren Zevon: Excitable Boy (Asylum) 5.

DAVE MARSH: Bruce Springsteen: Darkness on the Edge of Town (Columbia) 30; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 12; Cheap Trick: Heaven Tonight (Epic) 12; Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes: Hearts of Stone (Epic) 11; Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia) 10; Steve Gibbons Band: Down in the Bunker (Polydor) 5; The Cars (Elektra) 5; The Who: Who Are You (MCA) 5; John Prine: Bruised Orange (Asylum) 5; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 5.

JOHN MORTHLAND: David Johansen (Blue Sky) 17; Joe “King” Carrasco and El Molino: Tex-Mex Rock-Roll (Lisa) 16; The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic) 12; Eric Dolphy: The Berlin Concerts (Inner City) 12; Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller)(Warner Bros.) 12; Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band: Stranger in Town (Capitol) 10; Raydio (Arista) 6; Jack Clement: All I Want To Do in Life (Elektra) 5; Delbert McClinton: Second Wind (Capricorn) 5; Professor Longhair: Live on the Queen Mary (Harvest) 5.

JON PARELES: Captain Beefheart & the Magic Band: Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller) (Warner Bros.) 10; Air: Open Air Suit (Arista Novus) 10; NRBQ: At Yankee Stadium (Mercury) 10; Steve Reich: Music for 18 Musicians (ECM) 10; Brian Eno: Before and After Science (Island) 10; Happy the Man: Crafty Hands (Arista) 10; Jules & the Polar Bears: Got No Breeding (Columbia) 10; Weather Report: Mr. Gone (Columbia) 10; Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire) 10; Carla Bley: European Tour 1977 (Watt) 10.

TOM SMUCKER: Willie Nelson: Stardust (Columbia) 17; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros.) 14; Kraftwerk: The Man-Machine (Capitol) 12; The Gospel Keynotes: Gospel Fire (Nashboro) 11; Bonnie Koloc: Wild and Recluse (Epic) 10; Alec R. Costandinos & the Syncophonic Orchestra: The Hunchback of Notre Dame (Casablanca) 9; Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire) 8; Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 8; Television: Adventure (Elektra) 6; Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia) 5.

ROGER TRILLING: Ornette Coleman: Body Meta (Artists House) 10; Conjunto Libre: Tiene Calidad (Salsoul) 10; Culture: Harder Than the Rest (Virgin Front Line import) 10; Miles Davis: Dark Magus (CBS/Sony import) 10; Funkadelic: One Nation Under a Groove (Warner Bros) 10; Majestic Dub (Joe Gibbs import) 10; Michael Mantler: Movies (Watt) 10; Thelonious Monk: Monk at the Five Spot (Milestone) 10; Milton Nascimento: Milagre dos Peixas (Odeon import) 10; The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones) 10.

Top 10 Albums of 1978

1. Elvis Costello: This Year’s Model (Columbia)

2. The Rolling Stones: Some Girls (Rolling Stones)

3. Nick Lowe: Pure Pop for Now People (Columbia)

4. The Clash: Give ’Em Enough Rope (Epic)

5. Talking Heads: More Songs About Buildings and Food (Sire)

6. Bruce Springsteen: Darkness at the Edge of Town (Columbia)

7. Ramones: Road to Ruin (Sire)

8. Neil Young: Comes a Time (Reprise)

9. The Cars: The Cars (Elektra)

10. David Johansen: David Johansen (Blue Sky)

— From the January 22, 1979, issue

 

Pazz & Jop essays and results can also be found on Robert Christgau’s site. His most recent book, Is It Still Good to Ya? Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967–2017, was published last year.