Death Rock 2000

  • Okay, now for the white thing. My idea is that the Rolling Stones are relevant to the year 2000 not so much because they have been absorbed but because, in some ways—like James Brown—they haven't. Of course, musically they're regarded as either classic or moot, which makes them a dead issue, fully absorbed or not worth absorbing (though if the word hard is anywhere in your musical self-description—hard rock, hard beats, hardcore—then you're influenced by the Stones no matter what your genre). But there's a tendency in what they did—I'll call it the punk-rock tendency— which is still potent and problematic, still interestingly impossible.

    The Stones took call-and-response form and turned it on its head. A brief description of call-and-response: A preacher says or sings (calls) something, the choir and often the rest of the congregation sing out a standard response, the preacher says/sings something else, the choir/congregation sings out the standard response again, etc. The audience is part of the form of the music, the structure; no audience, and the call gets no response. On record, the backup singers substitute for the audience; James Brown calls, "Say it loud!" and the singers respond, "I'm black and I'm proud!" In general, this form permeates black music, even when there's no congregation or backup singers. Chuck Berry says, "Go Johnny go, go," and his guitar plays a riff in response. Or Robert Johnson sings a phrase and his guitar finishes it for him. To speak loosely: Even when the music isn't precisely a call and a response, it is musical elements in conversation, voices and instruments playing off of each other, leaving space for each other.

    Call-and-response is premised on a shared psychological space between singer and responders, between performers and audience. The Stones somewhat shattered that unity, set the relation between performers and audience as one of potential unresolvable conflict. And that's what attracted them their audience. "Don't hang around 'cause two's a crowd" attracted a crowd. The Stones were two mints in one, a come-here mint and a fuck-off mint, and the combination was involving, irresistible. (I think it was irresistible because it mirrored a split in the listener's [e.g., my own] psyche.) (And, well, probably 1000 different things attracted them their audience; different fans liked different things. But this was one.)

    I'm talking metaphorically here, since I'm not claiming that the song—"Get Off of My Cloud," 1965, the same year as "Papa's Got a Brand New Bag"—created any predetermined response in the listener. Probably most listeners, when they got to the call-and-response part, "Hey (hey) you (you) get off of my cloud," simply identified with the singer and believed they were addressing the same "you" as the Stones. As it happens, the metaphor captures what I felt when I first heard the song, performed by a rock band at a junior-high-school dance, my nemesis and ex-friend Jeff playing drums and screaming out the words. And what I felt was that the band were a bunch of scary cool creeps who were yelling at people like me, and that maybe I—teacher's pet, emotional weakling—deserved to be yelled at. So part of me was up there with the band yelling, and part of me was the "you" that was being yelled at. But the thing is, people like me weren't the outsiders; we became the Stones' primary audience, or a big hunk of it. And the kids up there in that junior-high rock band were probably as conflicted as I was, as unsure as I where they were in relation to the "heys" and the "yous." The lead guitarist hanged himself several years later—I know nothing about it. And Jeff—probably the most charismatic guy I've met in my life—turned himself off, at least in public, took himself down to zero for the rest of high school.

    In 1969 I got my first Stones album, Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass). Shortly afterwards I heard that Brian Jones had died. I didn't know any of the Stones' names except for Jagger. I didn't know which one Brian was. I looked at the pictures on Big Hits. One of the band members, the one with blond hair, had a flat, cool, blank kind of face. It reminded me of my friend the drummer. I hoped that this one, the blond one, would be Brian, the dead one, because he scared me the most.

    Here's the schema: (1) "Hey (hey) you (you)" is a call-and-response; this means that the audience is participating in its own rejection, if it wants, when told "don't hang around 'cause two's a crowd." (2) So the sing-along isn't merely an "Us vs. Them" chant; it can be an "Us vs. Us vs. Them," an audience dividing against itself, trying to overcome and deny itself, being empowered and unified in self-division and self-destruction. And I think that this catches the Stonesiness of the era, the punk tendency within '60s rock, the audience (some of it) needing to feel rejected (in part) or attacked (in part) as a sign of the superstar's integrity (and feeling a common bond with and distance from the other listeners who felt the same way, and with the band that was doing this to them, maybe).

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