Disillusionment and Extreme Pleasures: the Rolling Stones’ Forty Licks

By Daniel Garrett

Rolling Stones
Forty Licks
ABKCO/Virgin, 2002

Clarity of instrumentation, careful arrangements, discernible melodies, varied tempos, declamatory vocals without affectation, and contemporary and even lyrical themes—surprise: the Rolling Stones made good music. The blend of beautiful and ugly sounds, and of complex and simple structures, are fairly consistent in the band’s work. (Modern art not only takes ugliness as a theme, it uses it as part of its aesthetic—as a tool, as a force.) The band’s sensibility is casually cynical, intelligent, and observant; and what is observed are recognizable street scenes, social situations, and personal experiences, including protest demonstrations, drug use, nervous conditions, infatuation, lust, and bad love. In the songs it is sometimes hard to distinguish between honesty and sarcasm. The sensibility in the Rolling Stones’ music, especially the music the band made in the 1960s, is analogous to what can be found in modern literature and film; and it is a music of disillusionment and extreme pleasures and acceptance of—whatever.

Songs such as “Gimme Shelter” and “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” have a live sound and great momentum, as if the best rock music creates its own eternal now. There is a choral introduction to “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” followed by guitar notes and voice, and the song—featuring a music organ—is like a modern spiritual teaching: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” There is both an historical and a spiritual lesson in the impersonation of evil that is “Sympathy for the Devil,” in which Jagger sings, “I shouted out, Who killed the Kennedys, when after all it was you and me.” It is challenging, and probably as healthy as it is decadent, depending on one’s own orientation and weaknesses, to be able to embrace the darkness of the human condition, as is done in the music of the Rolling Stones.

The Rolling Stones, as most people know, are singer Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards, drummer Charlie Watts, and guitarist Ron Wood, and featured bassist Bill Wyman, and guitarists Brian Jones and Mick Taylor in earlier days. For most people, Jagger and Richards are the band’s core. Keith Richards has participated in various musical projects away from the band that have enlarged public understanding of his contribution and worth. Mick Jagger has looked always as if he was capable of anything—a great part of his appeal; and though his figure could be androgynous, his voice, capable in song of speaking, shouting, and whining, as much as singing, is a tough voice—a voice that says, This is no pushover or fool. There is something still wonderful about Jagger being so compelling a figure—desired, envied, respected—without being likable. Mick Jagger’s sensuality has no savoring softness and his sorrow has no sensitivity—his is a very modern temperament. (It is possible he synthesized the eloquence of British literary tradition with the hedonistic license of the blues and the experimental openness of modern art.) Mick Jagger is what is required and what is possible: and he is an original.

What is intriguing is that one can hear some of the history that surrounded the music of the Rolling Stones as it was made: the social turmoil and the social progress are in the rhythms and sensibility of the music. The strongest songs on the first half of this collection, Forty Licks, are: “Gimme Shelter,” “Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” and “Wild Horses,” songs from the 1960s and early 1970s. The second half’s strongest work includes “Miss You,” “Beast of Burden,” “Angie,” “Shattered,” “Fool to Cry,” “Keys to Your Love,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Emotional Rescue,” and “Losing My Touch.” Though the second half of the anthology—featuring newer songs—is not as consistent in quality as the first, Forty Licks is extraordinarily impressive: one hardly thinks of this kind of music as having integrity—a word that seems nearly pious—but integrity is what the music of the Stones has: and that means, here, personality, imagination, intelligence, and honesty. I would not say that one can easily locate the values one wants to live by in the music of the Rolling Stones (I would not say that at all), but the music offers true reflection.

I can hear the inspiration that subsequent musical figures found in their music, in the band’s literate lines and loud/quiet/loud tempos. The independence and alienation in the lyrics are a recognition of the possibilities of individuality: liberation, suffering. I love the nightmare atmosphere of “Miss You,” which is like entering an erotic dream one finds tormenting and hovering near satiation, and the questions—of doubt, of attraction—in “Beast of Burden” still register. Some of the songs of the Rolling Stones are perverse in implication and suggestion; and the band’s songs are likely to be a permanent part of the culture.

About the reviewer: Daniel Garrett has written about music for AllAboutJazz.com, Hyphen, IdentityTheory.com, Option, and PopMatters.com, including commentary on Sade, the Afghan Whigs, Tupac Shakur, Kitchens of Distinction, Matthew Sweet, and Annie Lennox; and his commentaries on Lizz Wright, Leela James, Skye, Morrissey, Sinead O’Connor, B.B. King, Frank Sinatra, and Al Green have appeared on the web pages of The Compulsive Reader. Daniel Garrett has written also about art, books, business, film, and politics, and his work has appeared in The African, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Cinetext.Philo, Film International, Offscreen, Rain Taxi, The Review of Contemporary Fiction, and World Literature Today.