Thursday, July 21, 2016

Starting up with the Rolling Stones

Mick Jagger on the runway. Rolling Stones in concert at Hyde Park in London, 2013.
Photo by Gorupdebesanez. Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0.
It's been one of those hectic periods during which all I want to do is get in bed and pull the cover over my head until it's over. Leonard Bernstein did a wonderful video series of Beethoven's nine symphonies, and at the beginning of each show, before the music began, he gives a talk brimming with ideas and passion for the music. Bernstein is the sort of genius of such lofty occupation that I cannot fault him for his earthly sins. In one of those fascinating talks he mentions how people often say when Beethoven wrote Piano Sonata No. 8 in C Minor, the so-called Pathétique, he was depressed, and depression colored the music with its fury, agony, and lethargy. But Bernstein says no, if you're depressed you stay in bed. You certainly don't get up and write music. He's right, of course. Bernstein here spots the musical version of literature's intentional fallacy that says it's a silly reader who supposes that the word I means the author. My students used to say things like, "Shakespeare was broken-hearted the day he wrote this sonnet." Maybe so, but it's foolish to assume so until you know so. But fallacy be damned, I haven't felt like doing much of anything, and I lack ideas—hence yesterday's pathetic hodge-podge of Random Notes. Fortunately, another source of musical genius, the Rolling Stones, have dropped an idea in my empty idea basket.

The Stones, of whom I am a long-time fan, have newly revised their Android app with several new and wonderful features. They have a message wall (sort of like Facebook) where people can leave Stones stories, and to kick-start that, people who post on the wall automatically become eligible for a drawing for prizes—I haven't worried about prizes because I'm sure there will be so many entrants that I'd have better luck winning the Powerball. My purpose isn't winning but just writing. Everyone has a Stones story, so I wrote mine, which goes something like this:

I saw the Stones in Houston's Astrodome in 1981 by chance. My downstairs neighbors in Houston were Pam and Janet, two young women from Ohio in the "My City Was Gone" epoch. As everybody immigrated out of the "rust belt," they apparently went to Houston, as if someone had handed out flyers like those in The Grapes of Wrath. Pam and Janet were surviving in Houston, and at a time when I had no money, they had tickets for the Rolling Stones concert. I had income, but I lived hand-to-mouth. My irregular cash flow probably meant I had no cash to flow during the narrow window that Stones tickets were on sale (sold out quickly they did). In all fairness, though, I should add that I was working at my first salaried job, and when they had offered me $15K in 1981 dollars, it sounded like a lot of money, but I quickly learned how little it was.

Pam was tall and not quite gangling, with dark-chocolate colored hair in a pixie cut and big glasses, which gave her an intellectual look. Though she wasn't particularly intellectual or scholarly, she was smart and perceptive of things most people didn't notice. She had a methodical way of speaking, putting each word down in a carefully considerate way, as if she were playing Go, and I love that in a person because I'm hypersensitive to usage. My own linguistic failings notwithstanding, bad syntax and grammar grate on me like sour notes on a violin. I felt Pam was a person with whom I could have had a nice romance, but as some people say, Why ruin it? She was, as the song says, someone with whom I couldn't get started, and I suppose she preferred it that way.

Janet meanwhile was blond, shorter, slightly rounder, and softer. Her conversational style felt a bit like someone rushing through the hallways of my mind looking for a joke that must be in there somewhere. She was an avid hunter, interrogating along one line of thought, quickly abandoning it when she didn't find what she sought, trying another of inquisition, and when she found the humor, she greeted it with a loud sharp barking laugh that sometimes I could hear even though I was upstairs in my own apartment. My social awkwardness and general lack of guile—I have little or no façade or mask to wear—made me easy prey for this hunter, but at the same time, her laughter made me feel good about my own silly faults and weaknesses. She wasn't at all hurtful or judgmental.

Janet had a pathologically jealous boyfriend named Raymond. One night I came home and Raymond was downstairs at Janet's door, crying loud enough for everyone all around to hear, "please, baby, oh please, let me in." I saw little of the private side of their relationship, but what I saw of these scenes in public places frightened me because they hinted of darkness and danger.

Pam and Janet threw a small party for ten people. Raymond did his best to fit into the relatively soft-spoken polite society that even this scruffy working class crowd formed, but he obviously struggled with discomfort, like a tom boy forced to scrub and put on a starchy Sunday go-to-meeting dress.

Pam sometimes came up to my apartment alone—Raymond probably wouldn't have permitted Janet to visit my apartment, even in Pam's company—and we would talk or gossip about Janet and Raymond, listen to music, and have a drink. I always had alcohol in the house, which is another reason I never had any money.

During one of Pam's visits she mentioned that it looked like Raymond didn't want Janet to go to the Stones concert, and Janet was debating between Raymond and Mick, Keith, and the boys. I guess Raymond feared the band would make a Honky Tonk Woman out of her. Pam said I might be able to have the ticket. Besides, I had a car, and Pam and Janet didn't, and Houston is a hellish place without one, especially if you're going to the Astrodome to see a concert.

A few days later, Janet's ticket fell to me and not long after that we were at the show. ZZ Top warmed up the crowd. That "little old band from Texas" had the audacity to ask for the headliners' position. Yeah right. I like them, and they were a superlative warm-up band, but they were no match for the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band.

Then it's "Ladies & Gentlemen..." l don't think they really invited us to welcome the world's greatest rock and roll band. It seems like they just charged the stage, and for the first time in touring history they could open with "Start Me Up" because this was the Tattoo You tour. They did all the great songs plus the album.

The tour was sponsored by a perfume company that had machines emitting sweet scents in the air, to say nothing of what people were smoking. The show was an extremely sensual experience, visual, and especially aural.

Keith Richards. Photo by Ilianov. Licensed by CC by 2.0.
Mick yielded control of the stage to Keith for "Little T&A." To my surprise that was the song that played in my head at work the next day. There's an intensity in Richards's performance that cannot be captured in a record. At the heart of rock lies an infinitely strong feeling that is ineffable and that cannot even be recorded, but when I see and hear Richards make it live, it is like getting a tattoo because it stays with me forever.

The next day at work I pretended to be normal even though I'd seen the seraphim pull open a crack in the universe to reveal the Gods of Rock. I've been to hundreds of shows, but this one l remember best, down there on the plebeian floor, close enough to make out the features of their faces and to feel the retinal sting of the lights—or maybe that was the glare of rock itself that these guys channeled so perfectly.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, a salesman from the company where I worked was at this concert wooing a potential client in a skybox with not only the show but various imbibements and some Honky Tonk women of their own.

The object of all this entertaining was a geophysicist who helped his clients find oil, and he recognized me as someone who could keep his multi-million dollar computer purchase in a productive mode, so in my turn I too got wooed and swept away to Colorado from Houston, a city in which, in retrospect, I cannot imagine anyone living voluntarily. I'm not sure, but it seems like there might have been a non-compete agreement with my Houston employer, but if there was, they didn't seek to enforce it. Instead, they gossiped in wicked ways with crudely fabricated stories that shocked me and that worried my new employer. I was certainly naïve—that $15K salary, for example—but I had viewed those people with whom I worked every day in Houston as friends, and the things they said about me—called my new employer up to tell him about me—shocked me because they were not only ugly lies but vicious attacks against me.

Mick Jagger. In concert with the Rolling Stones in New York City, 1970s.
Photo by Dina Regine. Licensed by CC By-SA 2.0.

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