"Goat's Head Soup"
by the Rolling Stones
(Rolling Stones Records; $5.95)
Rock: From Elvis Presley to the Rolling Stones
by Mike Jahn
by J. Marks
The pop performer back in the '30s, Nathanael West said, was a hooked trout writhing on the audience's line. Think, then, of rock groups shiyddering today on an electrically amplified bass beat and screaming treble. There is a line between rock performer and rock audience but it is less a fishing than a mainline. And the present rush is total: nothing short of epilepsy and electroshock, simultaneously induced. Nor is it therapeutic: Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and the Stones' own Brian Jones have been among the most notable casualties of that high voltage power line. The Beatles fell apart on it. It has helped create the alternating currents of even Bob Dylan's mercurial style. Dylan once said that he accepted chaos, but he wasn't sure it accepted him. The Rolling Stones also accept chaos, but in song after song chaos surely accepts them. Only the Stones have been able to conduct the present electricity, flirt with its death-wish, and diffuse it back toward the audience. And only they have stayed the same while they grew. Thus they have added to rock music while never abandoning—instead revealing—its essential power.
Their relation to their audience has been less prophetic than seismographic. From the moments of their best early songs, like "The Last Time" and "Satisfaction," they have been catching the signals in the noise and amplifying them. If most of the signals suggest that cultural noise is increasing, then the suggestion constitutes just one of the many paradoxes in their genius. "That man comes on the radio. And he's tellin' me more and more about some useless information, supposed to fire my imagination. I can't get no . . . Oh no no no . . . no Satisfaction": these lines from "Satisfaction" are perhaps the only universally recognized classics in rock music. But the words are submerged in the anarchy of the rock sounds. The lyrics whang in the same noise about which the Stones complain, yet the music continues to celebrate noise by revealing it as positive anarchy—a spicy soup. There's truth in the pejorative saw that rock audiences mostly don't listen to words. Rock audiences listen instead to a different authority. It's not the pure Word they are after, but the unspeakable Mix.
The words on Stones cuts are only good therefore, when heard within the contexture of the band and within the multiple layers of nuance that their singer, Mick Jagger, juices from seemingly banal phonemes. Also Jagger himself has reiterated that the words are unimportant, so much so that he intentionally mumbles the bad lines when they come up, mumbles them back into the music. For them, the mix is more important—a fact which even sympathetic auditors like Dylan have fought against. For example Dylan reputedly told the Stones he could have written "Satisfaction," but that they could never have written "Tambourine Man." Jagger's response was to admit that likely truth but to wonder, could Dylan sing "Satisfaction"?
Most of the great Stones songs, from "The Last Time" and even "Play with Fire" through "Sympathy for the Devil" and "Gimme Shelter" and on presently to "Winter" in the current album, are about the end of this world, the coming apocalypse and the beyond. What's beyond is moot. In "Gimme Shelter," storm and floods are threatening the singer's "very life today"; war, rape, murder are all "just a shot away"; so if he doesn't get shelter, he'll "just fade away." But into what? Into love: "Love, sister, it's just a kiss away." And so un- certainty boogies on because "kiss away" may mean either that love is close, or that love is a mere something to kiss goodbye. And in "Winter," the singer announces a "cold, cold Winter" in which "a lotta love is all burned out," but he goes on to hope for, and act out, a "long, hot summer," during which "a lotta love will be bumin' bright." In fact the song seems to be poised upon the actual moment of breakdown: "I wish I been out in California when the lights on all the Christmas trees went out. But I been bumin' my bell, book and candle, and the restoration plays has all gone 'round." Then, as in other songs on this album, there are the doubts; will the singer be able to give anyone else shelter after the darkness arrives?: "I wanna wrap my coat around ya ... I wanna but I can't afford ya."
These songs approaching and exploring the interface and environs of cultural death have played every jukebox in the land, come over every airwave into every cruising AM radio, pumped into every back-brain of the Western world's counterculture, and hopped up its every dancing foot. Apocalypse, the guitars and the highhat proclaim, is good times. Moving toward noise and let-loose energy is good times. It's good, rock audiences feel, more than think, to move toward entropy, toward random energy, toward "useless information," toward a total promiscuity where all modes, all styles, each diction, every voice and note are mixed into an overcooked stew where all discrete systems are broke, broken, broken down, running into—not merely juxtaposed with—one another. Yes! The title of this last album, "Goat's Head Soup," is not an accident.
The goat in the soup, as the full-color picture included in the album suggests, is the threatening fertility, demon sway j and black magic marinating in the soup of the age. The other pictures, on the cover, are David Bailey shots of each band member, veiled in distorting gauze, seeming to be submerging with a smile in the same soup. These images capture the enduring image of the band: a group welcoming and creating the chance to explore the volts beyond discreteness (they've always been past discretion), beyond the styles they and their times grew up with, beyond the customary orders of the day. A few bars in one of the best "Soup" songs, "Coming Down Again," says it well: "Slipped my tongue in someone else's pie, tasting better all the time ... Being hungry, it ain't no crime."
Tongue? Someone else's pie? Rock music has always caught itself between moaning and meaning, between pimples and posterity. So the first thing to admit is that the Stones are often outrageously obscene and very nasty. But there's more, for they are promiscuous in the root sense of being pro-mix. The visual signature on their latest album labels is a red hanging-out tongue; they call their touring plane the Tongue, perhaps because it slips them into different lands with different languages all over the world. And their recorded voices are anything but their native London tongues. They sing put-ons, put-downs, Appalachian lays, delta blues, urban blues, Texas blues, Nashville country, blackface-vaudeville, hard rock, psych rock, demon rock. And they mix them, running through several styles in one song, even merging more than one in a single line. More than any other group, rock or jazz, gospel or pop, they sing in tongues. Singing or talking tongues is an energy trip, a passing over into another state on the total mix of all sound, with all discrete meanings merged in a rush, a rush which approximates a mode ineffably beyond this world of linear, un-tongued discourse.
The Rolling Stones have hung together longer than any other rock group (except, I suppose, for the Beach Boys and The Band, now touring again with Dylan). Perhaps because the events of the decade since their first single in June 1963 impinge on their consciousness, history has preoccupied the Stones—noticeably since "Sympathy for the Devil," but more strikingly in this album than in any of their others. "Dancing with Mr. D.," "100 Years Ago," "Coming Down Again," "Silver Train" and "Winter"—in short, most of the prominent tunes on the album—directly address the problem of living within history and the opportunity to plunge out. From this angle, the other songs are hints about how the Stones are living until the Last Time arrives. "Hiding away," for example, will be neither easy nor for everyone. But the song speaks very much to the present by bespeaking, as Dylan's resurfacing does, a refocused, hard-edged music which is as important in its sphere as the newest poetry, fiction and films are in theirs. Not incidentally, too, the spheres are really no longer that separate. Anyone listening to this album while reading Burroughs, Thompson, Pynchon, Wurlitzer, or watching Bertoiucci, Godard, Altman, Siegel and others will not only catch cross references but also enrich the separate pleasures.
The sliding style of Stones songs—as if they were bending whole forms, not just a single blue note—is the best feature of the kind of rock that the Stones savor, for it distinguishes them from blues on the one hand and jazz on the other. Blues is a round form by definition; it takes up an experience--lost lover, loneliness, feeling hung, aimless, trucking--feels it poignantly, expresses a coping attitude which accepts the irreversibility of the experience, and fades out with the mood better understood but still there, essentially there. Fine jazz, like Coltrane's, like Miles Davis', often offers an altemative, transcendent, expanded consciousness for the aural grabbing. The form of blues copes but doesn't transcend, while jazz transcends but doesn't cope—leaving, therefore, a gap. Rock—rock like the Stones play—transports between the two. The best examples of this style that I'm trying to locate are those groups or musicians who are at home with the different individual modes—the first Butterfield Blues Band doing "East/ West," or John McLaughlin (who has played with Miles Davis) teaming with Carlos Santana to play "Let Us Go into the House of the Lord." Each of these examples is of a music that moves an audience on a hallucinogenic journey from one place and style through others, wrapped exhaustingly in what the Stones have called "the silk sheet of time" ("I Got the Blues"), into zones of magnificently released energy.
The two books under review agree that the Stones are the greatest rock group today. Jahn's Rock awards them the honor because Dylan and the Beatles defaulted—I wonder what he'd say now that Dylan is back. And Marks concedes, in Mick Jagger, that they are the best, but also the best abandoners: "We are abandoned here in midair. Riding feebly tn the uncertain gust of Mick's last song." His book complements Jahn's history, though even together they don't take anyone very far toward what rock is. Jahn's accounting is of the Sgt. Friday sort—the facts, ma'am, just the facts. He ventures nothing and gains the same, though his book has redeeming value when the facts are themselves flat trivia, as they were in the early '50s, ripe only for the sort of fond and mindless chronicle Jahn has put together. Marks' story has nothing to do with the facts; he deals in what seem to me fax: suppositions about myths concerning other myths of rock personalities, which are themselves bogus projections. Marks agrees with the 1965 Stones cut that tells us that "The Singer Not the Song" is important. Marks has written, after all, about the singer. But Marks and the song are both wrong. "Goat's Head Soup" shows the Stones have realized that the singer is just a voice, a tongue, and the song carries the tongue, submerging it in the soup when occasions demand. It's the song not the singer. And the stones are now doing more with the song than is any other rock group.
Although no band has had a larger crush on America or has so totally lav- ished itself on every example of Ameri- can funk from T-shirts through Slim Harpo and Buddy Holly lo Los Angeles, they are the one band that America will never—can never—assimilate. America loved the Beatles, gorged on them, and ended by mushing them in muzak. Other groups sing Dylan songs, as they did the Beatles'. But nobody ever recuts a Stones number. The Stones are to popular music what Nathanael West has been to the American novel, only darker, deadlier, more the satanic majesties they claim to be: more a torch than West's thom in the side. Play with the Stones and you play with a tongue of fire.