After his 1959 masterpiece, Kind of Blue, Miles Davis teamed with Gil Evans for the orchestral sound of Sketches of Spain and the Rodrigo piece, Concierto d’Aranquez. In one session Miles picked up that some of his hired classical musicians felt they were slumming it, working with mere jazzmen. Not one to suffer fools gladly, he put them straight on this small point. “I can do everything you do”, he assured them, “plus something you can never do: improvise.”
Which of course is the essence of free jazz: the ability and audacity of virtuoso musicians (and not a few pretenders, one of whom died only last week) to stand at the edge of their experience and not know what will happen next.
Fast forward half a decade. A young and equally ascerbic Bob Dylan is trying to put Mick down. “I could have written Satisfaction”, he informs the frontsman for the world’s greatest rock ‘n roll band, “but you couldn’t have written …” (the choice from his songbook could hardly have been random) “… Like a Rolling Stone”.
“Yeah?” says Jagger. “Well I’d like to see you perform Satisfaction!”
(As it happens I was at Wembley in 2001 when, half way through a three hour Stones gig with me at the halfway line, one of those extending arms you get on fire engines lowered its robotic palm, Sir Mick in it, to within ten yards of where I stood. And what did he sing next? Dylan’s Like a Rolling Stone, covered splendidly.)
The immaturity of genius – from Mozart through Miles to Amy Winehouse – can be dismaying when we muddle our thinking. My flawed but brilliant teacher once put it thus: the creative impulse is utterly impersonal; it cares not whether it enters the world through a Christ or Hitler, only that it does enter the world. And Jagger, whose ego clashed with Dylan’s (though not, oddly enough, with Lennon’s) had a point. As strutting rock performer he is unsurpassed.
Not unequalled though. Prince? Bowie? Jackson? Mercury? Nor does Jagger’s voice do much to explain the Stones’ enduring success. It’s instantly recognisable, and technically as controlled as Sinatra’s, but hardly a great voice. It lacks the soulful gravitas of Jim Morrison, the pistol crack to honeyed harmony and back of Lennon’s range or the electrifying, ugly beauty of Van Morrison.
So what is it about the Stones? The classical music world has no monopoly on crass complacency. Jazz and bluesmen can be as bad or worse, and you still find people dismissing the Stones as just another bunch of whiteys who made a pile ripping off black music.
Yeah? That might account for a couple of overnight hits but we’re talking of a band on top of an insanely competitive game for more than half a century. So again, what is it about the Stones?
I was always a Beatles man. Still am. (Their versatility and creative drive – an acid fuelled magical mystery tour of genre synthesis for which subsequent musicians of every stripe owe a huge debt of gratitude – eclipsed all rivals with the part and very different exceptions of Dylan and Pink Floyd.) I dug the Stones, whose hits had milestoned my childhood and adolescence as surely as the Beatles’, but never troubled to look them up. Then two years ago I read Keith Richard’s autobiography. It gets repetitive toward the end and may well be ghost written but some things you can’t fake. What suprised and impressed me were Keef’s intelligence and Keef’s big heartedness. I commented on the latter to a lifelong pal, a keen amateur strummer himself.
Of course he is! There’s no other way he could be to play guitar like that.
Virtually every Stones hit is marked and recognisable in nanoseconds by the stamp of Keef. Just close your eyes and in your head play the opening bars of Street Fighting Man, Brown Sugar or Satisfaction. It’s there, right there in the way those riffs power up and drive the songs like a fine-tuned Porsche. That’s the spirit of the Rolling Stones. Jagger without Richard just doesn’t work: much to the chagrin of Mick, who, though one of the most famous men in the world, has never for all his efforts managed to divorce that fame from the band.
For his part Keef says this: “Mick’s like family. I can’t stand to be around him but know he’ll be there for me when the chips are down, and he knows the same about me.”
Priceless. So roll over Beethoven. You too Chuck – and you Miles. It’s only rock and roll but we like it.