' ' Cinema Romantico: I'm Only Listening to The Rolling Stones

Wednesday, November 22, 2023

I'm Only Listening to The Rolling Stones

Growing up, we had a family friend named Joe who only listened to The Rolling Stones. That sounds like an exaggeration, akin to my proclaiming in fits of passion that I only listen to Lady Gaga, even though I’m always listening to all kinds of stuff even if I’m listening to one artist a lot. But with Joe, it wasn’t just a figure of speech. My dad and I took a canoeing trip with him on the Upper Iowa River in the summer of 1991, meaning a couple years after “Steel Wheels,” and the whole three-hour drive up I-35 and across various northeast Iowa highways, that album is what we listened to, the cassette deck in his van automatically switching when one side ended, over and over. It got to where every time “Mixed Emotions” came around again, I felt a little twinge of excitement. Joe was a regular at shindigs my parents threw, and I remember occasionally trying to instill my own musical predilections upon him, opining on Bobby Brown, or Neneh Cherry, but it never took. Joe only listened to The Rolling Stones.

Joe’s devotion was at partially responsible for my requesting Hot Rocks 1964-71 as a Christmas gift one year, though my first proper Rolling Stones record was not until 1994’s “Voodoo Lounge.” “Love Is Strong” was the big single, but what I loved most was “Sparks Will Fly,” which prompted me to take the headphones off at the bookstore listening station where I was sampling the album to get the CD to take it to the counter to buy it (what a time to have been alive), as generic as the title yet also exceptional in its commitment to assembly line quality. After that is when I really dug into the band’s back catalogue, and if the pizza place where I worked during high school tricked me into thinking I did not like country music by relentlessly playing the country pop of KJJY, it was the country and western-inflected rock of The Stones that opened my eyes and foreshadowed how alt-country, for lack of a better term, would eventually settle as my preferred genre. And even if by the time I became a regular listener they had long since transitioned from innately being the world’s greatest rock 'n' roll band to a business empire branded as The World’s Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band, The Stones still retained their impeccable craftsmanship. They never stopped knowing how, to quote the (self-proclaimed) Dean of Rock Critics Robert Christgau talking about one of the group’s late period records, “to construct, play, and--sometimes--sing a song.”

Since “Voodoo Lounge,” there have only been three records of original Stones material. “Bridges to Babylon” was in 1997 during my ill-fated run at the University of Iowa, meaning that even if I really did love that album independent of everything else in my life, it became both an indispensable in-the-moment companion and an eventual echo of how I felt back then, that christening Charlie Watts snare drum on “Flip the Switch” opening a whole portal to Hillcrest Hall, Burlington Street Bridge, and Phillips Hall and my waking world language nightmare. “A Bigger Bang” dropped my birthday weekend 2005, the same summer I moved to Chicago, back when I loaded up on physical CDs to celebrate, and I heard it a day before it was released at the Record Emporium on Lincoln and Paulina.  “Is this the new Stones?” I asked the guy behind the counter. He sold me a copy even though it technically wasn’t for sale. That shop had a sign claiming it had been going out of business since I-Can’t-Remember-When and now, of course, it really is out of business. The Stones aren’t, though. Their 26th American studio album “Hackney Diamonds” was released in October. I was not especially anticipating this record, maybe because it’s been so long since the last one, but now that it’s here, like Joe, all I’ve really been listening to is The Rolling Stones. It’s not my favorite record of the year...but it also kind of is? 

“Hackney Diamonds” may “consist mainly of filler,” to repurpose music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine writing about the band’s 17th American studio album “Emotional Rescue,” “but it’s expertly written and performed filler.” That might sound like faint praise, but he didn’t mean it that way, and I don’t mean it that way about “Hackney Diamonds” either. I don’t have anywhere near enough musical knowledge to explain what the record is doing, just how it feels to me and how it makes me feel, production perched between retro and modern, so it feels like The Stones right now, lyrics that mostly function as a vehicle for Mick’s elocution, and a cornucopia of Keith riffs, ageless, distinctly his, more vital than the solos. There’re a few tracks I skip, and though I always like the Keith songs, I don’t much care for the Keith song here, though maybe that’s just because it precedes “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” and by then I’m just itching to jump ahead. That’s the track, after all, with my girl Gaga.

Gaga appeared with The Stones in 2012 for their One More Shot live PPV performance, that I shelled out to see, to sing the Merry Clayton part on “Gimme Shelter.” Clayton, though, effected a primal terror that Gaga can’t reach (no one could). Among the latter’s myriad vocal virtues, however, is an explosive earnestness, and that is what the roadhouse gospel of “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” spotlights. If it’s little too conscious of its own showstopper ambitions at the start, somewhere along the line “Sweet Sounds of Heaven” sheds those pretensions and kicks into a true holy roller register, Sir Mick Jagger and his multi-hyphenate sherpa Stefani Germanotta going to the spiritual mountaintop together, making me think that all these years later, ineffably, cosmically, I have finally imprinted my own musical taste on Joe.  

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