Sunday, June 1, 2014

To Live in This Town Must Be Tough, Tough, Tough, Tough, Tough, Tough, Tough!

By 1978, the Rolling Stones had more or less relocated themselves to New York City. After Keith Richards got through his legal troubles in Toronto, he moved to South Salem in suburban Westchester County. Mick Jagger had always been a citizen of the world, but he was increasingly haunting the city by the mid-1970s. Bianca - who was still Mrs. Jagger until May of 1978, when she got tired of hearing stories about Mick chasing Jerry Hall around Bryan Ferry's pool table - had more or less set up residence at Studio 54. In October of 1978, the Stones played an infamous set (and sort-of hosted) on the season opener of NBC's Saturday Night Live, at the time the most important television show on the air, and rather proudly a product of New York City.

So it's no surprise that their album Some Girls, released in June 1978, was so steeped in the city. New York in all its filthy glamour oozes from its bones - even though the record was recorded entirely in Paris. It was even written in Paris - as Keith noted in Life, the Stones came into the studio without anything prepared and worked it all out there. Keith doesn't say anything about how New Yorky that record was, but let's take a look at it track by track:

  • "Miss You": Mick wrote this under the sway of endless evenings at Studio 54, and he hammered that home by setting the song so thoroughly in the city: "I've been walking Central Park, singing after dark, people think I'm craa-zy." People are right. And where do you think all those Puerto Rican girls live, who are just dying to meet you?
  • "When the Whip Comes Down": Jagger wrote this from the perspective of a gay man trying to find a place for himself:  He goes to 53rd Street, where people spit in his face, and runs into truckers down by the East River. Rod Stewart's "The Killing of Georgie," about the murder of a gay hustler, also takes place on 53rd Street. I worked on 53rd Street in Manhattan for several years, but I cannot vouch for the veracity of any of this.
  • "Just My Imagination": On this cover of the old Temptations song, Mick changes "out of all the girls in the world" to "out of all the girls in New York." This one really gives the game away, since there's no other reason for Mick to alter that lyric except to keep the New York theme going.
  • "Some Girls": No direct reference to New York, but what other city has white girls and black girls, English girls and French girls and Chinese girls and Italian girls? It ain't Akron.
  • "Lies": Again no direct reference to New York - except that "Lies" is also the title of a big hit song by the Knickerbockers. Get it?
  • "Respectable": This tale of a woman who's now respected in society certainly seems to be set in New York, especially with the chugging punk guitars.
  • "Before They Make Me Run": No New York City content. "Before They Make Me Run" is a total Keith song, and as I noted, he doesn't seem to be aware that the Stones were making a NYC album.
  • "Beast of Burden":  No New York City content.
  • "Shattered": Arguably the New York Citiest song of all time, at least prior to "People Who Died." I can't give it away on Seventh Avenue.

Buck Owens: The antithesis of New York City
I left off "Far Away Eyes," which is the exception that proves the rule. It is the musical outlier on the album, a Buck Owens tribute explicitly set in Buck's hometown of Bakersfield. "Far Away Eyes" makes the rest of Some Girls seem that much more cosmopolitan by contrast.

There have been other albums steeped in one specific geographic area: the early Beach Boys records, for instance, and all those mid-period Kinks albums about English small-town living that no one actually listens to. And I'd throw in the outer-borough sensibility of Fountains of Wayne's Welcome Interstate Managers.

But all those groups were writing about their homes. The Stones weren't from New York; like Holly Golightly, they moved there from somewhere else but came to embody the city.  Like Holly, they had to adapt a little, trying on the disco boots of "Miss You," but New York likes that sort of thing. (This makes "Far Away Eyes" their Doc Golightly.) That theme of adapting is reflected on the infamous album cover, where the Stones are transformed into bouffanted advertising models whose hairstyles you can change by sliding out the inner sleeve. Fun for the kids!

The Rolling Stones bestrode the earth like a colossus in the late 1970s - "Miss You" would prove to be their last Number One hit, "Beast of Burden" went Top Ten, and even "Shattered" made the Top Forty, briefly sharing the charts with Ace Frehley's "New York Groove." They sauntered into New York City as if they owned the place, and for a while, they did. They came, they saw, they conquered.