When I think about the Rolling Stones, anthemic guitars crash into my consciousness. Boisterous blues riffs fill my ears, my eyes and my frontal lobe. A guitarist is huddled on the stage by himself, crouched over almost like a hermit crab. Scraggly hair, dangling jewelry, and smoke wafting above him in an ever present cloud.
When I think about the Rolling Stones, I think about their larger than life, steel wheels, arena pounding biggest rock band in the world personality and presence. Mick Jagger prances about, Charlie Watts keeps perfect, stoic time seated behind his simple, yet powerful drum kit, and the guitars are always in front. Always leading the way. Always filling up the space, leaving space for little else.
More than anyone or anything else, the true power and creativity of the Rolling Stones is in the talent of lead guitarist and eternal life force Keith Richards, maybe my favorite rock and roll guitarist ever. Because even though his riffs are chunky and massive, he remains graceful and light. Even though the blues music he plays is cranky and fuzzy, his stage presence is fluid and ever so smooth. It’s not exaggeration to suggest that watching Richards play the guitar is like watching a ballerina dance, or a street mime gently try to escape an invisible glass box. We may be hearing loud raucous rock and roll, but we are watching something completely different. What we hear and what we see is almost dissonant in its very nature.
However, moments of synchronicity do exist, moments where we can hear lovely gentleness and grace reflected in the music that we are seeing on stage, such as in the beautiful “Beast of Burden” from the amazing 1978 Rolling Stones album Some Girls.
The song begins not with an electric guitar attack, with rather with a gentle slide. The strum of a chord, the hand moves up the neck for a higher tone accented by a few single notes and more chords. E to C#m to A. The pattern repeats. An inventive riff that gently evokes the most pristine soul music, and the sublime disco music of the day. The syncopated drums come in perfect beat behind Keith’s guitar as rhythm guitarist Ronnie Wood plays a counter melody. A throaty organ comes along adding color and texture, and they are off.
“I’ll never be your beast of burden
My back is broad but it’s a hurting
All I want for you to make love to me
I’ll never be your beast of burden
I’ve walked for miles my feet are hurting
All I want for you to make love to me”
Michael Jackson must have been listening, because less than ten years after the release of “Best of Burden” he would be stealing all of Mick Jagger’s vocal ticks and hiccups that we hear here. This song that stands alone. This song that really doesn’t sound like anything else in the Stones catalog. This song that may not even be rock and roll. After these short couple of verses, we are at the chorus and the entire band sings along.
“Am I hard enough?
Am I rough enough?
Am I rich enough?
I’m not too blind to see”
This band that sang “Under My Thumb” and “Brown Sugar,” songs that objectified women, songs that made women only something to be ogled and controlled was now flipping the script. They are presenting themselves, supplicating themselves, making their case, pleading that they are good enough.
“All your sickness I can suck it up
Throw it all at me
I can shrug it off
There’s one thing baby
I don’t understand
You keep on telling me
I ain’t your kind of man”
Find your way over to YouTube, and look at videos of Keith Richards playing guitar. Beyond the macho bravado and the drug tinged carelessness, you will see a true artist at work. Look at him playing this 12 string in “As Tears Go By” from 2008. Watch this solo version of “Gimme Shelter” from 1993. Look at the craggy hands playing slide acoustic in this 2012 footage rehearsing “Little Red Rooster” with James Cotton. Richards gets better, deeper into the instrument and more invested in the craft with the passage of time.
“Beast of Burden” was recorded over 40 years ago, but I don’t know that I have really heard anything much like it since.
“Beast of Burden”
Written by Jagger/Richards
Performed by The Rolling Stones
Released September 1978