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Most of this blog is related in some way to the music, books and films produced by Gonzo Multimedia, but the editor has a grasshopper mind and so also writes about all sorts of cultural issues which interest him, and which he hopes will interest you as well.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

THE ROLLING STONES/MUDDY WATERS: Can Blue Men Play the Whites?


I rather like BBC iPlayer.  Recently it’s shown several music related programmes that I would otherwise have been forced to buy, or at the very least try to blag, in order to write about them in these hallowed pages. For those of you who are not regulars, although the vast majority of what appears on the Gonzo Daily has some relevance towards music, films or books released by Gonzo Multimedia, sometimes I pull rank, claim editorial privilege, and write about various music, book or film related subjects which have nothing to do with our parent company whatsoever, but which interest me, and I hope will interest the Gonzo readership.

A lot has written about this newly released DVD of a 1981 concert by Muddy Waters during which the Rolling Stones and various other luminaries took the stage.  It has been heralded as an artefact of an event of quite some historical significance, so my mother-in-law, Prudence the dog, the orange cat and I sat down to watch it. Like all these things, it turned out to be both more and less impressive that we had been led to believe.

First of all, let’s get the cultural context bit out of the way.  This has been portrayed as one of the grand old men of the blues communing with his spiritual grandchildren who act as acolytes as the aforementioned ‘grand old man’ somehow invokes the spirit of the Houngan who met Robert Johnson at the crossroads, and spreads the magic of the blues far and wide to a new generation. 

Well, it’s not like that at all.

First of all, Muddy Waters (real name McKinley Morganfield) was only 65, which makes him younger than any of the Rolling Stones are now (although I have to admit this is a real-world 65, which is considerably different to a western world rock aristocracy, complete with Botox, nips and tucks and whatever other magic plastic surgeons, personal trainers and dieticians can provide).  Secondly, the Rolling Stones were roughly 40 at the time, and approaching middle-age, and with their best days creatively quite a long way behind them. Thirdly, although the event has been portrayed as being more or less spontaneous, the presence of quite a sophisticated TV crew would seem to contradict this.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are moments in this DVD which are truly thrilling.  Hoochie Coochie Man and Manish Boy do hit the intensity of blues ecstasy that Dr John has been trying, and failing, to achieve for years.  There is a genuine warmth between Muddy Waters and Mick Jagger who seem to be very fond of each other and Muddy Waters’ band augmented by Messrs. Richards and Wood cook up a demonic gumbo which is truly inspirational.

Unfortunately this takes place about a third of the way through the DVD and things go downhill from then on.  Muddy Waters breaks is spell  that he has cast by inviting three more guests – Buddy Guy, Junior Wells, and a very drunk Lefty Dizz – on to the stage, and the whole thing becomes black showbiz almost instantaneously, and is horribly reminiscent of one of the more irritating segments of the Cosby Show. Somehow, Muddy Waters’ band (who weren’t actually terribly good, but have a generous dollop of whatever the musical equivalent of genus loci is, are shunted off and replaced by the cream of Chicago’s session musicians who can play significantly better but who have about as much soul and integrity as a New Labour party political broadcast.  Buddy Guy, looking somewhat like a TV evangelist in an unflattering white suit, plays some fantastic guitar, and you can see why when deciding to form Cream in 1966, the young Eric Clapton had modelled his modus operandi on him.  Junior Wells is very professional but looks like a black Norman Wisdom.  I don’t think that it is racist to say that he was wearing a ridiculous hat.  Lefty Dizz played and sang with flashes of brilliance, but was so drunk that most of it was self-indulgent fret-wanking.  Whereas Muddy Waters’ band had played off each other organically, with two exceptions most of the all-star band were trying to outdo each other, which was a great pity.  The two exceptions were – surprisingly – Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood who just looked pleased to be there.  Keith in particular played some understated and elegant guitar, and Ronnie Wood did his best.

The interesting thing was seeing how out of place Mick Jagger was. At the time the Rolling Stones were one of the biggest stadium rock bands in the world, and it is obvious that Mick Jagger’s on stage movements had been honed to look their best on a huge stage in front of an audience of tens of thousands. On a tiny stage in an intimate blues club he looked out of place, uncomfortable, and – at first, at least – more than slightly ridiculous.   The fact that he was wearing a bright red track suit was a rare fashion faux pas from somebody who has usually looked eminently stylish over the last half-a-century.

It is difficult to know how to put this next paragraph without being, or at least without seeming to be, offensive.  But I will try.  Let me say as a disclaimer that I have no political axe to grind, and that I am not meaning to offend anyone black or white; but despite having spent decades pretending to be black, Mick Jagger was just not as good at it as the natives.  He strutted and pouted, doing his best Tina Turner impersonation, but next to Junior Wells, who despite the ridiculous hat, did have a natural sense of rhythm, and was doing the same pouting and posturing as Jagger, poor young Michael Philip from the London School of Economics just looked silly.  My youngest step-daughter, a few years ago, had a boyfriend from Eastern Europe and the two of us would spend happy evenings getting mildly drunk and playing Command and Conquer together.  As any devotees of this really rather good video game series will know, some of the main characters are Russian, and come out with the most appalling Slavic clichés.  I asked Ivan whether he found these clichés offensive.  After all, I said, I would find an English video games character and wore a bowler hat and said “Spiffing, top hole, old chap” all the time offensive to me as an Englishman.  The trouble is, Ivan and I were both drunk at the time, and I can’t remember his answer. I thought of him this evening, while we watched Mick Jagger desperately trying to be black on stage with Muddy Waters, and wondered whether any red-bloodied young negro would find Jagger’s desperate aping of his culture just as offensive.  I really wouldn’t be surprised.

Another thing which was painfully obvious was that Muddy Waters was not much better at being a sidesman to Mick Jagger than Mick Jagger was fulfilling the same role to the man who was, after all, his mentor. There was obviously great love and respect between them, and occasionally, like on the closing song Champagne and Reefer they meshed perfectly and it really gelled.  But most of the time, it didn’t, and one felt mildly relieved when Jagger left the stage and went to sit down in the audience.

Now, as regular readers will no doubt know, I love the Rolling Stones, or at least the first two versions of them.  They were at their best when they had a truly inventive virtuoso on lead guitar.  Brian Jones was a genius, and Mick Taylor was – and is – my favourite lead guitar player.  Ronnie Wood just cannot compare to them, and never has been able to. The fact that he has lasted 37 years with the band as against Jones’ seven, and Taylor’s five does I think explain his role within the Rolling Stones.  He is not there as a musician. He is there as a peacemaker.  He stops Mick and Keith wanting to kill each other too often, and he acts as a discreet liaison between the front line and the rhythm section.  Visually and musically he is a foil for both Mick and Keith.  But he’s no genius, he’s no virtuoso, and the band have never been the same since he joined.  I would love to have seen the concert that I watched this evening if Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy et al had been joined on stage by Mick, Keith, and either/or psychopathic and doomed Brian Jones, or the elegantly brutal Mick Taylor. Then the music produced during this classic concert would truly have been invocatory and extraordinary, rather than just entertaining.

One of the things that so many reviewers have brought up whilst discussing this DVD is the old, irritating, and more than slightly racist question: can white men play the blues?  On the basis of this DVD, some of them certainly can, just as some black men can try to upstage each other or be irritatingly drunk buffoons.  A curate’s egg, but one that has made a tasty omelette. 

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