“Stupid Girl”

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I’ve been using the word “stupid” a lot lately.  No real reason; it just seems like everyone and everything is kind of annoying to me right now.

This is one of the more mean-spirited songs from the Rolling Stones.  I mean, let’s face it, these men are not exactly bastions of enlightened feminism.  Calling them sexist pigs would really be an insult to pigs, since, as far as I know, pigs don’t care what sex anyone is.  Unlike some of their other disturbingly anti-woman songs, “Stupid Girl” has never been one of my favorites, although I can think of any number of reality TV stars it could be applied to.

Stupid just seems to be everywhere right now.  It’s like some kind of highly communicable disease: Everyone catches a case of it at least once in their lives, but if you’re lucky, it’s only mild and temporary.  But I see so much stupidity being treated like something worthwhile, it kind of burns me up. From politicians who proudly declare that they don’t know much about whatever important (and usually scientific) thing they’re trying to legislate against to a family of people whose last name begins with K and ends with “Oh my god, why do these people exist?”, stupid seems to be way too popular.  There was an epidemic of stupid in Baltimore the other day, which seems to be dying out but could flare up again at any moment.

I should take a moment to explain my definition of stupidity.  Stupid people are not those who are uneducated.  That’s simply being uneducated, and if you expose most people to ideas and knowledge, they will take in at least some of it.  Stupid is also not an inability to learn.  Developmental and mental problems are not stupidity; they are conditions that can be dealt with and adapted to.  No, stupid is the willful, conscious refusal to learn.  Stupid is the refusal to be open to new ideas and facts that may contradict or invalidate beliefs you hold dearly.  Stupid is the refusal to acknowledge that other people might not feel or believe the same things you do, and that you should not impose your beliefs or feelings on others without their permission.

So this merely adequate Rolling Stones song is dedicated to all you stupid people out there.  I’d say you know who you are, but you’re probably too busy declaring how smart you are to the rest of the world.

“Paint It Black”

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Today is the anniversary of Brian Jones’ death.  The founding Rolling Stones guitarist was found at the bottom of his swimming pool at Cotchford Farm, his estate in England.  (Cotchford Farm had originally been the home of A.A. Milne, the author of Winnie the Pooh and various related titles.)  While Jones’ death was ruled accidental (“death by misadventure,” I think it was called), there have always been rumors that he was murdered.  Personally, I don’t think so.  Brian was a mess after he was booted from the Stones; heck, he was a mess for quite some time before he left the band.  The Rolling Stones’ management (Andrew Loog Oldham) had pushed Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to the forefront, capitalizing on their charisma and chemistry.  Brian Jones had founded the band as a British blues act, but they started leaving the blues behind and moved to the rock sound we all recognize today.  (It didn’t help that Oldham was a controlling bastard, but that’s a different story.)  It wasn’t the vision Jones had for his band, and he found himself increasingly marginalized until he was basically forced out.

Brian Jones was one of those remarkably talented, but terribly troubled musicians that England seems to specialize in.  He was a blues aficionado, but he’d begun to branch out into world music (hence, the sitar).  It’s hard to say whether or not he’d have accomplished much outside of the Stones.  He’d reportedly been contacting other musicians to form a new band, but who knows how serious it was or what would’ve come from it.  I do know that there’s something so sadly compelling about his story.  He just seemed to be searching for someplace to belong.

“Gimme Shelter”

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This is one of those perfect songs.  It’s just the right combination of musicianship, singing, and production.  It came out at the right moment socially, politically, and so forth.  It is not only an amazing artifact of its time, but it is timeless.  Everything about this song just works.  (And whoever created this video for it did a damn fine job.)

Of course, a big part about what makes “Gimme Shelter” work is the stellar, unbelievable performance by Merry Clayton on backing vocals.  The song is about seeking shelter from a raging storm–and there were many storms raging in 1969–and her voice embodies that storm in every way.  Her voice builds, carefully slowly, punctuating not only Mick Jagger’s voice, but also Keith Richards’ guitar.  The strength of her voice expands to fill the song, screaming out the existential dread, the fear, that makes this song such a visceral experience.  At one point, as her voice cracks from the strain, it feels like a blow.  Like something just physically reached out of the speakers and punched you in the solar plexus.  I wince every time.  Merry Clayton’s performance on “Gimme Shelter” is one of the greatest vocal performances ever.  Yeah, the Stones played their parts and played them well, but this song would not be what it is if it wasn’t for the backup singer.

Backup singers don’t get a lot of glory, generally.  Most people just ignore them.  Their job is to make the lead singer sound good, and maybe provide a little eye candy for the audience.  Some backups go on to fame as performers in their own right, such as Luther Vandross and Sheryl Crow.  Some become integral parts of the band, like Patti Scialfa.  But mostly, they just go from one recording session to the next, travel from one tour to the next, singing other people’s music and making a living.  They’re good singers, versatile singers, but they’re not the star of the show.

Why am I going off on the subject of backup singers?  Because I just heard about a documentary that I really, really want to see.  20 Feet from Stardom is about the singers standing just behind and a little to one side of whoever is in the spotlight.  Merry Clayton is one of the subjects of this film, and I’d really like to hear what she has to say about her crowning glory as a singer.  Because even when I’ve heard her take the lead on songs (“Yes”  from Dirty Dancing comes to mind immediately), she’s never been quite as good as she was on “Gimme Shelter.”  She’s a force of nature on that song.