Sticky Fingers. The Rolling Stones.
1971, Rolling Stones Records. Producer: Jimmy Miller.
Purchased ca. 1996.
IN A NUTSHELL: (Whoa! No pun intended!) If you ever wondered, “So, what’s the big deal about The Rolling Stones?”, listening to this album will provide the answer. It has rockers, blues, hit singles, country, and sounds like a rock and roll band at the peak of its powers. Plus, the songs and lyrics and performances are excellent. WOULD BE HIGHER IF – I would have listened to it more over the years and really connected with it; it would certainly be higher on a list of “Best Records.”
Ever since I was a small boy, I’ve known in my heart that I was destined to become … Hmm … Let’s start over.
When I graduated from Cedar Crest High School in 1985, I had my whole life ahead of me and I knew my future held … um, my future held … Okay, hold on. Give me one more chance. I will nail this opening.
I graduated from Millersville University of Pennsylvania in 1989 with a degree in Biology Education and big plans to … well, I planned to …
When I was a kid, the only thing I really ever imagined myself doing as a grown-up was exactly what I’d been doing since kindergarten: trying to make people laugh. To the right is an early picture of me trying to make people laugh with a “Lester” ventriloquist dummy (of Willie Tyler and Lester fame) that my mom truly believed was my ticket to stardom, I guess, because she has frequently brought up over the years her disappointment with the fact that even though she bought me that dummy, I never learned to throw my voice. (Not a joke, by the way.)
I’ve written before about my comedic ambitions, and I won’t rehash it all. But I will say that when I was 16 and told my parents that I wanted to be a comedian when I grew up, my dad freaked out to such an extent that it took almost 15 years for me to get over it and consider it seriously again.
With my only plan (vague as it was) squashed, I had no idea what I was going to do with my life. I had a few thoughts, and a couple deeply suppressed dreams, but basically, I went with the flent. (The phrase “Go with the Flow” is so hard to conjugate.) areermanagement.com/tools-resources/career-articles/why-is-it-important-to-have-a-career-development-plan/” target=”_blank”>I’m not a bum out on the street.
I’ve traveled a wandering path, but I’ve taken away valuable life-lessons at each stop. Since 1985, I have held the following jobs and/or pursued the following careers:
Sandwich maker/ice cream scooper – worked at a family run restaurant. Learned to appreciate the hard work required to properly clean a commercial grade grill. Learned to hate both customers and preparing their damn food.
Gym attendant – made money at college refereeing intramural sports (the rules of which I was iffy on, at best) and counting assists for the basketball team. Learned to hate seemingly subjective volleyball rules, and shoot-first point guards.
Night-shift chocolate factory candy packager – living near Hershey, PA, had its advantages. We were allowed to eat as much on the job as we wanted, but would be fired for taking any out of the building. Learned to appreciate the value of a college education. Learned to hate the night-shift and all-you-can-eat chocolate.
Grounds-crew worker – made money in college mowing lawns, spreading mulch and collecting garbage. Learned to appreciate garbage collectors. Learned to hate going to work drunk/hung-over. (In truth, I kind of learned that at the chocolate factory, too.)
Corn sex therapist – worked for corn seed company walking around corn fields and facilitating reproduction between specific plants with the use of corn condoms (i.e. paper bags.) Not too different from the popular Midwestern profession of corn-detasseler. Learned to appreciate punk rock and thoughtful punk-rockers (Eric V! One of the most important people ever in my life!)
High school substitute teacher – pretty much what it sounds like. Learned to appreciate substitute teachers. Learned to hate adolescents.
Landscaper – spread mulch, planted trees, laid sod while working for the most racist, sexist, hateful bigot I have ever encountered. Learned to hate other races, sexes. (Just kidding! Learned to hate that asshole Gary who was my boss.)
Waiter (drinks only)/Doorman – Learned to appreciate good tippers. Learned to hate drunks.
Bassist in original rock band – spent 2 years in The April Skies chasing that elusive record deal. Learned to appreciate the meaning of the word “dedication” and having a job at which I COULD show up drunk.
QC technician, aspirin factory – worked in the analytical chemistry lab making sure that what Bayer said they put into their aspirin was really what was in there. Learned to appreciate that chemistry is actually pretty cool. Learned to hate showing up at work on time after driving 3 hours from Manhattan in a gasoline vapor and cigarette smoke clouded VW bus at 2 in the morning.
Local tabloid stringer – wrote the “Cook of the Week” column for The Hershey Chronicle. Learned to hate bosses who don’t pay for weeks on end until finally you show up at their office and demand money from them and they hand you cash out of their wallet just to make you go away.
High Performance Liquid Chromatography column packer and tester – Learned to appreciate that there are all kinds of weird jobs out there. Learned to hate Bay Area traffic.
Actor – a few plays, a few little movies a lot of fun. Learned to appreciate how hard it is to earn money in the arts. Learned to hate rejection.
Playwright – had a play and a half produced for actual paying audiences. Learned to accept rejection.
QC Chemist – the Very Big Pharmaceutical Corporation of America. Tested all kinds of stuff meant to be injected, inhaled, swallowed and rubbed onto people and animals to cure their ailments. Learned even more about analytical chemistry. Learned to hate having to learn even more about analytical chemistry.
Improv Actor – Flash Family and Big Boned Theatre. Got on stage and made stuff up and finally made some (very little) money doing what I’d been doing since kindergarten. Learned to appreciate that, apart from mimes and morris dancers, nobody has less of a chance at making money in the arts than improv actors. Learned to hate analytical chemistry even more.
Analytical Chemistry Method Developer for biopharma – oh for Christ’s sake, not chemistry again. Learned to appreciate that if you’re going to have a family, you’re going to have to earn some money. Learned to hate most PhDs.
Stand-up comic – experienced artistic success, if not financial success, telling jokes to strangers. Learned to appreciate that comedy fame has nothing to do with talent – as evidenced by all the great comedians you probably haven’t heard of – and very much to do with luck. Learned to hate joke thieves and audiences who won’t shut the fuck up.
Analytical Chemistry Lab Director – for a biofuels startup company. Learned to appreciate that there’s a whole lot of complexity in a simple blade of grass. Learned to hate well-off venture capital big-wigs who do their jobs poorly, causing many not-so-well-off science little-wigs to lose the jobs that they do very well.
Quality Director for blood donor testing – still learning.
I’ve had such a schizophrenic work history, I might really need a psychiatrist!
“Why,” you are likely asking yourself right now, “do I give a hoot about your work history, and what does it have to do with your favorite albums??”
Well, album 95 is by The Rolling Stones, who in 2012 celebrated their 50th year as a band, meaning that as of today, Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have had the same job for 52 years. 52 years!!! I’ve had jobs I didn’t hold for 52 hours! They’ve been doing this for, well, 52 YEARS!!! This to me is beyond astounding! Even Ron Wood’s comparatively meager 39 year continuous work history (he joined the band in ’75) is amazing.
I myself had a stretch of nearly 8 years in which I held the same job, and I consider that to be noteworthy. Most people don’t hold a job for 52 years. The only example of someone who comes close are the waitresses at The Melrose Diner in South Philly, who used to wear (and maybe still do) little coffee-pot pins on their uniforms stating the year they started work. Last time I visited there, in the early 90s, one of the women wore a “1935” on her dress. Most people who hold a job for 52 years are typically viewed with equal parts admiration, skepticism and pity. Think of what you would say if someone told you, “That guy’s been a dish washer repairman for 52 years!”
“Really! That’s incredible! He must be in his 70s. Wow, what devotion!” (Admiration).
“But he can’t really still be able to repair a dishwasher, can he? At 72? Don’t you need some strength and flexibility?” (Skepticism).
“Geez, do you think he needs the money that badly that he still crawls around under dishwashers and pulls out clods of wet food?” (Pity).
Such are 2/3 of my feelings about The Rolling Stones in 2014. It’s quite impressive that they’ve been around for 52 years. And I’m skeptical that they make music anywhere close to as good as they used to. But I don’t pity them one bit – getting to play music for people is a much better way to earn money than fixing appliances.
I’ve been aware of The Stones for about as long as I’ve been aware of music on the radio. Even as a young child in the early 70s, I knew that there was a Rolling Stones, just as I knew there was a Beatles and an Alvin and the Chipmunks. They were like water or clothing or school or TV shows – things that were just part of the world around me that I didn’t think too much about.
As my musical tastes began to be refined, I grew more aware of the band. I listened to classic rock in the 80s, and The Rolling Stones were ubiquitous. “Start Me Up,” “Satisfaction,” “Paint it Black,” “Get Off of My Cloud,” “It’s Only Rock and Roll,” “Angie,” “Emotional Rescue,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together” … these are just some titles that I quickly rattled off without thinking, and there are dozens more titles that have been heard by rock music fans millions of times. It almost seemed pointless to me to buy a Rolling Stones record because I heard so much of their music in a day back in the 70s and 80s.
So I didn’t buy any. Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free?
After my record collection had grown some, it occurred to me that I should probably pick up a Rolling Stones record or two, just to see if there was more to them than what I heard on the radio, and I happened to find a used vinyl copy of Sticky Fingers at my favorite SF record store, Streetlight Records. I put it on and realized there is more to The Rolling Stones than what you hear on the radio. Much more…
Sticky Fingers is the first Stones album to feature guitarist Mick Taylor, who joined after founding guitarist Brian Jones left the band. Taylor contributed a lot, but he left the band after 5 years. His tenure is a length of time I can relate to, and it would rank as my second-longest stint at any job, if I were Mick. (I find it interesting that all the Micks in rock and roll were British: Jagger, Taylor, Jones, Jones and Fleetwood.)
Sticky Fingers opens with one of the most familiar of Stones songs ever, “Brown Sugar.” It is a great song, with an outstanding riff and driving tom-tom beat, and it’s probably playing on the radio somewhere in America right this very second. It’s an impressive song, too, in that it is probably the highest charting song ever (and certainly the only song played regularly in dentist offices) that lyrically celebrates the rape of slave children. The song also features what I feel is an underrated – very underrated – component of The Rolling Stones’ sound: Keith Richards’ harmony vocals. Pay attention to the “Lady of the house/wonderin where it’s gonna stop” lines. Keith has a reedy, whiney tone that sounds like it’s probably a smidge out of tune, but to me those harmonies just make the song.
Keith’s harmonies are also on display on the Country tune “Dead Flowers.”
This song is a simple country tune, and while the song itself is bouncy and upbeat for Country, the lyrics darkly speak of finding solace in heroin after an angry breakup. (And – to be fair – finding forgiveness, too.) Keith supports the chorus with a shaky harmony that fills out the vocals. But the simple song also has wonderful Keith Richards/Mick Taylor guitar work which somehow sounds country, but not twangy. There is a raunchy sound on the guitar on this track (the video above is live, and so sounds a little different from the version on the record) and though it’s a simple 3-chord song it holds up on repeated listens for me mainly because of the guitar.
While we’re on the topic of dark lyrics, let’s take a listen to the track “Sister Morphine,” shall we?? (And why not throw in some Salvadore Dali images to watch while we do?!)
Listening to Mick Jagger lyrics – whether about rape or heroin abuse or death by drugs – one tends to forget that he’s Sir Mick Jagger, international celebrity. In 2014, Jagger’s name still often gets thrown into the mix of tabloid-y stars, as it has since the band’s early days, and he has reached a point of saturation at which he now almost seems like the Khardashians or finalists on The Bachelor – people who are famous for being famous. But Mick was (and maybe continues to be – I haven’t listened to a new Stones album since Undercover, in 1983) a fantastic lyricist. “Sister Morphine” is a first-person account of drug withdrawal (and death?) that is direct and chilling, and coupled with Keith’s acoustic rhythm guitar and guest Ry Cooder’s incredible electric slide guitar (Mick Taylor was not present during recording, according to what I’ve read – although I’m no Stones expert) creates a spare, haunting song that connects with me as a listener. It’s the type of song that would’ve scared the shit out of me at 8 years old – around the time Scooby Doo was having the same effect on me – and now it’s one of the first songs on the album I’ll choose to play.
But Mick doesn’t just write good lyrics about sad, bad topics. One of the most enduring and popular Stones songs appears on Sticky Fingers – “Wild Horses.” I’ve read that Keith wrote the song about the pain he felt having to leave his newborn son, Marlon, to go on tour, and that Mick took the original lyrics and made them more universal. Whatever the story is, the lyrics offer a nice précis on the universal feelings of sadness and frustration and regret in any unwanted separation. And I know I’m starting to repeat myself here – and since Keith is known as one of the greatest rock and roll guitar players ever, and Mick Taylor joins him in Rolling Stone Magazine’s Top 40 guitarists ever, it shouldn’t be a surprise, really – but the guitar work is special on this song. The interplay between acoustic and electric, and how it supports the song without intruding on it, makes it a joy to listen to. The band does a good job of not letting the song get too sappy, of finding a bluesy feel to the sadness, not a maudlin feel. Maybe because they wisely resisted any temptations they may have had to add orchestra.
But they do know how to use an orchestra well, as the fabulous “Moonlight Mile,” which closes the record, demonstrates!
The middle to end of the song – when the orchestra picks up the riff, and the song builds, then falls – is one of my favorite parts of the entire album. The orchestra riff isn’t even a main melody in the song until the band finds it at around 3:35, and when the orchestra picks it up, it provides the perfect coda to the song and the album!
Okay, this review is getting to be pretty long now, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,”
which is probably my favorite song on Sticky Fingers! It’s a simple riff, and the band sounds hot and tight, like it just started jamming and the engineer flipped on the “Record” switch. It’s a showcase for the famed Stones rhythm section of Charlie Watts on drums and the retired Bill Wyman on bass. Neither of them is particularly flashy – on this song, or on many Stones songs – but they hold down a groove like no others, and place enough cool parts in songs (such as Watts’s double snare hit to echo Jagger’s question, “Can’t you hear me knockin?”) to satisfy. The song builds for a few minutes, then shifts suddenly to a Latin-flavored jam, complete with bongos, congas and a raging sax solo by longtime Stones sax man Bobby Keys. (In Keith’s autobiography Life it is clear that the only member of the Stones entourage who was as wild as – and maybe wilder than – Keith was Bobby Keys.) After Keys’s solo it’s Mick Taylor’s turn, and he plays a solo that is among the best ever in recorded rock and roll.
Two other great songs are “Sway” which again features that Keith harmony style I love so much, and “Bitch,” which is fantastic pop rock song whose title may suggest it has the most troubling lyrics on the album, though they have nothing on the opening track… Rounding out the record are the slow blues tunes “You Gotta Move” and “I Got the Blues,” both of which sound like they were written on somebody’s back porch hanging off a shack in deep Alabama, reminding the listener that indeed, the Stones started out as a straightforward blues band.
This album is excellent. If I were naming “Best Albums,” it would certainly be higher on the list. But the name of the list is “Favorite Albums,” and I never established that deep connection I did with some other (well, I guess 94 other) albums in my collection. If you don’t have this record, I would strongly suggest you run right out and get it. And if you hold your job for 50 years, compare the best work you did on your job to Sticky Fingers, and see if your work performance measured up. If it did, nobody should complain that you can’t do as much in your 52nd year as you did in your 9th. Some work is so good it can’t be topped!
Can’t You Hear Me Knocking
You Gotta Move
I Got the Blues
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