Until I was in my 20s the only Stones album I knew inside and out was Sticky Fingers, and it’s still my favorite. Beggars Banquet is right after that, not only because of the amazing music on it but because of who I was when I became obsessed with it.
I was friends with a guy named Bill who I worked with at a grocery store. Long story short, he was a closeted gay man when we met, but before I helped him come out we liked each other, though I always knew he was gay. He was the only person I ever felt was my soul mate, and our relationship was great and co-dependent and dramatic and fun and life-changing. He was the first friend I ever had who really loved The Rolling Stones. He loved lots of music, just like I did, and the fact that he could look beyond the stuff on the radio was really impressive. I think he bought this album before I did. We never talked too much about the album’s actual music itself, like, the Stones’ blues and country influences, the social significance of “Street Fighting Man,” or Keith singing lead on “Salt of the Earth.” We would play his CDs as we sat in his bedroom at his parents’ house, just hanging out and talking about random shit and rearranging the animal figurines in his fucking curio cabinet; we did that more times than I can count. The music was sort of just in the background, but I appreciated that he appreciated it. Now I wish we had spent more time actually talking about the music, because though it was a shared experience in that way, when I listened to this album (and many others) over and over and over I know the feeling that it gave me, but I never articulated it out loud. I know I wrote something about Beggars Banquet before, because I remember writing about how I considered this the Stones’ country album. I wish I could find that essay, just so I could know what I was thinking back then.
But here’s what I think now: This is the Stones’ country album. You can absolutely hear the country twanginess in “No Expectations” and “Jig-Saw Puzzle,” even if they are not straight-up country. But “Dear Doctor” is straight-up country! Its storyline is typical hillbilly shit, and the way Mick sangs is just hilarious and perfect.
Oh help me, please doctor, I’m damaged
There’s a pain where there once was a heart
It’s sleepin’, it’s a-beatin’, can’t you please tear it out
And preserve it right there in that jar?
Oh help me, please mama, I’m sicknin’,
It’s today that’s the day of the plunge
For the girl I’m to marry is a bow-legged sow
I’ve been soakin’ up drink like a sponge
If that ain’t country, I don’t know what is! The main character’s mother is getting him all fixed up to marry this bow-legged sow, but he just cannot handle it so he keeps drinking. The lyrics are just perfect, an amazing ode to an American art form. And I especially love the way Mick imitates the runaway bride as he sings the Dear John letter she writes to her now-ex-fiance who didn’t really want to marry her in the first place:
Darlin’, I’m sorry to hurt you
But I’ve no courage to speak to your face
But I’m down in Virginia
With your cousin Lou–
There’ll be no wedding today
“Prodigal Son” is another great country song. The tempo is right, the way Mick phrases the lyrics. You can see a bunch of good ol’ boys sittin’ around their back porches scratchin’ on their washboards as they keep time with this one. And listen to “Factory Girl.” Holy shit. Pure country. The Rolling Stones in 1968 did country better than any of the pop stars posing as country singers in 2012. Amazing job.
One thing I know I wrote about this album in that previous essay was about the fascination British bands have with American southern music, country and blues. When I was doing research for my thesis on rock and roll and race relations I came across an article about Eric Burdon that was published in Jet magazine in the late 1960s where he talks about the blues, and how most British kids know more about Muddy Waters than most American kids. I was fascinated by that. The Rolling Stones were obviously and admittedly heavily influenced by the blues, and I can think of a bunch of others of their era who also listened to the blues as much as if not more than rock and roll. They understood that rock and roll would not have existed without the blues and country music. I’m not sure how many American kids in the 60s understood that, but I bet that percentage is higher than it is today. I think it’s safe to assume that at least 99% of American kids have no idea where the music they listen to started, and I bet they don’t give a shit, either.
I bring this up because I think that one of the reasons I liked Bill as a friend was because he understood the genealogy of rock and roll. Again, we did not spend lots of time dissecting it, but the fact that he had music in his collection from pretty much every genre was very important to me. Sometimes I think I’m a music snob like those guys in High Fidelity, but I don’t think certain people are not cool enough to listen to certain albums; rather, I look at music as the great liberator, an equalizing force, a healing entity that can bring people together. If you like a record that I like, maybe we can be friends. That’s how it used to be. Things are different now because the way music is recorded and distributed is so individualized, and people never have to be exposed to anything they don’t want to be exposed to. Sigh.
Aside from the country music on Beggars Banquet is some kick-ass rock and roll. “Sympathy for the Devil” welcomes us to The Rolling Stones’ ultimate banquet, where Satan is the guest of honor.
Please allow me to introduce myself,
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith…
Pleased to meet you,
Hope you guessed my name
But what’s puzzlin’ you
Is the nature of my game…
If you meet me, have some courtesy,
have some sympathy, and some taste;
use all your well-learned politesse
or I’ll lay your soul to waste.
As the Prince of Darkness brags about his conquests (killing the Romanovs and the Kennedys, for example), the backbeat of the music seduces us and makes us feel for the devil and all his hard work. We feverishly sing along with all the woo woos that back up the devil’s speech, waiting to hear what else he has to tell us. And what he tells us is that we are all hypocrites.
Just as every cop is a criminal
and all you sinners saints
Truth. This line shows that what the song is really about is the dual nature we all have. Nobody is purely evil or purely good. Each of us is capable of both.
Mick talked to Rolling Stone in 1995 about the actual music in “Sympathy for the Devil.”
It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it is also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive—because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it. But forgetting the cultural colors, it is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece. It becomes less pretentious because it is a very unpretentious groove.
Yes, I never really thought about it as that deeply influenced by those rhythms, but it is very obvious to me now. You really do notice how the music follows along with the intensity of Lucifer’s telling of his story, and it really is pretty sinister. So many layers to this song, and it’s no wonder that it’s always on lists of the greatest songs. Rolling Stone named it the 32nd greatest song of all time, and even the right-wing National Review called it the 3rd most conservative rock song of all time (they believed that the “devil” represented Communism).
“Street Fighting Man” is an important song for the Stones as it marks their first time making any sort of political statement. It is a comment on the riots and protests that were going on all over the world in 1968.
Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy,
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right
for fighting in the street, boy
Well now what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock & roll band?
Cause in sleepy London Town
there’s just no place for a street fighting man, no
This song was banned in Chicago in 1968 because of the violence that had taken place outside the Democratic National Convention the week before it was released. Mick and Keith laughed at the ban, and quipped that it would only help record sales like when “Let’s Spend the Night Together” was deemed too suggestive. But this song is not promoting violence; it’s more of a critique of the violence that was accompanied the many revolutions created by young people in various countries that year, including American protests against the war in Viet Nam. One line in the song is a protest against those who think that violence is the answer.
Hey, think the time is right for a palace revolution,
but where I live the game to play is compromise solution.
This is another example of a brilliant song with many layers to it, and it has been interpreted in all sorts of ways. Mick once said that he thought it was stupid to think that a record could start a revolution, though he wished it could. Well, I disagree with that, but I don’t think that this song ever started any riots. But rock and roll as a revolutionary force is absolutely real.
“Stray Cat Blues” is dirty and sexy. It’s about bangin’ underage chicks, probably groupies, maybe runaways.
I can see that you’re just fifteen years old
No, I don’t want your ID
And I can see that you’re so far from home, but
That’s no hangin’ matter
It’s no capital crime
Oh yeah, you’re a strange stray cat
Oh yeah, don’t ya scratch like that
Oh yeah, you’re a strange stray cat
I bet your mama don’t know you scream like that
I’ll bet your mama don’t know you can spit like that
Yeah, I bet there were lots of girls spitting like that back in the day. (wipes mouth) Pretty bold to write a song in 1968 about sex with 15-year-olds, not to mention having a three-way with her friend who’s even wilder. That’s what makes it such a fun song!
The last song on Beggars Banquet is “Salt of the Earth,” a beautiful ode to the common man. Whenever I hear this I think about my family and the majority of Americans who bust their asses every day doing back-breaking work they probably hate. And I think of people like Mick and Keith who are millionaire rock stars who get to do whatever they want to do. The common man made them who they are, and I think they understand that.
Let’s drink to the hard-working people
Let’s drink to the lowly of birth
Raise your glass to the good and the evil
Let’s drink to the salt of the earth…
Raise your glass to the hard-working people
Let’s drink to the uncounted heads
Let’s think of the wavering millions
Who need leading but get gamblers instead
Spare a thought for the stay-at-home voter
Empty eyes gaze at strange beauty shows
And a parade of the gray suited grafters
A choice of cancer or polio
Rock and roll is the music of the common people. It makes 1-percenters of a select few of those who perform it, but it is the 99% of us who need it to get through the day. I think “Salt of the Earth” is about them.
Starting an album with a song about having sympathy for the devil in each of us and ending it with a song that praises the working class makes perfect sense to me. All the stuff in between is the perfect lunchmeat in this rock and roll sandwich. See, we are all good and bad, we all have to do things we don’t want to do sometimes, we fight for what we believe in, and we have sex with the wrong people just to say we did it. We all have the same struggles—some more extreme than others, of course—and we all love rock and roll, because it’s our music. It’s the one thing we can all point to and find relief in.
I love this album because it brings together all the Stones’ major musical influences in one brilliant package. As someone who loves all types of music it’s a great way to get a sense of who the Stones are, and what they were thinking about in 1968. And I love it because it reminds me of a time when I thought I had finally found a friend who really understood me and liked the same stuff I liked. And that’s what music should do. It makes you feel like you have a friend.