I had no idea what this song was about when I was a kid, but the guitar was just so kick-ass, and the lyrics were fun to sing along to. It’s a great song to perform if you want to do a bad Jagger impersonation. I played my mom’s 45 over and over, trying to understand what he was singing. I actually got most of the words right, I later discovered.
I learned about The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, Chuck Berry, Elvis, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, et al, through my mother’s amazing 45 collection. I listened to her many record albums as well, but I mostly played the 45s when I was really young because I liked to pretend I was a DJ, and I felt that 45s were better for spinning records over those imagined airwaves. The radio station I founded in my parents’ basement (with an annex in my bedroom, which I got in 4th grade) was WDRS, which stood for Dana Ricky Schroder, Ricky Schroder being my then-future-ex-husband. WDRS was at 113.2 FM, which I did not realize at the time could not have existed. 113.2 had a significant meaning to me: 1 because I felt that my station was cool enough to be in the hundreds; 13 because Ricky was born on April 13; and 2 because I was born on April 20. It made perfect sense to me.
So this was one of my favourite songs to play on WDRS. I also played “Hony Tonk Woman” a lot, which is another great Jagger vocal experience. “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” starts off with that highly recognizable guitar riff, and you just want to fuck shit up when you hear it. And then our hero Mick starts singing.
I was born in a cross-fire hurricane
And I howled at my ma in the driving rain
But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas
But it’s all right, I’m jumping Jack flash
It’s a gas, gas, gas
He almost howls the word howled. And I just love the way he exaggerates hurricane and rain. He does the same thing in the next stanza with hag and back. It’s almost too much! But you really understand The Essence of Jagger in the way he enunciates these lyrics, and I think he knows that since this is the most-performed song the Stones have. Mick loves being Mick! You can tell that he’s having great fun here.
The lyrics are actually pretty violent and rough. The one that I remember most from when I was a kid is “I was crowned with a spike right through my head,” except I didn’t realize he was saying crowned. Just knowing that he had a spike right through his head was impressive enough. I’m sure I wondered what all these crazy words meant, but I was more focused on memorizing what I could understand, and making up words for the ones I couldn’t figure out. No matter what, I knew the words to more songs than anyone in my elementary school. And no matter what, I was probably the only one who knew who Jumpin’ Jack Flash was. So I fancied myself quite sophisticated.
The real Jumpin’ Jack Flash was actually a gardener at Keith’s house back in the day. The story of Jack in the song seems to be sort of an ode to a guy who had a shitty childhood but who has moved past it and is now having a great life. Jack was raised by an old hag who beat him,
…But it’s all right now, in fact, it’s a gas
But it’s all right, I’m jumping Jack flash
It’s a gas, gas, gas
Then, poor Jack was drowned, washed up, and left for dead. His feet were bleeding, and all he had to eat were bread crumbs. Then he had bestowed upon him a crown of spikes right through his weary head. But again, it’s alright, because he’s having a gas! Mick has said that the song is “a metaphor for getting out of all the acid things” they were experiencing during their previous two psychedelic albums.
I definitely did not read the lyrics like this when I was 8. It was an enormously catchy song and I learned to love The Stones because of it. And I just found out that the weird sort of drop in the middle of the song that I always thought meant the 45 was warped is actually a flaw in the recording. It sounds like the song randomly slows down for a second during an instrumental part, but that was a technical issue where the master tape slowed down for some reason, and some of the early American pressings of the 45 contain that very noticeable change in pace. So that’s cool.
Listening to this “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” 45 over and over as I write this, hearing the scratchiness of the record itself and the sound of the needle hitting the vinyl really brings me back to my childhood obsession with these records. I’m not sure kids who growing up with digital music will ever understand how amazing it felt to hear music on records, to have to pick up the arm and place it on the song you wanted to hear, to have to get up and walk over to the stereo to flip the record over when one side was finished. I think that made those of us who were around back then feel more connected to not just the music, but to the technology of being a fan. These days you never have to step inside a physical structure to find the music you want; you never have to talk face to face with anyone about it. Don’t get me wrong: I think it’s incredible that we have immediate access to any song we want to hear at any time we want to hear it. But music was at one time a shared experience, and it’s really more individualized these days. The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum has a brilliant exhibit that showcases the technology of music. Before recorded music you had to go to a theatre or social event to hear music. Then there were Victrolas that were gigantic and expensive, but families who could afford them gathered around to listen to the fragile records that were played on them. Radio regularly broadcasted live musical performances, but did not start playing records regularly until after World War II. Jukeboxes were a popular way to get artists in the public ear, and many public spaces had them available for anyone with a few coins to select a song for everyone to hear. Cars started having radios installed in them, and then transistor radios were catching on. 8-tracks and then CDs were the norm, and by then you could listen to your Walkman and tune out everything and everybody. And that’s where we are today with iPods and MP3 players. You don’t have to share music with anyone anymore, yet our ability to share music through this technology is far greater than ever. But as an overall experience music just ain’t what it used to be.
But The Rolling Stones are still out there having a gas gas gas!