“Happy” is one of my favorite Stones songs because Keith sings lead. I love me some Mick, of course, but there’s something about the way Keith just lets it all out, so unselfconsciously, so unconcerned with anything but having fun with it. He’s just really sincere and fucking cool.
Keith wrote this song in just a few hours, while he and a few Stones regulars waited for the rest of the band to show up for the recording of other tracks for Exile on Main Street. He figured they’d play around with it for a bit and finish it up with the Stones later that evening, but within four hours “Happy” was written and recorded with Keith as the only actual Stone on it. “Once you have something,” he wrote in his autobiography, “you just let it fly.”
Well I never kept a dollar past sunset,
Always burned a hole in my pants.
Never made a school mama happy,
Never blew a second chance, oh no
I need a love to keep me happy,
I need a love to keep me happy.
Baby, baby keep me happy.
Baby, baby keep me happy.
Keith’s assessment of his creative process on this song is so simple and elegant, and it’s what I try to do as a writer.
It just came, tripping off the tongue, then and there. When you’re writing this shit, you’ve got to put your face in front of the microphone, spit it out. Something will come. I wrote the verses of “Happy,” but I don’t know where they came from…
…Great songs write themselves. You’re just being led by the nose, or the ears. The skill is not to interfere with it too much. Ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow it where it takes you. You really have no say in it, and suddenly there it is: “Oh, I know how this goes,” and you can’t believe it, because you think that nothing comes like that. You think, where did I steal this from? No, no, that’s original—well, about as original as I can get. And you realize that songs write themselves; you’re just the conveyor.
As I write this and think about what the past two weeks since I last wrote have been like, I am filled with calm and a sense of purpose. I have wanted to write about this song for a while, but I wasn’t sure what to say about it other than that I love when Keith sings lead. So as I poked around his autobiography and found some stuff he wrote about “Happy” it all started to make sense. So far on What I Like Is Sounds I have written more about The Rolling Stones than any other band, and I keep wondering why that is. I have been a fan of theirs and The Beatles and Elvis and, most importantly, Chuck Berry since I was five. I certainly know more about The Beatles’ history than I do about the Stones’ (though I have read quite a bit about the Stones in the past few months), and I grew up listening to every Beatles album that existed; I had just a few Stones 45s and the brilliant Sticky Fingers album when I was a kid. As an adult I bought more Stones records and felt such a deep, emotional connection to them, often because of what was going on in my life when I first discovered them. As far as writing about the Stones on this blog, I’m not sure why I am more drawn to writing about their music than most other artists. Their lyrics aren’t really complex (except when trying to figure out exactly what the hell Mick is saying!), so it’s not like there’s always some secret meaning to discover. All I can guess is that their music really makes me feel something, anything. Not that all of my other favorite artists don’t. Maybe it’s because the Stones have had the longest career and there’s more music of theirs to choose from. Hmm. Not that it really matters, mind you. I just think about this whenever I decide to write about another Stones song. Why is their music so intriguing?
Enough of that. Back to the song itself.
Keith said that “Happy” is about a guy who wants to go out and have some fun, but he has no money. All he really needs is love. (Didn’t somebody else write that song?) I look at the lyrics as more than just a tale of a broke-ass dude who’s trying to get him some.
Always took candy from strangers,
Didn’t wanna get me no trade.
Never want to be like papa,
Working for the boss every night and day.
This sounds like someone who wants to do more than follow in his father’s footsteps. Happiness to him is not just having a woman; it’s living his life his way, it’s not being a slave to The Man. Love really is all you need, but that love is not just about having a significant other. You have to love your life. The Stones are known for their debauchery and fuck you attitudes. Each band member certainly had his share of drama and tragedy, but they always did the things they wanted to do no matter what. The Exile sessions are legendary. The Stones were in exile in France for tax purposes, and Keith’s heroin addiction had consumed him. So while these circumstances obviously do not provide context for a song called “Happy,” they do reflect the working class values Keith was raised with. Today, the Stones are filthy fucking rich, but in the early 70s they couldn’t keep up with the exorbitant British tax rate, so maybe Keith was considering, albeit subconsciously, what it really meant to be happy. He was a serious junkie at that point, but in the few hours it took to create this masterpiece he was able to see what was really important in life.
Never got a flash out of cocktails,
When I got some flesh off the bone.
Never got a lift out of Learjets,
When I can fly way back home.
And clearly, Keith is not impressed with the glamorous life. Brian Jones and Mick loved to mingle with the hoi polloi—Mick had married Bianca not long before the Exile sessions—and I don’t think Keith was ever down with that. Mick was Posh Stone, and Keith was Dead Common Stone.
I used to want to live the glamorous life, but I’ve grown up. What’s really important in life is just being able to spend time with family and friends, doing work you truly enjoy, and feeling happy with yourself. That’s the simple truth, and I think about that when I hear Keith sing this song.