When life was young, it was about music. As life-affirming as the air it blew in on -- from the radio, the stereo – embodied by speakers the size of a VW engine – in bars, clubs and concert halls, and, of course, in bedrooms and finished basements of teenage exploration and wonder.
We danced, we loved, we talked, we debated, but the latest sounds were the essence of our well-being – often purveyed by radio deejays as revered as the rock stars’ discs they “spun.” They delivered rock ‘n’ roll sermons and we dialed in and said, “Yea, man.”
It was about hit machines, top 100 hits and top-10 hits, often played several times an hour in boisterous fashion on a.m.; in whispered seductive tones on nascent FM.
The treadmill of stardom was relentless but the new tunes that flowed like starbursts were all that mattered to us acne-splattered, horny teens, glued late-night to transistor radios, dialed in to 50,000-watt stations beaming from the U.S.
My favourite was “W-O; W-O; Woo Woo, Fort Wayne, Indiana!”
Music spoke to us:
“Papa was a rollin’ stone,
wherever he laid his hat was his home,”
“War, what is it good for?
And, even when it had nothing to say:
“Our house is a very, very fine house,
with two cats in the yard,
life used to be so hard …¨
There was joy in the grooves of the 33s:
“Do you believe in magic,
in a young girl’s heart,
how the music can free her
whenever it starts?”
It’s subjective but perhaps not. Where there were three white giants, there are now two. They changed the musical world – Bob Dylan, Mick Jagger and the late Robbie Robertson who died in August at the age of 80. All owed fealty to the Black giants that came before, all acknowledged it.
The irrepressible Jagger, also 80, and cohorts Ronnie Wood and Keith Richards just released their first new album in almost two decades, Hackney Diamonds. It joins their collection of 31 studio albums, 13 live albums, 28 compilation albums, 3 extended plays, 122 singles, 31 box sets, a hundred or more videos and countless feature films.
Dylan, another octogenarian, has released 40 studio albums, 96 singles, 18 extended plays, who knows how many “Basement Tapes” and his own share of videos. He’s touring this fall almost non-stop, hitting Toronto and Montreal in late October, omnivorous resellers asking more than $400 a ticket.
Robertson left the road and The Band relatively young, tired of touring and trying to hold together an ensemble cleaved by addiction, fearful he might end up dying young, like many before him.
Only keyboardist and horn player Garth Hudson, the funeral director’s son, survives.
Jagger, Dylan, Robertson and their cohorts were musicians’ musicians turned to deities by civilians and some musicians. Eric Clapton was so enamoured with The Band, he drove to Woodstock, N.Y., to their fabled house Big pink and asked to join. Robertson dismissed him, saying “What am I supposed to do?”
Dylan churned out tunes of unparalleled literacy, imagery and enigma, turned folk on its head, and, with The Band, electrified it and the pop world and went on to win a Nobel prize and keep on keeping on.
The Band reinvented popular music. Not chart toppers, but Robertson’s unique heritage of Canadian, Mohawk and Judaism gave his songs an uncanny view of American life, creating what some call Americana.
Beginning as a 14-year-old guitar phenom, his musical references were Canadian Indigenous elders and American rock ‘n’ roll beamed to hometown Toronto, with a few influences of the seedy side imposed by a Jewish gangster father he met several years after he was born.
But it was visiting the Mohawk community with his mother in summers, watching the elders play with intent and tell ancient stories, that forged his alliance with the guitar and storytelling.
He fit in nowhere and everywhere and recounted in his autobiography, Testimony, touring with Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm, a “brother” who he later became estranged from over royalties -- “They signed the contracts with open eyes” -- Hawkins and Helm would tell each other versions of, “Robbie’s Jewish, better watch your wallet.”
It took an outsider to appreciate our bizarre southern neighbour and churn out songs reflective of carnivals, subsistence farming, revolutionary war and curious characters, verses strung together by Black-styled R&B harmonies. They most admired the Staple Singers.
It was goosed by his unique guitar playing – bent notes, bent chords, pulsating, emotive cries -- an obsession fuelled by doing 100 solos a night in seedy clubs as a teenager with Hawkins and then going back to whatever dive they slept in to play until his hands could play no more.
His fills were exuberant, his solos carved joy out of every tune at whatever tempo. Where Jagger and Dylan could descend into darkness, Robertson often found exuberance and light.
He wrote most of the songs and left it to the rest of the band to sing them.
After Martin Scorsese’s The Last Waltz, the film of The Band’s farewell concert, Robertson joined the filmmaker in writing film scores and bingeing on cocaine, leaving the guitar and the road in the rear-view.
Jagger still struts, growls, dances, exudes sex appeal, a chameleon of multiple characters. He, like the rest, in their own way, a stranger in a strange land.
Born just outside London during World War Two, Jagger still laughs about the post-war canned fruit sent by Australian relatives and the crumbled cities that birthed lyrics like:
“When the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank.“
He hoarded American blues records, on which his friendship with Richards was forged in their teens.
But he could also wear New York the way Robertson could wear a carny barker’s hat:
Well, I've been whoring in my sleep You've been starring in my dreams Lord I miss you I've been waiting in the hall Been waiting on your call When the phone rings It's just a friend of mine it seems "Hey, what's the matter, man? We're gonna come around at twelve With some Puerto Rican girls that are just dyin' to meet you We're gonna bring a case of wine Hey, let's go mess and fool around You know, like we used to."
Or playing the role of a redneck from the Deep South, listening to a Jesus show on the car radio, in Far Away Eyes:
“Well, the preacher kept right on saying
that all I had to do was send 10 dollars
to the church of the Sacred Bleeding Heart of Jesus …
and all my dreams would come true.”
Or, stoking rage, as in Gimme Shelter:
¨Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away!”
Where countless have covered dozens of Dylan and Robertson tunes, few dare attempting a Jagger/Richard’s number.
Dylan, a Jewish kid in a small town in the wasteland of rural Minnesota, knew, he said, that he didn’t belong. It was as if he had been dropped from space. New York, then the globe, called.
He was an instant star, full of bravado, image building, ambition and genius.
Dylan was all mystery with no use for the cloak of heroism bestowed on him. He often wrote of a “crown of thorns.”
We were not privy to payola, record-label contracts which tied artists to hit-making assembly lines, indentured to the task of pouring out new LPs twice a year, singles every month, and endless tours on buses and airplanes, driving most to speed or heroin or cocaine or painkillers or just about anything they could use to keep their engines running.
They were all doing speed, said John Lennon in an ancient interview. They had no choice, he said. They were playing eight shows a night in combustible bars.
Some insist Richards could only play those soul-clenching guitar phrases if he was under the influence.
All we knew was when hormones and heartbreak and parents and school and the future gnawed at you, there was music to hide under, music to bandage the pain, music to sing and music to share and seduce.
Pop music of decades ago wasn’t the sound track of our lives but the wallpaper of our existence. It wasn’t about technology. A diamond stylus on the turntable, a decent set of woofers and tweeters and a lover to embrace was all the life one needed, lover optional.
Of all the records, the radio shows, the Top 100 countdowns, the concerts we travelled hundreds of kilometres to see, this was the trio that stood on the shoulders of the rest.
There were many “stars,” but Robertson, Jagger and Dylan changed popular music forever. Jagger and Richards, the “Glimmer Twins” production duo could do the garage band sound as well as put a song through their production machine with multiple guitar tracks, backup vocalists, jazz sax, turn the almost mundane into a rock ‘n’ roll symphony. Robertson and company, as well as Dylan, eschewed hi-tech and could sound the same on record as they do live.
They were what the late George Harrison would have described as Travelling Wilburys, a lark of a group Dylan was part of, along with Jeff Lynne and the late Tom Petty, Roy Orbison and Harrison, musicians for whom music and the road was life. Or as Helm once said, “We don’t do this for fun.” It was the oxygen they breathed and we happily sucked it up second-hand.
Dylan and Jagger both had heart issues, Dylan quipping that he almost joined Elvis. Jagger went from snorting cocaine off the amplifiers between songs to a strenuous regimen of cardio and Pilates to get in show shape and chewing bananas during stadium extravaganzas to keep his motor revving.
Dylan, like Jagger and the Band, also a subject of Scorsese’s cameras, remains on a lifetime tour, the audience he mostly ignores a necessary ingredient to a songwriter’s recipe and a showman’s life.
Jagger and Richards and Wood get together when the stars are aligned to again hit the road with Jagger the man behind the details, from the colour of the stage, the design of the set, the selection of the songs, the man who takes great pride in seeing 54 18-wheelers lined up to take the stage on tour.
Jagger, like Robertson, was the guy who was sober enough to get things done when the others in the band were either too messed up or just happy to go along for the ride.
Whenever Dylan and Jagger succumb, as we all do, their music, reduced to minimalist scratch-free bytes to be beamed wirelessly from devices unimaginable when we first heard these artists, will live forever.