through the past, darkly

My favorite scene in the Rolling Stones’ documentary, “Crossfire Hurricane” was set on a train, where the Stones are smoking and chatting around a table, and somebody asks them about their recent gigs in Georgia. Brian Jones looks up into the camera and stammers to the man with the microphone, “Everyone in Georgia is an idiot!”

That was the moment that I knew that things haven’t really changed that much in 48 years. It was almost embarrassing watching Andrew Loog Oldham snap his fingers and sway as Mick and Keith wrote “Tell Me” in their hotel room, because they could have been any band today or yesterday. I had seen it all before, and yet this had all happened before I had seen any of it, before I had seen anything at all. But were they really the blueprint? That’s how it all began? That’s it?

Part of the trouble for me with the Stones was their music. They were an R&B group from the UK. Scrawny, pale-faced Mick Jagger became famous because he could imitate singers like Howlin’ Wolf or Bo Diddley. How to reconcile this grand theft of Black America’s music by a group of English fairies? And yet the music is great. The Stones’ version of the 1963 Marvin Gaye tune “Hitch Hike” is better than the original, I think. It was this aptitude that canceled out the debate over the ownership of music. They could do it because they were British, but also because they were very good.

For me, all of these men are mythical characters, like Sinbad the Sailor or Ulysses. I read about Mick, Keith, Brian, Charlie, and Bill for the first time from the back of my father’s musty-smelling England’s Newest Hit Makers LP. Charlie was my favorite. I tried to convince my parents to acquire a drum kit, but settled for a pad and a pair of sticks. There were awkward attempts to play along with “Walking the Dog.” That LP got played and played. I would listen to it all night long, waking up to turn it over {because I had a Fisher Price record player}

My friend Kris Olsen — a spotty Norwegian kid who had promised to name his future son “Leif” — had superior audio equipment and was convinced that he had deciphered the main riff to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” on his out-of-tune electric guitar. “Listen, I can play it!” he would summon us to the practice room. It didn’t really sound much like “Flash,” but who had the courage to tell him otherwise? We listened to those cassettes and LPs over and over again. Kris had me convinced that Keith was playing the maracas in “She’s a Rainbow” by clenching them in his teeth and shaking his head back and forth while playing guitar. We didn’t know about multi-track recording back then. We thought it was all live.

I was born with one slightly deformed ear. It was the left one. It lacked an outer crease, which made it stick out through my bowl haircut like Dumbo. When I was nine years old, I had the good fortune to have plastic surgery. And when I was recovering, my friend’s mother asked what she could get me as a gift. I said, “The Rolling Stones.” She said, “Are you sure he wants that? Wouldn’t he like a video game instead.”

The tape I received was Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits, Vol. II). Cassettes were a gift to young music listeners, because you had to listen all the way through, learning to appreciate songs you might have dismissed on first hearing. I came to love all of the songs on that tape. On the inside of the cassette booklet, there was an image of Brian Jones’ reflection in a mirror, and beneath it was written 1942-1969.

Wait a second? He’s dead?! How did he die? He was so young? A little math. Only 27. It was much later that I heard about the drugs and swimming pool and the five illegitimate children and the other fragments of the Legend of Brian. In the documentary, they make it seem like it was bound to happen. I have to say now, as a man, I feel a lot of empathy for Brian’s character. He seemed like he was stuck in something thick, something bad, something he couldn’t get out of. But there would be no course correction in Brian’s case. His course was fixed.

Anyway, why should I care about this? Why should I take my time to write about a documentary about some rock band? Why should I care about people I’ve never met from a long time ago? Think of how many musicians have died in similar circumstances since. But their lives and my lives — they overlap in some strange way. Before my head was filled with all this other information, there was this information. Their story is more than just a documentary to me, it’s a folk tale. Mick, Keith, Brian … they’re just like folk characters. Except that all of them are still alive. All of them, but one.

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