rolling stones

Rolling Stones – “Sweet Virginia”

I love Tiny Revolution as a political site. Here Bernard Chazelle switches to another passion of his, and  serves up some musicological theorizing about a song my old caddymaster hailed as the greatest hangover song of all time.

In the process he makes some broad comments about the Stones, and the old Beatles-v.-Stones flame war which, surprisingly, doesn’t devolve into absurdity in the comments section. Some bright people posting. Here’s his bottom line on the Stones:

They’re no songcrafting geniuses, their melodies are often banal, their harmonies simplistic, their lyrics silly or offensive, and they’re passable instrumentalists. Naturally, the Stones are the greatest rock band ever.

What gives? The thing is, in rock ‘n’ roll none of these things matter all that much. No rock tunesmith holds a candle to Gershwin or Cole Porter, anyway. Craftsmanship is not the point.

What’s the point then? To convert high energy into art. Rock is about emotion, not style; feeling, not beauty; desire, not sensuousness. Rock is not about courtship, it’s about sex.

That no other sub-genre of western music shares rock’s “kinetic primality” (I just made up the phrase, no doubt the high point of this post) has a two-word explanation: the blues. Yes, you can always rely on white rock musicians to misappropriate the blues as a vehicle for affected maturity, self-importance, and pretentiousness — Muddy Waters Meets Nietzsche kind of thing. But the Stones, bless their souls, have always remained loyal to the spirit of the idiom, which is to channel misery into joy, not to channel misery into more misery. If rock is a rhythm, a riff, and an attitude, then no one beats the Rolling Stones.

As regards the specific song, Chazelle says, “‘Sweet Virginia’ is a 16-bar country blues. (An anti-drug song, I guess?) Like Dylan’s “Idiot Wind,” it begins on the subdominant of the key (a classical device going back to the fugal tradition of Baroque music) and on to the cadence II-I.” I can’t really see Keef thinking like that (and I don’t think that’s what Chazelle is saying. Only that there is some sort of intuitive/instinctive genius at play in the process of writing pop songs.)

And thinking about the song got me thinking about my old caddymaster, an early hero to the thirteen-year-old me.  The power of the Google was impressive. I found him. Insurance company exec; donated well over $10 grand to Republican candidates in ’08. Another hero bites the dust. But he was right about “Sweet Virginia.”

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