The idea: Chronicle one of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands and its evolution through the prism of 50 songs recorded over a career that itself spans half a century. Bill Janovitz, the man with the plan, had previously written a book on the Stones’ album Exile on Main Street for the 33 1/3 series. Really an extended essay on that much-lauded record, the author cut this work from a similar cloth, treating each of the 50 tracks like an episode in the life of Mick, Keith, and friends. Like so much of Rocks Off that strategy mostly works; when he fully engages with the material and when the source itself is noteworthy, Janovitz’s writing is nearly unstoppable. Problems arise, though, making this volume a mildly disappointing but still joyful ride.
Janovitz’s introduction, in which he details the time he just happened to meet Keith Richards while hanging out at the John F. Kennedy President Library and Museum where Leonard Cohen and Chuck Berry were receiving awards for the first PEN New England Award for Song Lyrics of Literary Excellence, is exhilarating in its brevity, promising a journey in which author and reader are bonded in the act of listening. That, it turns out, is our author’s greatest gift: his ability to listen and describe the music that has clearly occupied a significant amount of his life.
Time and again he points out how Charlie coming in late or Keith coming in early or Mick moving this way and that around, under, over, and through notes shouldn’t work but ultimately does; it’s these Stones-y idiosyncrasies he describes that make these songs the classics they are. Janovitz should be able to do this kind of deep listening. He is a musician, having recorded nearly 10 albums with the band Buffalo Tom and having issued several records under his own name. His musical ear and ability to express in written words what one is hearing or what one will hear if they listen close enough are his two greatest gifts. That pairing is uncommon, even among musicians and music journalists.
Like a literary epic, Rocks Off is divided into three parts: the Brian Jones years, the Mick Taylor years, and those decades in which Ron Wood has been in the band. Even a casual Stones fan knows how this is going to end. The Jones years are marked by tremendous growth and evolution; there’s a shift from being a cover band to a band that writes its own material (or, rather, has two members who can); there’s betrayal, darkness, death and, in the final hour, a sometimes labored rebirth. In its second incarnation the band reaches incredible artistic heights but soon falls prey to burn out, dissension, and the temptations that too often hold sway over men as they grapple with the challenges of becoming adults in a profession that in many ways encourages, even demands, that they remain children.
In the final act, these characters must right themselves and emerge as sad but sometimes wiser men. To employ a the cliché of rock band as marriage, the members realize that sometimes we trade bliss for longevity and that longevity, though it may not always be filled with mirth, has its own rewards. Some of those rewards may even outweigh happiness. The artistic highs are fewer but the monetary gains are inarguably greater.
Janovitz briskly details the earliest hours of the band, from the fateful meeting between former childhood friends Jagger and Richards on a train platform, the mixing and matching of band members until the Wyman-Watts-Richards-Jagger-Jones lineup fell into place, the growing pains evident as the band moved from being largely a covers act to a one that other bands covered. There are happy moments there, young artists finding their voices and finding acclaim, the rising tide of success. And there are sad ones as well, including founding member Ian Stewart being demoted to the role of sideman (a role, by some accounts, he was not entirely displeased with) and, of course, Jones’ drift away from the rest of the group.
Some of those paths are fairly well worn at this point but they’re necessary in setting the stage for the music itself and if one begins to think, “Yeah, yeah, I read that in Keith’s book”, Janovitz’s manages to surprise us with his analysis of the songs themselves, including lesser known material such as “Play with Fire” (the B-side of “The Last Time”), “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” (B-side to “Satisfaction”) and “I’m Free” (B-side to “Get Off of My Cloud”). Stalwart fans with cheer at the inclusion of these pieces and the author’s defense of material such as “2000 Light Years from Home”, from Their Satanic Majesties Request, a record the band seems to have more or less disowned but which still holds a warm place in the hearts of many fans.
Janovitz’s ability to guide us through deeper listening of the material is evident throughout the book, including this example from his discussion of the ubiquitous “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”:
The most famous riff of all time: It misfires in two of the four entry points in the song. You actually hear the fuzz pedal click back on when the riff re-enters at 0:35 and again at 1:36, where it was late coming in, missing the first four notes of the riff. When it comes in for the final time (at 2:33), Keith actually switched it on too early, jumping the gun, as if determined to be late like the previous one. It’s funny when you realize how meticulously manicured such things are now via precision editing tools. Would any of that ‘fixing’ make ‘Satisfaction’ better? I think not
As the reader moves into the Mick Taylor years, there’s a good deal of time spent on the usual suspects: 1971’s Sticky Fingers and more than ample space on 1972’s Exile on Main Street. You might think that even a writer as skilled as Janovitz couldn’t find some unturned (ahem) stones in a discussion of those records but there are ample treasures in the pages that ably propel the narrative. It’s no surprise that these albums take up the greatest space in the Taylor section, though some might be mildly disappointed that there wasn’t more room devoted to two sometimes messy but perhaps more interesting releases from the era, 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup and 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll. Of course, anyone can play armchair author and complain about such a shortcoming but it’s to Janovitz’s credit that he understands who his audience is and what they want. His analysis of “Coming Down Again” and “Angie” from the former album and “Time Waits For No One” and the titular piece of the latter is as keen as it is anywhere else in the book.
He avoids many temptations common in sprawling discussions of legendary bands, not least of which is succumbing to the tactic of rehabilitating some long-ignored or long-derided corner of the Stones’ output. (Although, hey, let’s face it, there are those who loathe Exile.) That’s especially important when moving in to what is inarguably the most artistically uneven era of the band, the Ron Wood years. (Janovitz even suggests that, were he to only write about his favorite Stones material, the book would stop right around Tattoo You.)
Yes, this third era began strongly enough with Black and Blue (1976) and Some Girls (1978) but by 1980’s Emotional Rescue relations between Jagger and Richards had soured considerably and so had the band’s output. It’s hard to find much to enjoy about that 1980 recording and harder still to find much to recommend about most of the output from that decade, including the career nadirs Undercover (1983) and 1986’s Dirty Work. (The latter is this writer’s personal choice for the absolute worst entry in the Stones’ oeuvre. It even has the dullest artwork.)
But what about Tattoo You? Let’s not forget that much of that was assembled from previous sessions, some of the tracks recorded nearly a decade before the record’s 1981 street date. By the time we get to its successor, Undercover, the discussions become (perhaps mercifully) shorter and typically only one tune from each of the subsequent albums is up for analysis.
It’s certainly not surprising that the book goes out this way––most fans, this writer included, would be hard pressed to think of more than one cut from 2005’s A Bigger Bang and it’s telling that the most enthusiastic writing in those final moments is reserved for “Plundered My Soul” from the 2010 deluxe reissue of Exile.
Rocks Off loses its momentum in those final pages and as the author’s enthusiasm dissipates so too does the reader’s. It’s one of the problems that Janovitz faces here, though certainly not the only one. A nifty feature of the book is that one could conceivably dive in at any point; but that presents a problem for the reader who prefers to follow the pages in strict chronological order––some information, especially early in the book, gets repeated from one chapter to the other. That’s certainly a forgivable problem, given the nature of the book, though somewhat less forgivable are passages that could have used some cleaner editing.
We don’t need to be reminded, for instance, that removing two strings from a 12-string guitar will make it 10-string. (“Keith is playing his five-string open G tuning on a 12-string guitar, with the low E strings removed, making it a 10-string.”) Eliminate the final dependent clause in the sentence and the meaning remains. And then there are passages such as this one, about the cover art for 1968’s Beggars Banquet. Here, Janovitz discusses how the original sleeve (the one that has been featured as the cover art since 2002’s reissue), was deemed “in dubious taste” by Decca. The result was that the record’s release was delayed, the artwork changed. Here’s the passage that highlights why the switch became critical in heightening tensions between the Beatles and the Stones:
“They really would not budge,” recalled Keith in 1971. “It stopped the album from coming out [sooner]. Eventually it got to be too much of a drag. It went on for nine months or so. It was like them saying, We don’t give a shit if your album never goes out. After that, we knew it was impossible and started looking around to do it differently.” In the end the stubborn antiauthoritarian band succumbed and put out an elegant looking plain white album cover made to look like a formal invitation, quite at odds with the music within, but, in an unfortunate coincidence, released weeks after the Beatles had released their eponymous LP in a simple white sleeve, informally referred to as the White Album. This predictably resulted in accusations from some that the Stones were yet again imitating the Beatles.
Fair enough. We get the point. But then comes this superfluous addendum to the paragraph:
However, Beggars Banquet was actually slated for release earlier than the White Album and it was this issue of LP cover art that held up the release of the Stones LP so that it came out after the Beatles LP. The Stones had no idea that the Beatles were planning a similar cover.
These are mistakes that any writer might make in the drafting of a work but stand out in the final, published form.
Janovitz also tends to lapse, somewhat inexplicably, into first-person narration in places in such a way that the intrusion jars. His narrative voice is well developed and authoritative enough that such changes seem unnecessary, not unlike his tendency to quote extensively in places when spare quotes or passages of paraphrase would do. A few other errors, including some odd punctuation, also appear but the most troubling ones are logical in nature.
There’s a first-page quote from Jagger in which he asserts that he has “worked out” that he’ll be half a century old in 1984. What’s interesting about that is that Jagger, some 30 years later, has just turned 70. Either he didn’t know how old he was at the time he made this observation or there’s an error in the reporting. In either case, the quote should not have stood with such an error. Math seems to have presented further problems when chronicling the number of times the band appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. On page 42, Janovitz writes that the band appeared for a total of six times (five more after an initial appearance) but on 104 the band drops into the show for its “fifth and final” time.
Rocks Off didn’t have to be perfect, but given the considerable talents of its author, greater narrative consistency and some closer editing might have elevated this pleasant volume from good to great.