In re: is the song “Brown Sugar,” and hence the Rolling Stones generally, earnestly racist or adopting a racist narrator’s viewpoint or some bullshit:
Hey, timely!: http://www.rollingstones.com/news/news.php?uid=692
Baffling that the theme of “Brown Sugar” eluded so many folks what with the song’s most easily decipherable lyrics being “Brown Sugar, how come you dance so good… just like a young girl should” and “Sold on the market down in New Orleans,” but so be it. BTW, “Hey Joe” is about a guy shooting his old lady down, check it out.
If Jagger was adopting a persona in the lyrics to “Brown Sugar,” exaggerating the narrator’s viewpoint to prod listeners into disgust with that narrator and the horrors of slavery generally, then the gallows-grim sarcasm (Waters would say “dark sarcasm” I guess) failed spectacularly.
Best evidence? Not folks’ general ignorance of the song’s lyrics, but that “BS” has served for decades as a boozy-time sing-along moment for the same unreflective white folks who dig regressive dittys like “Old Type of Rock and Roll” (that would be what, Jackie Brenston? Amos Milburn? Here’s a few ideas to help you Bob! http://www.amazon.com/Unsung-Heroes-Rock-Roll-Before/dp/0306808919/ref=sr_1_5?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1241285942&sr=1-5). But the perspective that claims Jagger was inhabiting a role doesn’t, I feel, pass the logic or the smell test. Like “Birth of a Nation,” “Brown Sugar” is a masterful creation, a near-perfect rock and roll barnburner which just happens to revel in violation and suffering on both a personal and institutional scale. And I agree, it’s sexist as fuck (and cozies up to pedophilia too).
Very hard to see how the Rolling Stones were exhorting us to reject racism with this ripsnorting, jubilant performance. After all, when they wanted to they could make caustic, even terrifying music that cleft to the core of social issues (“Gimme Shelter” best of all, also “Shattered” and “Street Fightin’ Man”) and there was no mistaking what those songs were about.
What feels like a more interesting trope to follow is how the jaw-droppingly vicious sentiments expressed in “Brown Sugar” can reconcile with Jagger’s obvious race idolatry. His transparently clear models; the venerable African-American archetypical hero the Bad [Negro], and Legba, the mischievous figure of West African folk tradition. From Stagger Lee to Robert Johnson to Howlin’ Wolf (whom the Stones have always vocally, and obviously, poached from), Jack Johnson to Lawrence Taylor, to Tupac, 50 Cent and every single gun rapper ever, that live-by-the-gun, pull-tons-of-pussy, duck-the-Man, and die-tragic-senseless-and-pretty figure is a staple in African-American popular culture, and Jagger has worked his skinny white ass off for forty years to live into this persona. That one and the jesting pyromaniac who speaks in riddles, the mischief-maker you see in figures from Br’er Rabbit to Flavor Flav make for the very, very deep well that Jagger had used to draw his identity as a performer from. But clearly the relationship to it is not uncomplicated—his or ours.
The Rolling Stones have also been jabbing as hard as they can at our cultural alarm buttons forever. Take “Mother’s Little Helper”; pretty vicious little jab at polite culture from the Stones’ early days, and there’s some startlingly unkind material in the aforementioned “Some Girls,” and even “Start Me Up” and “It’s Only Rock and Roll” too. I’m sure if Sir Jagger had the foggiest notion of what regular people think about or deal with on a daily basis he’d come up with something else to piss us off, 45ish years after the band’s debut. The Stones have stuck to their Satanic majesty—but mostly guttersnipe nastiness—for their entire career and only asked us to have sympathy, or taste, once (again; masterfully, goddammit!). The rest of that time they’ve been pretty happy to spit in the soup and sneer back.
But the Stones’ racial attitudes have always been wildly, weirdly unclear. Look, they came out of the early-60s British blues “movement” and named themselves for a Muddy Waters song—plumbing their racial attitudes is to fish muddy waters indeed. There’s a ton of WTF moments in their catalogue and personal lives that make it tough to pin them down as simply ignorant or racist. When Bill Wyman quit the band they replaced him with Darryl Jones, a Black man (http://www.darryljones.com/home/frameset_one.htm)—though he is not an “official” member of the band. As Jones notes in his bio on his website, his “unofficial” bandmates have included Bernard Fowler (http://www.bernardfowler.com/), and Lisa Fischer (http://www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_m?url=search-alias%3Dpopular&field-keywords=lisa+fischer&x=0&y=0), both African American. And the mother of Jagger’s first child Karis is the African American actor, singer, and novelist Marsha Hunt (lame source of course, but easy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marsha_Hunt_(singer_and_novelist)) who claims “BS” was written for her. Stevie Wonder opened for the band on the fabled 1972 American tour and Peter Tosh, the “Stepping Razor” signed to Rolling Stone Records in 1978—neither man could be described as willing to suffer racists gladly.
The band issued a racially-charged video for their cover of Bob & Earl’s “Harlem Shuffle” in 1986 (animation by Ralph Bakshi: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSeNXr2QiAI) but also participated in Jean-Luc Godard’s radical, anti-colonialist, (and baffling) film Sympathy for the Devil (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pc3f8L7Ruuk). (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aSeNXr2QiAI). Ike and Tina Turner were both tourmates and friendly with Jagger (well, Tina anyway). And of course there’s the music—the band has done brisk trade in Motown covers (“Just My Imagination,” “Don’t Look Back” (with Tosh!), “Dancing in the Street,” et al) covers and of course genres and performance idioms.
But the moment that will make the Rolling Stones part of history—not just rock history but textbook history—whether any of us like it or not is the moment at which they presided over the end of the 1960s, at a concert they headlined Altamont Speedway on December 6, 1969. That night, as we all know, during the band’s aborted set, a Black man was murdered there by a mob of white men. There are a hundred details to the story but in the end it’s as simple as that the Rolling Stones owned the floor when this occurred. Jagger’s wincingly tone-deaf shift from bespangled, preening rabble-rouser to milquetoast flowerchild exhorting peace (“Everybody be cool now”) as the band repeatedly false-starts through “Under My Thumb” is horrific to watch. It was about to happen anyway, but Altamont darkened the sunlit meadow of the 60s and brought down a twilit netherworld of bad drugs, cults of personality, and exhausted ideals gone murderous. That murder, and the race of the victim and of the perpetrators, is the signal event which took the innocence off of the ‘60s and off of the Stones as well.
Also, “Brown Sugar” is not about heroin—it just isn’t. The claim doesn’t stand up. “Dancing With Mr. D,” “Monkey Man,” “Sister Morphine” are about heroin. “Brown Sugar” is about reveling in sexual domination, a dirty joke taken to a sickening extremity. It is Lustmord, shot through with ancient, ugly racial notions and role-playing.
You could easily arrive at the conclusion that the Stones were as “simple and plain” racists as Elvis Presley was not (http://blackadelicpop.blogspot.com/search?q=%22black+folks+%26+elvis%22) but their oevre makes for a very peculiar puzzle.
Richards, far and away the most interesting example of the Rolling Stones’ relationship with African American music and musicians, brought Chuck Berry out of languishing semi-retirement and into the last moment of pubic adulation he’d see—and certainly has since seen—in many, many years. In 1987 Richards organized a 60th birthday party for Berry, later released as the film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0092758/), a wonderful document which includes, among many other startling moments, Richards bridling under Berry’s direct orders during rehearsals at Berry’s home. The collaboration between the gentlemanly, sly, caustic Berry and the louche, shambling but razor-sharp Richards, two living legends unused to being told how to practice their craft, is amazing to see. But Richards eventually bows to Berry’s wishes as he arranges a tribute to a man it becomes clear is his idol.
Richards also visits Jamaica very regularly to hang out with Rastafarians and participate in the Nyabinghi drumming-and-singing circles in the mountains above St. Anne’s Parish. No joke, they even put out an album out: (http://www.amazon.com/Wingless-Angels/dp/B000005HQD/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=music&qid=1241227363&sr=1-1)
And for what it’s worth, Charlie Watts fronts a thoroughly serious, non-ironic jazz band whose repetoire is currently 7 albums deep and includes Black musicians (http://www.allmusic.com/cg/amg.dll?p=amg&sql=11:wifixqy5ldde~T2).
Of course, it’s worth wondering how the Stones could get away with the kind of racist, misogynistic, and homicidal imagery in “Brown Sugar” among other songs (as could the Smiths (“Queen is Dead”), the Dixie Chicks (“The End of Earl”), Eminem (“Stan”), and Guns n’ Roses (“One in a Million”) but Ice-T (“Cop Killer”), DMX, and Nelly (“Tip Drill”) and many many other Black musicians got torched for expressing similar sentiments.
This thing is getting epic and off-topic, but here’s the question; how can Jagger—and let’s face it, white folsks generally—dually love and fear the Other they feel expressed in Black music?