Thursday, December 12, 2013

So That's What That Song Was About

Karen: As happens with me at times, I've been on a little reading jag, this time centered on the Rolling Stones. Since I've been doing a bit of traveling I've gotten a lot of reading done. I was on a plane making my way through Robert Greenfield's infamous "S.T.P." tome, a look at the Stones' 1972 tour of America, when I was gobsmacked by this little nugget: the song "Sweet Black Angel" off of the Exile on Main Street album was written in support of activist Angela Davis! I must have heard that song dozens of times and never even thought about it. Now it's not a major cut off that album, but I'm certainly familiar with it. Probably the most memorable thing about it (to me) was the percussion, with the washboards chuck-a-chucking in the back. As soon as I could, I put on my headphones and listened to the song. Admittedly most of Jagger's lyrics were unintelligible to me, but I realized I'd never truly listened to the words before. I went and looked up the lyrics, and then there was no doubt. The song references her being on trial for a judge's murder, and says she's "not a gun totin' teacher, not a Red-lovin' school marm." 

For those who might not know, Angela Davis was a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles who was a political activist. She was charged with the murder of a judge because she owned the guns used in the crime, although she was not at the scene of the crime. The case became quite huge in the press and a real cause celebre.

I was both surprised and disappointed in myself that I'd never paid attention to the song and caught all of this before. It's an unusual song in that the Stones were very rarely political. I think I had always assumed  the song had a more sexual meaning and completely wrote it off, not giving it any thought. Now when I hear it, of course it will be in a very different light.

What about you? Are there any songs that you discovered the meaning behind them that really surprised you?


Edo Bosnar said...

Wow, I never knew that about "Sweet Black Angel" (a really good song, by the way).
Otherwise, initially I didn't know that Prince's "1999" was about pending nuclear apocalypse.
But I think one of the biggest surprises in this sense was when, in high school, I learned what Starland Vocal Band's seemingly innocent and all ages song "Afternoon Delight" was all about.

david_b said...

Karen, I lived and breathed 'Exile' for decades. I remember spending the extra cash in the '80s on one of those high-end 'studio recording' reissues, just to have the best sound.

As a rule for us Stones enthusiasts, you haven't REALLY heard 'Exile' until you've played it against their tour movie 'C***sucker Blues'. I had a copy on DVD for about 5yrs, and it makes for the best video backdrop for the album, especially the scenes of Keith struggling to order a basket of fruit over the phone to the hotel front desk, or him and Bobby Keys tossing the TV over the balconey. Some of it was staged for effect (like the fans on the airplane), but still an awesome 'Exile' experience.

As for other songs, I ponder about 'Penny Lane' and Paul's naughty references to sex with 'its a clean machine' and 'fish and finger pie'...

Despite the constant reminder in interviews on the subject, I still don't think of 'Got To Get You Into My Life' is about pot. The obscure Lennon references on Sgt Pepper and 'I Am The Walrus' are enough to fill a page themselves, although Lennon himself tends to forget was his meanings were. For example, was 'the Eggman' he referenced referring to Eric Burdon's penchant for cracking raw eggs at orgies..? He admitted that once, but he later tends to gloss over that into something else. When he mentions "It's time for tea and meet the wife", he's actually talking about the BBC television sitcom on back then, 'Meet the Wife'.

Mickey Dolenz had a smattering of references to meeting the Beatles in '67 when the Monkees did their press junket in England in his song 'Randy Scout Git' (the title litterally means 'horny bastard' in British lingo..). When he mentions the 'kings of EMI are sitting stately on the floor', he's referencing the Fab Four at a party they threw for the Monkees (apparently only two of the Beatles showed up and Davy was missing), and so on.

Interesting stuff.

Doc Savage said...

I still wanna know what "It's Only Rock'n'Roll" is about. But I like it.

Anonymous said...

@david_b: Wasn't "Norwegian Wood" about sex too...a specific kind of sex?

I remember when my friend's older brother told us that "Snowblind" by Styx was about cocaine addiction; seems obvious in hindsight, but we were both surprised, and listened more closely to the lyrics after that.

I'm still trying to figure out what "Desolation Row" is about...that song has more interpretations than Moby Dick!

Mike W.

Doc Savage said...

Norwegian Wood is to my understanding an almost literal account of Lennon's affair with a journalist. McCartney added the part about burning the love shack down, the lines at the end that give the song its title, which is a reference to the wood paneling in vogue at the time.

Sweet Black Angel(a) is obvious now that I know! Certainly more subtle than Lennon's unlistenable song on the same topic.

Doc Savage said...

Is it news to anyone that the Monkees' Last Train to Clarksville is about getting drafted for Vietnam? Once you know, the lyric holds greater depth. Bubblegum, my foot!

david_b said...

I do recall the line in Moonlight Mile 'head full of snow' (off 'Sticky Fingers') being about cocaine, 'course Sister Morphine wasn't all that subtle.

Mike W, the Beatles August 1966 LA Press Conference (supposedly their last touring one..) covers humorously the inspiration for both Day Tripper and Norwegian Wood (at around 3:10 in..):

Love Paul's sly smile. Note David Crosby lurking in the back.

david_b said...

Hey Matt, remember 'Cuddly Toy' was about an orgy. Written by Harry Nilsson, it was one of their most innocent sounding ones. The Monkees sure had some sly lyrics in their songs.., 'Star Collector' about groupies ('Think I'll let her keep on going, wherever it is she's going to, Give her an autograph and tell her 'It's been nice knowing you...'') and 'Daily Nightly' to name a few; the latter penned by Mike about the Sunset Strip Riots. Love the line about 'phantasmagoric splendor', whaaat a phrase.

Anonymous said...

Springsteen's "Born in the USA" is not really a feel good about America song. If you actually listen to the lyrics its about getting sent to Vietnam, having a brother killed in action, not being able to find a job, and now life sucks. It's pretty depressing.


Anonymous said...

Great topic Karen and great comments all. There's probably so many that I'll think of later but...

How about some Who songs - I'm a Boy (homosexuality), Pictures of Lily (masturbation). Could probably go on and on with the crazy ideras in Pete Townshend's mind. Excuse me, crazy "genius".



Anonymous said...

Yes, great would be hard for me to get specific here...let's just say that 75% of my reading these days is biographies or nonfiction concerning rock stars and bands.
I once dated a girl who told me she was never interested in "what the song was about", she would rather leave it a mystery for her to figure out. Well, my opinion is the exact opposite, I feel knowing the story really helps you appreciate the song.

Neil Young's latest auto-bio really helped me appreciate his stuff (more).

And I just finished a good book (well, the 60s/70s chapters were great)..."Turn on your mind-4 decades of psychedelic rock" by Jim De Rogatis


Fred W. Hill said...

I was surprised to learn that the Carpenters' big hit Superstar was written about groupies (of course, neither Karen nor Richard had anything to do with writing the song!). It's pretty obvious when you listen to the lyrics knowing that, but as a kid in the early '70s when that got massive airplay on the radio I was clueless about that.
Along similar lines, are those songs which people insist have a particular meaning which the actual writer insists he or she was entirely unconscious of or didn't mean at all. Most famous, perhaps, is Lennon's "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", which he insisted even up to his last interview was not written purposely as a homage to LSD and that it was actually his then 5 year old son Julian who came up with the phrase, describing a drawing he did of a classmate. One of my closest friends argues vehemently that Lennon had to be lying, but considering all the things Lennon was open about, including drug references in other songs, I'm inclined to believe Lennon was telling the truth. Also the song, "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" was supposedly about Brian Epstein's homosexuality, but whether it is or isn't it's one of my favorite Beatles' tracks.

Anonymous said...

I almost choked on my cornflakes when I read the real meaning behind Canadian rocker Bryan Adams' song 'Summer of 69'!

As for Hey Jude, well if Paul McCartney says he wrote that for Lennon's son Julian,then that's good enough for me!

- Mike 'I am the walrus' from Trinidad & Tobago.

Karen said...

Long day at work today, so I'm just taking in all your remarks.

David, I suspected you'd have a lot to say about this subject. I haven't seen the Stones film you mention although I do know about the incidents you mention. Reading STP, it's clear that the boys really didn't get down their touring act til the later part of the decade. of course, not having half your entourage on heroin helps.

Matt, I've heard 'Last Train to Clarksville' a million times, great Hart/Boyce song, but stupidly never placed it in the era it was recorded and made the Vietnam connection! Now when I hear it, it will carry a lot more weight.

Alan, I thought it said a lot about some political figures that they would play 'Born in the USA' when they held rallies. Didn't they listen to the lyrics? Or how about the couples who played 'Every Breath You Take' by the Police at their wedding? It's about a stalker! Talk about clueless.

Mike from T&T, just looked up 'Summer of '69" -ewwww!

Edo Bosnar said...

Just remembered one that caused some controversy at my high school: Night Rangers's "Sister Christian." The year that was a big hit, 1984, the senior class wanted that song played at the end of their graduation ceremony, but the vice-principal wouldn't allow it because he'd been told that the lyrics were a coded reference to a teenage girl losing her virginity.
Meanwhile, a few years earlier, at my older brother's graduation, they played Loverboy's "Turn Me Loose" (go look up the lyrics, no coded meanings there...)

david_b said...

Actually Karen, I never read the STP book, although I know it's highly rated. I first read Tony Sanchez's book around 1982 and was mesmerized with it for a year or so in college..

Edo, your highschool reflection reminds me of the kids who wanted to use the Cheers theme for their homecoming or class song, then frustrated/shocked to actually read the rest of the lyrics (some shown below..) you don't hear played at the beginning of the shows...:

"..Your little angel hung the cat up by it's tail.

...And your husband wants to be a girl."

I strongly prefer the Simpson's spoof, "Flaming Moe's"..:

"Happiness is just a 'Flaming Moe' away."

Edo Bosnar said...

Yeah, David, I remember that episode; loved the whole Cheers-spoof and especially loved the fact that the secret ingredient was Krusty's cough syrup.

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