Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Song of the Day: The Rolling Stones - Sweet Virginia (1972)

The wonderful Bobby Keys, who is probably the second-greatest rock saxophonist ever (RIP Big Man), died this morning after a long fight with cirrhosis. Born on the same day as Keith Richards, Keys was 70 years old. 

Keys, named to play piano and defiantly turning to the sax, was a great rock and roll rebel who started touring with Buddy Holly when he was just 16. He became one of the great session players of the '70s, recording with Eric Clapton, Joe Cocker, John Lennon, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and several others. But, of course, he's best known as an honorary member of the Rolling Stones, appearing on virtually every Stones album and tour since first teaming with them for '69's Let It Bleed

There are numerous spotlights for Keys' work; His solo on "Brown Sugar" is widely regarded as one of the great sax moments in rock history. He also has a long solo on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking," virtually dominating the second half of the song. My personal favorite Keys moment is his first major Stones contribution, "Live With Me," which is the only rock song I've ever heard to use bass and sax as its two lead instruments. Sadly, the only good live version I could find video of is the excellent 2005 one from Martin Scorsese's concert film Shine a Light, with Christina Aguilera on co-lead vocals, and you should definitely seek that out if you haven't heard it. But I can't deal with that video, because watching 62-year-old-Mick-Jagger grind on 24-year-old-Christina makes me nauseous.

So instead I went with this under-heard gem from the Stones' magnum opus, 1972's Exile on Main Street

I've always regarded Exile as like a Masters Thesis on what rock and roll fundamentally is. It's grimy, rebellious, and mostly recorded in a basement while the Stones were in tax exile. It's a long swirling mix of country, blues, soul, gospel, and everything else, soaked to drowning in drugs and swagger. But good god is it transcendent. Every song feels like a piece of rock and roll dictionary that exists outside of time, like it was discovered on some archaeological dig, all carbon dating attempts failed, and no one bothered to wipe the dirt off--or "scrape the shit off," as Jagger sings here. 

"Sweet Virginia" feels a bit like an attempt to write an early-twentieth-century Carter Family number. It's a song where a long sax solo just should not, would not, could not work. And yet, there it is. I love at the 2:29 mark, where Mick introduces Keys' solo by saying (something like) "Come on Bobby, bring it on home to Texas!"

No matter where he was, who he was playing with, Bobby Keys always brought it on home. He'll be missed. 

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