Lapointe: As Rolling Stones head to Detroit, their 'Sugar' leaves an unpleasant aftertaste

November 08, 2021, 10:20 AM by  Joe Lapointe

Mick Jagger (DepositPhoto)

At the Rolling Stones’ concert next Monday night in Detroit’s Ford Field, the “Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World” will no doubt play hits from the 1960s and 1970s while saluting one of America’s historic music capitals.

According to the Detroit News, they might even bring out Motown star Martha Reeves for “Dancing in the Street.” This would be appropriate in that the Stones’ musical roots were fertilized by African-American rhythm and blues, ‘60s soul music and Berry Gordy’s “Sound of Young America” pop.

But there are two tunes you won’t hear from the Stones, for very different reasons.

The first is “(This Could Be) The Last Time,” a 1965 hit about a romantic breakup that might send an ominous, current message. With the core Stones in their late 70s and with another recently deceased, this indeed could be the last time to see and hear this historic musical act in something close to its original configuration.

The other missing song will be “Brown Sugar,” recently dropped from the set list although -- up until now -- it was a consistent crowd-pleaser and second only to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” in times performed.

Why? Because, to many listeners in 2021, the words to “Brown Sugar” are offensive. So we have the Stones censoring themselves in the 21st  century on what they somewhat ironically brand as the “No Filter” tour. And the irony is larger than that.

In their youth, the Stones posed as rebellious truth-tellers for the Baby Boom generation. They worried parents; that was part of their appeal. So forbidden were some song topics that they had to change the words to “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to please censors on TV.

By current standards, those words could appear on a Valentine card. But “Brown Sugar” is a different kind of offensive. It celebrates the African slave trade, particularly of women. Such themes got lots of AM radio play in 1971. How risque! Or so it seemed then.

Differing explanations

But in the current era of racial reckoning and the “#MeToo” movement, the children and grandchildren of the Boomers might not think it acceptable – no matter how catchy the guitar riff -- for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to keep presenting lyrics like:

Gold Coast slave ship bound for cotton fields
Sold in the market down in New Orleans.
Scarred old slaver knows he’s doin’ all right
Hear him whip the women just around midnight

To be fair, the Stones changed that last line shortly after releasing the record a half-century ago. In concert for the last 50 years, it’s been “You should’ve heard him, just around midnight.” But, still, the song remains a fond look at the enslavement and sexual subjugation of Black women.

When the Los Angeles Times asked Jagger and Richards about dropping “Brown Sugar,” they gave different answers.

As one might expect, the diplomatic Jagger danced nimbly around the issue:

“We’ve played `Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970,” Jagger replied. “So, sometimes you think, `We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes.’ We might put it back in.”

Richards was more blunt – and also either tin-eared, obtuse or disingenuous:

“I’m trying to figure out with the sisters quite where the beef is,” Richards told the Times. “Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? . . . I’m hoping that we’ll be able to resurrect the babe in her glory somewhere along the track.”

Pull of nostalgia 

The “Brown Sugar” issue is one of several dissonant undercurrents to this tour, postponed from 2020 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The lingering virus may be holding down the size of crowds in some of the football stadiums they are playing.

After all, the Baby Boomers who remember and still love the Stones (and can afford tickets) are also the same people most susceptible to the virus. In addition, the death of drummer Charlie Watts in August at age 80 sent a chill of mortality through the group and its followers.

This year’s show in the Motor City will be somewhat different from what local Stones fans have witnessed over the decades at Olympia Stadium, Cobo Arena, the Silverdome, Masonic Temple, Comerica Park and Ford Field. 

Based on a review of video clips posted online from earlier tour stops, the current presentation opens with images on the video screens above the stage of Watts smiling and drumming. Early in the show, alongside Richards and guitarist Ron Wood, Jagger pauses to speak a tribute to Watts and to dedicate the show to him.

Rolling Stones (DepositPhotos)

Watts’ replacement, Steve Jordan, is more than adequate, and he seems to bring a pleasant new bounce to “19th Nervous Breakdown,” one of the best songs of a sometimes-uneven show. It’s not his fault that he’s not Watts. 

But Stones fans are nostalgic people who still miss Brian Jones, who formed the band in 1962, got run out of it in 1969 and died shortly after. They miss the saxophone buzz of Bobby Keys, who died in 2014.

Videos everywhere 

And plenty of them would like to see Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman back in the band, which formed in London when the president of the United States was John F. Kennedy. Jagger and Richards are the only remaining founders.

Along with cultural sensitivities, so much technology has changed around them. You can even find livestreams on YouTube. Unlike in professional videos, the amateurs tend to follow Jagger and Richards for long takes, including when the spotlight would be elsewhere. In TV terms, it feels like raw B-roll.

Keith Richards

Richards, 77, seems to have some good nights and other not-so-good nights. In Los Angeles on Oct. 17, he appeared focused and eager to please. But on a rainy night in Dallas on Nov. 2, the phone cameras showed Richards clowning and bantering with audience and band members as Jagger performed nearby.

He sometimes seemed confused and semi-embraced Jagger when they appeared to be settling a miscommunication between songs. In the same show, a good start to “Paint It Black” ended in its own kind of nervous breakdown.

White hair and a dark coat

No longer wearing the bandana of his pirate persona, Richards appears with a knit cap on his head and tufts of white hair sticking out from the edges. He shows few of his signature flourishes while wielding the guitar. In Dallas, he wore a long, dark coat. If he starts showing up in a bathrobe, we’ll know this rocker is really off his rocker.

Although Richards can no longer hit all the vocal notes, it doesn’t stop him from trying during his brief, mid-show singing segment that sometimes includes the soft ballad “Slipping Away.” The critics in tour cities so far say this is the low point of the show and that’s how it probably comes across in a big football stadium.

But when cell cameras frame Richards in close-up, it is the most poignant moment of the night as he sings, in a voice as cracked as his world-weary face:

Here comes just another day,
That’s drifting away.
Every time I draw a breath,
It’s dying away

In some of his segments, Richards also sings “Before They Make Me Run,” which alludes to a funeral.

Just another good-bye to another good friend . . . 

'Whoo! Whoo!'

Jagger, by contrast, remains an exuberant and extraordinary performer at age 78 after heart surgery two years ago.

He’s trimmed back some (but not all) of his 50-yard dashes over multiple runways. He no longer roosts over the audience in a cherry picker, as he did in 1981. Nor does he ride around the stage straddling a giant, inflated phallus, as he did in 1975.

Now, Jagger even shows a self-deprecating sense of humor about the group’s history. Noting in L.A. that the Eagles would soon be performing their entire album “Hotel California,” Jagger threatened his audience with a full rendition of “Their Satanic Majesties Request.”

That was the Stones’ 1967 trip into pseudo-psychedelia. It is universally viewed as their worst work. As the video screens showed the cover of that LP, Jagger told the audience: “We’ve rehearsed this album so much we’ve run out of acid.”

Then, he added: “I’m just fooling you.”

Jagger’s singing voice remains hefty, versatile and unique. He hits notes both high and low, harmonizes with several support singers and cheerleads the audience with the requisite “whoo-whoo!” chorus in “Sympathy for the Devil.”

He still has the physique of a teenage gymnast and twice the energy of people half his age. His dance moves, as always, include the get-down of James Brown, the flair of Fred Astaire and the bumps-and-grinds of Destiny who works happy hour at the gentlemen’s club.

'Blues Cover Band’

What makes him unique is how he blends body language to music like nobody else. John Lennon of the Beatles once labeled Jagger’s style “fag dancing,” but that was in a less-enlightened era. Now, Jagger’s androgynous moves might be seen as LGBT-Q friendly.

And Lennon – dead 41 years now – is another measure of the Stones’ longevity. Consider: Jagger and Richards were contemporaries and friendly rivals of the Beatles, who are, this month, the subjects of a new nostalgia movie. Lennon’s co-writer, Paul McCartney, recently cracked that the Stones are a “blues cover band.”

And exactly what, Sir Paul, is wrong with that?

Of course, they grew musically from that phase. As lyricists, Jagger and Richards were comparable to Lennon and McCartney and -- more so than with Beatles lyrics -- Stones songs’ on this year’s tour sound contemporary today in different ways than first intended.

Take, for instance, “Gimme Shelter,” written in the late 1960s during a period of left-wing violence and right-wing backlash. On the current tour, they give it a thunderous presentation.

Oooh, the storm is threatening my very life today . . . War, children, it’s just a shot away! . . . Rape! Murder! It’s just a shot away . . . “

Perhaps this could be America’s alternate national anthem.

Robert Johnson Props

But what might cancel culture say about “Midnight Rambler,” in which Jagger portrays a rapist and murderer, a Jack-the-Ripper character transplanted to the 20th. Century suburbs.

Well, you heard about the Boston –
Honey, it’s not one of those –

This one has serious blues roots. During a long and spirited guitar blitz led by Wood, the Stones occasionally break into old blues numbers, inserting a few bars from “Come in My Kitchen” or “Hell Hound on My Trail,” both by Robert Johnson. Then they pick up again into “Rambler.”  

Aside from the missing “Brown Sugar,” Stones afficionados might notice some other songs with offensive lyrics long gone from the set list. One of them is “Stray Cat Blues.” In the post Jeffrey Epstein era, celebrating statutory rape is no longer permitted, even if singing “in character.”

It’s the wrong sort of outre, but was a show highlight on their 1969 tour.

And they don’t dare perform “Some Girls,” from 1978, in which Jagger portrays a “ladies’ man” who evaluates women by racial, ethnic and sexual stereotypes. That, too, was “in character.” It’s the same rapper rationalization for lyrics about “hoes” and “bitches.” Hey, he’s just performing in character.

Satan and Donald Trump

So what are we to think of Jagger singing “in character” to see history from Satan’s point of view?

I rode a tank, held a general’s rank
When the blitzkrieg reigned
And the bodies stank . . . 
 . . . Every cop is a criminal
And all the sinners, saints
As heads is tails,
Just call me Lucifer . . . 

And what today of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want?” It’s another classic that shows well on the current tour. But it’s also a song that Donald Trump used for years at his rallies although the Stones asked him to stop.

It’s a 1960s story of drug addiction – still a problem, with different drugs -- and political violence, also still a problem, with different actors.

. . . And I went down to the demonstration
“To get my fair share of abuse
“Singing `We’re gonna vent our frustrations
“’If we don’t, we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse . . .

On this one, look for Jagger again in cheerleader mode, urging the crowd to chant the chorus. In addition, there’s an up-tempo musical extension that you don’t hear on the record. This is a highlight of the show and Jagger never mentions Trump (although he chided Sen. Ted Cruz in Texas).

The More Things Change ...

During their visit to Detroit in 2006 the Stones held a Super Bowl news conference at the Renaissance Center and I asked Jagger about how unlikely it would have seemed in 1966 to imagine the Stones playing at the Super Bowl -- and how natural it seemed 40 years later.

What had changed most, I asked him back then, the Stones or American culture?

“I think both, really, to be perfectly honest,” Jagger said. “America’s obviously changed since we first came here. It’s almost unrecognizable . . . It’s very hard to imagine what the United States was like 40 years ago . . . I think we’ve definitely grown with American culture changes. And America has changed a great deal.”

Then, with comic tone and timing, Jagger shifted from serious to arch.

“Hopefully, though,” he said, “both of us still have our values intact!”

Sixteen years later, the culture has shifted again, and the elimination of “Brown Sugar” shows Jagger is aware of it. (The song title’s secondary meaning refers to heroin, also a touchy subject).

In many tour stops, Jagger has made a point of getting out of the hotels and visiting local sites and being photographed. In Dallas, Jagger knocked on the door of an African-American museum that was closed for the day.

So Long, Motown

The two women working there gradually recognized him and gave him a private tour. He showed up incognito at a bar in Charlotte and got photographed just standing there. Perhaps he is trying to sell tickets with publicity. Or perhaps he is acting like a man who wants to take it all in one last time.

If that is so, there is a perfect tourist destination in the “Motortown” this weekend before the Ford Field show.

In their long career, the Stones covered several great Motown songs including “My Girl” (a wretched version) and “Just My Imagination” (a very sweet rendition). Motown’s “Hitsville USA” museum on West Grand Blvd. is closed these days for renovations.

But Jagger has connections! He knows Martha Reeves, who used to be a secretary there before she became a singing star. Maybe she’s still got a key! If nothing else, they can stand out front for a photo op with the famous house as a backdrop.

And they could converse. Reeves might remind Jagger that McBeatle himself came by a few years ago and financed the restoration of a Motown Steinway piano.

They could discuss song lyrics and laugh about how her famous phrase “The time is right for dancing in the street” was changed by Jagger and Richards to “fighting in the street.”

On a serious note, from the wisdom of their experience, this black woman and this white man could ponder the power of words and stereotypes and how social norms and perceptions change over time.

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