These songs have power for us because, on one hand, they're deeply personal songs made up of details which give us intimate access to the relationships being exorcized (particularly 'Diamonds and Rust'), and on the other hand, as fans of these artists we have our own, inner relationships with both the writers and subjects of the songs. We don't know these people personally, but in this case, I'd argue we have more stake in their stories because we don't know them personally. Their work gives us access to our own secret places, and through their art, we know ourselves more personally. We're probably never gonna meet Richards, Jagger, Dylan, Baez, or Paul McCartney in the real world, but in our world, the intimacy's already there; we've coloured them with personal perceptions and experiences all our listening lives. The fact that we see them only through the crystal ball of art doesn't really matter; the point is, we've got dogs in these fights.
How Do You Sleep? (John Lennon), 1971.
The most famous of my four examples is the song which interests me the least. 'How Do You
Sleep?', which Lennon aimed at Paul McCartney, is a killer groove, and features a monster slide part by George Harrison (endorsing the song by playing on it), but the vitriol is so over the top it makes it hard to admire. Next to the title track of Imagine (Lennon's bid for world peace and arguably his best-known song) 'How Do You Sleep?' feels childish and vindictive. Paul made his own, veiled, digs at John with his song 'Too Many People', released earlier that same year on McCartney's ('71) album Ram, but Paul's snipes were sidelong and mild ('too many people preaching practices', and 'you took your lucky break/ and broke it in two/ now what can be done for you?') compared to Lennon's nuclear response ('the sound you make is muzak to my ears/ you must have learned something in all those years' and 'the only thing you've done was yesterday/ and since you're gone you're just another day'). Lennon changed his original lyric, 'you probably nicked that bitch anyway', referring to the longstanding question (which Paul wondered himself) of whether McCartney had stolen the idea for 'Yesterday' from John. Lennon rewrote the lyric under the advisement of ex-Beatles-manager Allen Klein, who warned him McCartney could sue. Lennon's rewrite was another passive-agressive jab, referring this time to Paul's song 'Another Day', which was written by McCartney during the Let It Be sessions, and released as Paul's first single in 1970. Personally, I'm a huge fan of them both, though I tend to gravitate more to Lennon. In this case, however, if I had to choose between the two, I think I prefer the 'muzak' of 'Too Many People' to the onslaught of 'How Do You Sleep?'. That's just me.
You Don't Move Me (Keith Richards/Steve Jordan), 1988.
Another aspect of these songs is that they give us words we often can't find for the people who hurt us in our own lives. There's a comment I like under the YouTube video of 'You Don't Move Me' that says 'The song I sang to after my divorce in '89'. Exactly. These songs, being so personal, speak for us too.
But they also give us the vicarious chance to communicate with the actual persons on the receiving end of the lyrics. If you, for instance, have ever found Mick Jagger's ego tiring, well, there's only one man who could rightfully, and righteously (in the best possible meaning of the word) step up and say what's on your mind. Which of course, isn't ours to say. In Keith Richards' 2011 autobiography Life, he puts it this way: 'Basically, we are brothers. I can knock him but if anyone else does, I'll slit his throat!'. In the song 'You Don't Move Me' (which ended side one of his '88 solo album Talk Is Cheap), he says it like this: 'It's no longer funny/ it's bigger than money/ you just don't move me anymore'. An ex-partner saying, 'How do you sleep?' is mere tirade; 'You just don't move me anymore' is much deadlier. The badass, whiplash riff of this tune, complete with shiver-inducing background vocals by Richards' band The X-Pensive Winos, is more thrilling to me than all Mick Jagger's solo efforts put together. 'You Don't Move Me' is what happens when the boiler room of the band finally makes his own statement.
I always love hearing Keith talk about what it means to be in a band-- what it means to be a musician in a band. When inducting two of the greatest sidemen of all time-- pianist Johnnie Johnson (who played and collaborated with Chuck Berry) and guitarist James Burton (who backed Ricky Nelson, Elvis Presley, and John Denver, among others)-- into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2001, Keith described his job as making sure that 'the guy out in front can do anything he wants to do and feel safe and comfortable, and know that you'll catch him if he falls over.... basically, you're watching this bum with a hairdo. And you're trying to make sure that it doesn't make an ass out of itself... and that's the gig. And if you're not mentioned, it means that you've done your gig really well.' As a Rolling Stone, no one understood this better than Keith Richards, or saw how oblivious to his band a front man could become. As Keith pointed out in his induction speech for Johnson and Burton, audiences are largely (and rightfully) unaware of the work being done to back a lead singer. But Keith knows. 'Let me put it this way: I never bought a Ricky Nelson record, I bought a James Burton record'.
For Keith Richards, being guitar player in the greatest rock n' roll band in the world was enough. But the rift between musician and front man got wider when Jagger was quoted in the press saying that The Rolling Stones were 'millstones around my neck.' Unbeknownst to the band at the time, Jagger had signed a three-album solo deal; record execs had been whispering in his ear for years, telling him that he didn't need The Stones, that he could be a star on the level of Michael Jackson, and Jagger was eager to believe it. Even so, it wasn't until Jagger announced he wouldn't be touring the band's 1986 album Dirty Work, but would instead begin writing his second solo album (his first solo-outing, She's The Boss, enjoyed commercial success in '85) that Keith Richards considered putting together a project of his own.
In a 2001 interview with The Daily Mail, Keith discussed Jagger's (very upset) reaction when Richards' side of the story went public: 'I don't think Mick, until right now, knew how deep a cut that was. Not just to me but the rest of the band. It became a very difficult period, from the late '80s until 1990. I used to call it World War Three. Being in that pressure cooker all the time-- and with two very strong egos involved-- there is inevitably going to be a time when the pressure cooker pops. It was something I had to explain.'
I don't think he ever explained it better than he did with 'You Don't Move Me'. When Talk Is Cheap came out on Virgin Records in '88, critics called it the best Rolling Stones album in years. I call it one of my favourite records ever made. Period. I've got the album cover on my living room wall and I love every track, but the last track on side one always killed me a little more than the rest, because it feels to me like rock n' roll itself is being defended with this number. You be the judge.
Diamonds and Rust (Joan Baez), 1975.
Many argue that 'Diamonds and Rust' is the best thing Joan Baez ever wrote, and I'm one of 'em.
This song was introduced to me when I lived in Kingston, Ontario, in 1993. I was 21 years old and my friend Nigel Batemen (who passed away in 2004, rest his rock n' roll soul) turned me on to a lot of music which would shape the course of my listening (and creative) life. Through Nigel I heard Jackie Wilson's 'Lonely Teardrops' and 'Doggin' Around' for the first time. Nigel delivered Robert Palmer's 'Johnny and Mary' to me. He sat me down and played me Iron Butterfly's 'Soldier In Our Town', just for the chorus. Nigel put Leon Russell's 'Song For You' in my life-- which just destroyed me-- and which I've since read was written for Rita Coolidge, who sang in the band Russell recruited to back Joe Cocker on his 1970 Mad Dogs and Englishmen tour (and live album of the same name), and whom Russell fell in love with but who couldn't reconcile her lifestyle with his (Rita Coolidge married Kris Kristofferson a few years later). So there's another one.
But by far the most haunting song Nigel played for me that educational year was 'Diamonds and Rust', which has given me shivers every time I've put it on since. I can't possibly give you the backstory of the song (which she wrote for Bob Dylan after he happened to call Baez 'from a booth in the midwest') better than she does in this excerpt from Martin Scorcese's 2005 documentary No Direction Home (it's worth watching for her imitation of Dylan alone):
But the nutshell is that Joan Baez was the Queen of the Greenwich Village folk scene (and famous all over) when Dylan hit New York ('you burst onto the scene, already a legend/ the unwashed phenomenon/ the original vagabond/ you strayed into my arms'), where Baez took him under her wing, exposed him to her audiences, and became entangled with him romantically, in the time just before his own fame exploded. Dylan was soon the superstar she knew he'd become, but when he took Baez to England with his entourage in 1965, the favours she'd done for him in the US weren't returned. Dylan didn't once invite her onstage.
As a song, 'Diamonds and Rust' is a perfect case. It's tender without being sentimental ('As I remember your eyes were bluer than robin's eggs/ my poetry was lousy you said/ where are you calling from?/ a booth in the midwest') and unflinching without being cruel (now you're telling me/ you're not nostalgic/ can't give me another word for it/ you who were so good with words/ and at keeping things vague').
You who were so good with words!! And at keeping things vague!! Again, that vicarious thrill. How many have longed to say that to Dylan, but didn't have the words (not to mention the channel with which) to say it? I'm a HUGE Bob Dylan fan. I also think he got away with songwriting murder, and that part of me goes all warm and giggly inside... "Can't give me another word for it, eh?? You who were so good with words??" Yes!!!! "Take that, Trickster Bob!!" Vindication we can all enjoy.
It's enough that 'Diamonds and Rust' is a private song, from one woman's perspective; filtered through distance and memory. Its vulnerability and sincerity are balms for any of us looking back at lovers we parted ways with when we were younger. But I can't help but feel that she's also singing (inadvertently) for the protestors who felt betrayed by Dylan. Of course, Dylan was never a voice for them, ever. But they didn't know that. Dylan is the trickster, always was the trickster. Joan Baez was, and continues to be, an activist committed to world change. 'Now you're telling me, you're not nostalgic' has added meaning under this light.
But I don't think of these things when I hear this song. I hear it as an absolutely personal song, which lays me to waste every time. But that's what gives it all the more power when examined with the longer lens now available to us. It also has one of THE greatest first lines of any song, ever. Press play and see for yourself.
A footnote: Judas Priest- of all bands- recorded 'Diamonds and Rust' for their 1977 album Sin After Sin, and it became a staple of their repertoire. Listen to their version here.
How Can You Sleep (With The Light On In Your Head?) (Dave Bidini)
Performed by Martin Tielli, 2001.
First of all, this song (written by Dave Bidini-- formerly of Canadian indie art rockers the Rheostatics-- about his bandmate and old friend Martin Tielli-- who later recorded the song himself on his 2001 solo album) really speaks to me personally. A concerned friend once told me I was 'the Energizer Bunny of self-destruction', which I definitely was at the time. I've always had trouble sleeping, shutting down, letting go of the day. There's a lever in me (the one that lets 'normal' people know it's time to rest) which broke off a long time ago and has never really been repaired. "How can you sleep with the light on in your head?" describes my relationship with my own brain in a single phrase. Beautifully.
A gal I was irrevocably in love with when I was twenty years old turned me onto the Rheostatics. The first thing I heard was their 1992 album Whale Music, which she introduced me to when it came out, and which became a soundtrack of that relationship for me. If you're a reader who doesn't know the Rheostatics, you should stop what you're doing and listen to 'California Dreamline,' one of the first tracks of theirs I myself heard twenty years ago, and a Martin Tielli song.
'How Can You Sleep (With The Light On In Your Head?)', like 'You Don't Move Me', is from one bandmate to another-- bandmates who've spent thousands of hours in each other's company and who, for all intents and purposes, have been through a marriage together-- musical as it might be. The Rheostatics were together twenty years (1987-2007) and are an iconic Canadian band. Dave Bidini and Martin Tielli were its principal songwriters, front men, and certainly its strongest public personalities. Martin Tielli, the subject of Bidini's song, is a force of nature-- as an artist, as a musician, as a person ('he says "I'm guided by voices, you know," then he laughs/ leans on a wall that he thinks that is there/ burns his face on the lamp/ and sparks up a joint. He's not like the kid who pretends he's fucked up/ avenging his parent's divorce/ he's broken for nothing, he's bending for nothing/ and he's made of titanium').
One of my favourite things about this song is where it wound up, which is on Martin Tielli's 2001 solo album We Didn't Even Suspect He Was The Poppy Salesman. Martin explained it to Toronto's Eye Magazine when the album was released:
"It's a song Dave wrote about me, which is a pretty ballsy thing for him to do," says Tielli. "He was basically saying, 'Why can't you relax?' The world was an upsetting place for me, and Dave was asking me, 'Why can't you function like a normal person, you freak?!' It was probably because of that that it rattled around in my head, and then I decided to make it about somebody else completely. It's a composite of a lot of things, including myself: it's about compulsive people who appear to be indestructible, and they're doing their damnedest to destroy themselves."
Like 'Diamonds and Rust', 'How Can You Sleep?' is made of tough love ('It was the musical joke of the year/ as the crowd is waiting for the star to appear/ but you're just an alkie to me/ and you can't deliver'), but it's definitely love. There's love inherent in the song title itself, which, I have to say, is a far more poetic, compelling, and satisfying question than "How do you sleep at night?" What a killer song, a killer performance, and a killer little slice of Canadian music history.
I've got a friend in Midland, Ontario who will not read this article. His name is John Phillips, and he happens to be the single greatest audiophile I know. He has over 10,000 LPs in his basement, which is laid out like the coolest independent vinyl shop you've ever seen. He's got a turntable set up, with some fat armchairs, and man, it's easy to lose track of time down there. As Johnny says, 'one side leads to another', or, as my buddy Sean Cotton put it, 'when I die, just throw me down those stairs and close the door.' Johnny's been collecting those records for over 50 years, and I've never met someone with such a far-ranging, all-encompassing, genre-hopping, various and miscellaneous knowledge of music as he has. He literally listens to it all, and loves it all.
But he will not read this article. No way. It's nothing personal. John just doesn't wanna read anything about the songs, or where they come from. If he already loves them they have powerful, personal, emotional associations for him which he has no interest in messing with, and if he's never heard 'em, he wants to experience them for himself, without anyone else's history colouring that introduction.
If you've read this far, you've probably guessed that that's not quite me. I love colouring that shit. I can read about music all day. I love histories, and being a songwriter myself, I love following the bread crumbs; connecting the dots back to the one where that particular song began. It's fun to dig!! It's fun to know. And I hope that by knowing more about where these songs were born, it's made them a richer listen.
But I'm lucky. Because like my friend John, I'm an emotional listener. When I put a record on, it's easy for me to forget all that stuff I read about it. I just give myself over, and the song becomes mine. Beauty is in the ear of the listener, and every song I've brought up in this piece-- with all their oft-discussed and contested public stories-- at the end of the day, they belong to us. The listeners.
Did Carly Simon write 'You're So Vain' about Warren Beatty? Or is it about Mick Jagger, who sang (uncredited) on the song? Is it a composite of three different men from her L.A. days, as Simon has often claimed but never confirmed? Oh man. There's practically an F.B.I. file out on that one. Did Francis Bacon write the plays of Shakespeare? Let's start there!!! It doesn't matter, does it? We've all had some dreams that were clouds in our coffee.
Thanks for reading, friends. See you in two weeks, CR.