I’m gonna say something now with the full knowledge that it may elicit some eyerolls and perhaps even make me lose credibility for some of you, but I hope, if you’re a regular reader of this webrag, that you know that I say this with utmost sincerity and without any millennial affected jadedness: I couldn’t give less of a shit about the Rolling Stones.
Honestly. And it’s not that I don’t like them. I just don’t think they’re a great band, nor do I think they ever really were. I don’t bemoan their current status as a 100% nostalgia cash-grab rolling revue touring act, nor their gradual metamorphosis into full-on caricatures of themselves. I can’t make it through any one of their dozens of radio standards without feeling the urge to listen to just about anything else. I say this as someone who is completely aware of just how important they were for the musical and cultural landscape of the 1960s. Critical acclaim, obvious artistic merit and far-reaching influence notwithstanding, Exile on Main Street means nothing to me. It just doesn’t grab me. It never did. I don’t hate the band, but I’d be hard-pressed to name another group or musician of their scope and magnitude that I feel so utterly indifferent towards. If we’re sticking to the bands of the sixties, I’d rather listen to Pet Sounds. Or the Velvet Underground. Or The Kinks. Or all the great stuff that was coming out of Motown. Or even (gasp) The Beatles.
There’s always been some sort of roadblock in my appreciation of the Rolling Stones. It’s not that I’m unable to recognize that the tunes are there, and that they’re of some quality, and that for a while they represented rock and roll at its most irrepressibly outward and dangerous. It’s that there’s something in their very essence, their very identity, that is, in some strange way I cannot properly articulate, repellent to me. I guess it was my perception of a certain shtick which permeated the music and colored my every interaction, be it passive or active, with this legendary band. A certain affectation. Testosterone-driven posturing, even in their gentlest of ballads. I couldn’t shake it. Still can’t… not completely, anyway.
“Moonlight Mile”, however, caught me by surprise. I heard this song long before I ever purchased Sticky Fingers, and it immediately struck me as the greatest song I’d ever heard by this band. Easily the most instantly gripping, and the most nuanced and rewarding of repeated listens. A display of depth and songcraft that I’d no idea Richards & company were even capable of. The song was introduced to me through an episode of the HBO TV series The Sopranos, as a bookend to the season 6 episode “Kaisha”. The Sopranos is possibly my favorite TV series of all time, an achievement in episodic television writing that I believe is still unparalleled (I know, I know, The Wire— still haven’t seen past the first season. I’ll get there someday). Not only that, but it introduced me to a shocking amount of great music. “Moonlight Mile” is probably my favorite of those songs.
As far as the subject matter, I realize the “sad, lonely rock star bemoaning his life on the road” fits quite neatly into the Stones’ act. And perhaps the concept is explored in a less lyrically compelling way than something like Jackson Browne’s “The Load-Out”. But it’s such an elegant piece of music, and such a wonderfully understated band performance, that it feels utterly sincere– the weariness doesn’t come off as feigned or disingenuous, but like a brief flash of honesty. A respite from the chest-puffing bravado. From the oblique motion of its quiet, vaguely eastern-tinged guitar intro, to the lush string arrangements that carry the song forward, we are taken on a journey with this song. Charlie Watts shines in particular, his jazz background shining through as the toms and cymbal crashes mark the song’s movements; stopping and starting, tensing and relaxing, contracting and expanding. It sounds so good, too; the studio recording is a genuine pleasure to listen to, especially on a good set of headphones.
Speaking of, I refuse to listen to any other version of this song. I made the horrible mistake once of checking out a live performance of the song from 1999. Oy. It was kind of like what I imagine it would feel to see a loved one after a horrific accident left them hideously disfigured. Heartbreaking. I also refuse to listen to any other Stones songs; while the discovery of this track generated a brief surge of interest in the band, in a “oh my God have I been wrong about them all along?” sort of way, my forays into their catalogue have left me cold as always. I have resigned myself to the fact that this might be the only song of theirs that I’ll ever truly care about.
And you know? It doesn’t really matter. There’s a brief window of time, usually found between 4 and 5 in the morning, after I’ve doffed the burdensome cloak of public persona and retreated to bed; a point where I’ve kicked back enough glasses of wine that my mind’s placidly engulfed in a hazy burgundy mist, and all the pieces fall together beautifully. That’s the moment where “Moonlight Mile” becomes the greatest song ever written, not just by the Stones, but by any human being who ever had the audacity to pick up a guitar. For those brief few moments before I finally surrender to sleep, there’s no song that better captures the loneliness, resignation and muted rage that permeates everyday life as it unwinds and unfurls and finally dissipates into a shrug, and no song that fades more elegantly into its final, stately chord.
Listen to the gorgeous Rolling Stones song “Moonlight Mile” by clicking the embedded player below:
Bedhead Melodies is a seldom-updated post series featuring songs I rediscover late at night, usually right before I fall asleep, usually after some alcohol has been consumed. You can find the past songs in the series here. You should listen to them. Go on then. Do it.