Thursday, February 28, 2013

Honky Tonk Women

Brian Jones, the talented multi-instrumentalist, would have been 71 today. I only note that in passing, because I was six years old when he left the Stones, and I only know of him in retrospect.

There was a theory that Mick Jagger killed him; I remember hearing that one as a teenager. The police didn't agree, and it's more likely that his death was an accident. I have no reason to pass this along either, but there it is.

There's another, weirder urban myth around the Stones that I remembered for many years. I even recall believing it, and passing it along. Somewhere along the line, as a teenager, I was told (or read, or pulled out of my ass) the "fact" that the Rolling Stones song Honky Tonk Women was one of the few crossover hits that charted on both the country and rock charts. It was, as far as I was concerned, a fragment of Holy Writ, a little chunk of reality that you couldn't argue with.

It also happened to be complete crap. But why should I let that bother me?

To be honest, there was a germ of truth in there. If you took that germ, twisted it into a pretzel, inflated it to 165 psi, and looked at it in a funhouse mirror, through someone else’s glasses. While squinting.

See, if you owned a copy of the album Let It Bleed (1969), then halfway through side one (right after an old Robert Johnson song called "Love in Vain"), you had the original version of the song, called "Country Honk," with slightly different lyrics and a completely different (mostly acoustic) arrangement.

(Let It Bleed, incidentally, was the last album with Brian Jones, so it all ties together reasonably well. Of course, there’s no evidence that Jones played on this particular track, but let’s just ignore that and move on, shall we?)

The version we're all more familiar with was actually a re-recording, and had only been released on the 45 (back in those heady days of vinyl and magnetic tape, full-sized albums spun on the turntable at 33 rpm, and "singles," much smaller disks, had a higher fidelity because of the faster playback speed of 45 rpm).

It also appeared on Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2), which contained a number of other familiar songs which had originally been released only as singles (including "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Let's Spend the Night Together" and "Ruby Tuesday"). Through the Past, Darkly was also dedicated to the (by then quite dead) Brian Jones. So there you go.

Although singles have never really disappeared, they fell out of fashion in America sometime in the late eighties. Of course, now, with iTunes and other download sites, the music business is getting back to selling singles, without ever pressing a single 45 rpm disk. Which would be ironic if anybody actually cared that much.

The fiddle track, incidentally, was played by Byron Berline, one of America's preeminent fiddle players, and a member of the underrated "Flying Burrito Brothers."

A little more trivia: in 1971, Ricky Nelson played "Country Honk," to a moderately negative reception, at the Rock 'n Roll Revival concert at Madison Square Garden. He refers to that in his last hit, "Garden Party," which includes the line:
then I sang a song about a honky-tonk, and it was time to leave.

1 comment:

Flying Junior said...

Country Honk may not have made the country charts, but it made quite a splash here in the deep south. San Diego/La Jolla. When I was fourteen and my friend Carlos was just graduating high school, we started playing rock 'n roll. A partnership that lasted thirty years. Wood, (something to do with Ron Wood,) lent me his well-worn double album, "Let it Bleed," so I could learn "You Can't Always Get What You Want," on my Farfisa. I felt like a huge gap in my education had been filled. I'm not sure if I agree with the 1969 peg you put on it. (No fair wiki!) Wasn't "Let it Be," released in 1970?

Of course, I had heard the radio hit version countless times. We always performed said version when the parties were just heating up. The unmistakable cowbell and drum head, the syncopated open G chords. I can't guess how many times. It was good to hear the acoustic version again after so many years. Many thanks. This tendency of Mick and Keith to poke fun at the American South presaged "Sweet Virginia," and later, "Far Away Eyes." After all, no state is home to more hicks and drawlers than California!