Saturday, June 20, 2015

Still Sticky After All These Years: The Special Edition Reissue of The Rolling Stones' Sticky Fingers

For a broadly acknowledged classic of its form and format, the Rolling StonesSticky Fingers (1971) gets surprisingly little respect. It’s always on the list of greatest rock albums, but always far below Exile on Main Street, its 1972 follow-up. Where the Sticky reissue has gotten minimal media push, the 2010 Exile reissue was a major story, leading the New York Times Arts and Leisure section and spot-lit for a week on “The Jimmy Fallon Show.” According to the Rolling Stones—the band’s authorized oral history-pictobiography—mentions Sticky pretty much in passing, while giving several pages to the gestation, creation, and fermentation of Exile. In his 2010 autobiography, Life, Keith Richards gives Exile a dozen or so dedicated pages; Sticky gets about one and a half.

Nor does there seem any particular reason for the reissue to have occurred right now. Sticky is 44 years old this year—not 45, per a notable anniversary or class reunion. Though it comes garnished with a not-bad bonus disc of alternate takes and contemporaneous live recordings, the Sticky remaster is the same one first released in 2009. But no reason doesn’t mean no rationale. The Stones’ current North American tour, begun May 24 in San Diego, is labeled the Zip Code Tour; the Andy Warhol-designed cover of Sticky Fingers famously features a zipper—called a “zip” in the UK. That’s what the commercial confluence amounts to: zip. In lieu of the new product that has historically eventuated a Stones tour, the band are shoving out, at staggered (and at the top end staggering) price points, multiple repackagings of the album that I, along with a few others, consider their finest. The lasting album serves the perishable tour, rather than the reverse. No respect.

Be all that as it may—and the Stones have been so mercenary and slapdash with their recorded legacy for so long that it’s a yawn to even linger on the point—it’s good to have Sticky Fingers come back around. The remaster sounds as fine and sharp as it did six years ago, and the re-release occasions, as it should, a fresh reckoning with material nested too snugly for too long in the coils of adolescent memory, the jerk of ingrained responses.

Sticky would of course stand taller if it hadn’t been followed by Exile. The former is focused, the latter panoramic. As a delving into sexual and racial nether regions, the former is wittier, subtler, more troubling; the latter is a stomping slop-around, loaded with nuances but defined overall by sprawl and scatter. The provocation of Sticky lyrics (especially “Brown Sugar,” which will remain transgressive as long as we have racism, sexism, and any historical memory of slavery or interracial rape) is replaced on Exile by more homespun forms of lewdness and crudeness, a plundering of blues tropes that are less risky because more familiar. And for US fans at least, Exile has the added attraction of being thoroughly, self-consciously obsessed with American imagery—whereas Sticky, unreeling in some less definable terrain of the cultural-musical mind, begins with “cold English blood” and ends by evoking Japanese folk music.

It’s probably been pointed out before that while Exile on Main Street could be retitled Sticky Fingers and still make sense, the opposite wouldn’t hold—and not just because the otherworld created by Sticky wouldn’t contain anything so prosaic as a Main Street. It simply doesn’t have the feel of exile music, something exploratory, doubtful, and as used to losing as winning, which are the moods characteristic of Exile at its strongest and weakest. The band making Sticky Fingers has no apparent problem grasping whatever it reaches for, be that straight rock, country blues, Southern soul, Latin-jazz improvisation, or orchestrated thunder. Likewise does Mick Jagger as primary lyricist have no apparent problem capturing, or creating, shades of tenderness in lines probably scribbled on Holiday Inn notepads between debauches (“One day I woke up to find, right in the bed next to mine / Someone that broke me up with a corner of her smile”).

As achieved and organic, as right there as Sticky Fingers sounds, it is girded by commitment. The force of the album is in a consistency of diabolical will. Like dagger-wielding villains from a Cruikshank illustration, the Stones dart in and out of the holes in the songs, taunting and enraging them. This applies most plainly to the bristling rockers (“Brown Sugar,” “Sway,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” “Bitch”) which are the record’s heart. But part of the reckoning of a 2015 re-listening is the maturity, fixation, and patience that ground the non-rockers, including a ballad that once seemed overproduced and drawn-out (“Wild Horses”); a country blues that seemed a retread at best, blackface at worst (“You Gotta Move”); a soul agony that seemed as dispensable as a minor B-side (“I Got the Blues”); and a drug lament that seemed only hip and vague, the quintessence of fashionable decadence (“Sister Morphine”). Even “Dead Flowers”—still the weakest track, still essentially dumb—sounds less of a joke now than it did before, with Jagger adopting a cod-country persona but at least sticking to it, doing his best to inhabit rather than mock it. Today each erstwhile placeholder on Sticky Fingers argues itself anew, lives or dies in real time. Something has shifted here, clarified the commitment (especially Jagger’s as vocalist) filling the frame of each song, however secondhand or questionable those frames once appeared, or still do. And it’s that commitment—a resistance to slackness, good-enoughness, irony by default—that more than anything holds the album together and fires it from the inside.

From the “Brown Sugar” kick-off that can still make so many of us (to quote a neighboring song) salivate like Pavlov dogs to “Moonlight Mile,” rising and falling like the shifts and breaths of some great spirit of the night, time reveals rather than ravages Sticky Fingers. Once it seemed a dry run for its more ambitious, more encompassing successor; now it seems in comparison brilliantly lean, complete, mature, an absolute. Once it seemed to just miss out on greatness; today it sounds like it doesn’t have a wasteful or unfelt song on it. And if this seems clear now where it didn’t 30 years go, or whenever you first heard it, that’s not because of the remastering job. It’s some combination of essence and age, the music that was always there and the changed perspective conferred by time. It matters little or not at all that the current reissue is being presented by the Stones themselves as a mere promotional tool, an afterthought. It is a reminder of life and a prod to renewal, pulling us back close to something we thought we’d heard plain and whole long ago, and telling us we’d heard only some of it, felt only parts of it. Now that you’re ready, it says, here are the other parts. What is reckoning for, if not this?

– Devin McKinney is the author of Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History (2003), The Man Who Saw a Ghost: The Life and Work of Henry Fonda (2012), and Jesusmania! The Bootleg Superstar of Gettysburg College (2016). Formerly a music columnist (The American Prospect), blogger (Hey Dullblog), and TV writer (The Food Network), he has appeared in numerous publications and contributes regularly to Critics at Large and the pop culture site HiLobrow. He is employed as an archivist at Gettysburg College in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where he lives with his wife and their three cats. His website is

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