Friday, August 12, 2011

Here They Come: The Rolling Stones: "19th Nervous Breakdown"

By this time you may be wondering when they will show up. The bad kids from out of town; the ones who are supposed to be such great rivals to the ones from up north. Girls love bad boys and so they scream at them; but I wonder if the screaming here isn't more complex than, oh, the "he's so CUTE" variety, which is more suited to lovable mutts at the local home for wayward dogs.

Before I even get to this song, I have to say that the whole "Beatles vs. Stones" thing may well have existed in some peoples' minds in the Sixties, but growing up much later I have found that this particular construct, if it was ever real, has gotten quite stale. Indeed, there's more genuine conflict between those who love John vs. those who love Paul than there ever was between the two groups per se. Whether people take sides with The Rolling Stones I don't know - certainly within the group there have been enough struggles to make any public grievances redundant, particularly Mick vs. Keith, who are quite a different dynamic to John and Paul. I think the groups respected each other and complemented each other, in that this song - about a woman who is technically rich but in many ways poor - gets its answer a few months later in "Eleanor Rigby."

"19th Nervous Breakdown" is about a girl who is "insane*" - raised with all mod cons and more but unhappy, prone to talking too loud and saying nothing, she is an emotional vacuum cleaner that the singer (who might call himself "Our Hero" - there's always so much drama in Rolling Stones songs) tries and fails to change her, in fact leaves (hence her next breakdown) because he's afraid she's deranging him. Why this man would be at "dismal" parties I don't know, unless he's just the kind to either be invited to parties or maybe he crashes them? Not sure. Her parents don't care that she's a basket case and she was taught to be unkind by some cold-hearted wretch while at school, and there we are.

But why are the girls screaming? Is it just because that's what you do when you're at a Stones concert? It is as if the sad disdain that Mick has for the girl is somehow being applauded, in a starry-eyed "oh I'm the girl for you Mick not HER" way, or maybe the words don't really mean anything or are even decipherable above all the screaming. The guitar and bass say as much as the words to the tough luck she's going to have, the bass sounding as if you can hear her crashing down the stairs now, screaming and wailing worse than Marianne Dashwood.

Others might say that this is a class song, the middle vs. the upper, the modern vs. the old-fashioned (this must be the only song to mention "sealing wax"). It may well be a swipe against a certain girl Mick actually knew, or a take on someone he observed. The music and lyrics go together perfectly, coming out of Bo Diddley on one side and the Angry Young Men on the other. The Stones were that gang and their followers wanted to be - if they weren't already - on the side of the badasses who had had enough; the apolitical types who maybe in essence didn't want change but sure could point out what is screwed up in the world, starting with all the weird chicks they know.

And still the girls scream and pee themselves silly, loving the group and their music and ignoring this critique which could well be leveled at them. At some point all this will change, but compared to the Beatles' recognition of loneliness, this is a song that dumps not just one young woman but the whole society that produced her. I cannot help but think there are some deep ironies here, including the fact that Mick wanted in on this scene, as opposed to Keith who couldn't be bothered** - and that the Stones, as far as I can tell, are the rock band of the ruling class that is disdained in this song. Are they biting the hand that feeds them? Or is this just good business? In the end I am more sympathetic with the girl here, as clearly Mick will go to other parties while her life dries up. And still the girls scream.

*As opposed to another song where a girl is called "stupid" - Mick is so picky when it comes to women, ne c'est pas?

**You might wonder which one has been happiest in the long run. Upon all evidence Mick still hasn't found the right woman, and Keith has. (If that is your definition of happiness.)

1 comment:

Robin Carmody said...

They've always been the most problematic of the "big" bands for me, for reasons touched on in this piece, and the idea (at whose core they stand, along with Tony Blair) that Thatcherism simply represented the 1960s with the ending changed - a byproduct, not a reaction - cannot be dismissed entirely. You can't say that it can only be held by Mail-friendly popular historians such as Dominic Sandbrook and Christopher Bray, who may well delight in pissing off liberal boomers for the sake of it, because Ian MacDonald *was* that liberal boomer and he practically invented it, and Francis Beckett, its most eloquent living exponent, is the very antithesis of all those who'd take pleasure in such a connection or rub residual utopians' face in it.

The casual sexism actually feels quite a lot worse now than it would have done twenty years ago, now that it's been sold back and redefined, rescued from what could hopefully have been permanent oblivion. There is some kind of historical irony that here was a dismissal of privilege as useless, as an encumbrance ... but not to social equality as such, but the *presentation* of equality. Others were calling for the breakup of the very concept of an elite, the Stones wanted ... that elite to let its hair down, lose its hangups, but not surrender its absolute power. If the elite can get casual, get funky, they're happier in its company than in the company of the workers; the scale of Richard Gott's getting them wrong may well be because he couldn't conceive of the elite losing its loyalty to non-commercial values to anything like the extent that has happened. To cultural mangers from outside, the Stones seemed socialist *by default* because the aristocracy seemed permanently trapped in an antipathy to deregulated global trade ...

But at the same time I am more conscious than I once was of the faults built into public culture, its separation of responsibilities and desires; I no longer deny the historical context of rebellion to those who sought other ways, no longer allocate only as a prize, a reward, to those who fit my own strictures and rigours. I am more aware than I once was of how psychologically necessary this kind of pop was, even if the girls didn't realise that they might as easily have been the victims (and could easily have been on, at least, any TOTP in four at this time) of the need in any society to escape ... *the nationalisation of love*.

Whole structures of mutual support and reliance have crumbled since. So has parliamentary socialism. The battle against sexism was wrongly presumed won by the late 1990s and disastrously, chillingly, abdicated. 2000 light years from home, indeed. But however lost we are, there are always reasons. You don't get lost, out of all sight of shore, unless that shore was rocky in the first place. And it is precisely because the Stones got us lost, and lost us, that these songs are still relevant: the loss of shame, the loss of self-disgust ... where they took us out of the State is where we live today, for better *and* worse; even UKIP are a direct result of that great loosening of ties.

And yet I know I couldn't live without it; I know that if Dorchester were not a global suburb it would seem far eerier and creepier than it actually does, far harder for me to walk around in because my loves, my desires, cannot be nationalised (Dorchester? Rotherham? It makes no difference, whether by those criteria or UKIP's). This song, and this band, have left a nasty, unsettling legacy in many ways, their late years a self-parody of capitalism and individualism beyond anything that could be invented by their worst enemies. But the more someone yearns for the security of the State, for knowing who and where and how you were, the harder they'd in fact find it to live without them. Look in Farridge's face and know it, deep in your heart. And when we're being honest, look in Owen Jones's, look in Owen Hatherley's even, look in mine.