Monday, June 27, 2022

Brown Sugar No More

The Rolling Stones returned to live work last year in a post-pandemic world. They first toured America in 2021 and are now celebrating 60 years by embarking on a European trek which has already rolled through Spain, Germany, England, Italy and is scheduled to hit France in a few weeks.

However, this isn't business as usual for the world's greatest rock n' roll band ®⟩⟨: first of all, they announced last summer that beloved drummer Charlie Watts wouldn't be joining them on this tour, and that Keith Richards associate Steve Jordan would be taking over. Charlie Watts died in August at the age of eighty. Second, they have retired the classic song Brown Sugar from their repertoire: the assumption is that its lyrics about slavery, prima nocta, teenage sex and racial fetishism might be considered too problematic for post-me too audiences.


Immediately after the first show, scandalized commentators raised their voices in unison, screaming about political correctness, wokeism, cancel culture and the usual talking points we've come to expect from social media. Some particularly disgusting anonymous trolls went as far as blaming backing vocalist Sasha Allen. To add to the fans confusion and dismay, it appears that the decision to ax the song was solely Mick Jagger's. This raises the question: how could this, whose love for mischief and subversion is well documented, the poster boy for rebellion and anti-establishment, give in to pressure?

Well, he did not. No one asked him to do that. There were no SJW campaigns, no public outcry, no calls from from any advocacy group. It was strictly Jagger's initiative. Jagger who, as the frontman and singer, maybe didn't feel comfortable delivering theses lines in this new context.

But this isn't the only song that could be deemed offensive in such a long and storied career. They still play Midnight Rambler nightly, a that has been criticized for its sexual violence. They haven't nixed Honky Tonk Women and its objectification of women. I think there is a hidden reason as to why Brown Sugar is no longer in their set list, and I believe that reason is Keith Richards.

I've seen the Stones 7 times in the last twenty years and every single time, Keith has fucked up the legendary intro.In fact, Keith barely plays guitar anymore. He usually plays the intro riff (sometimes double by Ronnie) then placates an open chord here and there during the song. But his arthritic fingers prevent him from doing much more than this. The few solos he takes are bare-boned, sometimes out of time and out of tune. Judging from the videos from this tour, it does seem like he has it more together than in the past fifteen years. Maybe he takes the stage less intoxicated,  too.

It doesn't spoil the fun, the exhilaration, the sheer awesomeness of attending a Rolling Stones concert but it is impossible to ignore. Now, Brown Sugar isn't the most technically demanding song in their setlist, but its iconic intro is the one Keith has butchered every time I seen them in recent years. I think this might be the real reason.

But really, the reason matters very little. The bottom line is that one of The Rolling Stones most famous songs, one of Keith's most iconic riffs, one of the best rock tunes ever released, is not being played by the band on what is likely their last world tour. And even if the motives are understandable, it's kind of a shame.

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