Uncovering the horror of 'Midnight Rambler'
By NICK TAVARES
STATIC and FEEDBACK Editor
As a kid, music existed in one of three places: in the living room on my parents turntable, wherever I took my walkman, and in the tape deck of my dad’s pickup truck.
When I was able to commandeer control of the record player, the playlist rarely varied from the Beatles’ Hey Jude. Within my room and my own headphones, I stuck with the Beatles some more, mostly the 1962-65 and Rock and Roll compilations on cassette. Dismissing a lot of the music my classmates liked (Mili Vanilli, Vanilla Ice, and whatever else kids in the late 1980s and early ‘90s listened to), the Beatles were what I liked. And, again, within the world of my walkman, I was in control.
I didn’t have nearly as much control when my dad drove, though. True, those Beatles tapes were really his, but he had other interests, too. Sometimes, it was John Lennon or George Harrison, and not much of a departure. And sometimes, it was something I liked decidedly less: Bread, ABBA, or a Sounds of the Seventies tape.
The greatest deviation from those, though, were the Rolling Stones and the Hot Rocks 1964-1971 compilation. Rightly regarded as one of the better “Greatest Hits” collections ever released, it was the first older music beyond the Beatles to strike a chord. It had some of the same qualities in songwriting, though it was a little jumpier, a little rougher around the edges. The love songs seemed a little funnier. They just felt, and looked, dirtier than the Beatles.
And “Midnight Rambler” scared the crap out of me.
The version chosen for Hot Rocks comes from the Stones’ essential live record, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. A little rougher and meaner than the studio cut, “Midnight Rambler” features the crowd chanting at the beginning, and Mick Jagger stalking the stage, getting the audience worked up with a little harp action before the guitars and drums kick in. It’s long, it stretches and it swings. And this all worked to disturb me as a little kid.
Maybe it was the length of the song. I really didn’t know of a song that went past the four-minute mark — this clocks in at 9:16, enough for three or four songs in my limited world. It also had to have been the first live recording I ever heard, the first peek into what it must be like to watch five musicians plying their trade live for paying customers.
I imagined quite a seedy scene, too. The recording is fantastic for the day, but rough by today’s standards. Jagger’s vocals are distorted. Keith Richards guitar growls and stomps in the background with the drums. The entire scene is so animalistic, and the crowd, oh what the crowd must’ve been like. Thousands of sweaty, screaming teenagers, completely enthralled by the music coming from the stage, so loud that it would deafen them by the end of the night, that it would render their own voices useless for days to come.
And there’s where the fear kicks in. I asked my parents about how five guys were able to play one song for so long, noodling on the guitar, blowing into a harmonica and working the crowd into a frenzy.
“Well,” the response usually came, “they were all on drugs, and they were so high they probably didn’t know what they were doing.”
The fact that they were so willing to tell a nine-year-old boy that these five English musicians were also out of their minds on whatever drugs I could imagine is, in retrospect, kind of funny. But it sealed the graven, shadowy reality I had conjured. They’re talking ‘bout the Midnight Rambler, the one I never seen befoe’, they’re doing the stuff I’d already been warned about at school, they’re locked into this groove forever, and they’ve got an entire arena — it was Madison Square Garden in New York, but I pictured the Providence Civic Center — following along with their every whim.
It all worked to make the last line of the song, the image of a drug-addicted singer screaming this declaration, rife with absolute terror:
“I’LL STICK MY KNIFE RIGHT DOWN YOUR THROAT, BABY, AND IT HURTS.”
I’m not ashamed to admit it all still scares me a bit.
Aug. 25, 2011
E-mail Nick Tavares at firstname.lastname@example.org