Friday Night with Guitar George: Tumbling Dice Edition

One of life’s most charming oxymorons is that one of the definitions of great art is that it cannot be defined.

 Why is Moby Dick widely considered one of the best novels ever written?  It is a long, meandering, at times maddeningly self-indulgent book with—let’s face it—a pretty pedestrian plot: a 19th Century whaling captain is pissed off at an immense white whale who bit off his leg, so he scours the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to find this one animal and exact his revenge upon it, but in the process he loses first his mind, then his life.  Yet to read Moby Dick is to be completely spellbound by the vivid imagery, by Herman Melville’s stunning command of the English language, and by the powerful depictions of the complex and oftentimes frightening human psyche.  Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night is a bunch of wavy blue and purple paint strokes that vaguely depict a small village at night, with some yellowish swirls that one assumes are stars, and this big-ass random ugly brown bush-thing in the foreground.  But to stand in front of the actual painting is to swoon in emotions too rich to describe.  Michelangelo’s David is simultaneously (a) one large hunk of marble that was struck countless times with a chisel until it bore the resemblance of a naked teenage boy holding a slingshot and (b) one of the finest pieces of art on Planet Earth.

The 1972 Rolling Stones album Exile On Main Street is the Moby Dick of rock albums.  It is long and dense and murky, and at times difficult to fully grasp.  But listening to it is to experience an intoxicating blend of blues and rock and blues/gospel and country/blues music.  There are many who suggest that Exile might be the best rock album ever made.  That is certainly open for debate, especially considering that the Stones previous THREE albums—Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers have also garnered such lofty admiration, not to mention a pair of certain British rock quartets each of whom have some splendid vinyl of their own to toss into that debate.  But the point is, for reasons we cannot fully articulate, Exile On Main Street is unmistakably a piece of great art.

The basic tracks for the songs on Exile were famously recorded in the drug-hazed squalor of Keith Richard’s basement, with layers of saxophone and trombone and upright bass and background vocals and other musical embellishments added on later in the comparative calm of a Los Angeles studio.  The finished product, however, retains the “basementness” of the original sound; producer Jimmy Miller tried desperately (and unsuccessfully) to un-muddy the sound, but his failure to do so is actually a blessing:  the “murkiness” in the mix is a large part of what makes Exile unique.  Even Jagger’s vocals are treated as an instrument, buried in the mix amongst the thrashing of Keith’s guitar, the wailing of Mick Taylor’s guitar, the incessant thump of Bill Wyman’s bass and Charlie Watts’ drums, and the baroque ivory-dancing of whoever happens to be playing piano at the moment.  Much of the album’s lyrics are undecipherable, but there is no mistaking the passion behind their delivery.  Exile’s lack of lyrical clarity is trumped by its musical urgency.  One prominent music critic has stated: “I still don’t know all the lyrics, and I still don’t care.”

There are eighteen songs on Exile On Main Street—66 minutes and 21 seconds of music, but tonight’s FNWGG will focus on one of the eighteen songs, and more specifically, three of the 3,981 seconds on the record.  On an album stacked with good songs, “Tumbling Dice” is the clear favorite as the best of the group.  The Stones released it as a single, they made it a staple of their live shows for decades, and it invariably shows up on “Best Of” compilations and anthologies.  The entire song is excellent, but the first three seconds are what make it sublime.

Keith Richards’ resume is loaded with some of the best opening guitar riffs in rock history: “Satisfaction”, “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up”, “Midnight Rambler”, “Can’t You Hear Me Knockin” to name but a few.  What all those riffs have in common is the gut-punch effect: brash and bold, and slashed out with a get-the-hell-out-of-the-way potency.  The opening riff of “Tumbling Dice”, however, has an air of uncertainty about it—an anguished moan instead of a bold shout.  About two seconds in, with a nudge from Charlie’s entrance on drums, Keith moves from the opening riff into his signature open-G chording which anchors the rest of the song.  But the tone has been set: the uncertainty expressed in the opening is echoed in Jagger’s vocals.  In spite of his accusation that “all you women are low-down gamblers, cheating like I don’t know how”, he is pleading with a would-be lover to join the desperate “rank outsider” and be his “partner in crime”.  Even Mick Taylor’s lead guitar, fast and exuberant on most of Exile, takes on a plaintive tone in “Tumbling Dice” and is unable to lighten the mood that was established in those crucial first three seconds.

Many have tried, but nobody has succeeded in replicating the sound of Keith’s guitar at the beginning of “Tumbling Dice”.  It might be possible to hit the notes, but impossible to duplicate the sound.   There is a tonal quality that Keith produces which is transcendent and incomprehensible to the human mind.  And yet Keith rolls out those wonderfully impossible notes with an effortlessness that is infinitely incommensurate with the sublime quality thereof.  Let me impart some advice based on harrowing personal experiences: do not go searching YouTube for covers of “Tumbling Dice”.  You will see and hear things that should not be witnessed outside of a controlled environment with trained professional counselors nearby.  Let me break it down: you cannot write Moby Dick.  You cannot paint Starry Night.  And you cannot play “Tumbling Dice”.

Tonight’s video was taped during what appears to be rehearsals for the Stones 1972 American tour.  There are two takes, with easily noticeable and interesting differences between the two, as Jagger is experimenting with variations in the lyrics and the melody, and Mick Taylor is trying to figure out the right balance of his lead guitar against Keith’s rhythm guitar.  Notice after the first take Taylor, who is either half asleep or is not thrilled to be there, sets his guitar down, presumably to go grab a Pepsi or a cup of coffee or take a little something to improve his demeanor.  But boss-men Keith and Charlie will have none of that.  Keith once again effortlessly rolls out the magical opening riff, Charlie smacks his snare:  Take Two is underway, and the rest of the band falls into step behind them.  Here is another oxymoron for you: neither of the two takes is brilliant, but both of them are amazing.  This band was so damn good during their peak years, even their outtakes are Guitar George worthy. (A future episode of FNWGG will develop that theme more fully).

Please take the time to watch the entire video.  I promise that you will not be disappointed.  Keep on Rolling !!!

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