Sunday, April 22, 2012

Rolling Stones -- "The Singer, Not the Song" (1965)

The same old places and the same old songs 
We've been going there for much too long 
There's something wrong
And it gives me that feeling inside 
That I know I must be right 
It's the singer not the song 
I wrote a few months ago about "She Said Yeah," another cut from the fifth Rolling Stones album to be released in the United States, but the first one I owned -- December's Children (and Everybody's), a rather haphazard assemblage of originals and covers, some taken from previous UK releases and some brand new.  I got the LP when I was 13 and played it to death until Between the Buttons was released about a year later.

Which is more important?  The singer or the song?  The Stones say that it's the singer, not the song.

Dirk Bogarde said the same thing as he and John Mills lay dying at the end of the 1961 British movie, The Singer Not the Song.  I have to think that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards must have seen that movie, and that it inspired this song.

The Singer Not the Song was a very odd movie -- it was a commercial flop, but eventually attained a certain cult status thanks to its undercurrents of homoeroticism.   

It is a western, filmed in Mexico by a British director and featuring a mainly British cast (all with impeccable upper-class British accents).  Bogarde plays a church-hating Mexican bandit who reigns over a timid Mexican town.  Mills plays an Irish priest who comes to the village to bring religion back to its residents.  

Mills tries to reform Bogarde, who eventually comes to respect the priest's courage and integrity.  The two men end up in a truly bizarre love triangle with the daughter of a rich rancher -- she was played by a young French actress, for some reason -- and perhaps with each other.

Dirk Bogarde in The Singer Not the Song
Bogarde, who was gay but very closeted at the time, wore a rather remarkable pair of skin-tight leather pants in the film.  A 2011 story in a British newspaper says that after the movie was screened for the press, 

critics sniggered loudly at those leather trousers and went home to write reviews that wondered whether The Singer Not the Song was about "the love that dare not speak its name." 

The writer of that article went on to say that the movie is "of such telegraphic queerness" that it's hard to believe that Bogarde remained the idol of many British teenage girls after its release.

The film ends with the death of both the outlaw and the priest in a shootout in the town plaza.  As they lay dying, the priest embraces the outlaw, begging him to say an act of contrition and save his soul.  The outlaw's last words are "It's the singer, not the song" -- he apparently means that while he will never accept the teachings of the church, he did respect and believe in the priest.

Here's the climax of The Singer not the Song:

I'm guessing that the meaning of "it's the singer, not the song" in the Rolling Stones song is that what's important isn't for a man to be with a woman -- what's important is to be with the right woman.  

In the first two verses, the singer believes he is with the right woman.  But things seem to have taken a turn for the worse in the third verse, which has subtly different words.  

Instead of having a "feeling inside that I know must be right" (verses one and two),  the singer says in the third verse that he has a "feeling inside" that there's something wrong and "I know I must be right" about that bad feeling.

Let's put the movie and the song aside for a moment, and consider the broader question.  What is more important?  The singer?  Or the song?

Years ago, there was a Roz Chast cartoon in the New Yorker that featured some poor soul being asked whether a certain experience had been 

A.  More fun than a barrel of monkeys

B.  Less fun than a barrel of monkeys

C.  Exactly as much fun as a barrel of monkeys  

The correct answer is C.  In other words, the singer is exactly as important as the song -- or vice versa, if you prefer.

Here's "The Singer, Not the Song":

Use this link if you'd like to buy the song from Amazon:

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