Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rolling Stones -- "Stray Cat Blues" (1968)

It's no hanging matter 
It's no capital crime 

Here's an item you can stick in your "truth is stranger than fiction" file.  Bill Wyman, the longtime bass guitarist for the Rolling Stones, was 52 when he married the 18-year-old Mandy Smith in 1989.  They had been "dating" since she was 13 and he was 47.

Wyman and his young bride
Wyman and Smith split up after a couple of years.  But just before their divorce became final in 1993, Wyman's son from his first marriage married Smith's mother.  Stephen Wyman was 30 when he married his mother-in-law's mother, Patsy Smith, who was 46.

That meant that Stephen was Mandy's stepson and stepfather.  It also means that Stephen was his own grandfather.  (Think about it.)

That story isn't a bad lead-in for our discussion of "Stray Cat Blues," which is perhaps the most amoral song in the history of rock and roll.  

The singer of that song doesn't care a whit about the line that separates right and wrong, although he does care about the delineation between a mere felony and a capital crime.  (He's willing to risk the first, but not the second.)

Maybe I'm amoral to some degree as well because I think "Stray Cat Blues" is a great song -- a work of art, if you will -- despite its being entirely reprehensible from a moral point of view. 

It's arguably the most perfectly conceived and executed song the Rolling Stones ever recorded.  The lyrics and the music cut like a knife.

Today, Mick Jagger is almost 70 years old, and has four grandchildren.  Like Paul McCartney and Elton John, he even has a knighthood.

Mick's come a long way since "Stray Cat Blues" was released on the Rolling Stones' 1968 album, Beggars Banquet, which was their ninth U.S. studio album.  He was only 25 years old at the time, and it is doubtful that having grandchildren and being knighted had entered his mind.

Mick Jagger is the ultimate rock frontman.  One of his biographers has written that no other performer (even the young Elvis Presley) exerted a power that was "so wholly and disturbingly physical."  That author went on to say that "the only point concerning Mick Jagger's influence over 'young people' that doctors and psychologists agreed on was that it wasn't, under any circumstances, fundamentally harmless."

"Stray Cat Blues" is a shocking song in part because it sounds like it's based on experience more than imagination.  

The song begins with singer promising a young groupie that "there'll be a feast" if she comes upstairs and joins him in his boudoir -- what he doesn't disclose to her is that he'll be the diner at that feast, and she'll be the main course.

"I can see that you're 15 years old," he says unapologetically.  "No, I don't want your I.D."

Since 1885, the age of consent in the UK has been 16.  Since an honest belief that one's sexual partner was 16 or older may be a defense to a charge of statutory rape, perhaps the singer doesn't want to see the girl's I.D. so he can later claim ignorance of her true age.  

But I'm guessing that the singer doesn't want to see the girl's I.D. because he wants to believe she is 15 even if she's not.  The prospect of having sex with an underage girl adds a frisson of excitement to the illicit encounter.

After the singer entices the 15-year-old his bed, he raises the emotional ante by dragging her mother into the picture: "I bet your momma don't know you can scratch like that," he taunts her.

The girl not only scratches, but also screams, spits, and bites.  But that probably just excites the singer more.  We are talking about Mick Jagger, after all -- given all the groupies he's had at this point, he was probably a bit jaded.  (Bill Wyman, who was the least charismatic member of the Stones, claimed to have had sex with over 1000 women.  Surely Mick outdid Wyman.)

But he's still not satisfied.  He tells the girl to bring her friend upstairs to join them.  "If she's so wild, then she can join in, too," he croons.  After all, "it's no hanging matter . . . it's no capital crime."

What would happen if a mainstream pop star released a song today that depicted a sexual encounter with a couple of 15-year-old girls?  I think it's safe to say that Walmart stores sure as hell wouldn't stock that CD.  And I shudder to think how many politicians (Republicans and Democrats alike) would be elbowing their way to the nearest microphone so they could condemn the singer.  

I was 16 when this record was released, and I don't remember much of a fuss being made about it.  The song may have been condemned in a few sermons or small-town newspaper editorials, but I guarantee you there would be a hundred times more outrage today.

I'm not sure which is worse -- the words of the song, or the undisguised glee in Jagger's voice as he anticipates the debauchery to come.  Sure, "Stray Cat Blues" is just a record, and I doubt that anyone was inspired to become a sex offender as a result of hearing it.  But it is about as creepy as a rock 'n' roll song gets.

Listen to the live recording of the song that is included on the Stones' 1970 concert album, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!.  If the studio version isn't appalling enough for you, Mick changed "I can see that you're 15 years old" to "I can see that you're 13 years old" when he performed the song in concert.

Even so, it's still "no hanging matter."  Capital punishment was abolished across the board in the UK some time ago.  And while the laws of a few American states provided for the death penalty in certain cases involving the rape of a child, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2008 that a state could not execute a child rapist unless the victim had also been murdered.  According to the majority opinion in that case, a death sentence for one who rapes but does not kill a child is "cruel and unusual punishment," and therefore unconstitutional.

Here's "Stray Cat Blues":

Click here to buy the song from Amazon:

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