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Greatest Song At This Moment - The Rolling Stones "Prodigal Son"

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Written By Phillip Mottaz

Dedicated to those songs that I can't stop playing, humming, or thinking about; the 4+ minutes you fall head-over-heels in love with. Past instances have included The Jackson Five's "I Want You Back," The White Stripes' "We're Going To Be Friends," and The Arctic Monkeys' "From the Ritz to the Rubble."

I have an addictive personality and this fuels the need I feel to deny myself happiness. That's not to say I'm a particularly unhappy person. Rather I mean I consciously hold off on overdoing it. "It" being "things that I enjoy so much that I could spend seven hours a day re-experiencing them and the remaining ten hours fixating on them." I deny myself these doses of happiness sometimes in order to stay productive, or at least in an effort to appear productive, even when I'm not doing particularly productive things. So when I feel like watching a movie, I'll watch whatever Netflix movie I have instead of re-watching The Empire Strikes Back, even though I've been thinking about it every day since re-re-watching it a week ago. I may have inherited this self-inflicted denial from my parents, from a semi-conservative Methodist upbringing, or maybe I got it specifically from my friend Kurt who claimed he only watched the Star Wars trilogy on his birthday, so "he wouldn't wear them out."

I have a few pop-culture fixations, and then there are fetishes. Star Wars is one fetish. The Rolling Stones are another, and odd as it may seem the latter have disappointed me far less than the former in recent years. Such is the benefit of living after the prime years only to leave those great lost non-radio tracks for discovery, like some lazy archeologist who managed to find something wonderful by one of the most popular acts in the last 60 years. If I allowed myself the luxury, this column would turn into a testing ground for a book titled "Greatest Rolling Stones Song At This Moment," and it would be a 700-page encyclopedia going song by song, examining such well worn territory that could only be enjoyed by other mutually fixated fans like "man, these guitars are awesome" and "can we please dedicate 10 pages worth of love for Keith Richards' bass for 'Sympathy for the Devil'?" It would sell seven copies, and it would become synonymous with the bargain bookstores as that Second City book.

So you see what a heroic figure I become by denying my more base instincts and forcing myself to deal with matters that might benefit society, such as washing the dishes or pretending I want to listen to Tori Amos. But, as the quote from Pulp Fiction goes, that ain't the truth. The truth is I'm the weak. I fell off the wagon and went crazy this week and listened nearly exclusively to not just one particular era of the Stones (the Brian Jones one) and not just the music of one particular year in their catalog (1968), but two particular songs from that era and year: "Child of the Moon" and "Prodigal Son". If I could've gotten my act together earlier, we all would have enjoyed a nice treatise on top quality hippie pseudo-intellectual lyrics and how this B-Side to "Jumpin' Jack Flash" might have made for the greatest released single of all time. But I didn't. Instead I got the car's oil changed and so here we are, left with the only song capable of topping "Child of the Moon."

If I would have denied myself the pleasure I sought, we wouldn't be here either. I would have latched on to "Child of the Moon" and said, "That's it. I'm un-clicking all of 'Between the Buttons' and anything else I just found out would work on the computer (my old Mac wouldn't play those newer, remastered versions of the Abkco releases; but the new one? Damn right)... and I'm just focusing on this first song so I can get on with my life. My life of pretending I am a well-rounded, open-minded person who seeks new experiences because he hasn't found the sound that perfectly fits his life and lightens his every step." But I didn't. I sort of did, but I didn't. I allowed for "Child" to release its grip just enough to let another song from the same band sneak in there and nest. "Child of the Moon" was the gateway to harder stuff, and now I'm addicted to my addiction again.

The main reason I try to actively deny myself such pleasures is an attempt to appear cool, or at least cooler than I am. Do you know how many times I get asked about the Rolling Stones in an average day? Zero. Nobody's asking. It's all been said a million times before. There's gotta be countless books on each album, each track, each guitar string so everybody's sick of it. There's nothing left to say. So if this week I opened my mouth every time I thought about this song or this band -- which was a lot, I assure you -- I would have repelled potential friends faster than if I'd been sharpening a bloody cleaver. And even if I had been going on and on about a band that my conversation partners enjoyed, I would still have gone on and on at a ridiculous level. This is fanship. It is blind and unwavering and socially crippling.

As with many of their catalog, I've loved "Prodigal Son" for quite a while, though I'd be lying if I said it was a love-on-first-listen track. It rests in an undesirable spot on Beggars Banquet; the six hole. In American League baseball, this might be where you'd park your .245-with-some-power shortstop. It's also track two on side two. It's on the back half of the album, but it's not the closer. It follows one of the album's singles and side openers ("Street Fighting Man") and is book-ended by one of the band's more erotic original tunes, whereas "Prodigal" is a cover of the Rev. John Wilkins song. But here we are. Deep in it.

If I could offer the Stones some late-in-their-days career advice, it would be to include covers songs on every album. True, I would make this recommendation to every band I could, but with the Stones it's particularly apropos, because as great as they are at song writing, their true strength is in their song performing. They were never tremendously innovative -- at least not at the level of some of their more prolific contemporaries -- but they were always great at making rock 'n' roll. Something about those dirty Brits clicks when they're channeling black American songs. You can feel a group smile in every one of their Chuck Berry covers, and if you look at their best album, work every one has at least one cover (with the possible exception of Aftermath, but who would really trade that for, say, Sticky Fingers?). For the Stones, these covers work to remind them more than anyone else of why they do what they do. These were the songs that inspired them a hundred years ago, and that reminder works for the listener as well. When utilized properly, they serve to push the agenda of each album, and on Beggars Banquet, that agenda was to get back to country-blues style music, and that's just what "Prodigal Son" does better than any other song on the disc.

Free from the burden of artistic creation, the band can simply play the song however they like. This includes vocal work from Jagger unlike any of the band's hits. There's no bratty "Satisfaction" or whimpering "Wild Horses". This is something else. And maybe I wasn't paying close attention, but I only caught the clever build to "Prodigal" upon what must have been my 250th listen in the last two days. The song starts very delicately, with a pin-prick guitar lick over the rhythm strum. It's very beautiful and precise, yet simple enough to serve as a motif for the rest of the song. That lick emerges all through the song, yet by the end everyone's bashing rather than picking. This is a typical Stones technique -- one starts, another joins and the rest all pile on -- but I've never noticed it so little until this song. By the end, we still have everything we started with, but it feels like a completely different style of play. The theme of the title character and the song itself seems to be "How'd we get here?"

In a great lecture from the TED series, writer Elizabeth Gilbert discussed the history of human interpretation of "genius" and how it started as a communal channeling of greatness rather than the modern incarnation, which is placed on a single person. Basically, you have to be in the right place at the right time for good stuff to come through you instead of being a genius which means you have to always make the place and time you're at the right one. A performance like "Prodigal" feels like that kind of channeling, and it might even explain much of the Stones' career success: they were great rock interpreters, so they put themselves in positions to interpret greatly.

If it's possible, I just wrote the world's first spoiler for a song because I'm not sure anyone would've noticed this without my mentioning it, but if they would, then I've ruined it. But then who pays attention to these types of things like I do? This is what I do and who I am -- I tie my favorite band playing a cover song to the writer of "Eat, Pray, Love" just so I can keep talking about them a little longer. By this point in my life, I must have thought about this song more than the men who actually played the song, perfectly defining my psychosis.




Greatest Song At This Moment - The Rolling Stones "Prodigal Son"