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Exercises in Absence

The latter days of Keith Richards’s career are defined by things not there. Note the almost entirely decayed structure of his face and body: cheeks almost gone, eyes sunk back in his head, teeth seemingly receding. He’s our most beloved public wraith. His solo concert tour (and album) four years ago was an exercise in absence: onstage at the Aragon he was interacting with something that wasn’t there, dancing around a point in the center of the stage that was unquestionably empty, yet also somehow occupied. And on the records as well (1988’s Talk Is Cheap and the new one, Main Offender), you notice, over and over again, what’s present in his other band yet absent from this one. Most notably absent is a voice: Richards’s own is a wistful shadowy hint of a rock ‘n’ roll voice, drifted in from another room, another apartment, another universe. Since Richards’s sensibility is entirely, exclusively musical, his records have a purity that transcends genre and time: you hear not a blues rocker (“999”), but THE BLUES itself. Not a slice of Four Topsy soul (“Hate It When You Leave”), but MOTOWNSOUL incarnate. And lyrically, the most adventurous trope on the album (“Eileen”–“I lean,” get it?) is just a coat hanger for two, three, ten guitar riffs–precisely what the less adventurous ones are used for too.

On Talk Is Cheap that was true, too, save for “You Don’t Move Me,” Richards’s nasty reproach/plea to the partner he thought was on the verge of jilting him: “It’s bigger than money,” he rasped, in the only terms he thought his partner would understand, trying to explain that however vulnerable he himself seemed to the Kryptonite-like absence of the other, the other was even worse off without him: entirely, searchingly, sweepingly ridiculous. That will never happen to Richards: for one thing, he’s found in collaborator Steve Jordan another drummer he’s not ashamed to play in front of. For another, he has an unshakable dignity. Still, he’ll always be haunted by something in these exercises, these robust workouts in the only thing that keeps him breathing. It’s the answer to a mystery older even than Keith Richards, the elegant, clangorous, meaningless sound of one hand clapping.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Imponderable No. 3

Our third inquiry into mysterious rock ‘n’ roll lyrics, posed some weeks ago, was what on earth is Grace Slick singing in “White Rabbit” after the words “When logic and proportion have fallen _____”? This is a toughie. In Todd Gitlin’s fab history The Sixties, he quotes the line as “soggy dead.” Others vociferously adhere to “sloppy dead,” “softly dead,” or “stormy dead.” In each of these cases the assumption is that Slick was trying to say that logic and proportion have fallen dead in some fashion–sloppy, stormy, whatever.

Hitsville’s always thought the line was “so I’ll be dead,” this based on both a close listening to the record and the lyrics in a sheet-music compilation he had as a young pup. This is not definitive, however: sheet music teems with errors. Richard Goldstein’s The Poetry of Rock quotes Slick as singing “sloppy dead.” This book–by the by, an absolute must-own for connoisseurs of nutty early rock writing–was published in 1969 and has immediacy on its side, but ultimately its source is merely the music publishing company as well. Goldstein’s position, however, is buttressed by the notes to the Airplane’s Flight Log, a 1977 compilation; there, Patrick Snyder makes a passing reference to the words as “sloppy dead.” I thought I’d gather more evidence last year when I saw the Blue Man Group’s performance-art show Tubes. For one piece they played an instrumental version of “White Rabbit” on some weird instruments, with the lyrics flashing by on light bars. Mightily disappointed was I when the last verse began, “When logic and proportion have fallen blah blah blah.”

In a new three-CD compilation, Jefferson Airplane Loves You, Slick describes the song nicely as “sort of a bolero ripoff on the music and Alice in Wonderland for the lyrics.” There are two remastered versions of “White Rabbit” on the set, the original album track and a previously unreleased live version. One hearing of either immediately narrows the choice down to either “sloppy” or “so I’ll be,” but you can’t really tell if the sound Slick enunciates at the beginning of the key phrase is “sl” or “sw.” Frustrated, Hitsville finally availed himself of the journalist’s last resort: he called and asked. Slick relayed the word through a helpful publicist: sloppy it is.