We had some friends over for the Independence Day holiday this Saturday. We had been dealing with a month of almost solid rain in Boston. Seriously, I believe there was something like 20-ish per cent of available sunshine in June. I was starting to lose it like everyone else — kids in the house all the time, darkness reaching a nadir of mid-winter-like bleakness at the end of the week. A rainy day here and there is good to keep mental stability and to get some work done. And it has been a productive month for me. But rain for weeks solid is enough to drive a man off the edge.
So it was with giddy excitement that we welcomed Mr. Sun back this weekend. And Saturday was pretty much perfect. We got the bocce set, the Wiffle balls and bat out, smoked a pork shoulder for pulled pork with Blue Ribbon BBQ sauce (apologies to my PETA friends), chilled the Pilsner Urquel, cut up some limes for the Tanqueray and tonics, and enjoyed the day with a small gathering of friends and families. It was a fantastic time and I hope it was the same for you. Man, we milked these two beautiful days. I went out for a 22-mile bike this morning, and that was AFTER a night of beer, pork, and gin (sort of in that order). Then, via the largess of my bud, Mike O’Malley and our friends at the Red Sox Foundation, brought my family to to the only-in-Boston Picnic in the Park at Fenway, where you get to run around in the outfield and enjoy BBQ, more beer, and if you’re lucky, get some autographs. None other than first-time all star, Timmy Wakefield, lent more of his time to raise a ton of money with Mike at the live auction.
But yesterday, my friend, Tommy Ruprecht, and I got to chatting music He asked me if I had heard this Mick Jagger solo song called, “Evening Gown.” I had assumed he had heard it on my music mix coming through in the background, because I had been recently rotating that tune and another of the Jagger solo record, Wandering Spirit, “Don’t Tear Me Up,” after years of not listening to the record. Tommy had only heard the latter come up which is what made him ask about the former. I love that song, I told him. In fact, I believe that album/CD was one of the reasons (along with Teenage Fanclub’s, Grand Prix LP) that pushed us in the direction of David Bianco, who went on to produce our CD, Smitten. Rick Rubin produced the Jagger LP and Dave engineered and mixed, which he did for many Rubin productions.
Tommy and I waxed rhapsodically about what a beautiful song “Evening Gown” is. I remember the record coming out in 1993. The big deal off the record was a duet with Lenny Kravitz wherein the two of them offer a confused take on the great Bill Withers tune “Use Me.” But the other tunes sort of caught me by surprise. I am sure I heard “Don’t Tear Me Up” on the radio and thought it was, along with recent Keith solo albums, some of the best stuff either of them had managed to put together — solo or with the Stones — at the time, anyway.
There is something quite vulnerable in Mick’s performance of the tune. Starting with the song itself, of course. It is a deceivingly simple country ballad, two verses, bridge, solo and an outro verse. (By the way, if the lyric and singing don’t get you, the pedal steel solo will bring you to your knees. It is played by the legendary JayDee Mannes, who played with Buck Owens and the Bucakroos, and played on the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo and other classics.) But Jagger manages to masterfully draw this self-deprecating, back-slapping character, a guy entering middle age and acknowledging this passing of time, apparently still with his wife, who he ultimately is singing the song to, repeatedly bringing back the focus to her in the refrain “But I can still paint the town/All the colors of your evening gown/While I’m waiting for your blond hair to turn gray.”
It is a powerful stanza even just sitting on the page. Jagger manages to capture endless layers of emotion and detail about this guy in so few words, ultra-economically, but the singer still draws us in personally, seeing ourselves and others we know there. I identified with the character even when hearing it at the age of 27 (hard to believe it was that long ago), never mind 43. So I suppose it is predictable that is has wormed its way back into my consciousness, onto my playlists, and ultimately here for a cover version.
I often feel like I so easily lapse into a cliché existence, following many steps about what a guy growing up in America is expected to do, saying the same shit to my kids my father said to me, feeling the inevitable mid-life crisis pulling me in, and so on. I have started to think a lot more about mortality than I used to, almost to the point of obsession. It used to be a subject I would not give much more than a moment’s notice to. We’re here and at some point we all go; sad but true. Now, who’s playing at the Middle East tonight?
Don’t get me wrong; I mean, I am not obsessed with staving off my own inevitable passing; it is more of a melancholy awareness of the passing of time that we have to spend with the ones we love. See what I was saying about clichés? How does one begin to venture into this sort of well-worn subject matter without bumping into and falling far short of Kierkegaard (as Tommy joked in another context yesterday), Shakespeare, the Gershwins?
Well, there you go: that’s how you explore the subject matter, in art — poetry, drama, music. And Mick does it masterfully here, before you are even are aware of it. Jagger’s lyric comes on like it is going to be one of his tongue-in-cheek country tunes like “Far Away Eyes,” in other words, devoid of any heavy emotional involvement (unlike, for example, “Wild Horses,” which is just all raw nerve). “Evening Gown” starts off
People say that I’m high class
But I’m low down all the while
People think That I’m crazy
When I flash that California smile
Yeah, yeah, you think. Come on Mick! Bring us something! In 1993, we had been through so much of the beginning-of-the-end of the Stones, with more mediocre and poor music that we – any of us still paying any attention at all — could be forgiven for just being cynical that there would be any more passion left. But then he hits us — hard with that chorus, and he goes on to continue to sketch this character. By the bridge, we realize it is himself in there somewhere, under “sports clothes” and “California” smiles.
For Jagger to be singing this as this aging Lothario rock star god was a substantial acknowledgment of his humanity and mortality. I don’t pretend to follow all the gossip about his personal life so I have no real idea of where he was in his romantic life at this moment, but his hammering of the last line of the chorus three times in a higher octave, bringing it home with his enviable country-soul voice, certainly makes the point clear.
“….waiting for your blond hair to turn gray.”
And I had those lines in my head for the rest of the evening, as I looked around at my group of friends — husbands wives, kids — until I went down stairs at 11, after everyone was long gone and all the bottles were in the bin and the dishes put away, to record the cover. And the song has stayed with me all day.