Thursday, July 14, 2011
The Rolling Stones' Love Pentagon
What happened between Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Marianne Faithfull, and Anita Pallenberg in the 60s in London (and elsewhere) is a tremendous rock myth. It’s mostly about intoxication— sexual, chemical, and otherwise. It’s also about love, longing, and betrayal. A number of contingent factors make the myth compelling— that all the protagonists are young and attractive, that they are famous, and also rebels (the Stones spent ’67, prime myth-time, both in court and in jail). Throw in a future of even greater fame, and this becomes Olympian stuff— the dramas of Gods. The story demystified is still interesting— Jagger woos Faithfull, Jones woos Pallenberg, Faithfull and Pallenberg become friends; Pallenberg dumps Jones for Richards (and Jagger), Faithfull woos Richards while with Jagger. The soap opera element fits perfectly with the Stones image and music— the way they were able to artfully transgress, where sex and sexuality were concerned. Fans could wonder where, say, “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby, Standing in the Shadows?” was concerned, whether he was taunting Marianne Faithfull, who was already, at a young age, the mother of a child— “have you had another baby/ standing in the shadows?”
Jagger’s lyrics of that era were obsessive about sexual power dynamics— not only sexually charged, but loaded to the extent that government authorities were uncomfortable with them. The dynamic is that the British government couldn’t target the Beatles that much— they were seen (truly or falsely) to maintain a “family entertainment” level, and they had refurbished the image of Britain and British entertainment around the world. The Stones, less commercially dominant than the Beatles and with a debauched reputation, were perfect targets. That the police stumbled on a nude Marianne Faithfull while raiding Keith Richards’ house sent the whole imbroglio into overdrive, and inadvertently consolidated the Stones’ image. The myth woven out of these materials set the Stones over the Beatles on many levels— the Stones’ mystique was seen to be more potent than the Beatles’; they could never be accused of being “pop” or “family” like the Beatles could; they embodied sensuality, danger, and transgression. The association with Anita Pallenberg also gave them a glaze of the Continental— her European glamour rubbed off on them. The big loser in the nexus was Brian Jones; rejected by the other four, he left the band in ’69 and died soon after. The mysterious circumstances of his death are another wrinkle in the Stones’ mythology— no one in forty years has been able to prove conclusively whether he was murdered or not. Brian, the myth goes, never recovered from Anita Pallenberg’s defection to Keith Richards.
The chiasmus from circumstances like these to a song like “Sympathy for the Devil” is intriguing— not just because Jagger dares to talk in the voice of the Devil, but because the Stones’ image at the time was borderline-Satanic. The Beatles seemed benevolent deities in comparison. Part of the Satanic facet of the Stones’ image was just the willingness to tell the truth— as in “Street Fighting Man,” which was, for all intents and purposes, a confession of political impotence. The Let It Bleed songs linger on images of death, violence, despair, drug addiction, and personal frailty. That the Stones, by the end of the 60s, could already be called (Brian Jones aside) survivors is part of their mythology. It’s a mythology with enough cultural necessity and uniqueness to have lasted to 2011. The Beatles “center” needed an anti-center, even if, personally, the Beatles could be just as debauched as the Stones; and the Beatles even had moments of transgression. But the 60s media needed them in place as good guys. The Stones’ blunt honesty and sexualized songs opened the door for the media to portray them as new-school Byrons. The Stones’ “love pentagon” has become the mythological backbone of a rock-solid bit of rock cultural signage. Multiple identities and the allowance of bisexual impulses— that’s the nut-shell version. It’s “everyone sleeps with everyone.” Importantly, Jagger and Richards wrote the right songs to back the mythology up. Without the songs, it’s unlikely the myths would’ve stuck.