Few would deny that New York City in the Seventies was an epicenter of popular and art culture. In an age newly broken in to postmodernity, there was a good degree of overlap between the two. With thirty to forty years of hindsight, it might be interesting to ask what New York City in the Seventies signified; what its values were, why it gave rise to the kind of culture it did, and what of lasting significance was created in rock music out of these values. To adumbrate: the Seventies are associated culturally with a kind of decadence- promiscuous sex and drugs not complicated by the idealistic goals of the Sixties. In the States, it was a time of economic hardship and political crisis. Andy Warhol, a conduit for all kinds of New York energy for his entire life, remarked that the Sixties were about clutter while the Seventies were very empty. The rock music which came out of Seventies NYC largely emanated from a single venue (CBGBs) on the Bowery; Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, Patti Smith, the Ramones, Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and others. Mick Jagger and the Stones had their own version of being decadent in the Seventies; after their most distinguished musical winning streak ended (with the release of Exile on Main Street in '72), the Stones put out a handful of dull, rote, mechanical albums which weren't conceived or executed with much sharpness. By '78, many rock fans had ceased to expect anything from them. But something clicked with Mick and Keith in New York; Mick, who had started to build a reputation as a "beau monde" socialite, was seen out and about at haunts like Studio 54, and Keith and Mick both visited CBGBs. CBGBs music was by no means all punk (though lots of punks, including the Clash, played there), but the atmosphere of the place was punk, and Mick and Keith picked it up. By '78, they were both motivated to rebel against their own decadence and respond to the ethos of both CBGBs and punk.
Importantly, Mick Jagger had also discovered Lou Reed. Having internalized Reed's willingness to go out on a limb and write about degeneracy, deviance, and transgression, he began writing lyrics which mirrored these concerns. The Rolling Stones '78 album Some Girls took these elements and made of them a solidly conceived and built Stones album. The three tracks which explicitly concern New York ("Miss You," "When the Whip Comes Down," and "Shattered,") each address a different form of degeneracy. With the monster hit single "Miss You," it is the degeneracy of loveless marriages winding downwards into realms of emotional entropy and promiscuous rebellion. Because "Miss You" employs the four-on-the-floor rhythms and walking bass lines of the then au current disco craze, and because Jagger half-sings and half-speaks a set of lyrics nuanced far beyond what was on rock radio in '78, "Miss You" was one of the Stones most electrifying moments. As had happened with "Satisfaction," they took something floating in the air, something attendant upon the Zeitgeist of '78, and nailed it down in a way which crossed all kinds of lines and united the rock world. The protagonist in the song could be taken as a double for Jagger himself; a world-weary rogue who goes for night walks in Central Park, is trying to give up an orgiastic, drunken lifestyle, all in the context of trying to save the aforementioned loveless marriage. Mick Jagger had pressures to respond to which Lou Reed and Ray Davies did not; he was a news item, someone mentioned in gossip columns, so that the lyrics of "Miss You" demonstrate him taking public mythologies about himself and turning them into art.
"When the Whip Comes Down," which clearly shows Reed's influence, is even more drastic; it's narrated by a homosexual prostitute who hangs out in Hell's Kitchen looking for customers. Jagger's lyrics slyly and coarsely relate to this scenario: "when the shit hits the fan/ I'll be sittin on the can." The whip has a double meaning; this protagonist is into S & M, but the whip can also be taken to signify poverty, homelessness, misery, and certain death. The song, musically, is as punk as the Stones ever got; pure, simple, brutish raunch. If it's done with less feeling and tenderness than Reed's street portraits, its unsparing grimness has its own cool allure. "Shattered" prefers to take the decadence of New York culture as symptomatic of the whole of American culture in decay. Jagger sings, "Pride and joy and loneliness/ and that's what makes that town the best/ Pride and joy and dirty dreams/ and still survivin on the streets and/ look at me, I'm in tatters/ shattered." The song, which concludes the album, is musically "up" and very spry; it's a strange misfit between the lyrics and the music. If the lyrics point a finger, it's at America as a realm of excess; where everyone wants everything all the time. The title track takes Jagger's rock-star stance as a sex-God and ridiculously inflates it. Jagger gets outre in an equal opportunity way; English girls "are so prissy/ I can't stand them on the telephone," white girls "they're pretty funny/ sometimes they drive me mad" while "black girls just want to get fucked all night/ I just don't have that much jam." The whole thing, potentially offensive as it is, is played for laughs and as an archly provocative farce.