The Rolling Stones’ The Brussels Affair by Amish Trivedi
Back in the days where a guy would come on stage and announce the name of the band, The Rolling Stones went to Brussels (they couldn’t enter France due to various drug-related indiscretions) and recorded a live album that may be the best of example of the Stones at their peak. Recorded two months after they released one of their most decadent albums, Goats Head Soup, The Brussels Affair captures the Stones at their, well, Stoneiest. That is to say, Mick is in full strut and bravdo, Keith’s hair is long and his teeth are falling out, Mick Taylor is awesome as is Charlie and Bill Wyman is…well, playing really awesome bass lines and getting not nearly enough credit.
What do I mean when I say “decadent?” Well, let’s just say there’s no one who can stop The Rolling Stones at this point other than themselves. They had their own label, more money than I’ll ever have, certainly, drugs, women, rental homes in the south of France and pretty much everything that goes with being the biggest rock band in the world. Let us not forget that The Beatles dissolved three years prior to this and while there are other major artists, The Rolling Stones are kind of it. However, where John and Paul kind of stagnated without having the other one of tell them what was good or bad, the Stones seemed to open up in the early 1970s. It’s easy to see how when no one can stop your awesomeness that you feel your awesomeness is unlimited. Decadence is also about satisfaction, or the lack there of. There’s never enough of anything that makes one feel good and at this point, The Rolling Stones feel like there’s no reason not to have more of what they want. For the rest of us, indulging in a slice of Death by Chocolate cake once in a while is enough. Imagine being able to have it everyday without doing any damage that you’re aware of and it’s easier to understand this period of time for the Stones.
Beginning with the recording of Let it Bleed at the end of 1968 (a rather turbulent time, as many important historians have said) and rolling right through Sticky Fingers (my personal favorite), the grand Exile on Main St. and, of course, the “decadent” Goats Head Soup, these four albums (all with Mick Taylor playing lead to Keith’s always riffy rhythm) are fucking fantastic. I mean sit down and listen to them and tell me you don’t want to run off on tour and throw your undies at Mick as he pushes his hips back and forth and belts out any one of the songs. If you say you don’t, you’re a filthy liar.
When Mick looks at the camera when he sings “with a needle and a spoon,” I have no idea what happens in my body, but I like it. I like it an awful lot. And I liked it enough, most importantly, to move on to others albums afterward. Again, decadence: I couldn’t get enough of feeling the way I felt when listening to the Stones.
So where are the Stones by the end of 1973? They are on tour for Goats, things are still happy between the five of them (Mick Taylor would leave a few years later over a lot of different slights) and they are healthy and ready to run around the world. Mick sounds like he’s been singing a ton, which he no doubt has. Remember when Paul McCartney says he went into the studio and sang “Oh Darling” over and over again so it would sound like he’d been on the road singing it over and over again? Yeah, he wishes he had gotten to the point Mick is at, but he’s not Mick Jagger and neither is anyone else.
Keith is still sticking needles in his arm, of course, and it’s kind of hard to judge him for it. I mean come on, listen to what he got out of it. Sure he could have lost his life, nearly lost his liberty but it’s his to lose, not ours. We’re the ones who have benefited from Keith and company doing terrible things to themselves over the years and it’s easy to forget that in our “drugs are bad, mmmk?” culture.. This isn’t to say others should go do heroin and hope it turns into awesome songwriting but it worked for Keith for a while and when it stopped working, he managed to get clean and keep going with his life. However, I believe that has come at the cost of his songwriting, but don’t tell him I said that.
Alright, so the Stones are arguably the biggest band around, jet-setting, doing everything you imagine you’d do if you were a good looking rock god and on top of everything else, you’ve got some amazing songs that you can go out, play live and get people to show up and shout at you to give them more. Not a bad place to be at, especially when the Stones bluesy rock has led to other bands taking the blues and futzing with it, making Mick, Keith and Brian Jones some kind of godfathers or whatever term you prefer. There are bands that may do certain things better but no one puts all elements together and can do it with as much power as the Stones.
Towards the end of their 1973 tour, they end up in Brussels. Apparently the tour is better than the 1972 tour with less drama, minus pending drug charges for Keith and his special lady friend Anita Pallenberg (formerly Brian Jones’ special lady friend, but he’s dead now so who cares?), which would be resolved in the weeks after this very show. Here, they put together songs from the last few albums. Unlike today, where they would play songs from their entire discography, the Stones were only there to promote the few albums mentioned above, with Beggars Banquet gets a nod with “Street Fighting Man” and another 1968 single, “Jumping Jack Flash.” Other than that, only the songs from the most recent four albums and that’s totally fine by me because those four albums are where it’s at for me.
Kicking off “Brown Sugar” with a slightly mucked-up opening riff, the Stones wind through the previous five years of their recording history. “Brown Sugar” is perfect, Mick Taylor’s soaring lead and Mick, in my head at least, strutting around saying “Oh yeah!” to everyone. Bobby Keys is there with his birthday buddy, Keith, and Keys’ playing, as always adds what the Stones are not themselves: a little American flavor. Taylor and Keys’ solos back-to-back adds a power that the album version couldn’t give us. At “I’m not school boy but I know what I like,” Mick kicks up the sexual power which he’s so well known for. Oh yeah, indeed.
A few songs later, Mick introduces Keith (in French I don’t understand) and “Happy” kicks off. I love “Happy.” I love listening to it, I love tuning my Telecaster to open G, setting the capo on the fourth fret and rocking happily to myself with my headphones blaring into my ears through my little Fender amp. The funny thing is that it all seems a bit ironic to me. The lyrics convey things that aren’t really all that happy, except for the woman that he seems to leech his happiness off of, of course. I imagine too that Keith is having those normal opium symptoms of nausea, etc., and he’s not particularly happy at all. Mick would later say about Keith that he’s “not a happy person at all.” This was after Keith made fun of Mick for being knighted. Sometimes, they are a bitter old couple.
Right after, leaving his capo in the same place, Keith starts “Tumbling Dice,” which some consider the crowning achievement on the otherwise “uneven” Exile. Mick belts many of the lines, especially since here he’s lacking the backing female vocals. “Baaabeh I can’t stay!” but everyone wants him to. I can see Keith over on the side shaking his head while it’s back, his eyes closed, leaning back a little like he does and playing one of those blonde Teles he’s lucky to own. Taylor’s lead lines are high pitched but a little buried. “Tumbling Dice” is so Mick and Keith it’s hard to force anyone else in, though I’d pay a little attention to Wyman here.
“Starfucker” to me is all about not getting enough, the very sense of decadence. Listen to those lyrics that Mick melts out of his mouth. I won’t even type some of them out for fearing I’ll offend someone reading this, but let’s just say female hygiene is yet another topic you can’t steer the Stones clear of when they can already do whatever they want. The first time I heard the lyrics, I did a double take before realizing that Mick is probably an expert on such things. As catchy as the song is with its Chuck Berry-esque riff at the beginning, the lyrics make me a bit uncomfortable, promoting a sort of casually sexist nature that I suppose is unsurprising. I guess a lot of love songs are about sort of standard gender roles, but “Starfucker” feels like too much to me, which again, fits the general era of the Stones and maybe even the time period in history as well.
In the 70s, rock bands like Pink Floyd were famous for playing long compositions that we’d call jams now. The Stones aren’t a jam band by any means but in the middle of the album, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Midnight Rambler” become nearly 24 minutes (almost the length of Floyd’s “Echoes”) of jam band goodness. I like hearing formerly acoustic songs in electric versions on Brussels (“Angie” is there too) and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” works really well and sets up “Midnight Rambler” quite well. The long versions perhaps give Mick a few minutes to relax while the rest of the band get to step into the center for a while.
The word that most brings the whole experience of The Brussels Affair together for me is sweaty. It’s hot in the Vorst Nationaal and no doubt packed. Mick is glistening, no question, and Keith is shaking his head with beads of sweat falling all around him. Mick Taylor is probably wearing a tank top which seems under-dressed now except that no one dressed well to play a show in the 70s, it seems. Charlie’s hair is long, going gray, and as always, he’s dead serious about making sure the guys around him know where to play. Bill Wyman’s bass playing is pretty amazing the whole show and maybe it has always been awesome and I haven’t noticed.
I think the nicest thing to say about the album is that it is a fantastic introduction to The Rolling Stones beyond their big radio hits like “Satisfaction” or “Paint It Black.” This is the period of their career in my opinion, coincidentally the Mick Taylor era (or maybe not so coincidental), and the Stones are pretty much unbeatable for rocking out and writing and performing here. In the years after, Taylor would leave, Ron Wood would join, bringing his own style and issues. Keith would get arrested in Toronto, nearly trapping him in Canada for a prison term. Mick would take dancing lessons so he could be cooler, Charlie would be Charlie and Bill would start a relationship with a teenager. Alright, that’s all pretty decadent as well, but The Brussels Affair puts it in your ears.
Black Market Baby
The business of America is pliers,
waiting to peel and pick and being
the story in the beginning rather
than the middle so you can hear
where the hero has been and follow them
where they’re going. We don’t get antsy,
except for all the times that we are
and counting and recounting just to pretend
we know what the numbers mean to us
without ever knowing what they mean to you,
consequently. The backing music for my band
is provided by livers pumping all that love
right into my heart: I’ll let it tune a symphony
if you’ll write me just write just two lines from it
in eighth notes and gills. I’d hand you my ribs
to make your paintings,
satisfied they held something up.
Amish Trivedi lives in Providence, RI. His poems are in Esque, XCP, and OmniVerse. His chapbooks include The Breakers and Museum of Vandals. He occasionally updates his blog at www.amishtrivedi.com.
Questions, compliments, (hopefully not) complaints?
Contact Jackie Clark: jackie [at] coldfrontmag [dot] com.