I never was much for the Dead, never much for the jam bands in their wake, and I've certainly never been much for Phish. I remember that to celebrate Y2K with their followers they came down and did this three-day Woodstock-type thing a little west of where I live, out in the middle of the fucking Everglades. And I remember hearing sometime around the middle of the Bush administration that they'd broken up.
I remember hearing, and I wasn't like 'good riddance' or anything, although if I'd have heard then that Rolling Stone had called Phish "the most important band of the Nineties," I might have hated them more in their death, just on general principle, and in the clenched-fist support of visionary bands like Pavement or Nirvana or Alice in Chains or Kyuss or Earth or any other that might actually have deserved such a highfalutin' acolade.
But anyway, Phish were gone right around the time John Ashcroft was, and without making any hippie jokes, both of these things were A-OK with me.
Then a couple weeks ago, Melanie came home, and told me how a customer had come in and bought all these cartons of clove cigarettes. "Trying to stock up against the Obama ban?" I asked her, and she told me, no, the customer was gonna take 'em to the Phish Festival and sell them there. Maybe the proceeds would defray the costs of getting out to California. . . .
Well, I thought, how about those industrious hippies? And that was how I found out that Phish had reformed.
And now I'm finding out that on evening two of their festival at Indeo, California, on Halloween night, the band covered Exile on Main Street in its entirety.
My second reaction is that covering the Stones' greatest and strangest record all the way through is pretty cool. But that's after I get over my first reaction, which is that Pussy Galore did it first, and probably did it better, plus they did it, like, 25 years ago.
Before getting carried away with words like "menacing" and "chaotic" Allmusic accurately says that "Rocks Off,"--Exile's opening track--"perfectly sets the mood for what's to follow," and I'm down with that, so why not let's take a listen to three versions of it, and see whether Phish can make the grade with either the original or the original copy?
|"Rocks Off" Attribute||Presence in version by|
|The Stones||Pussy Galore||Phish|
|Psychotic Spoken Intro||4||10||0|
|Consistency of Mix||4||3||8|
|All-Important Scuzz Factor||7||10||5|
|Incoherence of Background Vocals||3||3||6|
|Bludgeon You The Fuck to Death Rhythm Guitar||8||10||4|
Let me be upfront: I wanted to dislike the Phish version. But you know what? It's alright. The vocals are a little ragged, but at least Phish can cop to the excuse that Mick and Keith and Jon and Neal cannot: their take on "Rocks Off" was recorded live in concert.
Beyond the fact that of the three versions of the song we're looking at, the Phish cover is probably the only one where all the players are absolutely certain of where they're supposed to come in, and of what they're supposed to play when they do, it probably has the smokinest lead guitar work, and those guitars are also probably the most intune.
Of course, none of those things are all that important, and some of them might even be detrimental.
Tucked away somewhere on one of my computer's many hard drives is yet another version of "Rocks Off." This one is also by The Stones and is culled, if I can believe the ID3 information attached, from "Unreleased Decca Live Album 19." Jagger's singing, as it does on most of the lesser Stones live albums, booms forth sloppily, and the title to the song under consideration ends up sounding like it's "Roax Oaf."
Still, this Decca Live Album 19 version of the song might have been pretty great, because the rhythm guitars are even more muscular than on the Exile original, and the horns are motherfuckin' tight. But the problem with this version is that it has no center, and no climax.
The Wikipedia article on "Rocks Off" tells us that
The song is possibly best remembered for its sudden divergence near the two minute fifteen second mark into what has been called a psychedelic jam of sorts, with Jagger's vocals electronically distorted and the guitar chords stretched
As they do with the rest of the song, Phish plays the "divergence" pretty straight: it comes at more or less 2:20; you get a little flange poured over a sinewy little guitar figure, and a couple mutterings about hypnotized and mesmerized.
The break occurs at about 2:35 in the Pussy Galore edition, and swirls many times more madly than the Stones' original before cohesing again into furious rhythmic downstrokes. The tune is absolutely ripping when they shift the song back to as it was before the "divergence," and "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me!"
That line in all its paradoxical glory is the absolute center of gravity for the song, the emotional and oddly exuberant climax from which it must naturally recede. Somehow, after 20 seconds in the heroin wilderness, all is alright again with the dark. It's not a solution that is as they like to say these days, sustainable, but it works just fine for a song that's right around 4-1/2 minutes long.
And that's what was missing from the Decca live version. Jagger, as he was slurring his way through another concert performance, just sort of mumbled the sunshine bit, de-emphasized it, and there was nothing around which the rest of the song could revolve.
So let's give Phish some credit: they get the sunshine, and they get the daylight, absolutely right. But so do the Stones in their original, and so do Pussy Galore.
So we go to the tiebreakers, and though I'm tempted to simply make that "the all-important scuzz factor" and have done, the divergence just prior to the sunshine, and the way that Pussy's rhythm guitars just shred the fuck out of it in ways even The Stones for all their genius never did, gives me much more solid evidence as to why the verdict is Phish in a one-way tie for last.
A for effort, goddamn, 'cause it sure beats covering "Dark Star" again, but let's call Phish's cover a C+ for execution.
Now then, before I'm done writing this, I can't help but note that the rawness and the noisiness of both the Stones' Exile on Main Street and its lead track can be and have been overstated. Both are subtler than generally stated. The genius in some parts is in the windows opened rather than the vistas displayed. Still, both the Stones song and the Stones album are gonna get an A from this grader, even if some of it sounds less like the Replacements than like rural country to me.
In some sense, it is good that we have Pussy Galore, who keep some of the promises made on behalf of the Stones record. The PG cover is actually as noisy and as debauched as those going overboard have claimed the Stones record to be. "Rocks Off" is a Jagger/Richards tune, just like it says in the blogpost title, and creation is always the hardest part, but the song's greatest, loudest, noisiest, most fucked-up expression to these ears came when the band was named Galore, and the Twins' names were Haggerty and Spencer.
The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street 01 - Rocks Off.mp3
File Under: Heroin Rock
Pussy Galore - Exile on Main Street - 01 - Rocks Off.mp3
File under: Covers Where They Forget the Words
Phish - Rocks Off at Festival 8 10.31.09.mp3
File under: The Great Jam Band/Heroin Rock Mashup
These files were removed April 9, 2010 after I received a DMCA takedown letter. If you're still way interested in coming up with a copy of this--and really can't figure out where you might get one--drop me an email and I'm sure I'll be able to figure something out for you.