St. Martin’s Press
Now, get your heads around this, boys and girls: author Bill Janovitz hasn’t compiled a list of the “50 greatest Stones songs of all time” or any such thing. Don’t get all caught up in debating why “Dead Flowers” doesn’t have a chapter in Janovitz’ book; or why “Fool To Cry” does – if you do, you’ll be missing the point.
What Janovitz has done is exactly what the book’s title states: he’s chosen 50 tunes that, laid shoulder-to-shoulder and hip-to-hip, map out the Stones’ ups and downs; brilliance and stumbles; their evolution from living in the bohemian poverty of their Edith Grove flat in 1962 to a band of rock ‘n’ roll legends looking their 50th year together right in the eye. A short prologue jumpstarts the story with a bio of the band’s formation, leading into the recording of “Tell Me” in 1964. Fifty chapters later finds Janovitz taking a look at “Plundered My Soul” – one of the bonus cuts on 2010’s deluxe reissue of Exile On Main Street.
Janovitz comes across as the sort of Stones scholar whom you’d like to hang out with: a longtime fan who’s managed to salvage a healthy perspective – and knows his stuff. (Check out his contribution to the 33 1/3 series, a neat track-by-track study of Exile On Main Street.) An accomplished musician himself (singer/guitarist/songwriter for the Boston-based Buffalo Tom), Janovitz can dissect a tune as well as capture the essence of a decades-old scene. You don’t have to be a player yourself to be gathered up by his layer-by-layer study of a track (if he chooses to go that route) any more than you need to have visited the legendary Muscle Shoals Sound Studios to enjoy his telling of the Stones’ stealth visit there in December of 1969 (which spawned “Brown Sugar”, “Wild Horses” and “You Got To Move”).
Divided into three sections – “The Brian Jones Years”, “The Mick Taylor Years” and “The Ron Wood Years” – Rocks Off makes use of both the obvious hits (“Satisfaction”, “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”, “Start Me Up”) and lesser-known tracks (“I Am Waiting”, “Coming Down Again”, “All About You”) to tell its story. Janovitz is as adept at writing about the Brian Jones/Anita Pallenberg/Keith Richards triangle as he is about Nicky Hopkins’ right hand on the keyboard or the sweet spot of a Triumph amp. He can discuss a song’s anatomy in a manner that’s interesting to both the seasoned picker and the non-musician listener; he can nail a long-ago emotion with a well-chosen lyric. The bottom line is, Janovitz is the author – but he’s a master at letting the music tell the tale.
And therein lies the brilliance of Rocks Off : any time a treatise of a body of work that’s already part of your DNA makes you want to go back and listen to it with a brand-new ear, that’s pretty damn cool.
Brian Robbins has a brand-new ear in a jar (alongside his Stones albums) over at www.brian-robbins.com.