Friday, October 3, 2008

Stop Breaking Down

Exile on Main St.
Side Four, Track Two
"Stop Breaking Down" (Robert Johnson) – 4:34

[Download link]

I read Greil Marcus's Mystery Train at an impressionable age. You all know the book, I won't recap it for you. One of the things Marcus did was turn me off blues music performed by white people. He didn't do this intentionally—much of Mystery Train discusses how Randy Newman, The Band, and especially Elvis incorporated blues into their best work. But by doing so he highlighted the fact that the best work by these artist incorporated blues, changed it, used it to create something entirely new.

I've talked here about the many limp Stones attempts at blues. I've mostly framed my comments within the "what is gained by having the Stones perform 'I Can't Be Satisfied' when I can just as easily hear Muddy Waters play it?" argument. Typing this up, I was going to address the "cultural theft" issue, but it's not even necessary—there is simply no value-added by a Stones blues shuffle when so many performances by authentic blues giants are easily available. It's like hearing about a new John Mellencamp album—do we really need this?

It seems that by Let It Bleed the Stones started thinking the same way. Or at least that's how it appears. They started taking fewer passes at traditional-style blues and more attempts at incorporating the blues to create something new: they did blues-as-rock, blues-as-country, and blues-as-opera. On "Stop Breaking Down", they reach back to some real deep blues roots—it doesn't get much deeper than Robert Johnson—and just rock the shit out of it. In spite of what I said in my last post, this song truly captures the sprawl, the reach, the ambition of Exile.

I'll leave the last word for Greil Marcus, who ruined so many Led Zeppelin songs for me, placing "Stop Breaking Down" at the number one spot in his top 5 Robert Johnson songs performed by rock artists.

This was the fifth straight LP on which the Stones included a country blues, but the first album on which they approached country blues as rock 'n' roll—perhaps because in sound and spirit the rest of the album approached rock 'n' roll as country blues. Exile was a nice tour of morgues, courthouses, sinking ships, claustrophobic rooms, deserted highways; the whole album was a breakdown, one long night of fear. Johnson's hottest bragging song gave the Stones a chance to blow the fear away. With Mick squeaking his harp, calling for chorus after chorus, this stands as one of the Stones' best.

It occurred to me that I hadn't listed to Robert Johnson's original in some time. Here it is. Stuff I got'll bust your brains out, baby, it'll make you lose your mind. That's some good bragging music right there.