Ever since I read Tim Riley’s Tell Me Why: The Beatles Album by Album, Song by Song, The Sixties and After, I’ve been hoping some song scholar would write a similar book about The Rolling Stones. In the twenty-five-or-so years since then, there have been similar serious-yet-lively track-by-track analyses of the music of The Who, The Smiths, and quite a few other artists, but never one about the Stones. When I saw the title of Experiencing The Rolling Stones: A Listener’s Companion, I was hoping that musicologist David Malvinni had written that book. He hasn’t.
It’s unfair to criticize a book for what I was hoping it might be with no more promise than a provocative title, but Experiencing The Rolling Stones is frustrating because there’s enough stuff in here to conclude that with more focus, patience, objectivity, and joy, Malvinni could have written the book I wanted to read. The detailed, historically informed attention he gives to “Sympathy for the Devil”, “Midnight Rambler”, and a few others songs could have also been applied to “19th Nervous Breakdown”, “Citadel”, “Time Waits for No One”, and all the other classics and oddities that barely get a mention in these pages. Instead, Malvinni spends too much time repeating the basic history printed in a thousand other books, getting mired in dry music theory that doesn’t really deepen one’s appreciation of the songs, and in an eccentric move that doesn’t bring anything valuable to the discussion, adopting a second-person voice to tell you how you first heard the Stones’ music in the sixties.
Furthermore, some of Malvinni’s analyses fail to convince because he is so smitten with his topic. As a fellow fan, I like the fact that he doesn’t trash acquired tastes like Between the Buttons and Their Satanic Majesties Request, but his attempt to dilute the band’s notorious misogyny with a theory that Jagger’s lyrics “empower women to embrace their passion and seek pleasure beyond their narrowly defined societal roles” overreaches farther than Plastic Man’s right hand. Malvinni’s attempt to dismiss the misogyny of “Yesterday’s Papers” because it is about a real person (Jagger’s recently and cruelly discarded girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton) is borderline offensive. Other odd offerings include an attempt to cast Satanic Majesties as a concept album, a notion the author repeats a few times but never explains.
A book like this should also inspire the reader to listen to its topic’s music in fresh ways, but Malvinni goes the conventional route by only seriously analyzing the four LPs that are most often seriously analyzed: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. He zips through the Stones’ first six albums over the same number of pages he devotes to Beggars. He can only be bothered to spend ten pages on the eight albums that follow Some Girls. I’d never suggest those records constitute prime-era Stones, but ten pages? I just hope it isn’t another twenty-five years before someone else writes the Rolling Stones book of my dreams.