Firstly and inescapably, there is the shape of the thing.
The guitar has the shape of a woman. Or had, for most of its life.
The stringed instruments that evolved from the harps, lyres and chitarres of ancient and mediaeval Europe were curvaceous, quite different from the atieolated stick-insect erhus of China. Different, too, from the bulbous vegetable-like sitars played by the Indians of the sub-continent.
The Latins wanted something fleshier. Something more tangible.
The violoncello, like its predecessor the viol d'amore, presented the spectator with the image of a musician (usually male) cradling a noisemaker between his legs; caressing her neck, stroking her middle with his stick, drawing from her captive body the rough cries of protest, or, in the hands of an expert, the sweet sounds of assent, of delight.
The guitarists of Spain, North Africa and Southern Italy picked the womanish thing up and played her straddled across their legs. Strummed her and plucked her with their long fingers. Called their strumpet plaything a guitar.
In Latin tradition the dominant shape was bottom-heavy and narrow-shouldered, the shape of an older woman, or of a woman who doesn't need to work or to carry things; a queen among women. Boticelli's Venus.
Gradually another shape emerged, its fearful symmetry achieved by having a long neck supporting the head, bosoms and hips of equal proportion, extravagant excesses divided by a narrow waist. Funbags and love-handles emphasizing the lubricious fecundity of the thing. The whole: slender and curvy; the form admired by mathematicians and poets as well as by schoolboys and soldiers. The classic Spanish guitar.
The first time the Rolling Stones came to the town where I lived when I was young, in fact the only time, I think, because once they got famous they never went near the place again, I remember that no-one seemed to be taking much notice of the singer. Maybe we were too embarrassed to look at him. He looked like an out-of-sorts public school boy in his tweed jacket and tie, jumping around in a strange jerky manner, pulling faces, singing in an excruciatingly overdone American accent. But I remember a huge crowd of both girls and boys clustered around the part of the stage where Brian Jones stood playing his guitar.
Brian was dressed in a tight dark suit. There may have been a bit of velvet or a slight ruff to the collar. His hair was blonde, shaped like a helmet (a basin cut, I think it was called or perhaps it was a Viking cut) but hanging long at the front down to his eyes. His guitar was carried high up across his chest. He stood at the very front of the stage and as he played he leaned forward, and every time he leaned out one or two of the girls would give out a little shriek, and every time they screamed Brian would give a little secret smile and shake his head and his hair would fly around just a little. After a while the boys thought it was funny so they started yelling as well, so pretty soon half the hall was screaming for Brian. Then someone shoved someone else and a fight started right in there on the floor in front of him. But apart from the odd smiles and the occasional headshake he kept on playing with a concentration that seemed utterly inward and focussed. And what he was doing seemed to underpin the entire Rolling Stones venture. He had a round sound, unlike the singer ('jagged') or the other guitar player (sharp and spiky) and it was this roundness that provided the 'rolling' aspect of the rock'n'rolling Stones and the rhythmic ease of the rhythm'n'blues they were playing. At the same time he had an effortless mastery of the licks and riffs that were the key to the songs and he picked and plucked his way over the fretboard like a lazy cat playing with a mouse; teasing it, having fun with it, but always in complete control.
He had spent a lot of time listening to the old blues players. He had sat in his room and persevered with his playing until he could do what they did. And what was that, exactly, what they did? It was this. They created a world of sound in rhythm, a world that owed nothing to anyone or anything outside itself, a self contained space where a man or a woman could be free for a while, could feel their own experience reflected in the patterns of the music, and recognise the shape of truth, and be comforted, or frightened, or simply content to be in the presence of beauty, as we were in that small hall in North London forty years ago in the presence of Brian Jones.
But Brian died. He went bad and he died. When Brian died he was, they say, past his prime. He had played his part and he was no longer needed. He was not part of the transformation of the Rolling Stones into the 'greatest band in the world.'
He had been to Morocco and recorded the great 'Master Singers of Joujouka', one of the first times that the transformative power of Sikh religious music found an audience in the developed world, perhaps the true beginning of what would become the 'world' music phenomenon.
He had been to New York as an individual rather than as a Rolling Stone, and he had met there Ginsberg and Sanders and the other poets. He thought of himself as part of their world too, an artist, a cultured man.
What did he not have? Anita. His girlfriend who left him for Keith, Anita Pallenburg.
You want to see Anita as she was back then? In her prime? Find a video of the Nicholas Roeg film, 'Performance.'
Brian once had and then lost the love of a good woman. A strong woman.
Keith Richards somehow got Anita and became the Black Prince of legend. Gained the strength to survive the blood transplants, the ravages of drugged-out time, the hollowness of fame. Keith stole the girl and she made him a star. The dark side of Keith is apparent to everybody, he cultivated the dark. While everyone else was mourning the dead Brian, Keith started referring to him as a giant pain in the arse. I can believe that Brian was a pain in the arse to work with. I'll bet he was a shocker. Drugs are bad enough for that let alone when mixed with a dose of fame. But for any one who liked the Stones early on in their career, Brian was the soul of the band.
1969. The Rolling Stones have already done enough to be remembered: the early singles, Satisfaction, Paint it Black, Under My Thumb, Sympathy for the Devil, Street Fighting Man.
The album Let It Bleed is another thing again.
When the first notes of Gimme Shelter begin it becomes clear that this band is doing something more than just writing songs. The twisting guitar lines of those opening bars are like steps down a pathway into the unknown. Let's say 'the familiar unknown', just to remind our-selves of the paradox involved.
The guitar patterns fall and tumble over one another, tiny wavelets announcing the coming tsunami; the voices call like sirens, seducing the listener to who-knows-what deadly pleasures. The drums crack to give structure to the building bedlam; the scraping percussion suggests jungle exotica; a low piano pedals the note of impending doom; then the thing proper begins, the rhythms churn, harmonica wails, guitars staying on one chord for the whole verse, monotonic and yet timbrally mesmerising.
Whoah the storm is rising...
What the Rolling Stones did, above all the other practitioners of this dark and dionysian art, was to create a chaos within which to find shelter. They developed a form which contained the clash of explosive conflict locked inside a strict metre. What precisely they created was a site where rock n roll could happen. It didn't matter who was playing what. Ry Cooder might be on guitar, Merry Clayton on vocals, Bobby Keys on sax, Billy Preston might be on keyboards, or Jack Nietzsche or Al Kooper or Nicky Hopkins; even Ian Stewart, the roadie, played piano. Polly-Morphous Perverse ruled the night. The whole world was in the studio. Life and art dissolved. Music, sex, politics, image, identity, narrative melded together into one long disfunctional continuum. Brian Jones was lost, drowned that same year in his swimming pool, but like the head of Orpheus floating down the river to Lesbos, Brian's voice, his world-inclusive ambition, his long, loping, polyrhythmic lines, lived on, bringing tears from stones.
Gimme Shelter admits that we need help, tells us that nothing is going to be easy, and counts violence and destruction as the cost of our personal salvation. And does it all with such beauty, such grace amid the turmoil, that we are comforted and delighted and roused up in anger and righteousness and love and forgiveness all at once. Let it Bleed, framed by Gimme Shelter at one end, and the London Bach Choir singing You Can't Always Get What You Want at the other, is the supreme aesthetic reading of its time.
And how can we match that? We musicians, we songwriters, sitting in our lounge rooms around the world, balancing our guitars on our knees, juggling biscuits and cups of coffee. Playing our little gigs here and there. How can we do that? Strangely we are part of it. There is no difference between them and us. Except, perhaps, (we admit to ourselves) that they are more talented and more determined. That they are where they are and we are where we are.