Why I Owe Mick Taylor an Apology
Long, long ago, I was trained as a “serious” musician. Yet throughout a decade in the world of contemporary-classical music composition and theory, and then, later, even more yeas scrivening about audio, AV and technology, I’ve always led a double life, playing guitar in one or another blues, blues-rock, folk-rock, or some other compound-genre band.
And like a lot of guitar players, I always inwardly sneered, just a little bit, at Mick Taylor, the British wunderkind conscripted into the Rolling Stones in 1969 following Brian Jones’ watery death. Sure, his work on Exile on Main Street was exemplary, and his chops self-evident, but his oddly four-square, self-contained, almost fussy (and perhaps quite shy) playing never fully illuminated my bulb.
Then, a few years ago I discovered Wolfgang’s Vault (www.wolfgangsvault.com), that on-line wormhole into a vast archive of recorded live rock and roll. The site is a bottomless well of unreleased recordings (many but by no means all no-fi sound-board tapes) amassed by Bill Graham’s many enterprises over the years, all now available for on-line streaming for a nominal subscription. (If you care about the music, you need to sign up.)
The majority memorialize mediocre musical moments, monuments only to the grind of the touring-musician’s life, but plenty of others are valuable, and more than a few are genuine treasures. And amongst all this wealth, one evening, I found myself listening—mesmerized —to the Stones’ famous Forest National small-arena date (Brussels, Belgium, Aug 17, 1973): Keith’s on the right; Mick Taylor left-center. And Taylor’s playing is just about as I’d always heard it: careful, clean, contained, oddly un-swinging, un-shuffling, rhythmically unadventurous, almost academic.
But then, as I did, listen closer. He weaves, effortlessly, seamlessly, brilliantly, with Keith’s unwashed, raggedy-assed, lackadaisical vamps; with Mick’s caterwauling; with Charlie’n’Bill’s brickwall backbeat. Never “soloing”; almost-in-the-background, rarely soaring or stepping forward, Taylor contributes an amazing tapestry to almost every bar, a vibrating, breathing pattern that raises the music up. Up, until as the set reaches the incendiary, closing medley (“Rip This Joint”/Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/”Street Fighting Man”), it reaches a place that transcends the dumb, dope-fueled delivery of expected spectacle a typical Stones date would otherwise have been.
Now, I’m pretty sure Keith wasn’t putting much conscious effort into ensemble playing and sensitive musicianship—in those days the simple fact that he remained upright and played (mostly) in the correct keys was a small nightly miracle. And we can assume that Jagger had his hands full doing his thing; the Stones follow Jagger, period.
But Taylor is listening, really listening, and reacting, or more accurately, anticipating every note, every accent, every stop. Everything he plays, whether on slide or frets, elevates the proceedings, from the opening of “Brown Sugar” to the encore medley’s rave-up. It’s a miracle of rock’n’roll guitar (in an interview Taylor once said he recognizes no difference between “lead” and “rhythm” guitar playing, a view I strongly endorse), one that brings to mind the human dynamics of ensemble in the better sort of classical chamber-music playing. Better still, as song follows song you can clearly hear Keith raising his game, till by the time the band reaches the crazed medley that ends the set they are transcending their instruments, approaching that purity for which the best jazz players and—very, very rarely—the best rock players, strive.
(Historical note: Mick Taylor guested throughout much of “The Stones” tour last year. But if various Youtube clips are any measure, most or all of the magic, unsurprisingly, was gone.)
So, Mick T.: my apologies. You knew exactly what you were doing, all those years ago. And thanks to you, for a brief season the Rolling Stones really were The World’s Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band. And thanks to Wolfgang (Bill Graham’s born name), I can prove it.