The Stones Jones Canzones
Finishing Line Press, 2013
Chapbook, 22 pages
Finishing Line Press, 2013
Chapbook, 22 pages
Reviewed by Kenneth McNickle
Rick Mullin’s most recent collection of poems perfectly captures the eccentric, hectic, bluesy lifestyle epic of The Rolling Stones. Each canzone—a poetic form in which five end words occur in different order over the course of five twelve-line stanzas and an envoi—explores one or more key episodes in the history of the band. From their 1960s trip to Morocco while awaiting a conviction on drug charges, to the 1971 sessions for Exile on Main St., recorded in the basement of Keith Richards’ French villa, each canzone balances darkness with light, often through humor born of time’s distance and sympathetic attention to the musicians’ human foibles. Especially impressive is that a poetic form of such strict parameters yields poems that are, by turns, funny, flexible, and, touching.
“Beware the Faithful. No. 1: The Stones in Morocco” begins the series. Mullin’s opening lines focus on the infamous 1967 police raid on Keith Richards’ home in Sussex: “Imagine Marianne among the Stones/at Redlands, Keith’s estate, a bearskin wrapped/but loosely on her nakedness. The Stones/ are stoned and Marianne is showered. Stones/be damned, the wet and glorious Miss Faithfull/combs the gallery of modish tones/and stages center to the Rolling Stones.” Soon, the Stone ditch troubled guitarist Brian Jones, “left in France, a band/of paisley ’round his midriff,” for Morocco, which “hail[s] across an azure sea.” Here, Mullin captures the cynicism of a band exhausted by its fame: “The Faithful? Fuck the Faithful. All the fucking Faithful/want are records. Tours. The Rolling Stones!/Outrageous. Slings and arrows, sticks and stones…/our party has a rap to beat! The Faithful,/they can wait.” The double entendre of “the Faithful”—alluding both to fans and to Sixties icon/former girlfriend of Jagger’s Marianne Faithfull—provides the lighter touch of verbal play amid omens of what will follow: “But nothing lasts forever, friends. The stones/will roll as truths will out, a verdict wrapped/in newsprint or a song you sell the Faithful.”
The Stones’ music remains essential, and Mullin’s sequence covers some of their most iconic tunes. In “Keith holds up a wall and peels a classic riff. No. 3: The Rolling Stones in Sympathy for the Devil,” Mullin writes of the late Brian Jones’ decline into addiction as glimpsed in Jean-Luc Godard’s documentary of the Stones at work: “Jesus, will you look at Brian Jones” and, later, “Now strumming chords behind a padded wall,/a multi-instrumental waste of talent.” Evoking the famous refrain of Bob Dylan’s “Ballad of a Thin Man,” Mullin observes coolly, “The dying Jones//a perfect foil to Dylan’s Monsieur Jones.” The political content of Godard’s film, juxtaposed with tense scenes in the recording studio, includes members of the Black Panthers reading from radical texts: “And now, an Afro-Marxist Bill/of Rights is read. “ Later, the director appears in his own film: “Godard is painting something on the wall:/Mr. President, tear down this wall!—a line ironically post-avant garde and premature. It’s retrograde. Now all the pieces fall together.” Clearly, Mullin juggles many disparate “pieces,” yet this canzone “falls together” to provide an unforgettable picture: of band tensions and dissent, history at a crossroads, vivid contrasts of politics and perspective. Even more astonishing is that, in Mullin’s hands, the highly restrictive canzone can range so widely and fluently over varied material despite the formal limitations of stanza shape and end-word selection.
In “We’ll take the Dead’s advice. No. 4: The Stones in Gimme Shelter,” Mullin examines what is perhaps the darkest episode in Stones’ history: the tragic Altamont Speedway Free Festival concert in Northern California. Held in December 1969, the festival encompassed many injuries, three accidental deaths, and the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter who, while the Rolling Stones performed on stage, drew a gun on the Hell’s Angels hired to provide security. After their experience as headliners of what some consider the worst day in rock history, the Stones fled, trying yet again to put the past behind them, frustrated with their lawyer Melvin Belli’s advice to hold the concert: “The fighting/rockers take it easy on the airplane,/coming down from Belli’s mad advice,/believing, still, that All Men Shall be Brothers.”
Mullin’s skill at incorporating swift flashes of dialogue and history within the canzone’s confines is evident in his version of the Altamont negotiations: “The lawyer, pacing, lights another Vice-/roy. ‘Golden Gate is out. The council’s fighting/us on every front. I’m good with fighting, but we need a parking lot. Advice?’/ Keith, essentially still on the airplane:/’Make it big enough to park the airplane!’ Here, as elsewhere, abrupt transitions between humor and tragedy, the comedic and the dismal, define the lifestyle of the Stones at the close of the ’60s; and, as elsewhere in The Stones Jones Canzones, the poet captures these contrasts perfectly. Mullin’s understanding of rock music, social history, celebrity culture, and human frailty vividly combine in a unique chapbook that is a must-read for anyone with even a nodding familiarity with the Sixties or the Stones—and equally essential for anyone with an interest in how traditional poetic forms, rather than restricting an author, may help to generate verse of striking fluency and power.
Kenneth McNickle is a recent Loyola University Maryland graduate. He is an aspiring writer and musician. He plays the trumpet, guitar, and piano.