#64: The Rolling Stones, "Sticky Fingers" (1971)

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They have always been a part of your education, from the very start. It’s the you, here, you see. Like a primer on how to be a girl, the album that kicks off with one of the nastiest tracks in rock: whipping slaves, house boys, Cajun queens. You’ve been looking at Mick and the boys since you can remember, since you were very small and sitting on the hardwood floor in front of the stereo, holding your parents’ octagon-shaped cover of Through the Past Darkly. Like a lot of things at that time, the cover photo of Keith’s pale lips smooshed up against glass made you feel both alternately fascinated and repelled.

Fascinated, but ultimately seduced: it’s Mick singing to you, educating you, telling an attentive girl what she’ll need to be in the running to be a cool chick, the kind of girl to inspire the most brilliant rock tracks.

*

Winter in north Mississippi is cold; most years see snow. The region suffered a catastrophic ice storm in 1994, a year before you traveled there, sight unseen, to start a new life as a transfer student at Ole Miss. You were a girl from another south, Southern California, and you didn’t know anything about actual cold.

You didn’t have a car; you’d flown into Memphis and taken a shuttle down to Oxford and spent the first night in a chain motel and the second in your new dorm, the loser dorm, the dorm for “nontraditional” students—foreign exchange students, the odd grad student, older transfers like yourself. Your neighbor is a chubby blonde from down near Jackson, with a drawl so thick you have to watch her mouth to clue into her sentences: I was fixin’ to go to Mizippi State but came up here instead. Both of you have Chinese exchange students for roommates, wisps of black-haired young women who smile politely but only break into laughter when cooking with their fellow transfers in the cramped communal kitchen.

What are you even doing here?

You failed at being a true groupie, though just a few years earlier you spent Saturday nights cruising the Sunset Strip, forever hoping for that rare long-haired rocker boy who might could (as your dorm neighbor would say) also read a book. Nights spent screaming “Lars!” up at the windows of the Chateau Marmont because you and your friend had heard a rumor that Lars Ulrich and the rest of Metallica were in residence. Buzzed nights spent slamming your right hand in a car door and not feeling a thing, or finding a bruise the next day.

You’d studied, see. Satin shoes, nasty boots, cocaine eyes: check. Throw me down the keys, Lars.

*

Everything is new and different, which was the point. It had seemed like a good plan, earning your degree far from home after you’d finished the general ed credits at your community college. You chose this place because you liked Southern writers like Eudora Welty and Ellen Gilchrist, and loved Southern bands more—you dreamed of the Allman’s blue skies, Skynyrd’s simple kind of man. Instead it’s freezing and you find yourself homesick and listening to a couple favorite CDs over and over—Sticky Fingers being one. Within the first few weeks, your Chinese roommate leaves for off-campus housing with a friend, and you’re alone as you prop your new Timberland boots up against the windowsill, the window open a sliver, blowing cigarette smoke out into the frigid air. You should be out at the bars down in the Square, meeting new people, but despite your loud music, you’re a quiet person and realize—too late now—that in your ignorance you didn’t factor in the primacy of the Greek system here, how along with football it provides the dominant culture. If you didn’t read books or listen to music, you could easily believe it’s the only culture. You’re too old, too bookish for this shit.

To a one, the student body is relentlessly clean cut: the girls wear boxy white t-shirts boasting of various sorority functions, the short-haired boys in baseball hats, their just-scraped, shaved faces blushing easily.  You were finally supposed to be starting your adult life, but are regressing. After class you ignore your homework, contemplating instead the impressive bulge of the mystery Warhol stud on the CD cover. You crank up “Bitch,” provoking the RA with the volume and a mild bad word, until she comes and knocks on your door again, turn it down please, people are trying to study. (Are they really?)

*

There is another South, the one in your mind, and you go there, instead. The south of the Delta blues, the slide guitar, of Muscle Shoals in Alabama where the first tracks of Sticky Fingers were recorded. The south Mick invokes in his British accent, singing “You Gotta Move,” written by a  Mississippi blues-man, the south that is plantations and dark history, hear him whip the women just around midnight.

You go on miles-long walks off campus, your thighs tingling and itchy with the cold, and see the poverty ringing the pretty town and the white columns of the courthouse, glimpse a level of poor you never saw amid the working-class stucco bungalows of your childhood. There are so many mobile homes tucked off the roads between bare trees, and so many beat-up cars, old long American sedans always missing a headlight.

By the end of your first month you see all you really came for: there’s the Jitney Jungle market, the frat house flying the Confederate flag, unironically blasting “Sweet Home Alabama” out a window on a Saturday afternoon. You’re supposed to be immersing yourself in a new way of life, but not unlike the Stones, you’re merely a tourist, getting an eyeful, sending home souvenirs—lighters and keychains emblazoned with the Colonel Reb mascot, one that plays Dixie when you push a button. You can leave, this isn’t your world, unlike all these extremely polite young people, these future Republicans in their khakis and polos who party to Phish and the Dave Matthews Band.

Besides your neighbor, who invites you over to watch her beloved VHS tape of Ray Stevens comedy clips, no one talks to you beyond pleasantries. But just as when you were a child on your parents’ floor, there is Mick, and his you, teaching you, this time instructing you on how to ride this out. Each song has a you, usually directed at a woman, though often it’s Mick talking to himself, the same way you do, waking and rising and attending classes without speaking to anyone, just your interior narrator.

In Sticky Fingers you inhabit a liminal space, physically smack in the Deep South, even as some songs evoke your own private California, the country twang of “Dead Flowers,” which could live comfortably beside your daddy’s Merle Haggard, “Wild Horses,” the 45 single you bought in high school, hoping someday a guy might feel as sad and tortured over you.

When spring arrives, you’ll attend a crawfish boil (“suck dat head!”) and admire the pink azaleas blooming across campus. There will be more long walks along picturesque train tracks where kudzu twines up the telephone poles. There will be those very specific wide blue skies of the American South, and on one night, your dorm window open wide, the sweet breeze will carry amplified notes of the The Allman Brothers, playing live at the football stadium across campus. You don’t have a date, nor the extra cash for a ticket.

You’ll fly home for the summer, returning in August with your car, a dull gray Nissan that only barely delivers you across the country. You’ll remain for another semester before packing it up, calling it quits on your Southern experiment. You can still listen to Sticky Fingers, and Jane's Addiction’s Nothing’s Shocking without tipping into nostalgia for that era, with the exception of “Moonlight Mile.”

It’s a wintry song, and whether the Stones’ “head full of snow” is climate or cocaine doesn’t matter; this slow, sad chug of a closing track remains the soundtrack to all your cold nights alone, sleeping under strange, strange skies. Listening to it transports you right back, to a place you never knew well, a place that kept its mysteries close, but a place where you learned to be alone.

—Kelly Shire