One of my favorite lines from a music review comes from way back in 1977, after Linda Ronstadt released the Simple Dreams album. About her version of the Rolling Stones’ song Tumbling Dice, the reviewer wrote something to the effect that “the lyrics meant so much more when when we couldn’t understand them.”
I’ve thought about that line a bit lately, as Exile On Main Street, the Stones’ album where Tumbling Dice appeared, has been in pretty much constant play in my car for the last few weeks. (Oh, and if you’re wondering, it has been at least three decades since I last gave Simple Dreams a spin.)
The lyrics throughout Exile on Main Street are for the most part unintelligible, even more so than on most Rolling Stones albums. But for me, they gain more and more meaning every time I listen to the disc. It is by far the most deeply felt album they put out, but that comes through more in the music than in the words, such as they are. It is impossible to listen to Let It Loose, for example, and be unchanged by the experience. But I’ll bet I couldn’t tell you half the lyrics to that song … let alone what it’s “about.”
I’m more or less a word guy. I spend a lot of my life either writing, reading or editing. But oddly enough, song lyrics generally aren’t that important to me. I don’t spend a lot of time trying to figure them out, and even if they are printed in the album notes or somewhere, it’s rare that I’ll actually go and read them. If there’s a song I like, it’s almost always because of the music, not the words.
So in general, I’d have to agree with that reviewer from three-plus decades ago; sometimes it’s just best to leave well enough alone.
A very personal postscript: in December of 1977, I came home for winter break after my first semester of college. My brother Jim came home as well, from wherever he was living at that time. We had a cheap old stereo, but little music to speak of. Our other brother, Phil, who was by then living in an apartment, let Jim pick out a few albums for us to listen to during the break. Exile on Main Street was one of them, but they also included such other classics as Who’s Next, Songs in the Key of Life, the Allman Brothers at Fillmore East, Tom Scott & the L.A. Express, and a few others. I was vaguely familiar with some of them, but most of what I had been listening to in those days was stuff like Boston, REO Speedwagon, the aforementioned Linda Rondstadt, etc. That handful of music courtesy of my two older brothers brought about a lifetime change in my listening habits. Each of those albums would be included on any list I would make of the greatest records of all time. I latched onto Who’s Next, of course, and it instantly became my favorite album … and still is. I’m certain I didn’t care for Exile on Main Street that much at the time; it’s not a record that allows itself to be discovered easily. But over time, the music becomes more and more a part of you, no matter what the words may say.