Category Archives: Music

The Freshest Advices

Item: After every election, those displeased with the outcome often threaten to “move to Canada” or to secede or otherwise withdraw from American life. I thought about that when I recently began re-reading Edmund Morgan’s classic The Puritan Dilemma: The Story of John Winthrop. I first read this book as an undergraduate in Phinizy Spalding’s Colonial American history class at UGA, and at that time I didn’t understand at least half of it. As I’ve mentioned before, I am now periodically re-reading some of the classics from grad school in order to do justice to books that got short shrift then. Morgan’s book was first published by Little, Brown, & Company in 1958 and is part of the “Library of American Biography” series.

The Puritans got their name, of course, because of their desire to purify the Anglican Church in England, and like many reformers on a mission, they could be a rather single-minded, driven, uncompromising bunch. This increasingly put them on a collision course with King James I and his son Charles I, as their demands for reform became increasingly outspoken. John Winthrop and many of his fellow Puritans could see the writing on the wall, and instead of remaining and taking part in what eventually became the English Revolution, they formed the Massachusetts Bay Company and in 1630 separated themselves from the home country by 3,000 miles.

The dilemma in the book’s title is the story of what happens when a Godly community decides to live in the world without being of the world—and the tension between the freedom of the individual and the responsibility that government has for maintaining order (reminiscent of our current controversy over vaccine mandates). Should the discontented leave and follow their own vision somewhere else, or stay and either come to terms with the status quo or tear down the system? Winthrop and his band of Puritans left to start anew, but he ended up with his own share of malcontents to deal with like Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson. Uncompromising purity or pragmatic compromise? Winthrop didn’t figure it out, and neither have we almost 400 years later.

Item: If you’re a fan of ZZ Top and haven’t seen it, check out the 2019 documentary “ZZ Top: That Little ‘Ol Band From Texas,” on Netflix. It’s a fascinating look at how a Texas rock band rooted in the blues transitioned to become instantly recognizable cultural icons—with the help of those MTV videos—after the release of Eliminator in 1983. The beards, the cars, and the music are all here in this retrospective nominated for a Grammy for Best Music Film. Despite the death of bassist Dusty Hill in July of this year, ZZ Top is still Bad, and Nationwide.

Item: Lots of good new history and biography being published this holiday season. In no particular order, here are some of the books I’m looking forward to reading:

Fernando Cervantes, Conquistadores: A New History of Spanish Discovery and Conquest (Viking, 2021)

Gordon S. Wood, Power and Liberty: Constitutionalism in the American Revolution (Oxford, 2021)

Peter Ackroyd, Innovation: The History of England, Volume 6 (St. Martin’s, 2021)

Jay Cost, James Madison: America’s First Politician (Basic Books, 2021)

Dan Jones, Powers and Thrones: A New History of the Middle Ages (Viking, 2021)

Adrian Tinniswood, Noble Ambitions: The Fall and Rise of the English Country House after World War II (Basic Books, 2021)

James M. Banner, Jr., The Ever-Changing Past: Why All History is Revisionist History (Yale, 2021)

Volker Ullrich, Eight Days in May: The Final Collapse of the Third Reich (Liveright, 2021)

Ronald Hutton, The Making of Oliver Cromwell (Yale, 2021)

Neil Price, Children of Ash and Elm: A History of the Vikings (Basic Books, 2020)

Andrew Roberts, The Last King of America: The Misunderstood Reign of George III (Viking, 2021)

Item: I’m a huge fan of audiobooks and have listened to several good ones this fall. Being the season of darker days, I always like to hear a good rendition of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” Three that I would recommend are those read by Martin Jarvis (great production, reminiscent of the old radio dramas), Anthony Heald (no frills, just great narration), and Tom Mison (if you enjoy a British accent).

For those working hard to grow old gracefully, you’ll enjoy listening to Dick Van Dyke’s Keep Moving, and Other Tips and Truths About Aging, narrated by Rob Petrie himself. Van Dyke wrote this book when he was 89; he’s about to celebrate his 96th birthday and is still going strong, winner of five Emmys, a Tony, a Grammy, and recent Kennedy Center honoree.  

Dumas Malone’s 6-volume biography of Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson and His Time, was a joy to read, and equally brilliant is Anna Fields’ narration of all 6 volumes. Fields was the pseudonym for Kate Fleming, an award-winning actress, artist, singer, audiobook narrator and producer who died tragically in a flash flood at her Seattle, Washington, home in 2006 at age 41. Her production of this classic biography is a lasting legacy for one of the best audio narrators of all time.

Item: Long-suffering readers of this blog know I love scary stories at this time of year. I recently read The Casebook of Carnacki by William Hope Hodgson. Carnacki is a contemporary of Sherlock Holmes, created at the turn of the 20th century at the same time that many writers were trying to cash in on the consulting detective craze set off by Arthur Conan Doyle. Whereas Holmes never ventured into the realm of ghosts and goblins (with the notable exception of The Hound of the Baskervilles), Carnacki specializes in tracking down things that go bump in the night. Sometimes the hauntings have supernatural origins and sometimes not, but they all create an appropriate mood and are great fun. This series of stories was first published between 1910 and 1912 in Edwardian-era magazines before being pulled together for book publication under this title in 1913. They all follow the same formula: Carnacki has four friends over for dinner, after which they retire to the library for brandy and cigars while Carnacki tells the story of his various adventures, with titles like “The Thing Invisible,” “The Gateway of the Monster,” “The House Among the Laurels,” and “The Whistling Room.” Hodgson only wrote nine of these stories before his death at the Ypres salient in World War I on April 19, 1918, at the too-young age of 40. Happily, the Carnacki stories are back in print as part of the “Tales of Mystery & the Supernatural” series published by Wordsworth Editions. Check it out.

Till next time—and Happy Thanksgiving.

One Night Only, 40 Years Later

Forty years ago, on October 26, 1981, the Rolling Stones brought their North American tour to the Fox Theater in Atlanta. Tickets went on sale—less than 5,000 of them—about two weeks earlier, at 2:30 in the morning, only at the Fox box office. Most were snatched up by sleepy Georgia Tech students. When Atlantans woke up the next day, they heard that the Stones were coming, the show was already sold out, and you had a better chance of seeing Bigfoot than scoring tickets to the show. While almost all the other shows on the tour were in stadiums or large arenas, the Stones chose the intimate Fox for the Atlanta show.

Thanks to my brother Jeff—who stayed up all weekend before winning tickets by being the 93rd caller to an Atlanta radio station on that Monday morning—I turned out to be one of the relatively few people who saw that legendary show. As long-suffering readers of this blog know, it was one of the foundational nights of my life. My first Stones concert, and coincidentally also the first for Stones keyboardist Chuck Leavell, who has become a key component of their ongoing success.

40 years later, on Veterans Day, 2021, Jeff and I decided to re-live the magic by closing the circle and seeing the Stones together again, this time at a slightly larger arena—Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. This was my 11th Stones show, the 5th in Atlanta.

This was the first show I would hear without beloved Stones drummer Charlie Watts. He’d been with the band since January 1963, and until their first show on the current tour the Stones had never played a gig without him in 59 years. How do you replace the irreplaceable? Not to mention—but I’ll mention it anyway—Mick Jagger is now 78, Keith Richards is 77, Ronnie Wood is 74. Isn’t this supposed to be a young person’s game? The Wembley Whammer was fittingly remembered just before the show with a video tribute on the gigantic screens that tower over the stage.

Not to keep you in suspense, but the Stones—and I would call them “the surviving Stones,” but with these guys that’s been true since the death of Brian Jones 52+ years ago—were as good as it gets. Better than ever. Maybe even better than that. How is that possible? From the opening and unmistakable chords of “Street Fighting Man” through the buzz-bomb bass notes of “19th Nervous Breakdown,” through “Shattered,” (shadoobie) and “Satisfaction” the Stones did what they do and that no one else can.

After nearly 60 years, they still set the gold standard. Mick ran and pranced and “wiggled his bum,” as Charlie used to say. Keith wore a beanie throughout like the Grand Old Ghoul of Rock n’ Roll that he is, playing louder than ever, smiling and loving every minute. Ronnie was Ronnie. They even threw in 1967’s “She’s a Rainbow” (from Their Satanic Majesties Request), allowing Chuck Leavell to showcase his keyboard chops. Steve Jordan on the drums brought an energy and vibe that honored Charlie Watts while putting his own unique stamp on the music. They are still playing with an energy and a love for performing that defies reason. Like every other Stones concert I’ve witnessed across four decades, I didn’t want the music to end.

Seeing the Stones 40 years ago was already, at that time, seeing history. The Beatles had been broken up for a decade and John Lennon was dead. Led Zeppelin had dissolved two years earlier. Elvis had been gone for 4 years. Other founding acts of early rock had already long since vanished or gone into hibernation.

The Stones rolled on, aging but never growing older, continuing to play, dismissing the critics, and with every passing decade they passed milestones that seemed impossible. Touring at 50 in the 1990s? Ridiculous. Having another go at 60 in the early 2000s? They’ll embarrass themselves. Are they really going out on the road at 70, in the 2010s?? What will they call it, the Walker Tour? The Roller Derby?

Now they’re approaching 80, and are at a place no band has ever reached. No one now even remembers the British invasion, but watching the Stones is to remember the shock of their early appearance with long hair, their surly attitudes and rebellious sneers, and their anti-establishment pose. They still have something to prove, and they clearly enjoy trying to prove it.

It’s bound to end sometime, isn’t it? Surely Jeff and I won’t be seeing them again in 40 years—or even 5. But as we walked out of the arena, there on the big video screen was a message from the Stones that—true to form for them—teased and tantalized, but that I fervently hope was true:

“See you soon.”

The Freshest Advices

Item: Back in 2008 I subscribed to the Easton Press list of the “100 Greatest Books Ever Written,” and every month for 8 years and 4 months a handsome, leather-bound volume turned up in my mailbox. I should note here that these are not in fact the greatest books ever written. They’re the 100 books that someone at Easton Press thinks are the greatest ever written; many of them wouldn’t pass muster for being “great,” and needless to say the list is very western- and male-centric.  You will not find on this list Ssu-Ma Ch’ien’s Records of the Grand Historian, The Pillow Book by Sei Shonagon, Sun-Tzu’s The Art of War, or Lady Murasaki’s Tale of Genji. For that matter, you won’t find Montaigne’s Essays or Galileo’s Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, nor Boswell’s Life of Johnson or The Education of Henry Adams. But you will receive Darwin’s On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, which may be one of the most important books ever written, but it is not, stylistically, a great book. Be that as it may, I dutifully read the first 90 or so on the list as they randomly arrived (they aren’t ranked) before getting distracted with the last 10. I’m finally making my way through those and am currently reading The Republic by Plato. I’m about a third of the way through. It’s certainly one of the foundational texts in western literature, and I would agree with Clifton Fadiman’s assertion that it is an ambitious and rather difficult book. He suggests that those following the Lifetime Reading Plan start with Plato’s other works, beginning with the Apology, the Crito, the Protagoras, the Symposium, then the Phaedo. I’ll continue on with the Republic and learn as much as I can, listening to the dialogue between the fascinating Socrates and his many interlocutors. Even if I absorb only half of what is going on in this book, that’s saying something. More later.

Item: I just finished A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (Viking, 2016). It’s the fictional account of Count Alexander Rostov, who is sentenced in 1921 by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in the Hotel Metropol in Moscow, and he spends the next 30+ years there without (hardly) leaving. Doesn’t sound like much of an opportunity for a plot, does it? Just as in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1944 film Lifeboat, however, confining all the action to a small area places tremendous demands on the author and his characters, and the book succeeds and satisfies on many different levels. Highly recommended.

Item: The Atlanta Falcons are two games into the latest NFL season with new coach Arthur Smith and everything seems familiar—and not in a good way. It’s still hard to believe that this team was in the Super Bowl just 5 years ago. Even with a new coach and general manager, they still seem headed in the wrong direction. There are three equally bad teams coming up on the schedule—the New York Giants, the Washington Football Team, and the J-e-t-s, Jets, Jets, Jets—with a combined record right now of 1-5. We’ll find out a lot about the home team over that span, though you may want to avert your eyes.

Item: The Georgia Bulldogs, on the other hand, look mighty good after three games, the first of which was a beat-down of perennial powerhouse Clemson. It’s still hard to know how good or bad Clemson is, however, coming off a slim and unconvincing win over Georgia Tech. That’s the problem with college football—there’s no pre-season, and when you win your first game over a good opponent, you don’t know whether your team is really great or if the good opponent ain’t all that good after all. Georgia will find out quickly, however, if its defense is as great as it seems, with games coming up on the road against Auburn, Florida, and Tennessee, and home matchups against surprisingly good Arkansas and Kentucky. Don’t avert your eyes on this one.

Item: Here in this space back on April 1 I was excited for the start of the Major League Baseball season. The Bravos haven’t disappointed, poised at this juncture to win another National League East title, with 11 games left and a 3-game lead in the loss column (the only place that matters) over the Phillies. After stalling in third place for most of the first half, it’s been a lot of fun to watch the Braves catch and pass the Phils and hated Mets over the past three months, even if they don’t go far in the playoffs. It’s also been great fun to watch the much-vaunted Mets crash and burn again too. Did I mention I hate the Mets? The postseason begins Tuesday, October 5.

Item: Sothebys’s will auction a rare copy of the final printed version of the US Constitution this November, and it’s expected to fetch upwards of  $20 million. It’s one of only 11 in existence, and the only one in private hands, the others being in institutions. The owner bought it in 1988 for $165,000—not a bad investment. You will recall that GHS owns a draft copy of the printed Constitution with Georgia delegate Abraham Baldwin’s hand-written edits. It’s one of only 12 in existence.  

Item: Look out for a short book review essay in the Fall 2021 issue of the Georgia Historical Quarterly by Pulitzer Prize-winner David Garrow, author of Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1986), and, most recently, Rising Star: The Making of Barack Obama (2017).

Item: Not surprisingly, the Rolling Stones did not take my advice and call it quits after the death of Charlie Watts, thank goodness. They launch their long-delayed No Filter tour of the US this Sunday, September 26, in St. Louis, and if history is any guide, they’ll sound amazing. They always do. Let’s hope they can dodge both the Delta variant and the Grim Reaper for just a while longer.

Item: In the July 23, 2021 issue of the Times Literary Supplement, in a review of Reid Byers’ book, The Private Library: The History of the Architecture and Furnishing of the Domestic Bookroom (Oak Knoll, 2021), A.N. Wilson quotes Leigh Hunt, the English essayist, critic, and poet on the difference between a library and a study: “I entrench myself in my books equally against sorrow and the weather. I like a great library next to my study; but for the study itself, give me a small snug place, almost entirely walled with books. I dislike a grand library to study in. Capital places to go to, but not to sit in. We like a small study, where we are almost in contact with our books.” A small snug place almost entirely walled with books would describe the room in which I’m sitting, and from where I often recorded Dispatches from Off the Deaton path, including this one on libraries. It made me wonder exactly how many books I have crammed into this space, so yesterday I counted: 1,672, plus or minus a few. But there’s always room for more.

Till next time.

Podcast S4 E10: We Salute You, and Farewell

This week Stan remembers the birth and death of two iconic musicians from the 20th century, and the recent deaths of five historians whose work over the past 60 years helped redefine several eras of American history.

The Gentleman Among the Pirates

How many Rolling Stones album covers featured Charlie Watts all by himself? Answer: one. When you’re in a band with a frontman with the world’s biggest ego—and you lack anything resembling an ego—you don’t often get the call. But Charles Robert Watts appears all by himself on the cover of the Stones’ 1970 live album, Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out. It’s vintage Charlie.

And it is on this same album, recorded during their 1969 tour, that Mick banters playfully with the audience between songs, including, just before the opening riff on “Honky Tonk Women,” asking the crowd, “Charlie’s good tonight, ain’t he?” (Some insist that Mick actually combined the last two words in his inimitable British accent, as “innee.” Look it up and decide for yourself.) Yes, Charlie was good that night.

Charlie Watts was, from the beginning, my favorite Stone. Like me, he was a truck driver’s son; he was quiet, unassuming, thoughtful, and as I found out later, much more at home with a book than in front of a camera. Charlie Watts had no liking for stardom, rock glamour, or the limelight. “I don’t know what show biz is, and I’ve never watched MTV,” he once said. “There are people who just play instruments, and I’m pleased to be one of them.”

He simply wanted to be a drummer. He just happened to be the drummer for the world’s greatest rock n’roll band. Never mind that he was as responsible as Mick and Keith for that greatness. He always deflected credit elsewhere. Keith himself said, “Everybody thinks that Mick and Keith are The Rolling Stones. If Charlie wasn’t doing what he’s doing on drums, that wouldn’t be true at all. You’d find out that Charlie Watts is The Rolling Stones.”

If you doubt this, watch and listen to Charlie on the iconic blues opera “Midnight Rambler,” performed at Madison Square Garden on the band’s 40th anniversary tour in 2003. In my opinion, this is the best Rolling Stones live performance ever, period. Charlie drives that song forward from the opening note like the master that he was, and everyone else is playing catch-up, all while he appears to be doing nothing at all. Pay particular attention to the call-and-response with Mick in the middle.

Charlie Watts famously just wanted to play jazz. He was a struggling art student playing in Alexis Korner’s blues band when he met Brian Jones and a couple of other “white blokes from England,” as he put it, who invited him to join their band. They called themselves The Rolling Stones, after Muddy Waters’ song, “Rollin’ Stone Blues.” He joined, not expecting it to last long. On Tuesday, August 24, 2021, his membership in the band ended with his death, nearly 60 years later. Along the way they changed the course of musical history, redefining the sound of popular music in the 20th century.

Other people are better equipped to analyze and critique the musical career and influence of Charlie Watts. This is just an appreciation from a fan for whom Charlie Watts and the Stones have provided the soundtrack of my life for the last 40 years. I’ve written elsewhere about the first time I saw them, on October 26, 1981, at Atlanta’s Fox Theater. That magical, long-ago Monday night started something in me that has never ended, and Charlie Watts has been a huge part of it. I’ve seen the Stones live 10 times, from 1981 to 2019, and somehow they got better with every concert, defying age and time in a way that seemed surreal. They were indestructible and would surely go on forever.

Charlie joined the band in January 1963, and he never missed a concert over the next 56 years that they toured. He, Mick, and Keith played on every Stones album ever released.

He was there in the swingin’ 60s when shrieking fans flung themselves off balconies, climbed up on stage and pulled off the Stones’ clothes. He was there when the British invasion began, in rivalry with the Beatles. He was there when the band appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964. He was there with Mick and Keith when they fired Brian Jones from the band that he started. He was there at Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, to play a tribute concert to Jones just 2 days after his death. He was there at Altamonte Speedway on December 6, 1969, when the Hell’s Angels stabbed Meredith Hunter right in front of the band while they were performing. He was there through the 70s and all the great music they produced, from Let it Bleed to Sticky Fingers to Exile on Main Street to Some Girls. He was there when the band almost broke up in the mid-80s. He was there when they launched the first of the massively successful world tours with Steel Wheels in 1989 that continue to this day. He was there through all of the Mick and Keith feuds, all the drug use, marriages, divorces, arrests, and overdoses. When Brian Jones died, he was there, and when Bill Wyman left, he stayed on and chose the new bass player.

Charlie was there, playing on Paint it Black, Get off My Cloud, Under My Thumb, Satisfaction, Gimme Shelter, Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, Midnight Rambler, You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Sympathy for the Devil, It’s Only Rock n’Roll, Angie, Miss You, Beast of Burden, Emotional Rescue, She’s So Cold, Start Me Up, through Voodoo Lounge, Bridges to Babylon, A Bigger Bang, Blue and Lonesome, and all the other songs and albums and videos that have defined life for multiple generations of fans and inspired countless multitudes of musicians.

Through it all, Charlie played with finesse and style, a dapperly dressed gentleman on a pirate ship (as one critic put it), quietly holding the band together while “watching Mick’s bum wigglin’ about.” Charlie refused to be impressed by any of it, least of all by himself. Stardom changed not an ounce of his humility. He continued to sign letters “C.R. Watts (Drummer, The Rolling Stones),” as if people wouldn’t know him otherwise. But as the years went by, who invariably got the loudest ovation from fans at concerts? The Wembley Whammer.

It was glorious and historic and we thought it would never end. On Tuesday it did, just like that. The gentleman among the pirates took his leave, without warning, as some days simply disappear without flourish into night. Joan Armatrading spoke for all of us: “Why am I crying? Because Charlie Watts is dead. Who knew that any of The Rolling Stones musicians would ever leave this Earth?”

The question is, even now, has it ended?

If the Stones have been looking for a sign from the universe as to when to call it quits, in my opinion this is it. Yes, they could go on without Charlie. Mick and Keef are iconic Rock Gods, the best frontman and most famous rock outlaw in history. They are the legendary Glimmer Twins, two larger-than-life personalities who have dominated pop culture for 60 years, still strutting across the stage, as good as ever, and there will never be two like them again. It is a collaboration unlike any other in musical history.

But with the Stones, as with so many magical things in life, the whole was greater than the sum of its parts. If Mick, Keith, and Ronnie go on, as well they may, they’ll be a different band; they won’t be The Rolling Stones. Make no mistake, Charlie’s death marks the end of an era and of a band that began one year into JFK’s presidency and that continued without a break and without apology for nearly six decades. There is no precedent for what they’ve been, what they’ve accomplished, the people they influenced, the sheer joy they brought to millions around the world across all those years.

And there is nothing to replace them. Yes, I know there are other musicians and there are other bands, still producing good music.

But do me a favor—if you’re young, find a band you like that’s just started playing together in 2021. Check back in 2080–yes, 2080–and see if they’re still together and if they’re still playing sold-out stadiums. There is not and never will be another group like The Rolling Stones.

The drums are silent now. The seat at the small drum kit is empty. The heartbeat of the greatest rock n’roll band in the world has been stilled, and the void cannot be filled. Though the songs and the albums remain, the soul and spirit of the music has quietly passed on, leaving in its wake the awesome respect and outpouring of love that so many of us felt for this quiet, gentle, hugely talented man. What Charlie Watts and his band mates created will never be replicated, but what an enduring gift he and they have given us all.

The poet Wendell Berry wrote that “the end, too, is part of the pattern, the last labor of the heart; to learn to lie still, one with the earth again, and let the world go.”

Charlie’s good tonight, ain’t he?