Been listening to some vintage Rolling Stones. I never really gave the Stones much credit. I think in my younger years I just never could get over the campiness of Mick Jaggar. And then after the whole Windows 95, Start Me Up thing I probably just tended to understand them for the massively successful commercial hacks that they really are. But all that harsh criticism and the numerous accusations of musical theft they have faced over the years one still has to give them credit for being a force that brought about great songs.
Sister Morphine is one of those moments. Surely Marianne Faithfull’s haunting lyrics, and Ry Cooder’s superb slide guitar work are the soul of the song but there is something to be said for the whole package brought together by the celebrity of the Stones. In that is the essence of the art. The whole atmosphere and delivery of the song transforms the listener and puts one in touch with the experience being presented. Granted I have never had the occasion to experience a massive drug overdose, or some gruesome accident that sent me to the emergency room. But the song puts me there. It reveals the tension that must exist. The yearning for release. A call to sister morphine for relief. Sure perhaps the whole cause for the experience was totally innocent (a tragic car accident) or perhaps more sinisterly the result of some indulgent attempt to have fun with drugs. But in the end it doesn’t matter the experience to the subject is all the same, he or she has arrived at a point totally dependent on the mercy of others.
Ah, come on, sister morphine, you better make up my bed
cause you know and I know in the morning I’ll be dead
Yeah, and you can sit around, yeah and you can watch all the
Clean white sheets stained red.
I find these words very haunting and remarkably honest. The junkies last score or the tragic victim’s writhing last moments, either way the condition of the moment is the same. “You know and I know”, what a indictment those words are. There is nothing we can do, we are at last resort. Think what you will, do what you will with the rest of YOUR life, but for this one moment provide me the mercy of the needle, enable me to endure the final moments of mine.
The lyrics are great, but the religious experience of the song comes from Ry Cooder’s guitar work. The way the slide guitar interrupts the song at various moments. An impending urgency that can’t be escaped. It punctuates anything that is or could be settling. The pain is real, the destruction is real, the moment is nothing if not authentic. The guitar work very much invokes, does not describe, or relate, it simple invokes and puts you there. I would say that the experience of this music for me is Jaques Lacan’s “Real”.
Thus the Real is that which is outside language, resisting symbolization absolutely. In Seminar XI Lacan defines the Real as “the impossible” because it is impossible to imagine and impossible to integrate into the Symbolic, being impossibly attainable. It is this resistance to symbolization that lends the Real its traumatic quality.
Like death none of us have been there, but we are always approaching it in small steps. The guitar work in this song does that for me. It is interruption, par excellence. It provides a radical immediacy to the song. One can contemplate the experience of an overdose, or writhing pain, but what does it means to experience it? Nothing, as far as the innocent know. It is like that Hunter Thompson quote:
The Edge… there is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over.
But the experience of Ry Cooder’s slide guitar in this song does something to me emotionally and spiritually. It puts me in touch with the uneasiness of the moment being expressed in this song. Intellectually one can think whatever they want about drugs, pro, con, indifferent. I guess I really don’t care. The only thought I have is that drug experiences of many of our parent’s past is remarkable for its innocence. I recall recently watching Gus Van Zandt’s Drugstore Cowboy. A movie set in the golden age of junkiedom, the early 70’s and Portland Oregon. An affable band of ne’er-do-wells who’s main occupation is hitting up various drug stores trying to find whatever score they can. What I find fascinating is the self evident innocence of the era. This was long before the war on drugs, long before drugs became big business. I just recently read that we had an $8 billion dollar program to try and pay Colombian farmers to stop them from growing coca plants. There is real innocence in Sister Morphine and Gus Van Zandt’s anti hero of Drugstore Cowboy. The experience of coming to the drugs was new and fresh, someone had to go through it to tell the rest of us about it. The edge, there is no honest way to explain it.
But here we are in a new post (drug) war age, doped up on our internet, twitter, facebook, iPhones and text messages. We have large upscale pushers of caffeine (Starbucks), all kinds of messages about death, destruction and terror. A constant call to us about the danger of drugs. The food and peanut butter we eat is a liability. Cancer and death all around. We have somehow successfully made a major movement against cigarettes. All our old favorite crusty night spots have the faint waft of moldy toilet rooms. The earth, we are told, is on the verge of a environmental catastrophe. The whole nation is awakening from the uncomfortable slumber of an 8 year disaster presidency. The financial system having approached near collapse, is only to be saved by the last minute heroics of funneling trillions into our banking system. I don’t know much, but that we have one hell of an uncertain future. I don’t know what or where the edge is, I am sure I will recognize it when we have crossed it. Perhaps not. When it comes to drugs do we know anything more than our parents? I doubt it. I know I avoided drugs all my life because of what I saw happen to others around me. But when I listen to a song like Sister Morphine I think for a brief shining moment I get it. And a tear comes to my eye for the melancholic sense that we have moved away from a more simple time into the great unknown future. The simple fact is that no matter what lot we have in life most of us are caught in the grips of a relentless pursuit of Ecstasy. And by this I mean the psychological subjective experience.
Ecstasy is subjective experience of total involvement of the subject, with an object of his or her awareness. Because total involvement with an object of our interest is not our ordinary experience since we are ordinarily aware also of other objects, the ecstasy is an example of altered state of consciousness characterized by diminished awareness of other objects or total lack of the awareness of surroundings and everything around the object. For instance, if one is concentrating on a physical task, then one might cease to be aware of any intellectual thoughts. On the other hand, making a spirit journey in an ecstatic trance involves the cessation of voluntary bodily movement.
For a few brief moments the Rolling Stone’s Sister Morphine was that for me, a “total involvement with an object of interest”. It evokes, it reveals, and it elevates, and it is, as they say, Art.