It was with a rush of delight that I first heard the Rolling Stones’ cover of Dobie Gray’s hit single “Drift Away” a few weeks ago, while traveling in some remote region of the internet. If you were born sometime between 1950 and 1980, you probably know the original even if you think you don’t; it’s an easygoing country rock song that kicks into a louder, funkier chorus with the lyrics “Gimme the beat boys, and free my soul, I wanna get lost in your rock and roll and drift away.” You recognize it now, right? It may have been a song you first heard on a bedside clock radio, or after briefly wresting control of the car radio from your parents. In fact, many kinds of radios were good to it; it hit #5 on the Billboard chart in 1973 and is still regularly played in Trader Joe’s and Applebee’s everywhere. It’s a likable anthem to rock-as-therapy that performs what it describes. The Stones’ version gives it some hyped-up emphasis and desperation, but really isn’t all that different from Gray’s; basically, it’s the original with traces of cocaine.
And then I realized that thoughts I was writing down in response to the song were not so much an explanation as a fantasy. The attraction of this cover was an imaginary act of audition—a fantasy of the moment when the band, or someone in the band, was listening to the song and decided to maybe have a go at it. It’s in this fantastic aural and visual image that the magnetism of many cover songs lie. It’s in what one constructs in answer to the unanswerable questions, what got heard in the song, and why? And what was s/he feeling just before the song broke through into cover-worthiness?
One thing larger-than-life figures like Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones do well is to spark fantasies that work as drastic contrasts in scale: the bigger the figures, the more appealing it is to imagine them doing little things, like listening to pop radio. It’s that image that’s driven my attraction to this cover of a song that was surely a staple of Casey Casem’s “America’s Top Forty” for many weeks. Sure, it’s not like the Stones did a version of “Disco Duck” or “Convoy” (that we know of). Nonetheless, the resonance of their retread through “Drift Away” originates, for me, the fact that Mick Jagger is enthralled with the same song you heard on the radio while driving with your mother to get new shoes at the Thom McCann in Yonkers.
Hearing Jagger sing the verses “Drift Away,” using the same tone as he used on the dissipated classic “Sweet Virginia” from Exile on Main Street, nurtured a fantasy of him genuinely loving the song either despite or in the context of its mediation through popular rock radio (my fantasies leave room for ambiguity, which is sometimes frustrating). In either case he’s so moved as to be willing to risk letting that love of a contemporary pop song show through his carefully cultivated image. It’s not clear that this recording was ever a candidate for commercial release, but the serious work Jagger put into producing a well recorded version of it, with several layers of overdubbed vocals, indicates the enthrallment of this act of listening.
Imagining all of this makes the track vibrate with the excitement of fandom rather than with the posturing charisma of Jagger’s typical performance persona. Essentially, it’s Mick doing an elaborate form of karaoke, and kicking ass at it. The punctum of the remake—the way Jagger chants rather than sings the phrase “free my soul” in the chorus—signifies, in my imagination, as his adoration of the song bubbling over the surface, so much so that he can’t sing notes. In the happiest of coincidences, the most karaoke moment of the song is also what makes it rock the hardest.
The fantasy here, you’ve noticed, is not about the Stones per se. It’s really all about Jagger. Or more nearly, it’s about Jagger operating free of the band’s superego as personified in Keith Richards. Though Richards has rarely been an effective regulator of the id in his personal life, his role in the Stones has always been to reign in Mick’s tendencies towards theatricality, celebrity, glamour, and femininity. Keith is there to keep it real, and part of that means border patrol at the boundary between the ways of authentic musicians and those of cheap, commercial hitmakers. You can practically imagine the wince on Keith’s face when Jagger’s “Drift Away” giddily breaks down into just vocals, drums, and handclaps. If he ever even heard the song. Indeed, my sources at the website Wikipedia.com have confirmed my suspicion that he was AWOL at the session, which took place during the recording of the LP It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.
What Jagger heard when he heard this song, and possibly when and how he heard it, produced a type of sincerity that differs greatly from the way the Stones have generally approached covers. Since their inception in 1962 as, essentially, a blues cover band, the Stones have generally played and recorded songs by other artists as homage to the African American musicians they see as their forebears,. Hence they’ve used covers as a kind of lit review—a demonstration of their scholarly grasp of the American musical genres whose genealogies they want history to make them part of. Of course, their covers of artists like Solomon Burke, Chuck Berry, and Howlin Wolf are also expressions of fandom. But these covers have a grandiose purpose–to write a history of Anglo-American rock that culminates as the Rolling Stones—and a dangerous side effect–to suggest, at least implicitly, that American black music of note is dying or dead.
And yet, those troubling racial politics give the cover of “Drift Away” a special twist. In many ways, the background of the original performer, Dobie Gray, meant he was a ready fit for the Stones’ romanticization of black America. He was born into an African American sharecropping family in Texas in 1940. He discovered his voice singing gospel. He went off to the big city (Los Angeles), the boy from the backwater on a mission to deliver the soul of the South to the jaded urban elite. Then the course of this classic story veers. When Gray arrived in L. A., he pretty much immediately came under the wing of. . . wait for it. . . Sonny Bono. Under Bono’s mentorship, Gray rubbed the Southern sheen off of his voice, and pursued a career making pop hits in a mode somewhere near the intersection of Spector and Bacharach. Bono searched the songwriting factories for demos appropriate for his protégé’s booming, racially ambiguous voice. Eventually, in 1964, Bono found him two that charted: one called “Look at Me” and another called “I’m In With the ‘In’ Crowd.” Gray’s recording of the latter reached number 13 and became one of Andy Warhol’s favorite songs of the 1960s. While all this was happening, the Stones were touring the U. S. and the U. K. with Howlin’ Wolf.
Fast forward ten years. It’s 1974 and Warhol is fast becoming Jagger’s new boyfriend, his replacement for a smack-dependent, barely functional Richards. Mick is living in Andy’s New York, hanging out with famous socialites and intellectuals, as well as a lot of gay men. In another project for which fantasy plays an acutely generative role, Eric Lott has been developing an intricate portrait of the Jagger-Warhol relationship of this period, and exploring how the artist may have allowed Jagger to cultivate his own queerness in ways evident on the Stones’ mid-70s albums—the nadir of Richards’ contributions to the band. This is the atmosphere in which Jagger rallies the three remaining members of the group to put a few hours into recording a song contemporaneously a standard on the setlist of numerous bar mitvah bands.“Drift Away” isn’t queer, and it’s way more Laurel Canyon than it is Manhattan. But the Stones’ recording of it is a serious drag performance, with Mick convincingly sporting Warholian guise of someone undaunted by the kneejerk, middlebrow aversion to certain baser forms of the popular.
It’s funny to consider the similarity between “Drift Away” and the title song of It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll, which became the big hit off the album. In essence, the latter expresses the same sentiment as the former, only without the melancholic sentimentality. In his recent autobiography, Richards rhapsodizes about Mick’s coming up with the line “I know, it’s only rock ‘n roll, but I like it.” We can’t know that Jagger wrote the song as a kind of panicked rewrite of “Drift Away,” but we can fantasize that he did. It makes total sense.
–Gustavus Stadler is where he should be all the time