A poignant reminder of a time when even the rowdy, disreputable bad boys who terrified your mother could release something so steeped in beautiful sadness and regret that it still tugs at your heart strings over 50 years later, Ruby Tuesday is a classically influenced ballad arranged for cello, piano, and a mournful turn on the recorder by poor, doomed Brian Jones, who lends a particularly delicate touch to a song that sounds about as much like Street Fighting Man – or Roll Over Beethoven, for that matter – as a Nightingale sounds like a Great Dane. Credited, like most of their original compositions, to Jagger/Richards, Ruby Tuesday was in fact written mainly by Keith Richards with input from Jones, and Mick, to his credit, has always insisted he had nothing to do with it, though he’s always loved singing it. It’s often described as being about one of the band’s groupies, but Richards has said it was about then-girlfriend Linda Keith, while often describing it in terms that don’t even hint at its true tone and substance:
It was probably written about Linda Keith not being there (laughs). I don’t know, she had pissed off somewhere…That’s one of those things – some chick you’ve broken up with. And all you’ve got left is the piano and the guitar and a pair of panties.
That’s our Keef (shades of Nigel Tufnell discussing his heartbreaking, Bach-inspired magnum opus, Lick My Love Pump).
Ruby Tuesday shot to the top of the charts Stateside when radio stations, scandalized by the overt sexuality of Let’s Spend the Night Together, flipped the 45 and played the B-Side instead (cue Grandpa Simpson: back in our day, rich men flew by in their Zeppelins, and music came on two-sided plastic discs that had bumps on them, which you played on the Victrola, either through the giant ear trumpet or the rubber pneumatic listening tubes…). It would be nice to think that the AM radio program directors realized which was the better song, but really, it was the dread fear of dirty filthy sex, as promoted by those lascivious leering louts from London, setting a bad example as always – imagine, just putting it out there for everybody to hear like that! Had they no care for the women and children? Good God, man – spend the night together!?! You know what they mean, right? It’s not an invite to a pyjama party, let’s just put it that way! Yikes! And horrors! When they sang it on Ed Sullivan, Mick had to change it to let’s spend some time together, thus, no doubt, sparing untold millions of innocent Middle Americans from cardiac arrest.
So maybe Ruby Tuesday got its initial bump in airplay more or less by default. I like to think it was bound to have been a hit anyway.
If all you knew of the Rolling Stones was what you’d seen and heard from them this century (or indeed from about 1985 on), you’d probably find it a bit of a stretch, linking those guys to something so wistful, melodic, and heartfelt. Really?
That’s the yobbo who wrote lyrics like this?
There’s no time to lose, I heard her say
Catch your dreams before they slip away
Dying all the time
Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind
Ain’t life unkind?
For real? Well, yes and no. It was that guy, sort of, but back when he was this guy:
Hey, as Walt Kelly once said, describing his early renderings of Pogo Possum, he looked different back in those days, but then so did I, and probably you did too. Hell yes, he looked different. He was different. The whole scene was different.
For a while there, it wasn’t just about money, and fame, and chicks – it was, to be sure, about those things too, as ever, but there was also an unexpected injection of artistic ambition into the competition to reach the toppermost of the poppermost. It was all the fault of those kids from Liverpool; suddenly everybody wanted to write their own songs, and they all wanted to come up with their own Yesterday or Eleanor Rigby. Sometimes, admittedly, the results were fairly risible, but a few came pretty damned close, before the endless hard miles of fame, drugs, and massive amounts of lucre wore almost everything away, leaving little behind but a travelling circus of boundless avarice and frankly pitiable self-parody.
Who could have seen it all coming? Who would have predicted that just a couple of years later, Brian Jones would be booted from the band and wind up face down in his swimming pool? Who could have foreseen, in the run up to the Summer of Love, that the Sixties would come to a sordid end as the Hells Angels beat a kid to death right in front of the stage at Altamont?
Somehow, it’s the pretty little coda, when Brian brings it home, that always gets me the most. In the brief preceding interval you can, if you listen closely, hear somebody, maybe Mick, counting time in a faint whisper, one, two, three, four, and it feels so immediate it’s as if I’m there with them in the moment, and all those years between today and the end of 1966, with all their shocks and disappointments, seem never to have passed at all.