Recovery Review

Waiting on a Friend


Recovery Review examines books and other media on topics related to substance use disorder, treatment, and recovery.

This time of year I can’t help but recall one of my favorite obscure album tracks by the Rolling Stones, “Winter,” a wistful number bemoaning present circumstances and hoping for better times ahead. Mick Jagger sings:

It sure been a hard, hard winter
My feet been dragging across the ground
And I hope it’s going to be a long, hot summer
And the light of love will be burning bright

This track was the first recorded in late 1972 for the Stones’ album Goats Head Soup (1973) and despite the seasonal lamentations included, the song was actually recorded in Jamaica. Harsh tax laws in Britain, unfriendly immigration status in the U.S., and drug charges in France conspired to make the Stones a band in exile. Jamaica was one of the few places on the map which would take in such ragged company. Wherever the Stones went, addiction and darkness seemed to follow close behind. Truth to tell, this had become part of their mystique, their outlaw appeal — an idea of what is “cool” which far too many have died attempting to emulate.

The album’s production team was strung out at the mixing desk; producer Jimmy Miller took off to L.A. to score junk when supplies in Kingston ran low. Equally loaded was Keith Richards, the musical driving force of the band, if and when he deigned to show up. Though the rhythm guitarist receives his customary credit on “Winter,” in fact Richards neither co-wrote the song with Jagger, nor did he play on the recording.

As virtuoso lead guitarist Mick Taylor layers his bluesy licks over the top, Jagger himself is left to strum the sad rhythm part, approximating Keith’s style as best he could. Where was Keith Richards — Jagger’s former schoolmate, longtime songwriting partner, and the other half of “the Glimmer Twins” — during those “Winter” sessions?

Another drop of the needle tells the tale.

Coming Down

During this period, Richards’ favored “creative partner” was not Jagger, but heroin. In a 2002 interview, Keith “credited” the drug for inspiring him to write and sing his signature tune on Goats Head Soup, “Coming Down Again,” and it’s hard to imagine a more evocative number about the hollowness of after-party malaise. “Where are all my friends?” a bereft Richards asks, with Jagger providing the delicate harmony vocal.

“Coming Down” reflected the recent influence of Keith’s drugging and jamming buddy, American country-rocker Gram Parsons. Music writer Bill Janovitz quotes Richards in his book about classic Stones songs, Rocks Off:

I said not long ago that I wouldn’t have written [“Coming Down Again”] without heroin . . . I don’t know if it was about dope. It was just a mournful song — and you look for that melancholy in yourself . . . And by then I’d worked a lot in the country field, especially with Gram Parsons, and that high lonesome melancholy has a certain pull on the heartstrings.

Janovitz quotes singer and Stones fellow traveller Marianne Faithful on the state of Keith at the time: “He became the very image of the falling down, stoned junkie hovering perpetually on the edge of death.” The specter-like visage of Richards captured in the album cover photo shoot for Goats Head Soup displays this “very image” in haunting fashion. Janovitz again:

There was indeed something quite sad about the Stones in 1973, a palpable sorrow and acknowledgement. And that emotion fills the ruminative “Coming Down Again” with a yearning regret and momentary sobriety, a pause before the next hit.

Ironically, while Keith somehow survived the macabre deathwatch his drug intake cast over him, baby-faced Gram Parsons overdosed on alcohol and morphine in September 1973. Parsons, 26, died in a lonely hotel room in Joshua Tree, California, only weeks after Goats Head Soup was released that August. Parsons’ own posthumously released album would fittingly be called Grievous Angel.

As Mick Jagger put it in “Winter”:

And I wish I been out in California
When the lights on all the Christmas trees went out

Heroin was rocking Jagger’s band like an earthquake, extinguishing much of what had made them, in the eyes of their fans, “The World’s Greatest Rock n’ Roll Band.” Lead guitarist Mick Taylor would depart after the next album; the brilliant piano player Nicky Hopkins would miss the ’73 tour due to ill health (he ultimately died in 1994, at only 50 years old).

Resurrection Blues

The Jagger/Richards partnership would survive the band’s heroin period, thanks in part to a 1977 drug bust in Toronto which curtailed Keith’s habit. By 1981, as the Stones prepared for a massive American tour, their new co-producer, Chris Kimsey, combed through the band’s archives for tracks which could be reworked for their hastily assembled new studio album, Tattoo You.

Kimsey discovered a leftover instrumental track Richards cut with the other Stones in Kingston, back during the ’72-’73 Goats Head Soup sessions. Jagger wrote the lyrics and added his vocals, and the Stones even got jazz great Sonny Rollins to contribute a saxophone solo.  Also featuring the Kingston recordings of Mick Taylor on guitar and Nicky Hopkins on keys, the resurrected track became, fittingly enough, the classic “Waiting On a Friend.”

The Light of Love

I wish overdoses had gone the way of Goats Head Soup 8-Track tapes or even compact discs and become relics of a bygone era. But unfortunately there are now more overdose victims than ever before, due to the currently rampaging opioid epidemic, with its even more potentially deadly drugs.

If you are among those waiting for someone to come in from the cold of addiction, and beginning to lose hope, or you’re out there in the bitter wind yourself, come on in. You have friends here. The light of love will be burning bright. 

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