Videos by American Songwriter
The following is an excerpt from Counting Down The Rolling Stones: Their 100 Finest Songs, a new book from American Songwriter contributor Jim Beviglia. If you’re interested in buying a copy of the book, use the code 7A3AUTHF at checkout to save 25% off the list price.
6. “Moonlight Mile” (from Sticky Fingers, 1971)
Albums like Aftermath, Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Some Girls, and Tattoo You all may have their backers, but the battle for greatest Rolling Stones album, for most, likely comes down to 1971’s Sticky Fingers vs. 1972’s Exile On Main St. The best albums tend to have incredible closing songs, so that’s one area where Sticky Fingers comes out on top in the comparison. Whereas Exile bows out with the solid but unspectacular “Soul Survivor,” Sticky Fingers exits via the tour de force that is “Moonlight Mile.”
The song in many ways encapsulates the differences in approach between the two albums. Exile was recorded in chaos, which then seeped into the music and production, but that chaos was often revelatory. Sticky Fingers is far more polished and precise, especially in terms of the production by Jimmy Miller, and that really shows in “Moonlight Mile,” which is a beautiful studio creation.
At times, it almost seems like Mick Jagger is singing over the score to a film, so intricately and ingeniously arranged is the song. Keith Richards wasn’t even a part of the recording, which was largely spearheaded by Jagger, who wrote the bulk of the song, and Mick Taylor, who helped to put together the disparate pieces of music into a seamless whole.
“Moonlight Mile” has some of the hallmarks of a road song, especially the weariness and sadness that seems to hang off the narrator’s every line, the persistence of that nagging feeling that he’ll never quite traverse that last mile to return to the one he loves. But it’s also a “dream song”, as Jagger has called it in interviews, long on imagery and hazy on details, a reverie that soothes and enthralls. The music manages to convey both these themes without ever seeming disjoined.
The insistent little acoustic riff that undergirds the song is played by Jagger, and its Far Eastern vibe is probably why the song was titled “Japanese Thing” in its working stages. Charlie Watts embellishes upon this theme by going often to the cymbals in the opening section of the song, evoking an Oriental temple somewhere in a clearing in the distance. The narrator can’t quite reach this beacon, buffeted as he is by rain, snow, and freezing winds. And, considering some of the possible references to drugs that Jagger’s lines contain, his own self-imposed stupor might be holding him back as well.
When the rhythm section kicks into a familiar rock ballad groove, Jagger reveals that the nuisances surrounding him aren’t nearly as picturesque romantic as that opening verse, just a lot of unwanted noise: “The sound of strangers sending nothing to my mind/Just another mad, mad day on the road.” “I am just living to be lying by your side,” Jagger sings, a sweet sentiment rendered sad by the knowledge that he might ever realize this reunion.
His desire for some sort of peace in the middle of the storm comes through in lines that you might not expect from someone known for going on stage in front of a blaring rock band: “I’ve got silence on my radio/Let the air waves flow, let the air waves flow.” The line “I am sleeping under strange, strange skies” is accompanied for the first time by strings, arranged by Paul Buckmaster, which lend majesty to the melancholy enveloping him.
A bit of resilience shows up as he bravely journeys down the road, singing “I’m riding down your moonlight mile.” At this point, the song kicks into a thrilling duet of sorts between Taylor’s electric guitar, seeming to increase in potency with each note, and Watts’ toms, which batter their way through any resistance. This section releases back into the main part with Jagger letting out a cathartic cry. “Yeah, I’m coming home,” he shouts, and, in that thrilling moment, you believe he just might make it.
As befitting a song of such epic proportions, “Moonlight Mile” finishes strong, with Taylor flicking off notes somewhere in the ether while Jim Price on piano scurries just out of reach. The dream is slowly dissipating as the song ends with one more flourish from the strings, a mesmerizing way to end both the song and the album.
“Moonlight Mile” is gorgeous, utilizing the open spaces in the music to provide moments of tenderness amidst all the peaks and crescendos. It’s also a brilliant piece of writing by Jagger, with lyrics that rank among his most evocative and psychologically revealing. And Taylor and Miller put it all together for maximum emotional impact. The tendency would be to call it underrated, because it wasn’t a single and therefore didn’t receive the kind of exposure that other songs did. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone who has heard the song not coming away impressed and moved by this performance by the Stones at their absolute peak.