Just as Canadian Robbie Robertson wrote some of the most penetrating songs about the American South as a member of The Band, Brit Mick Jagger took the temperature of late 70’s NYC as well as any of the myriad authors, songwriters and cultural observers who have made their home in the city that never sleeps.
Jagger did spend a lot of time in the city not too long before he started writing the songs that would make up Some Girls, the Stones’ 1978 album that oozes a New York vibe. For the most part, the album was Jagger’s baby, as his fellow Glimmer Twin Keith Richards was preoccupied with legal issues at the time. Still, Richards’ contributions to “Shattered,” which included the grimy main guitar riff and the “shadoobie” refrain, were integral.
In a 1978 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger spoke about the song’s origins. “In ‘Shattered,’ Keith and Woody [Ron Wood] put a riff down, and all we had was the word ‘shattered,’” he said. “So I just made the rest up and thought it would sound better if it were half-talked. I’d written some of my verses before I got into the studio, but I don’t like to keep singing the same thing over and over, so it changed. I was noticing that there were a lot of references to New York, so I kept it like that.”
The New York that Jagger was referencing was a different animal from the shiny-surface, Today Show-ready haven it is now. In the Stones’ rendering, the city is a voracious living entity, fed by a heady mix of love, joy, sex, dreams, laughter, loneliness, sex and sex and sex, pride, greed, dirty dreams, and, just in case you didn’t hear Mick the first 19 times, sex. The narrator is taking the worst of it though: “And look at me, I’m in tatters.”
Some of the descriptions play up the surreal nature of the surroundings: “People dressed in plastic bags, directing traffic.” At other times, Jagger easily slips into the town’s lingo to play up this guy’s frustration: “All this chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter, chitter-chatter ‘bout/Shmata, shmata, shmata, I can’t give it away on Seventh avenue.” The clever repetition of words hints at the excess of everything available to the city’s denizens.
Jagger delivers this murky monologue brilliantly, his been-there, done-that cool giving way to itchy tension. “Don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up?” he bellows. Things get really ugly as the song progresses: “We got rats on the west side, bed bugs uptown.” “Go ahead, bite the big apple, don’t mind the maggots,” Jagger dares the listener. His final line suggests that it’s best to just go along for the tawdry ride rather than rail against the squalor: “Pile it up, pile it up/pile it high on the platter.”
Whether the “it” in that closing salvo refers to food, money, or drugs, the implication is that too much of it, while it might be pleasurable for a while, will eventually catch up to you. “Shattered” is one of The Rolling Stones most memorable depictions of street life, all the more remarkable considering that the streets in question weren’t their native ones.