Fighting out “Street Fighting Man”

I celebrated Mick Jagger’s birthday this past Monday in “Some kind of a fight.” I plucked the Rolling Stones song “Street Fighting Man” from Beggars Banquet for my lineup of songs illustrating, ah, Jagger’s virtues. Most commenters understood my appreciation. A good time was had by all, or almost all.

A commenter or two objected to the inclusion of “Street Fighting Man” in my lineup. “The song “is the Stones equivalent of ‘Imagine’ – insincere, infantile, unworthy,” one commenter asserted. I think this is obtuse and would like briefly to make my case for the excellence of the song.

Marc Myers debriefed Keith Richards on how the song came to be on the occasion of Richards’s seventieth birthday in the terrific Wall Street Journal column “Keith Richards: ‘I Had a Sound in My Head That Was Bugging Me.'” For more in the way of background on the song, see Richards’s Life at pages 250-251.

The playing, the production, the intensity of the track are self-evident. Putting the lyrics aside, it is a great rock song — unlike “Imagine.”

Does the song advocate revolution or revolutionary violence? I don’t think so.

The lyrics present the persona of a poor musician struggling to make a living in a rock and roll band. He seems to be daydreaming or fantasizing about revolution. In his dreams he wants to take it to the streets and shake things up. Four verses give us his train of thought.

In each case, however, the chorus undercuts the daydreaming with cold reality:

But what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man

The narrator — it’s not Jagger — can’t afford to partake. He’s busy making a living. And his fellow citizens aren’t in the least interested. They are happy with their lives.

London is a sleepy town. There’s no place for a street fighting man in London. This revolution thing — it’s a rich man’s game, or a rich man’s indulgence.

In other words, each of the verses is undercut by the chorus. The lyrics are ambivalent and ambiguous. The ambivalence belies the attraction to the revolution. This is not “Imagine,” either in the lyrics or the music.

“Street Fighting Man” opens side 2 of Beggars Banquet. I’m a New Critical kind of guy and want to stay within the the song itself to explicate it. Looking at the album, however, the technique of adopting a persona for narrative purposes is obvious, and it is the key to “Street Fighting Man.”

The album opens with “Sympathy for the Devil.” In “Sympathy” Jagger adopts another persona — the persona of the devil. “Just call me Lucifer,” he sings. “I’m in need of some restraint.”

In the course of the song he claims credit for the Russian revolution. It is the devil’s spawn. Lucifer places it in his list of accomplishments:

Stuck around St. Petersburg
When I saw it was a time for a change
Killed the Tsar and his ministers
Anastasia screamed in vain

I don’t think you have to be Cleanth Brooks to understand that the Stones were not advocating violence or revolution, either in “Sympathy for the Devil” or “Street Fighting Man.”

Here is the Stones version of “Street Fighting Man.”

Here is Rod Stewart’s cover of the song. It was the opening track on his first solo album.