“Honky Tonk Women,” released as a single in the U.S. 45 years ago this week, was a triumph wedged between two tragedies that shadowed the Rolling Stones in 1969: the mysterious “death by misadventure” of founding member Brian Jones, on the day of the song’s release in the U.K., and the free December concert at Altamont, Calif., that ended disastrously with one fan murdered and three dead by accident.
Reading Keith Richards’ 2010 memoir, Life, I’ve come to the conclusion that, aside from consuming mind-altering substances, the Stones’ lead guitarist enjoys nothing more in life than talking about the technical aspects of music. So it is, certainly, with “Honky Tonk Women.” He remembered his experimentation with open five-string tuning in late 1968 and early 1969 as the event that “transformed my life.”
It transformed the band’s sound, too, inspiring the riffs that would become instantly recognizable over the years in "Brown Sugar," "Tumbling Dice," "Happy," "All Down the Line," and "Start Me Up." It also marked the seamless integration into the band of Jones’ replacement, Mick Taylor.
Listening to the radio this past week, I heard a DJ observe that, of all the singers associated with the British Invasion of the Sixties, the one who sounded most recognizably English was Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits. The one who most certainly did not was Mick Jagger. Part of the reason why "Honky Tonk Women” is such a central part of the Stones’ half-century-long discography is because of the total immersion by the Stones' lead singer in Muddy Waters, John Lee Hookers, and other blues belters.
The title of the Stones’ chart-topper indicates where the song began—as a Hank Williams-style country tune, concocted when the group’s songwriting partners were on vacation in Brazil with girlfriends Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, absorbing the gaucho life. Other Jagger-Richards songs would emerge as more identifiably country over the years (especially “Wild Horses” and “Far Away Eyes”). But, after Richards’ open tuning, the song morphed into something different: “a funky track and dirty too….It's got all that blues and black music from Dartford onwards in it, and [drummer] Charlie [Watts] is unbelievable on that track,” as Richards fondly recalled it.
The Stones’ mid-summer single sounds like a master class in raunchy insinuation (“The lady then she covered me with roses/She blew my nose and then she blew my mind”). So much of it also lends itself to feminist complaints about the Stones’ misogyny, starting with the title characters (dancing girls in a Western bar who may work as prostitutes); continuing with Jagger’s use the song as an opening for an affair with African-American model Marsha Hunt (he sounded her out on posing for a cover for the single, dressed as a prostitute); and gaining even greater ballast during the 1989 “Steel Wheels” tour, which featured giant inflatable women during performances.
Oh, the Stones are bad boys, to be sure! (Especially Mick—still positively priapic in his seventies.) But the song is irresistible, as Greil Marcus pointed out in a Rolling Stone review at the time of the record’s release. His judgment, that "Honky Tonk Women" contains “the strongest three minutes of rock and roll yet released in 1969,” is not that far off the mark. Three years ago, it placed #116 on Rolling Stone’s list of “500 Greatest Songs of All Time.”