The Rolling Stones: Something Happened to Me Yesterday
tylus Magazine's Seconds column examines those magic moments that arise when listening to a piece of music that strikes that special chord inside. That pounding drum intro; a clanging guitar built-up to an anthemic chorus; that strange glitchy noise you've never quite been able to figure out; that first kiss or heartbreak; a well-turned rhyme that reminds you of something in your own past so much, it seems like it was written for you—all of those little things that make people love music. Every music lover has a collection of these Seconds in his or her head; these are some of ours.
In popular Stones lore, the biggest—nay, the only—sea change to mar the surface of the band’s otherwise remarkably consistent blues-rock comes with the death of Brian Jones. Sure, there are other aberrations—the group’s brief fondness for the elaborate guitar solo during Mick Taylor’s tenure; Jagger and Richards’ ever-present sleaze taken to delightful extremes in the early 1980s—but a layman’s history of the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World has them beginning as a Muddy Waters cover band, uncertainly transforming under the restless hand of Brian Jones into something approaching an experimental pop group, and finally solidifying into a perpetually classicist riff vehicle just in time for their much-ballyhooed Four-Album Streak.
Things aren’t this simple—Jones, first of all, was the band’s biggest advocate for straight blues covers—but it’s undeniable that even as the Stones achieved mastery in the early 1970s some kind of sloppy adventurousness was lost and never recovered. See 1967’s perennially overlooked Between the Buttons, which for many years paled in public opinion beside its inferior predecessor Aftermath, an album that burned through its pop songs with the Stones’ oft mentioned swagger. Between the Buttons trades in such rowdiness for cleaner, more conventional approaches; it’s the only Stones album in which close attention must be paid to hear the vestiges of any other Stones album, and its closing track, one of its several triumphs, is “Something Happened to Me Yesterday”.
The song is credited to the monolithic Jagger/Richards, and though unlike its contemporary "Ruby Tuesday" it shows no signs of having been secretly composed by Brian Jones, everything about "Something Happened to Me Yesterday" drips of Jones’ wobbly experimentation: its amiable music-hall bop, its rockless piano, the scribble of distant trumpet that laps occasionally at its back edge. It's a little folky, though lacking the forced Dylan-aping of "Who's Been Sleeping Here"; a little trippy, though prudishly careful to avoid the psychedelic turmoil of "Please Come Home." The lyrics are about drugs, but not if you don't want them to be: Jagger's matter-of-fact vocals, traded verse-for-verse with a surprisingly clear-voiced Keith Richards, achieve a kind of strange unassuming universality.
Something happened to me yesterdayAll right, then, fair enough. The rest of the song consists of Keith helpfully explaining that Mick's not sure just what it was, and maybe he should tell someone; but he doesn't, at least not us, and eventually it comes out that really no one’s sure just what it was. You could make these lyrics sinister, or worrisome, or druggy or hazy or frightened or concerned, but the Stones trade all such atmospheres for one of utter contentment that elevates what might have been pure 60s censor-baiting smarm into some kind of giddy existential statement. There’s something sad here, and something quietly triumphant, something lost, unrecoverable, half-missed and half-forgotten, and in the shrugging diction a kind of acceptance.
Something I can't speak of right away.
And then there’s the way it sounds. All of the track's deliberate idiosyncrasies are essayed with the Stones' usual clear-eyed professionalism—the music never descends into parody or kitsch. When at the end of every set of verses the bulk of the instruments drop out to allow Mick and Keef's harmonized drawl of "something"—then rumble back like a five-year-old child told the others are done hiding—it's simultaneously an out-of-character oddity and a real bit of songcraft that speaks to the misperceived contradiction at the heart of the Rolling Stones: rock 'n' roll's bad boys were as studious and professional as the CEOs of the plastics companies that left Ben Braddock so uninspired. Twelve years later, when country goof "Far Away Eyes" managed against all odds to be a marvelous song, anyone surprised at the straight-faced ability of the Stones' parodic range might have had their puzzlement assuaged by a few doses of Between the Buttons.
One tends to wonder who's responsible for this, and it’s easy to attribute all the Stones’ pre-1969 dalliances to Brian Jones. After Jones there were no sitars, no five-minute songs about space travel, no pop songs as sexless and sweet as "Ruby Tuesday," and certainly nothing like “Something Happened to Me Yesterday.” But a single man’s death probably has less to do with it than does the natural evolution of a group of men—the Rolling Stones, like everyone else, messed around with a lot of stuff in the 60s before settling into something respectable, and though they achieved a greater mastery of the form they chose than of any of those in which they once dabbled, it’s hard not to look back at such youthful experimentation without longing. How voracious we were! How much had to be tried! How giddy were we over what we could make! And then? Something happened.