Throughout politics, sports and art, legends breed mythology, and rock ‘n’ roll is no exception. The most legendary rock group of all time, the Beatles, had their share, most notably the enduring myth that Paul McCartney died in the band’s early years. Fans found confirmation in the various lyrical hints tucked into the Fab Four’s (Three’s?) subsequent output. Like conspiracy theories, the conjecture is what makes it entertaining, and tales can run the gamut from credible to purely outrageous. Ozzy Osbourne bit the head off of a bat (maybe), Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain” called out Warren Beatty (probably), and Keith Moon passed out during a gig after taking horse tranquilizers (definitely). Mostly the stuff of harmless fun.
And then there were the Rolling Stones. As the bad-boy antidote to the squeaky-clean Beatles, the Stones embraced any opportunity to take things to a darker place. That included their music (“Sympathy for the Devil”), their behavior (doing jail time after a 1967 drug bust) and their mythology. Before Keith Richards’ truly scary drug consumption of the 1970s, the Stones-as-evil myth centered primarily around two deaths that occurred in 1969 — banished guitarist Brian Jones’ drowning in his home swimming pool, and the stabbing of a fan during a concert festival at Altamont Speedway in California. The circumstances of both leave a lot open to question in terms of the Stones’ culpability, but the band has never shied away from cultivating an image of trouble. People will believe what they want to believe, but in rock ‘n’ roll, it doesn’t hurt to carry an element of danger.
But to me, the most intriguing mythology surrounding the Rolling Stones concerns the origins of the band’s iconic “Wild Horses.” Recorded around the time of Altamont in 1969 but not released until 1971, the song has the distinctly sweet country flavorings that had crept into the Stones’ music since Richards’ budding friendship with country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons. Parsons and his Flying Burrito Brothers released their own version of the song — with the Stones’ blessing — in 1970, causing more than a few observers to wonder if he was the original writer. Parsons died of a heroin overdose a few years later, setting that proposition into full motion. To this day, only credited writers Richards and Mick Jagger know the truth, and whether they’re telling it is the subject of many heated Youtube comment strings.
In the interests of fairness, here then are my two cents on the topic, with equal time given to each penny.
The case for Jagger/Richards
This is a pretty strong case. In his book “Life,” Richards cites his longing for time with his young son as an inspiration for “Wild Horses.” Who knew that the competing demands of the road and a new family were taking a toll on the baddest guy in the baddest band in the world? Meanwhile, Philip Norman’s unauthorized Jagger biography relates Marianne Faithfull’s suicide attempt in Australia after her relationship with Jagger went sour. As the story goes, he rushed to her bedside, expressing proper gratitude that she hadn’t succeeded. Faithfull’s response: “Wild horses couldn’t drag me away.” Was she the “graceless lady”? The other argument I’m relying on Richards’ artistic integrity. He freely admits his early influences and makes no effort to downplay their role in his musical output. In the late 1970s, he had the Stones hold off on releasing “Start Me Up” because of the opening riff’s similarity to that in Jay Ferguson’s “Thunder Island.” And when the chorus for “Anybody Seen My Baby” bore an uncanny resemblance to k.d. lang’s “Constant Craving,” the band immediately owned up to it and credited her as a co-writer. If “Wild Horses” were Parsons’ song, I can’t believe Richards would deny it.
The case for Gram Parsons
This is a bit tougher, because I’m relying on the feel of the song rather than any written documentation. As I’ve mentioned, it features the sweet country flavorings the Stones were exploring at the time. Parsons appears to have been Richards’ guide into the genre, which may have prompted the band to record at fabled Muscle Shoals in Alabama. The lilting, minor-chord-dominated structure was foreign territory for the straight-ahead blues-rocking Stones (keyboardist Ian Stewart refused to play on the track because he disliked the minor chords, leaving those duties to session player Jim Dickinson), and the melody isn’t particularly suited to Mick Jagger’s voice. It is, however, a perfect fit for Parsons, and the Burritos’ version strikes me as a purer interpretation of the song. I’ll never dislike the Stones’ version, but the Burritos turned me on to the true potential of the song and how it should be done. For the Rolling Stones, “Wild Horses” was a temporary venture into a genre they would eventually abandon. Listen to Parsons’ version, and you can hear Jackson Browne, Eagles and even Elton John (think “Tiny Dancer”) coming in the not-too-distant 1970s.
So does that make Parsons the writer, or simply a better interpreter of the genre he introduced to his buddy Keith Richards? My own conclusion is that Richards and Jagger wrote the music and lyrics under Parsons’ tutelage. The Stones’ early blues catalog shows them to be astute students who eventually overtake their teachers. This was just more of the same. Parsons never made it as a bona fide star while the Stones went on to write their own chapter in rock ‘n’ roll history. There are people who would begrudge them their artistic merits while giving Parsons some overdue acknowledgement, but it doesn’t work that way. The credit on “Wild Horses” reads Jagger/Richards, and the rest falls under that delightful umbrella we call pure speculation.