Titus Andronicus in the Voodoo Lounge

Years ago, I walked past a dumpster in one of Chicago’s distinctive Northwest Side alleys and saw a painting in it. I had previously found a good coffee table in this same receptacle, so I was accustomed to seeing and looking for salvageable stuff in there. It was a giant canvas panel with the album cover of the Rolling Stones’ 1994 album “Voodoo Lounge.” Various smart-alec remarks ran through my head, most memorably the “Garbage – indeed” critique of the techno band Garbage’s debut album in some publication I can’t remember. “Voodoo Lounge” is not one of the Stones’ most loved albums, but it has always been special to me.

Into the Voodoo Lounge…
For starters, the whimsical cover, with a leopard-like figure on the front and the tongue logo on the back, is probably the 2nd best in their catalog after the Warhol-designed print for 1971’s classic “Sticky Fingers” (the soundtrack of my 2003 summer at the Governor’s Scholar Program in Danville, KY, and the first recording to use the iconic tongue – in this case, as the image below a functional zipper on the original LP sleeve). Second, my introduction to it was through the song “Thru and Thru,” which I must have heard 1,000 times while listening to the soundtrack of “The Sopranos” while in the car with my mom during our drives to Elizabethtown, KY in the early 2000s.

“Thru and Thru” is the rare Keith Richards lead vocal, with cheeky lyrics (“you know that we do take away/we deliver too”) as well as a tantalizingly slow pace punctuated by Charlie Watt’s occasional fills. On a soundtrack that featured an extremely Stones-y song by the Lost Boys, the inclusion of this obscure, uncharacteristic number – the penultimate track on a mostly forgotten studio album – seemed almost like an in-joke, but I loved it. A few years later, one of my college roommates and I sat around listening to “Love is Strong,” the opening song from “Voodoo Lounge,” and marveled at how such a memorable, forceful performance was delivered by a band that at the time of production already had 30 years of recording and touring under its belt.

Still, I never listened to the entire double LP (it’s one of the band’s longest works, at 63 minutes) until I got an Apple Music subscription a few months back. I played all 15 tracks over my Jawbone Jambox while sweeping the floor one day, and it was fun. Whether you are new the to the Stones or a longtime fan who never got around to their twilight output, “Voodoo Lounge” is shocking. It has some of their some of their most explicit lyrics – these 50somethings (in the 90s!) were clearly on the prowl all the time – and rocks with a youthful energy on songs like “You Got Me Rockin'” and “Suck on the Jugular.”

I would have just let the album pass as another daily listen (I’ve been trying to listen to a new album from start to finish every day) if not for the fact that I finished Shakespeare’s much-maligned “Titus Andronicus” later the same day. Like Shakespeare, the Stones are a British cultural institution with a vast catalogue that by turns is considered “classic” and utter dreck. I have always struggled to reconcile my own views with this critique.

…and onto Titus revisionism
My listening experience with my friend in 2005, i.e., our time soaking in “Love is Strong,” was a much-needed corrective to the critical vacuum I had been occupying for years, in which the Stones allegedly hadn’t produced anything good since 1972. Similarly, my Introduction to Shakespeare in 2004 was an eye-opener because it focused so heavily on less-regarded plays such as “The Two Gentlemen of Verona” and “Richard II.” The former is memorably quoted in “Shakespeare in Love,” and the way it plays with gender and disguise may as well be a roadmap for how the Bard tackled these concepts throughout his 25-year career. We didn’t read “King Lear” or “Hamlet,” and yet it didn’t feel like a loss.

Shakespeare’s generally agreed-upon chronology is the opposite of the Stones’ discography: Whereas the latter is considered to tail off as its artists get older, the former is thought to improve, at least to a point, with a peak sometime in the early 1600s with Lear etc. and a well-respected turn into romance and “problem plays” in old age (which was the late 40s at that time). While many of Shakespeare’s early works are written off as strange collaborations (i.e., “1 Henry VI”) or immature verse (“Two Gentlemen…”), none receives the scorn foisted upon “Titus Andronicus,” Shakespeare’s almost Marlovian revenge tragedy about a Roman general who suffers tremendously from passing up a chance to become emperor.

Like “Voodoo Lounge,” “Titus” is shocking for its anti-Victorian sentiments (it feels weird to describe it this way, in terms of an era that was centuries later, but I feel that 19th century sensibilities have so deeply affected readings of this tragedy). That Stones record talks about anal sex, the smell of vaginas, and “fucking all night” (made funny through its use in a call-response song structure) while Shakespeare’s play – written when he was not even 30 – ups the ante with gang rape, bodily mutilation, and cannibalism. 

Looking back at the year – 2010 – I spent teaching at a Chicago community college just off the CTA Red Line, I almost regret not teaching this play because it feels so modern, in the way that it is all spectacle and so racial in the way that it frames its violence. Consider this passage, delivered by a Goth upon discovering the biracial lovechild of Aaron the Moor and the (white) Empress Tamora (spouse of Saturninus, who became emeperor when Titus balked), as the assembled soldiers consider what to do with the baby:

I heard a child cry underneath a wall.
I made unto the noise, when soon I heard
The crying babe controlled with this discourse:
‘Peace, tawny slave, half me and half thy dam!
Did not thy hue bewray whose brat thou art,
Had nature lent thee but thy mother’s look,
Vilain, thou mightst have been an emperor.
But where the bull and the cow are both milk-white
They never do beget a coal-black calf.’

I thought of so many possible contemporary issues that could influence a reading of these remarkable words. Birtherism. The Trump campaign’s scorn for Mexicans. White privilege. Ferguson, Missouri. “Anchor baby” predicted in the usage of “villain” to address an infant. A (totally different) world in which Barack Obama looked more like his white mother than his black father (and yet he became an “emperor,” in a sense, despite taking after his father). Ad infinitum.

My Introduction to Shakespeare instructor affectionately called “Titus” a “real potboiler.” Years later, I see what she meant – it is never dull, frequently violent, and occasionally hilarious (someone with no arms at one point carries someone’s lopped-off hand in her mouth…). It is both “Kill Bill” and “Naked Gun” in a 5-act structure. It pre-empts parody.

Moreover, like “Voodoo Lounge,” it is so often filed away as a second-tier work, yet its viciousness and viscerality are instructive reminders that the artists are humans, too, and not just names on pages or busts in libraries. “Voodoo Lounge” has an earthy smokiness that makes it sound like it could have been recorded yesterday;”Titus,” a cultural despair that can easily be reconstructed as commentary on the stratified, violence-obsessed, racially defined America of the 21st century.

Opinions are hardly in short supply. But rarely is there a better opportunity to realize their low value than when it comes to reading the “lesser” works of profoundly influential and talented artists and realizing that they might in fact be a little more than little works. The grit of “Titus” and the hedonism of “Voodoo Lounge” make me feel closer to their respective creators than any of the “greater” works in their vast canons. Too bad I never picked that painting up out of the dumpster; maybe I’ll just do my own version someday.

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