Dead Flowers (1971)
The Rolling Stones
Keith Richards was (admittedly) a hardcore heroin addict for years, and so was his close friend, country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons – the Harvard-educated southerner who steeped Richards in the Bakersfield-style country music that produced the genre-bending sound of “Dead Flowers.”
The honky-tonk track, from The Rolling Stones’ 1971 masterpiece Sticky Fingers, stands at the intersection where the British Invasion meets Bakersfield (the epicenter of West Coast country music, located about 100 miles north of Los Angeles).
THE ROLLING STONES & THE “BAKERSFIELD SOUND”
Country icons, like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, developed the rougher-edged “Bakersfield sound” in the 1950s as a response to the high-gloss, orchestra-based, “sugar-coated” country sound coming out of Nashville.
Here’s how Wikipedia describes the Bakersfield sound:
The music style features a raw set of twin Fender Telecasters with a picking style (as opposed to strumming), a big drum beat, and fiddle, with an occasional “in your face” pedal steel guitar.
Keith Richards, by way of Gram Parsons, embraced the Bakersfield sound and began applying it to The Rolling Stones’ music in the late-’60s. The result gave us “Dead Flowers” (among other classics).
The track is a breezy, contagiously catchy honky-tonk take on the well-worn rock-n-roll themes of lost love and recovery. The new bad-boy slant from The Stones is that heroin can help provide emotional relief when relationships go bad. The drug serves up the ultimate “fuck you” to the haughty socialite portrayed in the song.
Well when you’re sitting back
In your rose pink Cadillac
Making bets on Kentucky Derby Day
Yeah, I’ll be in my basement room
With a needle and a spoon
And another girl to take my pain away
The Rolling Stones
Sticky Fingers (1971)
Richards and Parsons were strange bedfellows, indeed – one born into the working-class surroundings of Dartford in Kent, the other into affluence and privilege in the American South – but their friendship and musical exchanges and experimentations led to some of the greatest Rolling Stones’ songs ever, from “Salt of the Earth” to “Wild Horses,” (which Parsons covered beautifully with The Flying Burrito Brothers), from “Sweet Virginia” to “Far Away Eyes.”
The Stones give a shoutout to Owens and the “Sound” (and Parsons, too) in “Far Away Eyes.” Jagger sings with his best southern drawl: “I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield.” It’s an unlikely marriage – English rock and American country – but it produced some top-notch songs.
Here’s the Bakersfield style captured in “Act Naturally” – a song written by Johnny Russell and Voni Morrison and originally recorded by Buck Owens.
ACT NATURALLY (1963)
Buck Owens and The Buckaroos
In addition to The Stones, the Bakersfield sound influenced other British Invasion bands, including The Beatles. They covered Owens’ “Act Naturally” in 1965. Ringo sings lead.
ACT NATURALLY (1965)
THE REAL STORY BEHIND “DEAD FLOWERS”
“Dead Flowers” opens on two very different worlds, one of a cold-hearted socialite reclining in her “silk upholstered chair” talking to her rich friends, and the other of a resentful, love-sick junkie with his “ragged company” (and some heroin). Mick sings in the first person to the uptown woman who has caused him pain.
Well when you’re sitting there in your silk upholstered chair
Talkin’ to some rich folk that you know
Well I hope you won’t see me in my ragged company
Well, you know I could never be alone
Though his feelings have been forsaken, the junkie knows he will be just fine in the end. The pain-killing power of heroin is legendary; physical as well as emotional pain recedes, then washes away completely.
The ancient Sumerians, who harvested opium for ritualistic and religious purposes, called the poppy, Hul Gil, meaning “flower of joy.” (Remember, “Dead Flowers” is the name of the song).
Clearly, those Sumerians knew their shit. Raw opium sap, which is eventually refined into heroin, is harvested from the poppy pod only after the flowers have blossomed and the petals have fallen away, as if they’ve died.
Smack is now firmly built into the bad-boy, feel-good rock-n-roll lifestyle. Junkie street cred can be good for an edgy, authentic image (if it doesn’t kill you first).
Richards tells why he got involved with heroin in his characteristically candid autobiography, Life:
…there’s probably a million different reasons you do. I think it’s maybe to do with working on the stage. The high levels of energy and adrenaline require, if you can find it, a sort of antidote. And I saw smack as just becoming part of that. …I also felt like I was doing it not to be a ‘pop star.’
The “Dead Flowers” subject of heroin addiction and the distinctive country sound – with honky-tonk instrumentals and rollicking, deep-drawl vocals from Jagger – are fitting for a song released during the tight friendship between Richards and Parsons.
It was a relationship that would involve plenty of needles and spoons and plenty of forays deep into the hills of country music (spanning 1968 to 1972). Gram opened the door to the sound of country giants like Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and George Jones. Gram’s influence is all over four of the Stone’s finest albums – Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St. – though, tragically, he would not live to see further works produced.
Gram – who had been a member of The Byrds as well as the country-rockers, The Flying Burrito Brothers – would die in 1973 at the tender age of 26 from doing too much morphine (sister of heroin) and drinking too much alcohol. As Richards would say of Parsons in later years, there was “a magnetic sort of attraction to each other…I miss him dearly.”
“Dead Flowers” has a breezy, laid-back country feel to it, seemingly out of sync with the rather depressed – albeit parodied – lyric arc of unrequited uptown love and the other-side-of-the-tracks seediness of heroin addiction.
We can only assume the playful, almost taunting, attitude of the song stems from the relief and refuge the drug brings (not to mention a wry sense of humor). It would seem “dead flowers” are symbolic of both a broken relationship and heroin (dead poppies), turning what would normally be a bad thing – that is, receiving dead flowers – into something the junkie actually welcomes and looks forward to.
Jagger drawls out the lead vocals and plays rhythm acoustic guitar while Mick Taylor and Richards share the lead. Taylor plays the solo (2:37). Ian Stewart offers a bouncy base with his muted, doo-wopy piano.
With a wink and a smile, Mick dares the stone-cold socialite (sitting in her silk upholstered chair) to send him all the “dead flowers” (or heroin) she wants – with Keith serving up one of his best efforts on backing vocals:
And you can send me dead flowers every morning
Send me dead flowers by the mail
Send me dead flowers to my wedding
And I won’t forget to put roses on your grave
As for historical context, it was not uncommon for dealers to mail heroin through the U.S. postal service (gasp!) back in the early-’70s. “Mail monitoring” technology – not to mention concern – was lacking. What is crystal clear is that Mick, as our protagonist, is loyal to heroin above all else.
He will live on and party on, long after the socialite (who kind of broke his heart) is dead and buried. Poetic justice, at least the junkie’s version.
In closing, we’ll leave you with a beautiful, mournful cover of The Stones’ classic from the legendary Townes Van Zandt – another musician who had an intimate relationship with heroin.
Townes Van Zandt
- In September 2006, The Stones broke out “Dead Flowers” at Churchill Downs, the site of the Kentucky Derby which is mentioned in the song.
- “Sister Morphine,” the other song on Sticky Fingers about the power of opiates, has a couple of interesting musician additions: the legendary producer Jack Nitzche on piano and one of the greatest guitarists of all-time Ry Cooder on slide.
- Country connection: The line, “I was drivin’ home early Sunday mornin’ through Bakersfield…” from “Far Away Eyes” (Some Girls 1978) is a nod to the founders of the honky-tonk “Bakersfield sound,” like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens, who both influenced Richards’ pal Gram Parsons. Connecting the dots.
- Junkie roots: In the early-1920s, heroin addicts in New York supported their habit by collecting scrap metal (or junk) from dumps and industrial parks, thereby earning the ignoble title “junkie.”
Also by The Rolling Stones on SongMango.com:
- It's All Over NowJohn Lennon told Keith his guitar solo sucked. Springsteen says it is brilliant. Chuck Berry loved the update of his sound.
- Can’t You Hear Me KnockingThe drug-soaked year of 1971 whipped up a frenzy in Jagger's voice as he chases a girl as hip and high as he is.
- Paint It BlackA tangle of eastern and western music coupled with African dance and drum rhythms and a tale often told.
- Salt Of The Earth"Let's think of the wavering millions who need leading but get gamblers instead." Some songs grow truer and truer.