Rolling Stones were one of the pioneers in the Rock genre. They dabbled in Rock, Pop, Blues, Rock and Roll, and Hard Rock. Of course, a big inspiration for Rolling Stones as well as similar bands at that time were the Afro-American artists of the 20s, 30s, and 40s who sung the blues. That’s why, in many of their songs, there are a lot of references to the original Blues artists such as Robert Johnson. With time, the Rolling Stones would go on to become Robert Johnson for the next generation of bands like The White Stripes, Primal Scream, and numerous others. Rolling Stones’ impact on the whole music industry cannot be undermined. It is important to note that the band’s name has little to do with the name of the magazine, Rolling Stone except for the fact that both names are inspired by a popular imagery in the genre of Blues. A rolling stone is an imagery that was used repeatedly by the Blues artists of the early 20th century as well as artists that pioneered the genre of rock and roll such as Bob Dylan.
Every song that was produced in the genres of rock and roll, hard rock, rock, blues, etc. in this era has to be taken in context. The World War 2 had left the artists disillusioned, and these genres became means of expression for young artists to rebel and go down the anti-authority route. The Beatniks, hippies, and various other cultures were at their peak. Many consider the 60s to be the best era for rock music. Monkey Man by The Rolling Stones was released in 1969 as a tribute to Mario Schifano, an Italian pop artist. With Mick Jagger on the vocals, Keith Richards on the guitar, Watts on the drums, and Jimmy, Nicky, and Bill in the line up as well, the song along with the whole album Let It Bleed was bound to be hits.
What does the Title mean?
There are several interpretations of the title of this song which also carry on to the interpretation of the lyrics as well. During the 60s, being addicted to heroin was referred to as “having a monkey on your back”. And the culture of hard as well as soft drugs was quite common in the industry at that time, not to say it isn’t now. Jagger and Richards had their own problems with drugs. Both were arrested in 1967 in Sussex for the possession of drugs. Especially with their anti-conservative views and the authoritative bodies’ attempts to curb the culture of Free Love and Hippies (as they supported civil rights and basically, were against racism), the band was in for a hell of a ride. It became a big scandal, and the song can be interpreted as perhaps an addressal to that whole time in their lives.
Apart from that, it has been always a common feeling among artists who perform that they are nothing more than monkeys. This trend of feeling dehumanized is quite common among musicians who regularly perform on the stage. Art of any kind is a creative expression of the self, and selling it on a regular basis to an audience and being pushed around by managers and the white suits does instil a feeling of being dehumanized. That’s why Jagger refers to himself as a monkey man in the song – a sub-human entity being pushed around to perform.
Verse 1 – What does it mean?
“I’m a fleabit peanut monkey
All my friends are junkies
That’s not really true
I’m a cold Italian pizza
I could use a lemon squeezer
What you do?
But, I’ve been bit and I’ve been tossed around
By every she-rat in this town
Have you, babe?”
‘The first line refers to the fact that when artists are paid in peanuts, the audience only gets monkeys. In the 60s, there were a lot of hurdles that artists who were trying to break out into a genre had to face. In fact, bands like The Rolling Stones shaped the genre. However, not all garage bands made it. ‘Monkey’ could also be a reference to the slang for the heroin-addicted ‘Monkey on my Back’. The next line gives weight to that interpretation as The Rolling Stones once again refer to the 1967 scandal. The second line refers to the claim made by the media that everyone in the music industry (especially in the rock genre) were addicted to drugs, or junkies. Jagger clears the air by saying that it isn’t necessarily so. However, it was later discovered that Richards was himself using heroin when the song came out. So, there was some truth to all the allegations that were made. The phrase “Cold Italian Pizza” is a reference to the Italian pop artist, Mario Schifano. Richards and Jagger were very much impressed with Mario’s style and whole persona. That’s why they refer to themselves as Cold Italian Pizza in this song. The “lemon squeezer” bit is a reference to Robert Johnson’s blues song, “Travelling Riverside Blues”. The lemon squeezer, in that as well as this context, refers to a woman who is ready to have sexual intercourse with the speaker. The theme then shifts towards the sexual prowess of Jagger as he brags that every ‘promiscuous’ (rat) woman in the town has had sex with him. It’s important to note that there were no negative connotations attached with sex in this subculture that was emerging as a response to the authoritative corporate white culture of America.
What does the Refrain mean?
“Well, I am just a monkey man
I’m glad you are a monkey woman too”
The refrain is about Jagger meeting a woman who’s had similar experiences. She’s either used to doing drugs and living on the go, or becoming a performing monkey. It is also possible that he might be referring to both the things.
Verse 2 – What does it mean?
“I was bitten by a boar
I was gouged and I was gored
But I pulled on through
Yes, I’m a sack of broken eggs
I always have an unmade bed
Well, I hope we’re not too messianic
Or a trifle too satanic
We love to play the blues”
The first line again refers to sexual encounters that he has had with women. ‘Boar’ is considered to be an aggressive animal. The women he preferred to be with were aggressive and into this emerging rock and roll culture. The second line, however, is a reference to Venus from Italian as well as Roman mythology. According to the Italian mythology, Venus is the Goddess of Fertility (cultivated fields and green gardens). According to Roman mythology, she is the Goddess of Love. The second line also combines these two mythologies with William Shakespeare’s narrative poem ‘Venus and Adonis’. Adonis was a hunter who could not be seduced by Venus and thus, was killed by a boar. Jagger sees himself as Adonis who escaped the boar (Goddesses of seduction and love).
The two lines in the middle refer to the lifestyle of Jagger as well as his mental state (a performing monkey). It’s unmade and broken.
The last three lines, however, refer to the controversy surrounding his previous album that had the song “Sympathy for the Devil”. It was labelled as the Devil’s Music by the Christian community at that time, and the band received a lot of hate. However, that same album called Beggars Banquet also had religious songs. So, the band was not deliberately trying to rouse controversy, but were just expressing their thoughts and feelings. Thus, the last two lines are sarcastic remarks of Jagger on that very controversy.
What does the Outro mean?
“I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey!
I’m a monkey babe! I’m a monkey babe!
I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey! I’m a monkey!
M-m-m-monkey! M-m-m-m-monkey! I’m a m-m-m-monkey!
M-m-m-ma ma ma ma!
Ma ma ma ma ma
Ma ma ma ma ma monkey!
Ah! I’m a monkey!
Ah! Ah! Ah! Ah! ….”
The outro is about him going on and on with his performances and accepting the fact that he will remain a monkey. It’s more of a breakdown and then an acceptance.
The song as well as the album was received quite well by the critics. On the Billboards, it reached to the spot of number 3 in USA and number 1 in UK. Thus, one can easily guess how much of a significant impact it must have made on the popular culture of that time as well as budding artists. That’s why, many musicians still consider The Rolling Stones to be up there with legends such as Bob Dylan, The Beatles, etc.