Back to 1967 again, and a song that hit number 1 in March of that year. See how it is? “Strawberry Fields Forever / Penny Lane” in February; “Ruby Tuesday / Let’s Spend the Night Together” in March. And in between The Velvet Underground with Nico. 1967, kids, 1967.
We had this 45 as kids and the sound of this song is part of childhood, to me. When I began listening to it stoned somewhere in the late Seventies, there was one time at least where I could perceive the actual rooms as they were when I first heard “Ruby Tuesday.” I remember, as a kid, thinking this song was way older than it was. Something about that double-bass and flute combo made it seem ancient. Later, it would seem to be calliope music. In any case, it was just a reaction to incipient psychedelia while innocent of what that was all about. Later, later….
This has always been for me one of Mick’s most affecting vocals—up there with “As Tears Go By” and “Wild Horses.” I don’t know if there are any tricks in the recording process but the voice sounds vaguely processed or perhaps slightly off-speed. Or it could just be that Mick himself is not in the same dimension as the rest of us at the time. The Stones were happily out there at this point, having come into their own with 1966’s Aftermath and then jumping further along with Between the Buttons. “Ruby Tuesday” graces that LP in the U.S., though not in the UK. I just don’t really want to think of the album without it. But it’s true that it’s a scrappier LP without the lyricism of “Ruby Tuesday.”
The song has no input from Jagger, but is a Keith composition primarily, with aid from Brian Jones, though it is published as Jagger/Richards; that’s Brian on the flute and it’s that flute, with those little jumping notes and the long sustained ones in the background, that gives the song its haunting quality. And it’s got the catchy chorus introduced each time by the pumpa-pumpa-pumpa-pumpa-pump of Charlie’s drums. It’s also a really good lyric, no thanks to Mick.
“She would never say where she came from.” That line, once ingrained in your brain, stands for everything that was happening in the class-bending upward mobility of the times. People were inventing themselves right and left. Even better: “Yesterday don’t matter if it’s gone.” So much for a certain rival pop group’s mooning on about “Yesterday.” “She comes and goes—Ruby Tuesday, who could hang a name on you?” I used to wonder about that “hanging a name” bit. Around our house, giving nicknames was a common enough occurrence, so the idea of someone “hanging a name” on someone made sense, but the fact that it was impossible gave me pause. What did that mean, exactly? The hint was surely in “when you change with every new day.” Later, it would occur to me that marrying a girl, in those days, was to “hang a name on her.” This chick wasn’t having none of that.
And yet it’s clear that “Ruby Tuesday” is the name the singer hangs on her. And it sounds like a whore’s name, or maybe the name of a figure in a fable. Maybe even the name of a food chain? But it also sounds, as so much did in those trippy days, like it’s code for something. I’ll have a “Ruby Tuesday,” wink wink. Who knows? Anyway, she has become synonymous with a woman who “just can’t be chained / To a life where nothing’s gained / And nothing’s lost / At such a cost.” Wow. Far from being a ball and chain, she has no use for one either. No gain, no loss, if toujours status quo—at the cost of, as The Beatles might say, “fun.”
The verse that always got me, even as a kid was: “’There’s no time to lose,’ I heard her say, / ‘Catch your dreams before they slip away / Dying all the time / Lose your dreams and you will lose your mind.’ / Ain’t life unkind?’” There’s some doubt as to whether or not that last line is spoken by Ruby or by the singer. But it always seemed to me to make the most sense with Ruby exhorting him to catch his dreams before they’re gone and stressing that losing your dreams is a kind of death and madness. To which the singer comments “Ain’t life unkind?” As though to say, yeah, well, that’s how it goes anyway.
The amusing thing in all this is that someone is representing, for the Stones, a caution against conventional lifestyles. Wow, talk about coals to Newcastle. Anyway, the idea of changing with every new day sounded kinda crazy itself—assuming it was even possible. But, who knows, maybe that assertion helped create my weakness for a certain mercurial quality in my objects of desire. So that the missing is not only the sadness at absence but the missing of an aim gone wide of the mark. And, like Amanda Jones, Ruby will remain a “miss,” thank you very much.