“Honky Tonk Women” is one of the many Stones songs whose lyrics I could not decipher when I heard it as a kid. I understood about half of what Mick is singing in most songs, but for the other half I just sang along phonetically.
I met a gin-soaked, barroom queen in Memphis,
She tried to take me upstairs for a ride.
She had to heave me right across her shoulder
‘Cause I just can’t seem to drink you off my mind.
So these opening lyrics effectively set the stage for a song about bangin’ chicks. That much was clear to me, even when I was eight years old.
I always loved the cowbell opening. It was so different from everything else the Stones did. And Keith’s tangy, filthy guitar really grabbed me. I played this record a lot on my pretend radio station when I was in elementary school. Hearing it now on the same scratchy 45 I played on my denim-covered record player in the early 80s I fully realize why “Honky Tonk Women” is one of the reasons the whole Beatles vs. Stones question is ridiculous. They are completely different bands. Not that I think one is superior, of course, but they are so far from each other in terms of their sound and musical focus, it’s absurd to compare them. I have always been a huge fan of both, and that will continue to deepen the older I get.
“Honky Tonk Women” is essentially a country song, and the version called “Country Honk” was released on Let It Bleed a few months after the single version came out in the summer of 1969. It was composed on acoustic guitar while Keith, Mick, and their ladies were on holiday in Rio. Keith describes this period as productive writing-wise. He writes in his autobiography that this song “was the culmination of everything we were good at at the time.” That’s exactly right. More truth from Keef:
“It’s a funky track and dirty too….It was a groove, no doubt about it, and it’s one of those tracks that you knew was a number one before you’d finished the motherfucker. In those days I used to set up the riffs and the titles and the hook, and Mick would fill it in….There you go, this one goes like this, ‘I met a fucking bitch in somewhere city.’ Take it away, Mick. Your job now, I’ve given you the riff, baby….And he can write, can Mick. Give him the idea and he’ll run with it.”
There’s nothing more for me to say.