"Maggie May" /
"Reason To Believe"
THE BEST A + B SIDES
Well, I said there'd be guilty pleasures, didn't I?
And in 1971, who knew what a MOR slacker Rod Stewart would eventually turn out to be? That gritty voice still sounded authentic and vital, and I hadn't yet discovered that most of Rod Stewart's songs were actually better when sung by the original artists. (I'll never get over my Beatles-inspired conviction that a real artist writes his own material.) Later on I'd get hep to the fact that Rod Stewart wasn't much of a songwriter, but he did write "Maggie May" himself -- let's give him a pass. And give "Reason to Believe" a pass, too, just because it was written by neglected genius Tim Hardin. ("If I Were a Carpenter" was a fine song, dammit!)
I was still a radio listener in 1971, and "Maggie May" practically jumped out of the speakers at me, earning my devotion with that one line: "It's late September and I really should be back at school." As a newly-minted college student myself, somehow I identified with this scenario of a randy young guy entwined in the wiles of an older woman. I'd never been in anything even remotely like that situation, but that didn't stop me. Maybe even then I liked the idea that an older woman could be sexually preferable to the girls his own age. Nowadays we'd call her a "cougar," I guess, and make a convenient joke out of it. But he's no gigolo, that's for sure; the power in this relationship is all with her.
Forget all those folky guitar twiddlings in the intro; this song really begins with two whomping drum beats, then Rod's desperate croak, "Wake up Maggie, I think I've got something to say to you." His attachment to Maggie is intriguing and complicated -- he knows she's used him, she's "made a first-class fool out of me." The hoarseness of Rod's voice enhances our image of a kid who's being run ragged by this voracious older woman. ("Older" meaning, what, thirty? Horrors!) But come on, there's genuine tenderness in his voice as he sings "the morning sun when it's in your face really shows your age / But that don't worry me none, in my eyes you're ev'rything." I'm not surprised that Stewart claims it was written from his own experience (he never went to university -- too busy trying out to be a footballer -- but that's a minor point). He may have turned into a cynical slagger later, but this early in his career he still wore his heart on his sleeve, and it got to me.
"Maggie May" was originally the B-side of this single, but thanks to that May-December romantic plot, it snowballed in popularity until it became the hit everyone remembers. Let's not write off "Reason to Believe," though. The emotional landscape here is just as rocky: "If I listened long enough to you / I’d find a way to believe that it’s all true / Knowing that you lied straight-faced while I cried / Still I look to find a reason to believe." There's a jolt of psychological wisdom here -- haven't we all dabbled in this sort of relationship? Someone who gets you so twisted up that you can't walk away?
And Rod sings it with gut-wrenching regret -- "Someone like you / Makes it hard to live without / Somebody else." The convoluted grammar tells you everything about his messed-up state of mind. I love the part of the record where he strips away all the busy guitars and the pleading mandolin and just sings it a capella, doggedly repeating the refrain, aspirating the H on "hard" with a deep and weary sigh. His phrasing on this is magnificent, fearlessly digging into the emotions of it. Good on you, Rod.
Years later, I discovered that Rod Stewart was a schoolmate of Ray Davies -- I think they even played football together -- though I'm not sure that's a reason to believe in Rod Stewart. He quickly turned into a parody of himself, with his succession of hot blond wives, his perma-tan and artfully streaked shag, the tight trousers and silk shirt unbuttoned to the waist. Frankly, I blocked the fact that I once owned Every Picture Tells A Story; not just owned it, but listened to it A LOT. I'd sit on my dorm bed slamming the bedposts to those drum whacks on "Maggie May"; I'd sing along to "Reason to Believe," urging my voice into its own raw edges. Working up this 100 Best Singles List, those songs came back to haunt me. I can't deny them now.