By Kim Morgan (reprinted from Sunset Gun.)
"Wild Horses" has
always been one of my favorite Rolling Stones' love songs, and I'm not entirely sure why. It's not their best song,
it's not their most challenging, it's not..."Monkey Man," or "2000 Man" or every single song on "Exile." And it's
been played to death on classic rock radio (I think I heard the tune a total of 122 times while my stuck-in-Woodstock high
school ceramics teacher blasted KOTK while we crafted clay bongs and countless chunky lumpy ashtrays). And yet, I never tire
of it. In fact, it becomes extra resonant the more time passes -- partially because I've lived long enough to truly understand
its sentiment and partially because that sentiment is so inscrutable. Though the song may read obvious at first (nothing can
drag you from your one true love) the ballad remains powerfully mystifying.
Through the years, various stories have been discussed regarding the ballad (from the sexy, whiskey soaked, zippered "Sticky
Fingers") and its inspiration, but all of them are, like the song, bittersweet and darkly romantic. The most popular
theory involves Mick Jagger and his turbulent relationship with singer/actress/junkie goddess Marianne Faithfull, whom he
famously dated in the 1960s. According to many accounts it was Faithfull who uttered the words "Wild horses couldn't drag
me away" to Jagger after the troubled beauty awoke in the hospital, emerging from a drug-induced coma. Another version finds
Keith Richards originating the tune as an ode to his then-top bird, the glamorously debauched Anita Pallenberg, and their
young son, Marlon -- he was sad to leave the family behind before going on tour.
And then there's the Gram Parsons (whom I revere, and know in spirit all too well, but that's another story) theories --
that the influential alt-country musician and friend to the band (mainly Keith) was the song's inspiration (many contend Parsons
steered the Stones into the more country-rock direction of "Let it Bleed," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main St"), or that
the song was written specifically for Parsons. Parsons did in fact record the song with his band the Flying Burrito Brothers,
releasing a gorgeous, sparer version (in 1970) before the Stones did (in 1971), but the idea that Jagger and Richards gave
it to the cosmic American musician has always been shot down.
Jagger provided an answer on liner notes he contributed to a 1993 Stones collection in which he recalled, "Everyone always
says this was written about Marianne but I don't think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside
this piece emotionally." Hmm ... he doesn't think it was about Marianne? Come on Mick. But then, fittingly, his answer
isn't definitive, which is kind of perfect -- it leaves the song ever mysterious and ever tragic. Since all
of the song's possible inspirations suffered darker futures (Faithfull and Pallenberg would battle serious drug addiction;
Parsons would die in a Joshua Tree motel room in 1973 from an overdose) "Wild Horses" not only addresses the unknowable truth
of where life will lead you, but it also underscores the tenuous nature of love itself.
Apparently once that messy thing called real life interrupts your ardor, wild horses really can drag
you away from your beloved. But this only makes the love song -- indeed one of the Stones' most passionate love songs --
all the more powerful and intriguingly melancholic. Depending on your mood, the song's country-folk languor, mixed with a
definite rock 'n' roll bite, will fill you with either swooning notions of heartfelt love or a mournful, sometimes crushing
sadness -- after all, nothing ever remains this ideally romantic. Jagger and Richards certainly understood this with
the heart-rending line that we can at least "do some living, after we die." I'm sure Faithfull, Pallenberg and especially
Parsons, had he lived past the age of 26, would heartily agree.