Listening to Music with… John Merriman

John Merriman, professor of French history, stands a solid 6’2” off the ground with an unruly mop of brown hair and a boyish grin that suggests he knows more than he’s letting on.

He told me, before agreeing to an interview, that he knew “absolutely nothing about music.” But as I soon learned, it isn’t that Merriman doesn’t know anything — it’s that his musical knowledge is confined to a gentle obsession with one particular band.

An encyclopedia entry he wrote about the Stones begins, “The story of the Rolling Stones, the greatest rock-and-roll band of them all…” A straightforward, 5-page article for use in high school classrooms, it is the only piece Merriman has ever written on the group. He is a widely respected authority on French history and the author of several scholarly titles, but he says that he “cared more about writing that thing than any of [his] books.”

For three decades, Merriman has maintained a private love affair with the Rolling Stones. He’s attended nine live performances on both sides of the Atlantic and owns nearly all their albums; he even plays “Start Me Up” almost every morning to get going. He finds that listening to the Stones helps him focus on writing. “[I’ve] never written a thing without a record on,” he says, “or else I get bored.”

His wife, who prefers the Beatles, has learned to appreciate the Stones, Merriman remarks. When asked whether fans should have to choose sides between the two legendary English rock bands, he responds with a smile: “damn right!” In the ’70s, the Stones had a rebellious, provocative aura that he identified with more than the “cutesy, well-trimmed” vibe of the Beatles. “I wouldn’t cross the street to see the Beatles,” he says, “but I’d pay good money to see the Stones any day.”

While he enjoys listening Stones’ tracks in his office, Merriman gets more excited when he reminisces about the live performances he’s seen over the years. The most memorable ones, he says, took place in Paris in front of screaming crowds in small concert halls where “you could almost reach out and touch the artists.” The group was always late, he remembers, but when they finally appeared — sometimes barely able to perform due to all the substances they’d ingested — fans would squeal with excitement.

When he first came to teach at Yale in the mid ’70s, the Stones were highly controversial in the United States; Merriman remembers buying bootleg copies of their records at Cutler’s on Broadway when the group was banned in Connecticut. A surprise concert at Toad’s Place drew thousands of fans, forcing the police to establish a cordon around the venue. “We were all harassed by the police in those days,” he recalls, “we hated a lot; we hated the war in Vietnam.” Merriman formed many of his current political views during the volatile Vietnam years; he still describes himself as “virulently anti-establishment”.

Nowadays, the Rolling Stones and their aging fan base have grown more sedate than in the old days, but Merriman continues to be a loyal follower. A few weeks ago he saw them in Foxborough, and he says he likes their new material, though he wishes they would play more of the old tunes. Merriman sees a connection between his 30-year classroom gig and the long-lived rock band: “It’s amazing they can still do it every day,” he says, “But I understand them. The minute I see my students, I get excited.”

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