“Maggie May” doesn’t have a chorus. That isn’t necessarily the first thing you notice about it – you’re more likely to pick up on a ringing phrase, or a particular blaze or choke in Rod’s voice, or on the thumped double-beats that kick-start each verse. But nonetheless, there it is – or isn’t – an absence of chorus. So there’s little space or inclination for Rod to collect his thoughts or swallow his feelings. The song rambles, part harangue, part misty-eyed memory, part licking wounds, pausing only to restart at once – yeah, and another thing!
The record reminds me a little of “Stan”, whose chorus is a detached formality, a pause to let time pass and the protagonist get crazier. Rod doesn’t get any crazier, but like Stan he’s still lunging wildly, jumping from cruelty (“The morning light really shows yer age”) to need (“In my eyes you’re everything”) to bitterness (“Maggie I wish I’d never seen your face”), loving and hating with no ability to process it all.
I’m concentrating on the lyric because it’s a radical lyric, so direct and conversational and muddled. And in another way it’s not so radical – Maggie is the song’s second great absence, her side of the conversation unspoken. We don’t get an image of her, just of her impact on the singer (and even then it’s hard to fathom exactly what she’s done that’s so awful, probably because Rod’s trying to rationalise his own sudden absence, the surge of dissatisfaction which pulls the song from its mandolin dreams and wakes Maggie to break her). It’s a record that demands an answer record.*
Even erasing Maggie’s agency, this is a bold and vulnerable record, a mix of incoherent blurt and laddish recoil. It’s almost emo, except Rod cleverly pulls back at the end with that sentimental verse about going back to school, or playing pool, or finding a band “that needs a helping hand”. This is the real masterstroke – suddenly the song isn’t just about an older woman, or a doomed affair, it’s also the Secret Origin of Rod Stewart – he’s singing the song to explain how he is the way he is. A myth – half lad, half bruised lover – is born, one that’s sustained its maker ever since. In a decade full of self-inventing stars, this is one of the neatest, cleverest and least-remarked-on gestures.
*Suzanne Vega gave it one. So did Rod, with the sort-of sequel “You Wear It Well”. And Lester Bangs, I’m told, wrote a half-review half-short story from Maggie’s point of view.