The term “timeless” gets thrown around a lot, and “classic” is a word used so often in casual discussion that it’s become basically meaningless. Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May,” however, is one song that clearly fits the timeless, classic bill. It’s not difficult to imagine some lunar excavator operator a hundred years from now belting out, “Maggie, I wish I’d never seen your face!” as he cracks through regolith in search of helium-3.
The lyrics and the sound of the song have the sort of heartfelt urgency and authenticity that generally only come from highly personal, autobiographical works of art. And there is a very good reason for that. “Maggie May” was, indeed, inspired by a real woman and real event from Stewart’s life.
“At 16,” Stewart recalls, “I went to the Beaulieu Jazz Festival in the New Forest. I’d snuck in with some mates via an overflow sewage pipe. And there on a secluded patch of grass, I lost my not-remotely-prized virginity with an older (and larger) woman who’d come on to me very strongly in the beer tent. How much older, I can’t tell you—but old enough to be highly disappointed by the brevity of the experience.”
Rod Stewart c 1976
(thanks Helge Overas)
Before we go any further, please note the first part of Stewart’s account. At 16
. Today, we’d call that sort of thing “statutory rape.” But in 1961 England? That’s just a swinging good time, mate!
It’s safe to wager that few of those reading this article have heard of the Beaulieu Jazz Festival before. This ignorance is perfectly understandable, because the festival has been largely forgotten by history. It is an interesting little bit of music mythology, however, and well worth discussing.
The whole thing was started in 1956 by Edward Douglas-Scott Montagu of Beaulieu, who is today a conservative politician in London, England. The event was held on the grounds of the Palace House in Beaulieu, which is a renovated 13th Century abbey in Hampshire, England.
The festival started relatively modestly but expanded quickly and dramatically in both scope and attendance over the course of the six years that it was active. By the end, it foreshadowed the Woodstock-type outdoor music events that would become popular in the mid-to-late '60s, with thousands of young people sleeping in tents and maintaining high levels of shenanigans to the contempt of the polite mainstream culture looking on.
Beaulieu Jazz Festival, however, was doomed to die an early death by the violence of the age’s Jazz Wars. (Yes, there were really were Jazz Wars, and yes, they really did sometimes erupt into actual violence.)
There had been friction in the jazz community from the time that bebop—an improvisational style of jazz—appeared in the 1940s. This “new jazz” symbolized much more than entertainment to its converts. It was, indeed, the representation of a whole lifestyle and way of looking at the world, one informed by the rambling ethos of Beat writers such as Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and Gregory Corso. The traditional jazz purists (dubbed “trads”), meanwhile, wanted their music to stay the way it had been before all the dirty beatniks started tinkering with it.
Harmless as this philosophical division might be, it actually broke out into violence on multiple occasions, one of them being the 1960 edition of the Beaulieu Jazz Festival, quickly named the “Battle of Beaulieu.”
No one is entirely sure what sparked the final riot. Whatever it was, it resulted in fans spilling onto the stage in the middle of a performance, an act which then led to the entire scene going completely haywire. Fists flew, fires flamed, and the more sensible among the fans fled. By the end, thirty-nine people were injured, twenty ambulances and five fire trucks were called, and a building lay in smoldering ruins.
It’s worth noting that at least one witness of the event didn’t quite believe in the authenticity of the rabble-rousing concertgoers. Acker Bilk, a “trad” clarinetist who was playing at the time the stage was stormed, didn’t believe that any of the culprits were truly motivated by their love of traditional or new jazz. “They were phony imitation beatniks,” he explained. “Real ones may be weird, untidy and excitable, but they’re not hooligans.” Amazingly, Beaulieu was not Bilk’s first jazz riot. Two months earlier, a similar situation had broken out in Victoria Park in Hackney.
The 1961 Beaulieu Jazz Festival also saw a share of violence after a brawl broke out resulting in 100 casualties. Somewhere in the midst of all that, a young Rod Stewart stumbled around, freshly deflowered, with the first distant chords of a song that would someday become “Maggie May” just beginning to float through his mind.
Beaulieu Palace Houses
Incredibly, the song was nearly kept off 1971’s Every Picture Tells A Story
because it lacked a melody. It was really only added at the end because time was running out and Stewart had limited material. Despite that inauspicious start, the song helped launch its creator into superstardom, becoming his first major solo hit.
Recorded in only two takes, “Maggie May” was released in 1971 as the B-side for “Reason to Believe.” The song quickly eclipsed its counterpart, topping both the UK Singles Chart and the U.S. charts. For many, it’s still Stewart’s signature song, played regularly by just about every classic rock station in the world.
Of course, somewhere out there was, and maybe is, the real Maggie May. Did she ever suspect she was the muse? Or did she, perhaps, sing along with the song, oblivious to her role in it? We will likely never know, but all the song’s fans owe something of a thanks to her, as one of the most prominent cougars in rock & roll history, for inspiring such a timeless song.
~ Jeff Suwak
Songplaces contributor Jeff Suwak is a writer and editor living in the Pacific Northwest. He is the author of the novella "Beyond the Tempest Gate" and various works of short fiction. He also writes for The Prague Revue. He loves being berated on Twitter @JeffSuwak and receiving visitors at jeffsuwak.com.
Maggie May Songfacts
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