What the group’s fan base is these days I have no idea, but in New York you hear their music all the time. “Brown Sugar” busting out of bars packed with drunk kids at midnight; “Sway” swaying majestically through hip cafés and afternoon eateries; “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” soaring skyward from a window on the wings of Mick Taylor’s guitar solo. And those are just three of the first four tracks on Sticky Fingers.
About a month ago, for a few days it seemed that “Gimme Shelter” was being played almost everywhere I went. I even heard it, at a teasingly low volume that had me doubting my ears, emanating from a pizza parlor in that haven of the 1%, Greenwich, Connecticut. (About 20 miles from where Richards maintains an estate.) The sudden ubiquity of the song — undoubtedly one of the most hair-raising ever recorded — made sense. With each new headline about dissolving currencies, leaping tax hikes, vampiric bankers, stubborn unemployment, restive populations, and financial disaster, the whole idea of “Gimme Shelter” (“Rape, Murder, It’s just a shot away…”), let alone its indelibly haunting, edge-of-the-cliff melody, no longer seemed to point back at apocalyptic images of Vietnam, race riots, and the end of the ‘60s. Instead it seemed to be pointing to something at least as bad in the future, and whatever it was, it didn’t feel very far off.
But there’s another, more subtle and insidious reason for our fealty to the Stones that runs parallel to the music. I suppose you could call it the myth, the group’s collective persona. Of all the great rock bands of the 1960s, they are the ones who truly got away with it. With all of it — the fabulous back catalog, the women, the money, the drugs and booze and smokes, the offshore bank accounts and multiple residencies, the legendary run-ins with the law (“I don’t have a drug problem, I have a police problem” – Keith Richards), and always, even in their dotage, if a little shakily by then, the ability to maintain at least the semblance of a rebel’s pose.
What’s more, the hard edge of their music is mirrored by their own personalities. They may have played the odd charity concert, but they have never bothered to pretend they were in it for anyone but themselves. The Beatles they were not. U2 they are not. Brian Jones drowned, lovers, groupies, flunkies, hangers-on, and fellow musicians perished or were ruthlessly discarded, but the Stones rolled on, decade after decade, impervious to death, taxes, and (so it seemed) even the faintest stirrings of conscience.