So it’s official: The Rolling Bones — I mean, Stones — have turned 50. Can 50 really be so bad? Well, that all depends on who you are. To celebrate the “50th Anniversary” of the Rolling Stones, as the media have cautiously been doing, is really just a polite way of saying that Mick Jagger, Keith Richards & co. will turn 70 next year. And 70, in the context of “the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band,” sounds deadly. Grotesque. A car crash you not only don’t want to rubberneck, you want to turn around and drive away from it at maximum speed in the opposite direction.
You can chalk that reaction up to the Stones having once been global ambassadors for youth culture. It’s also an unfortunate side-effect of the historical resilience of their uniquely powerful, raunchy, amoral, decadent, sex-drenched aura. While their fellow ’60’s idol, Bob Dylan, embraced geezerhood and mortality a good 20 years ago, wrapping it around himself in song after song, sucking it into his eyes and flesh as if to conquer it before it conquers him, no rockers have been as successful as the Stones at deflecting attention from just how old they are, and how old they have been, for so long. And now this “50th Anniversary” thing turns up like the Grim Reaper in a smiley mask to strip away the last vestiges of pretence. For the Stones, to cite the beautiful opening line of “As Tears Go By” (allegedly the first song Jagger and Richards wrote together), “It” (finally!) – “is the evening of the day.”
Not that any one is standing over their withered limbs to pronounce the last rites just yet. We’re not quite at that stage. For now, the euphemistic media chatter is only of “last gigs,” a potential “last album” or “last tour.” Which does little to disguise the fact that a very large and weighty curtain will soon be brought down on an era, more or less for good. Before long the Stones will be like Jack Nicholson at the Oscars — the guy you never see any more.
None of this would matter if so many of us (millions, in fact) — men and women, truckers and poets, tax attorneys and waiters, conservatives and liberals, kids and their parents — didn’t deeply, genuinely, love the Rolling Stones. Others have sold more records, or at least sold them more quickly, but few if any have crossed class and gender and race lines so easily. And it’s not difficult to see why. Their best songs (and there are a lot of them) are as hypnotically listenable as the day they were recorded, while the merely good and average ones, the fillers and retreads and often uninspired later work, are still superior to most people’s efforts.
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.
They also appealed deeply to our gun-slinging, outlaw streak — that incurably anti-establishmentarian niche in the human heart without which true freedom is impossible. “You can’t always get what you want,” they proclaimed in a track that used to belong to Let it Bleed and now belongs at least as much to You Tube, but it sure looked as if they got what they wanted. It was the majority of their fans who couldn’t get what they wanted, or for that matter, even what they needed, and so the bad boys from Britain, with their unerring knack for dialing into the black American vernacular, for raiding everything from the blues to samba to country music and disco, and for infusing and enriching it with English irony, distance, and theatricality, provided the perfect platform for millions of people around the world to indulge in lavish vicarious fantasies. Men dreamed of being a Rolling Stone, while women dreamed of being with one.
And that — the tide of glamor on which they effortlessly floated — is also why we loved them. Whatever your opinion of the social changes wrought by the 1960s, no one snatched them from the air and transformed them into foot-stomping rock ‘n’ roll more memorably. In fact, you could say the brilliance with which the Stones did so was one of the best arguments for those changes, proof that on some level they were both unavoidable and necessary.
And now, decades on, the Stones’ half century is quietly being marked by an exhibition (at Somerset House in London) of photographs taken of the band over the years; a coffee table book (The Rolling Stones 50); a downloadable recording of a concert in Tokyo; and a polite interview with the arts editor of the BBC. It’s so tame it’s almost funny. But then “Sir” Jagger, thanks to Tony Blair, is a Knight Bachelor (the Queen, bless her, so loathed the thought of having to bestow the honor to the author of “Stray Cat Blues” — “I can see that you’re 15 years old / No I don’t want your I.D.” – that she scheduled an operation for the same day, so Prince Charles would have to do it instead). Last November, Richards won the Mailer Prize for Distinguished Biography for his memoir Life. The man introducing him to an audience of distinguished literati in New York was Bill Clinton. Not only are the Stones old, they now seem more establishment than the establishment. (Clinton knew who Richards was long before anyone had heard of Clinton.)
The irony, for those of us who didn’t grow up on Beggar’s Banquet and Exile On Main Street, is that the Stones have always been old. That they were old and past it was practically the first thing I ever heard about them. If you came of age during the punk era in Britain, as I did, then (theoretically) the Stones were Public Enemy No. 1, a bunch of decadent, social-climbing tax-absconders that bands like The Clash and The Sex Pistols had sworn to bury. But it didn’t happen. The Stones, declared dinosaurs before they were in their mid-thirties, had already feathered the center of the rock ‘n’ roll dartboard with so many bulls-eyes that those who followed them had to content themselves with hunting for space on the periphery.
Increasingly, the Stones had to scour the edges of the dartboard themselves, competing with their own past. Overall, they managed reasonably well. For every great rocker, like “Brown Sugar,” there’s always a very good one, like “Hand of Fate,” to fall back on when you tire of the first. And now, with the Internet and You Tube, you can watch and listen to live performances going back decades, alternative versions of classic songs, bootlegs galore, unreleased gems, outtakes, rehearsals, interviews, documentary footage, you name it.
Passionate love tends to breed passionate disappointment. Diagnosing the precise onset of the Stones’ creative demise has almost become a parlor game, in which the fun lies in situating it as far back in time as possible. (The legendary British D.J., John Peel, topped everybody by claiming that the best Stones album was their first one, which began with “Route 66,” ended with “Walking the Dog,” and didn’t contain a single original composition.)
Most amateur judges lower the gavel somewhere between 1973-1981, which is to say between Goat’s Head Soup and Tattoo You. Hard-line naysayers, stern as Stalinists, dismiss everything after Exile on Main Street (‘72) with a contemptuous wave of the hand, while loyalists follow their heroes to the end of the increasingly bumpy ‘80s, citing albums like Undercover of the Night (’83) and Steel Wheels (’89) as proof that the Stones still had some mojo. Some even go so far as to claim (not without reason) that they’ve put out at least a few good songs in the 20 years or so since.
But if so many itch to specify exactly when the Stones stopped meeting their expectations, that only proves how richly those expectations were met in the first place.
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