By Benjamin Leatherman
By Glenn BurnSilver
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The poster is not the biggest-selling piece of Rolling Stones merchandise in Import Images' online catalogue. Actually, it's not even close. "I think the sense of humor in that one hits a bit too close to home for a lot of their fans," reasons Patrick Smith, licensing director for the New York-based company, which publishes the item. "Personally," adds Smith in an amiable, clipped British accent, "I loved it!"
Designed to look like a giant fabric care label, the 24 x 36-inch poster bullet-points the trials and tribulations of the World's Greatest Rock 'N' Roll Band like a garment guarantee for a lifestyle.
"Stones withstand," it headlines in big, bold letters, "divorce, slander, rip-offs, slagging, under-age sex, alcohol, drugs. Wash thoroughly."
Smith admits the poster's cheeky British wit may have hampered the item's sales here in the States – how many Minnesotans use the word "slagging"? Still, how many among the Stones' aging fan base haven't also tested the fabric of their lives against the harsh extremes of divorce, alcohol and drugs? It's a list of rough elements that have been weathered not only by the band, but also by many of the 40-to-60-year-olds who make up the Stones' core audience today.
Smith imagines the poster would look fitting on the bedroom doors of a generation of still-rockin' parents who've modeled their lifestyle after the hard-living band – if only parents still hung rock posters on their bedroom doors. "Over-40-year-olds aren't the ones buying music posters," Smith laments. "But if you ask them which they like, this one's quite popular."
And why not? Like the rebellious words and images the Stones' original fans adorned their rooms with through teenagedom, "Stones Withstand" gives the finger to the one foe in life they're now fighting: old age.
But it also flips a bird, inadvertently, to their kids, raised in the D.A.R.E. era but forced to live under the roof of parents who occasionally look and act a lot like Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg – only without the money or the good connections.
To the young, the Rolling Stones may seem a worse influence on their parents than Eminem seems on them. It's living proof that Mom and Dad can keep on partying like teenagers and trying to look sexy long after even Sally Jessy Raphael would feel embarrassed to be around them.
Because of that, Smith's guess that the words on that poster may ring a little too true for those fans is probably on the mark. The aging baby boomers who might identify most with that laundry list of debauchery also know that if they ever hung a thing like that on their doors boasting about it, they'd surely find it torn down within a week. By their mortified kids.
When it was announced, on the Stones' official Web site, that Ford Motor Company had licensed the band's 1981 hit "Start Me Up" for its new ad campaign (which kicked off with a 30-second TV spot just after midnight on New Year's Day), music critics marked the move as not only additional proof that rock had sold out, but that auto advertisers were now engaged in the ultimate battle of the classic rock bands. With Nissan already using the Who's "Baba O'Riley" and Cadillac riding high on Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," Ford had gone and reeled in the only band that could out-rock the competition.
But the more intriguing story was that the business-savvy Stones, always on top of everything they lend their name to (they were the first band, remember, to embrace both corporate tour sponsorship and merchandising contracts), were also working with Ford on designs for a special-edition Explorer emblazoned with their infamous tongue-and-lips logo, similar to the Looney Tunes treatment on the 2001 Chevy Venture. By slapping that once-rebellious icon on the trunk of a few million family SUVs, were the Stones not positioning themselves as the family band of the 2000s?
Certainly, the band has been trying to win over younger fans for the past several years. When the Stones signed on with Tommy Hilfiger to sponsor their last tour in 1999, their representatives were characteristically matter-of-fact about the reasons for the alliance. "Tommy Hilfiger is a powerhouse in the youth market," said Michael Cohl, promoter of the '99 No Security tour at a press conference then, "and his involvement with No Security' will further expose the Rolling Stones' music to yet another generation."
But not even a jeans stitching of the Stones' tongue and lips over Hilfiger's blue and red flag label managed to win over the tough youth market. How do you make a band look cool to a generation of CD-buyers who've had to endure Dad's air guitar antics on "Brown Sugar" since they were rolling over in the crib?
As it turns out, the answer was to turn Dad into a cartoon. Specifically, turn him into one enormously popular TV dad with a buffoonish penchant for partying rivaling even his underachieving (and proud of it) son.
While it's often unfair to characterize a band by the things it attaches its name to, the Rolling Stones have long maintained an unusually tight hands-on control over virtually everything connected with their identity. Their tours today are virtuoso examples of how to do everything right in the rock industry – from the overall production design to the video screens right down to the stage backdrop (which this time out was created by noted Warhol protégé Jeff Koons). A scholarly case study on brand extension design produced by the British design firm 4i Limited, which created the tour identities for the Stones' Steel Wheels, Urban Jungle and Voodoo Lounge tours, noted key band members Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were "concerned with ensuring that every expression of the idea was seen as part of an integrated identity," citing the Glimmer Twins' dictum that "What a member of the audience sees in a projection show should relate to the packaging of the CD, which should relate to the tee shirt they buy or the souvenir program they read."
Given that Jagger and Richards are such renowned control freaks, it's interesting to note that the one item of official Rolling Stones merchandise that actually is selling like mad on the Licks World Tour is the "Get Licked!" tee shirt – the one featuring a cartoon Mick and Keith jamming along with Homer Simpson.
When the two rock legends lent their voices to animated likenesses of themselves on The Simpsons' 14th-season opener last November, the coup landed Matt Groening's drawings on the cover of Rolling Stone and sealed the show's status as the all-time coolest cartoon in rock – boasting cameos by more than 60 guest musicians, including three Beatles, all four U2's, the Ramones, *NSYNC and Britney Spears.
But it also did something even greater for the Stones. By casting Mick and Keith as instructors at the Rock & Roll Fantasy Camp Homer is sent to after his family tires of his middle-age-crazy antics, the Stones were able to shake off 40 years of bad influence in a single "D'oh!"
In Homer, an overgrown frat boy with a list of bad habits rivaling Richards at his wildest, the Stones finally found their perfect over-40 everyfan. Here was an image of famously irresponsible parenting everyone could finally love. Suddenly, kids and teens had a new way of looking at their Stones-obsessed parents that made them want to laugh – rather than wanting to call the child-welfare agents.
It's an image kids will undoubtedly want to cling to as they watch their folks preen and prance before the mirror, getting ready to overindulge in every manner their bodies can still handle as they speed off to the overpriced rock show they blew the family Christmas fund on.
Just remember, kids: It's only rock 'n' roll. And it's high-larious!