When I heard the Rolling Stones were coming to Phoenix on another of their supposed "final" tours, I overdrew my checking account to buy tickets. Usually, when I break the bank for music, it's to buy rare vinyl pressings by obscure sludge/punk bands like Drunks With Guns, Lubricated Goat, Grong Grong, and God Bullies stuff that's as far from "mainstream" as possible. But even I, a music aficionado who ferrets out arcane, unheard stuff for a living, can get off on the Stones.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, we've heard all this shit before: The Rolling Stones are old, they're past their prime, their concert tickets are too expensive, Keith Richards looks like a dried-out crapsicle, blah, blah, blah.
But the fact is, after 45 years, the Rolling Stones still sell out more U.S. shows than any other band. And on a clear Wednesday night in early November at the new University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, it's not hard to see why these 60-something rockers are still more relevant than My Chemical Romance or Blink-182 or any other modern radio darlings could ever hope to be.
The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones are one of the last legendary acts my generation can still see in concert. I was born in 1976 a year before Elvis died and six years after the Beatles' breakup and the deaths of Hendrix, Morrison, and Joplin. I wasn't old enough to see The Ramones play at a bar on their last tour in 1996. I was too bitter about Nirvana being "sellouts" to take the few opportunities I had to see them play live in the early '90s. The problem with living amid "historic moments" in rock is that you usually don't know they're historic until you're looking back on them, and if you missed the boat, well tough shit.
What's great about the Stones is that they're still afloat after all these years, and by God, the boat is still rocking.
When the band takes the stage at UofP Stadium, Mick Jagger is all over the place, dancing and prancing from one end of the stage to the other, doing his chicken-strut dance while the lyrics to a litany of hit songs pour from his iconic lips, beginning with "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "It's Only Rock 'N Roll (But I Like It)." Recorded in 1973, the lyrics to the latter song seem more pertinent to the Stones now than they did back then: "If I could stick a pen in my heart/And spill it all over the stage/Would it satisfy ya, would it slide on by ya/Would you think the boy is strange?"
Jagger's definitely not a "boy" anymore, but the stakes have been raised in the Digital Age, when everybody expects extremeness, and some guitar player getting all strung out on junk isn't as rare or fascinating as it was when Keith Richards started to go to hell in the '60s. If Jagger did stick a pen in his heart, it could easily "slide on by" in an era when Marilyn Manson and Howard Stern have both shown their nasty, pasty ass cheeks on national television and elicited barely more than a shrug. The further down the "information superhighway" rock 'n' roll goes, the less having a "gimmick" counts for anything.
But the Stones have never needed a gimmick. They have the only thing they need, something all bands would kill for, and something that cannot be manufactured, duplicated, or faked, and that is a catalogue of great fucking songs. Because the bottom line whether performers are rolling around naked in broken glass or staring down at their shoes when they sing is that a great song will live forever, regardless of what happens to the songwriter. A great song can bridge gaps and cross boundaries that otherwise seem impenetrable. If that statement seems hyperbolic, find footage of Stevie Wonder's performance of John Lennon's "Imagine" at the 1996 Summer Olympics closing ceremony. You'll see an audience of more than 100,000 people from all over the world, holding hands and singing together, word for word.
The scene at this Stones show isn't all that different, except we're dealing with an audience of "only" 40,000 and hearing not just one but 19 immortal tunes. Most bands hope to crank out one great song in their careers the Rolling Stones have produced more than 59 Top 100 hits in the U.S. alone, and eight of those have been No. 1 singles, including what is widely regarded as the best rock song ever, "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction." And this audience, which ranges in age from grade school children to senior citizens, knows every word.
When the band performs "Sympathy for the Devil" complete with huge flames shooting up from the top of the stage the audience maintains the "woo-woo!" chorus behind Jagger's lead vocals throughout the entire song. During "Start Me Up," a young guy in an ASU shirt and a 40-something woman are dancing arm in arm, wailing "You make a grown man cry-ay-ay!" And they didn't even know each other when this concert started.
During "Let's Spend the Night Together," a silver-haired fellow sitting next to me hands me his pipe and a bag of weed. "I saw these guys in 1964," he yells into my ear. "These guys are older than me!"
When the band busts into "Honky Tonk Women," an obnoxiously drunk woman who looks to be in her 60s shoves a cigar-size joint into her husband's mouth, screaming, "Here, suck on that, honey!"
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Pretty soon, everyone around me is buried in a cloud of pot smoke, singing along to "Midnight Rambler," and nobody's commenting on how old the Stones look anymore. The people in the audience are too busy dancing to the songs they love, whether they're songs they grew up with, or songs their parents grew up with. For the 50-plus generation, the Rolling Stones are the soundtrack to their childhoods and teenage years. For the younger crowd that grew up listening to their parents brag about how great rock used to be, the Stones are aging icons we must see before they retire or die (but I'm betting the latter happens first).
True, the Rolling Stones are getting up there in years, but "Under My Thumb," "Paint It Black," "Gimme Shelter," "Get Off My Cloud," "19th Nervous Breakdown," "Mother's Little Helper," and "Satisfaction" sound just as fresh and original today as I bet they did 40 years ago.
Some things have changed over time, of course audiences have gone from holding up lighters to holding up illuminated cell phones, and ticket and tee shirt prices have more than tripled but the Stones are still the biggest band around today, and they still put on a high-energy show that most people half their age can't pull off. And their fans no matter how old themselves still know how to party.
So suck on that, honey.