The Rolling Stones: A Long Life and A Merry One

The Rolling Stones were instrumental in making blues a major part of rock and roll and of changing the international focus of blues culture, to the less sophisticated blues typified by Chess Records artists such as Muddy Waters, writer of "Rollin' Stone", after which the band is named. Image Courtesy: Luca Bruno
The Rolling Stones were instrumental in making blues a major part of rock and roll and of changing the focus of blues culture, to the less sophisticated blues typified by Chess Records artists such as Muddy Waters, writer of “Rollin’ Stone”, after which the band is named.                    Image Courtesy: Luca Bruno

By Peter Gerstenzang

They are older than their idols now. So frighteningly white, so impossibly skinny, their faces so seamed,  their bodies seemingly so fragile, you feel that if you patted one of them on the back, mummy dust would fly off. Yet when they hit the stage, something so supernatural, so spiritual happens, someday they probably will have a chapter devoted to them in the New Testament.

Three of the guys wear jeans and T-shirts so tight, they probably put them on in the 70s and forgot to  take them off. The fourth man, behind the drum kit, dresses like a barrister at a law firm who’s decided to take his suit jacket off for the drive home. The two guitarists play a few blues licks, the “Chuck Berry” riff, then strum the open chords they seem to have invented.

The singer, still sexy at 71, his face as cheerily sardonic as ever, even if it’s as lined and parched as a piece of the Dead Sea Scrolls, says hello! Then huffs a harmonica lick into the microphone. Suddenly, they’re playing rock and roll. Better than the kids. Better than the kids they used to be. Still loose and funky, but tighter now.

They are the Rolling Stones. People in the audience range from their teens to folks from assisted-living centers, with medical emergency call buttons around their necks. This insanity has been going on for more than 50 years. Why is that?

If you go see them June 6 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington you will be reminded. With the first few chiming chords of Keith Richards on guitar and the unmistakable handgun bang of Charlie Watts on drums, it’ll all come back to you. After all the terrible years of slow, self-important Pearl Jam sludge, with a singer who sounds in need of epilepsy medication, plus all the slew of sleepy bands who copied them, one listen to the Stones and you’ll remember what rock and roll actually is.

It’s for dancing. It’s for screaming along to. It’s fast, furious and hilarious, even when the singer’s bellowing about the awful deeds of The Devil. It’s also about the drummer. Charlie, who was born before your parents, grew up listening to guys who swung. Buddy Rich, Chick Webb, Gene Krupa. You don’t listen to him and analyze things. You involuntarily move your body.

Steve Van Zandt said it all perfectly a few years back: “Once upon a time we danced to rock and roll,” he said. “Then we started listening to it. And it’s been going downhill ever since.”

I spoke to other rockers to see if I could get a handle on why, after 50 years, the Rolling Stones are still here. And when they come to town, you are compelled to go and see them.

Elliott Murphy is one of the most eloquent rockers America has ever produced. Even if he now lives in France. From his debut, Aquashow (sporting “Last Of The Rock Stars,” which could sum up the Stones) to albums like Night Lights, Coming Home Again and his heartbreakingly beautiful re-do, Aquashow Deconstructed, he has some wise words that start, at least, to sum up why this band has lasted so damn long.

“When it comes to popular music,” Murphy writes, “The Beatles gave us love, Dylan gave us smarts, Bruce gives us hope…all admirable elements of the human condition, but sadly, non-essential. On the other hand, the Rolling Stones gave us, and continue to offer us, the one essential ingredient for the survival of the species…sex. The forbidden fruit, wrapped in superfine songs, played with majesty and self-confidence as only the Brits can do. Honestly, it doesn’t seem to matter how old these guys get… they continue to seduce big time. More than any other band or artist that I can think of, they epitomize a primordial force, risen from the ooze of the blues, set in perpetual motion by the bump and grind of ‘50’s Rock ‘N’ Roll, emerging almost unscathed from the druggy mist of the cultural revolution, which, it must be said, they won hands down.”

To paraphrase Paul McCartney’s grandfather,
‘Murphy is only right.’
There is the sex. There are also
the songs.
Let us forget all the Sixties bullshit
for a minute.
All that softheaded ‘Soundtrack of
Your Life’, crap.

Sure, that’s the decade when the Rolling Stones first broke through and became players on the world stage. And kids in caftans and headbands did indeed twirl in acid-induced ecstasy to the scowling mugs playing onstage. But the songs have lodged loose from their time and they’re free now. Smart  16-year-olds in the mood for fast, dirty songs about miscegenation, still dance and shout along to “Brown Sugar.” Broke and busted gamblers, in life or having just left Las Vegas, can still relate to the sexy strut of “Tumblin’ Dice.”

Feeling lately like the world is about to spin off its axis? That whether the apocalypse is taking shape in the Middle East or the middle of your bed, when you hear “Gimme Shelter,” you’re ready for The Rapture, in whatever form it appears. “Dandelion” or “Amanda Jones,” “Ruby Tuesday” or “Street  Fighting Man,” “Paint It Black” or “19th Nervous Breakdown,” the songs definitely charted the zigzagging, chemically-influenced moods of a generation. But anyone of any age, who cares about great songs, cares about the Rolling Stones. It’s those tunes, brilliantly-constructed, melodic, played by guys who know how the parts are put together, that keep people coming back, 50 fucking years later.

I’m not Nostradamus. But I don’t think the music of The Dave Matthews Band will have that effect in 30 years. Bet me?

Johnette Napolitano, former lead singer and writer for alternative greats Concrete Blonde, who has a great new e.p. entitled, Naked, knows a little bit about rock and roll. She has her own singular reason as to why she thinks the Stones remain so popular-especially among the younger set:

“Kids are hearing the Stones’ records from their parents’ or grandparents’ collections and it sounds…real to them. A bunch of these ‘kids’ came of age in the 80s and 90s, with electronica (which I love by the way) and all this MTV shit and they got used to it. But then they heard the Stones. And they also heard about The Stones. And they wanted to see what the legend was like live.

“I think they craved something real. Aside from the fact that Mick and the guys are still playing great, there’s the groove. The Rolling Stones play rock and roll and it makes you want to dance. Dance was here before we had music. It’s primal. And that’s what the Stones appeal to in people – even the new generation that’s coming to see them. They’re real and they’re primal and younger people really respond to that.”

There’s not much left you can count on in this life. The people who run this country trade their ideals faster than collectors get rid of Johnny Bench baseball cards. Bill Cosby has turned out to be scarier and more hideous than his sweater collection. We’re wiping out the wolf population. The Chinese aren’t eating rice and vegetables, but dachshunds and fox terriers.

It’s all so bleak, bewildering and undependable. But then these four guys blow into town, minus founders Bill Wyman and that brilliant weirdo, Brian Jones. They don’t simply stomp their stupid jackboots on the stage and chant that they will rock you-date unspecified. They strum a few chords, smack the snare, toot a harp and light into, oh, “Jumpin Jack Flash.” And they don’t promise. They fucking rock you! The 60-year-old guy behind you, with the Hawaiian shirt outside his dad jeans knows it. The 15-year-old kid with the purple Mohawk knows it, too. Pretty soon, there’s a consensus in the room that any politician would kill for.

They’re still too thin. Two of them still smoke with the same intensity that most of us save for working out. They still stagger ballet-like on the stage in that same stoned dance they pretty much invented. And suddenly the horrible reality of politics, the deceit of public figures, the murder of innocent animals, is forgotten. At least for two hours.

This is what the Rolling Stones do for all of us tired, angry, well-meaning, confused fans. They’ve done it since 1962. They may very well be doing it after we’re all gone. Who cares if that means that Mick, Keith, Charlie and Woody are vampires? Considering what we so-called human beings have done to the world,  that isn’t an insult. And even if it is, the Rolling Stones have proven time and time again, that they don’t give a shit what you think of them. And maybe for that reason and that reason alone, is why we still love them.