[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he Rolling Stones have, for at least four decades, been introduced in a live setting as “The Greatest Rock N’ Roll Band In The World;” note the use of the word “greatest.” Not “best,” not “hottest” (a la Kiss); “greatest” does more to identify the band’s power than to attest to anything have to do with the band’s abilities. And make no mistake: when the roulette wheel of rock history was spun five decades ago, somehow the silver ball landed on these five-to-seven doofuses, and forever more, they have the power at their fingertips to alter history, to affect change, and to carry the torch for a socio-economic ruling class under cover of pop and rock tunes and gyrated hips.
Friday night’s show at the TD Garden found itself near the end of a relatively brief (for the band) jaunt through America, in celebration of a half-century of the band’s existence. It is at this point in this write-up that one would expect a crack on the geriatric age of the individual band members, with a sly reprieve to point out that, for senior citizens, they did comport themselves with a most youthful vigor. All of which is, of course, true. But it also misses the point: after all, the Stones, culturally, have been old fogeys for longer than they have been young men, and their place in the cultural vanguard was one of powerful old dudes when they were merely in their 30s. Flying in private jets, selling out stadiums, picking up and discarding model wives, standing aloof from the rest of the world as years would go by and a few spare reggae riffs were all to show for millions of dollars as the world changed around them. Pointing out in 2013 that Keith Richards handles himself onstage like a grumpy and doddering simp is like gorging on a mountain of Mac and Velveeta and then, at the end, remarking that it tastes like ass. We, all of us, made these bitter and warped people who they are and who they have been — and every show, including Friday’s sold-out affair, is but a feedback loop testament to this causal Moebius strip between performer and audience.
Not to keep harping on it, but to continue on this thread, consider how integral, at this point, the Stones are to the very concept of “rock and roll.” A casual fan, though, someone who maybe has never seen them live, or seen much live footage of the band, but is familiar with the classic rock radio hits, would probably be surprised upon witnessing Friday’s show to see how, more than occasionally, the Greatest Rock and Roll Band In The World are not always the most together performing unit. A mere handful of songs in, and a three-way fumble sees the beginning of “It’s Only Rock And Roll” turn into amateur hour. Throughout, unsteady tempos, flubbed solos, completely wrong chords, shaky vocals, and a sometimes general inability to play the same part of the song at the same time plague the band.
Any true scholar of the band, though, knows that this is par for the course, because the dirty secret of the Stones is that they were never really a “good” band. Watch early performances; watch late-’60s performances (like the not-just-atrocious-because-of-the-murder-in-front-of-the-stage performance at Altamont); watch them at their ’70s highs and lows; and their ’80s/’90s/’00s stadium bombast gigs… they all show a band that often has trouble with basic rocking, at a fundamental level.
This is, of course, just fine, and has no detrimental effect on the band’s legendary status. Why? How can these fobs get away with being total hacks? Because they are lovable scamps who, without even trying, represent everything awesome about rock and roll as a culture and a movement: Richards is a hugely unstable psychopath whose blood was so poisoned with heroin at one point that he had to have almost his whole system purged and replaced (or so the myth went back in the day)? Singer Mick Jagger is a callous lech who only cares about money? Charlie Watts, at some point in the late ’60s, held the band musically hostage and decreed that from that point on, he would play only one single steady beat, with a strange and idiosyncratic pause on the three, for every Stones song for all of eternity?
These things merely fuel the fire of the band’s deep-rooted mythology. They got away with it, and continue to, because they never otherwise resorted to the sort of gimmicks that became de rigueur by the early-’70s and ever on: The Stones, for “50 Years and Counting,” as the tour is known, have managed to nonchalantly build their rock and roll myth from merely just being themselves.
An analysis of the guitar style of Richards perfectly illustrates this point. Most people who routinely wind up on lists of the greatest guitarists of all time are star-crossed prodigies who display unique ability and technique. Richards, for at least the last three to four decades, has developed a style of playing that is completely at odds with that prodigy model. First, he barely actually plays his guitar; and when he does, he feels literally no compunction to treat it as a rock and roll instrument. On Friday night, as he has done for at least three decades, his standard pose is not the stereotypical rock warrior stance, with legs spread and axe slung like a weapon. Richards tends to hold the guitar like it’s an autoharp, with the bridge up near his head, cradling it, strumming not near the pickups but halfway up the bridge.
Richards rarely chugs, never palm-mutes for barre chord power, and seems content to just… not play for extremely long passages. When it is time for one of his signature guitar solos (as he did Friday night during the denouement of “Sympathy for the Devil”), he often will wait an agonizingly long time until he begins the solo. And when he begins, it’s as if he’s exploring the fretboard for the first time, groping at notes to see what they sound like. For anyone who has seen the band multiple times in the last few decades, this is an expected routine; on some nights, he can be brilliantly lacerating. Others, he can be blissfully not present at his own concert, musically.
Richards is hardly the only major rock guitarist to play major concerts filled with flubs and inconsistencies. But for most other players who fit that description, this type of behavior would mark their darkest period, when fans watched the stage, hoping beyond hope that their idol would, you know, maybe sober up and deliver. Think of later-era Jerry Garcia, for instance. Anyway, my point is that when Keith Richards plays in this style, it is considered all a part of his rock and roll swagger. Which it is, of course: Keith Richards doesn’t have to prove a goddamned thing to anyone, and if he’d rather imagine that he is hearing a magical minimal reggae dub track, or a mystical blues-voodoo hoodoo revival, instead of an amazingly half-assed run-through of “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to an audience that paid an ungodly amount of money to be there, then that’s just the way it’s going to be.
[pullquote align=”right”]In a way, it’s the curse of classic rock: We created these enormous bands-cum-corporations, and once they became entirely self-sufficient, no one could overthrow the CEO anymore. [/pullquote]Because, like everyone else in the Stones, Richards is just too rich and powerful to be told anything. In a way, it’s the curse of classic rock: We created these enormous bands-cum-corporations, and once they became entirely self-sufficient, no one could overthrow the CEO anymore. Think of it this way: each member of the Rolling Stones, or at least, currently, Mick, Keith and Charlie, have all been powerful multi-millionaires since they were teenagers. They wrote countless amazing songs, true: but they also have a brutish might that cannot, at this point, be undone. Who is going to tell Mick and Keith to act differently, to play differently, to behave differently? They’re the bosses, and they have been for so long that they can’t (and we can’t) remember a time when they weren’t.
Before the Stones hit the stage Friday night, a short film was shown, displaying an edited clip-fest of various famous musicians and celebrities waxing poetically about the meaning of the Stones. The gist of it, of course, was that they were, at least in the ’60s and early-’70s, dangerous. More importantly, they created mass hysteria — and often relatively unwillingly. It takes a lot, culturally speaking, to get a whole subculture, of, say, young girls to literally lose their minds, screaming and sobbing and peeing their pants, at the sight or thought of a rock and roll group. Footage like this introductory film serves to remind those of us who weren’t present then (and even those who were) that THIS SHIT ACTUALLY HAPPENED.
People saw Mick Jagger, as he strolled onto a stage and sang a little tune, and lost their ever-loving minds. It’s worth contrasting those times to the way music tends to work in a live setting now. Back then, the musicians played in a less demonstrably showy manner, and the audience responded by freaking out. Now, bands and artists jump around onstage like maniacs, and audiences calmly watch, as decades of rock performance have shown that this whole ritual isn’t really anything to get riled up about.
During “It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll” (which, I swear, began with Keith playing a riff that completely sounded like the opening of the more obscure and far more shocking “Star Star”), the video screen switched between footage of Friday’s audience and audiences in classic clips from throughout the career of the Stones. One second you are watching a group of stone freak hippies losing their shit to the band’s legendary Hyde Park 1969 gig; next you are seeing a frothing group of prepubescents shrieking in the audience of one of their mid-’60s television appearances; and then, cut to a shot of Friday’s audience, wearing $40 to $50 shirts for sale at the concession stand, looking far older and less prone to wild freak-out and reckless abandon.
Again, the point of the whole video was to drill into the audience that the Stones (and rock and roll) used to have a wild powderkeg of pure uncontainable power. Think of The Stones’ music as sap that comes out of a tree; then think of the members of the Rolling Stones as people who extract sap from a tree and make a delicious maple syrup from it. Now, in the case of the Rolling Stones, let’s say that the band members are not particularly adept at the skills typically required to extract sap effectively and manufacture syrup. All around them, on neighboring farms, you have people like Jimi Hendrix, and the Beatles, and the Who, and Led Zeppelin, all sapping their trees, to great effect as well. But! With the Stones, they just happen to have it in bottles before competitors like, I dunno, the Dave Clark Five, or Herman’s Hermits, or the Turtles.
Also — and this is the crucial part — when people taste the syrup they make, they flip out because Holy Shit it is so fucking good. I mean, have you tried this? It’s so good I want to give up my life and just stand near their little boil-off pot to get that sweet sweet syrup. No one really knows why their syrup is so good: they can’t play that well, they aren’t that good looking, and they don’t really have a coherent message or sound. They also make syrup that fits in with the commercial models of the day, and are shamelessly willing to market their syrup to whatever current syrup fads are big this month or whatever.
So many winters pass, and a lot of trees dry up and give no more sap, and some syrup makers die because they just weren’t very responsible. One of the chief syrup makers at The Stones dies, but they soldier on, because holy crap, they didn’t actually need him to keep making great syrup. In fact, the syrup, while tasting different, is still utterly addicting to the public. And so seasons pass, and decades pass, and every once in a while people who monitor the syrup industry say to themselves “Holy shit, why are people still buying this Rolling Stones syrup? Don’t they know that there are other types of syrup? And that you could, you know, ingest something other than syrup?” And then at certain points, the group stop tapping the trees, because they all hate each other and have so much fucking money that they don’t really need to keep doing this bullshit, really.
But they keep going back to it because they don’t know anything else and, honestly, people still really want this stuff. And they also find that if they wait a while before opening shop, there can be an explosion of demand, which is really weird. This is what happened in 1989 when the Steel Wheels tour was the highest grossing tour of all time at that point. I mean, they were elderly men at that point — in their 40s! — and there were so many exciting new syrup manufacturers like C + C Music Factory, and the Black Crowes, and etc. But as it turned out, the people wanted the Stones, and that’s what they got, and the spigot has been consistently turned on, or at least promised to be turned on soon, ever since.
[pullquote]So even though this really does seem like it might be the band’s final tour, it’s hard to actually imagine that actually being so.[/pullquote]So even though this really does seem like it might be the band’s final tour, it’s hard to actually imagine that actually being so. The band certainly didn’t perform in any way that suggested finality; if anything, it’s uplifting how steady the band has been, as a live entity, the past two-and-a-half decades. Vocalists Bernard Fowler and Lisa Fischer perfectly complement Jagger’s froggy croak, with Fischer still obliterating the glass-shattering portion of “Gimme Shelter” that has been her party trick since she joined the band for the Steel Wheels tour. Keyboardist Chuck Leavell and “new” bassist Darryl Jones managed to deftly fill in the empty spaces that Richards’ Andy-Gill-esque minimal attack often leaves; combined with the natural buoyancy of the band’s ample catalog, the Stones are able to still transport a live audience with the sheer power of their song, whether it’s the gospel uplift of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” or the wailing wistfulness of “Memory Motel” (a song the clearly unfurled on Beantown due to the line “When I asked her where she’s heading for/’Back up to Boston, I’m singing in a bar”).
It really is a truly bewildering experience to be so moved by such powerfully ambivalent songs: “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” is all ellipses and collapsing narratives, especially the part where the Jagger’s friend says one word to him, and that is “dead”; and “Memory Motel” manages to turn a tawdry one-night stand into an emotional vortex, where the titular motel room is a magical realm that can be visited mentally anytime the singer or the listener wants to conjure up the feeling of the most powerful love that ever existed, even though it never actually existed there.
Unlike other stops on this tour, Friday’s show had no special celebrity guests (which was most definitely a good thing), and Brian Jones replacement Mick Taylor was a welcome guest on a particularly effective run-through of 1968 horror-house classic “Midnight Rambler”. Taylor, being the only Stone, past or present, to not remain waifishly thin, looked out of place with his tiny ex-colleagues, but when he ripped into one of his trademark leads it was a reminder of how for a time he was the glue that held that band together, while drugs, fame, and incompetence almost completely derailed the band. On the one hand, it must be kind of sad that Taylor will have to go back to his life of relative anonymity while the rest of the Stones get to be the Stones day and night for the rest of their lives; on the other, he was probably right when he said that had he stayed in the band, it would have killed him. His 1974 departure nearly destroyed the band, and I could be wrong but I swear I detected a note of anger in the eyes of Richards every time Taylor tore into a lead, as if Richards was thinking “Who the fuck is this guy, and what is he doing on my stage?”
Richards has, though, earned his right to jealously guard his kingdom, for it is ultimately his and the other three principles’ to hold onto. As Keith and the band ended the night with a fantastically elongated version of “Satisfaction,” that ditty that famously came to Richards in a dream in 1965, it was clear that, for at least another season, both of these songs and this entity called The Rolling Stones, would continue to be theirs to do with as they wished — and it was difficult to do anything but raise up fists in pure unfettered adulation.
Daniel Brockman can be reached at email@example.com; following him @thebizhaslanded