The NBC Nightly News’ final segment Thursday was about how that day was the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ first gig. The segment featured the obligatory file footage and then a joint interview with Charlie, Mick, Keith and Ron Wood.
I had to laugh. They look like old uncles—the kind who would sneak you behind the house at family gatherings when you were 10 and teach you how to smoke a cigarette. Can’t you hear Uncle Keith cackling now? “Don’t tell your mum and pop, ha-ha caff-caff.”
Charlie’s 71 now, and in the interview, it looked as if he had a Silly Putty mouth that someone stretched way, way out. Keith should come with subtitles. Mick’s got a 69-year-old face and hair that’s about 30; he probably has it colored and styled about once a week. And say what you will, Ronnie Wood is not a Rolling Stone just because he hung around with them for so long that they felt sorry for him and let him into the band. If Wood is a Rolling Stone, then Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart were, too.
Thursday night on the news, they looked like cartoon characters, Disney animations of their former selves. It’s sad to say this is how a generation or maybe two see the Stones. It used to be different. During the so-called British invasion of the 1960s, the Beatles were cute and cuddly. They wanted to hold your hand. The Stones were sheathed in cigarette smoke and probably on their way to the pub.
Did the Stones want to hold your hand? The answer came during the best moment of Thursday’s news segment—a clip of the band’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, when they were forced to change two words in a song they performed. As Mick sang “Let’s spend some time together,” he rolled his eyes with so much disgust it’s a wonder he wasn’t deported.
The Stones have made a lot of music between Ed Sullivan and now—some of it the very best rock ‘n’ roll ever made, and an equal amount less so. My musical obsessive-compulsiveness means I’ll buy everything a band makes until they lose their mojo. For me, the Stones lost theirs after It’s Only Rock and Roll back in 1974, but it’s fair to say the comedown was inevitable after the string of preceding stellar LPs: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street and Goat’s Head Soup (where the first signs of the fading mojo surfaced). Then again, what do I know? Some Girls, from 1978, sold six million copies.
More and more, though, their albums seem like thin excuses to tour to promote the records and make millions of dollars. The tour after their last release, A Bigger Bang, from 2005, grossed $558 million. That’s a long way from the $50 or so the band was paid for that first-ever show 50 years ago.
I don’t know how 20-year-olds react to CD releases today, but I clearly recall the Stones’ release of Goat’s Head Soup and how two of its songs, “Angie” and “Silver Train,” were seen and heard first on TV on the premiere of the show Don Kirschner’s Rock Concert in 1973. The TV lounge in our dorm was jammed. It was An Event. When the LP finally was released and the bars downtown were playing “Silver Train,” the dance floors were packed, and I was doing my best Mick imitation out there.
The inevitable musical litmus test from that era is “Beatles or Stones?” It’s an unfair question. The Beatles changed the world. But as far as the music was concerned, the Stones <i>were</i> rock ‘n’ roll. With everything that has come since then in terms of explicit sex and violence in music, the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” has never been outdone in terms of menace. These days, bands’ references to Satan result in raised eyebrows and shoulder shrugs, if that. Satan is nothing but a concept. But the Stones turned the devil into a person—most scarily, one of us:
I shouted out, “Who killed the Kennedys?”
When after all,
It was you and me.
As for the music, if there’s a better rock riff than the opening to “Satisfaction,” then I haven’t heard it.