January 29, 2003

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Dirty power
In defense of billionaire rock stars the Rolling Stones.

By Mike McGuirk

LET'S FACE IT , a Rolling Stones show is not the major event it once was. It's kind of ridiculous, really. Their stage show is choreographed for maximum entertainment value, designed for nothing more than passive viewing by thousands upon thousands of people. That fact is something of a turnoff for anyone with a brain, but then if you were unlucky enough to see the pictures that surfaced after their kick-off show in Boston last fall, you already know the sad truth. Keith is dressing more than ever like a Star Wars figure, and Mick's face is so bloated it looks like he spent two weeks at the bottom of the Charles River.

Still the show scheduled for Tues/2 at the San Jose gargantu-rena will sell out. More important, there will be a point during said show when the band hit whatever plateau they have managed to hit for the past 50 years, and they will play "Gimme Shelter" or something, and the people who were smart enough to buy tickets will feel the blood rushing through their veins because they realize, holy shit, it's the Rolling Stones!

Live bait

As much as some rock critics worship the Stones, the band has got to be the only one that is as openly reviled as it is praised. Mick has been called a cynical, self-parodying sham countless times, and reports of the band's languid arena performances of the '80s still follow them around. It seems like from around Love You Live till the Voodoo Lounge tour all anyone said was that the Stones were ripping everybody off with lame, overblown, and boring concerts.

I myself have never seen them play live. One of the reasons is the money (why is it always, like, $200 to see them?), but another reason is the crowd that turns up at Stones-related events. They're frightening. The people that come out for the Stones are hands down the freakiest bunch, willing to stop at nothing to out-Keith one another. When they were showing Cocksucker Blues at the Castro Theatre four years ago or whenever, I went down in the hopes of getting some rumored-to-be-available seats that were in fact unavailable. I waited in line for three hours, with a charmingly flagrant crowd of people who are probably all dead by now, judging from the way they were "Stonesin' it" right there on the sidewalk. It was fun as hell and even sleazier than the first time I saw Lou Reed. (I was 14. I remember saying to my sister, "You mean those two women are lesbians?" Not that lesbians are sleazy, but in Massachusetts, any acknowledgment at all that people have sex or even wear underwear is sleazy, rebellious, and very, very dangerous, at least to a 14-year-old. Plus I don't care how you slice it, people wearing fishnet stockings instead of pants and pouring bourbon on each other in a parking lot are sleazy regardless of their orientation.) So in my mind I take this small group of ardent Stones fans willing to stand in the cold for tickets that don't exist, drinking, snorting, falling down, and multiply it by, what, 10,000? That is some freaked-out party. It's scary and fun, which has always been a part of the Rolling Stones mystique.

Terrifying true adventures

The scary-fun thing got a little out of hand at Altamont, and I'm sure plenty of better writers have said this same exact thing – in fact I know Stanley Booth did in his book, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. It changed the Stones forever, not just as a band but also as people. The movie Gimme Shelter shows the footage a hundred times of that poor guy getting stabbed, yet the intensity of the event doesn't really translate all that well for some reason. I had always seen the whole Altamont thing as a really unfortunate incident, but because the Stones themselves don't react to it much, even afterward, and the fact that I wasn't born yet when it happened, it was always this folklore blemish on the face of hippie history to me more than anything.

But in True Adventures, the mess becomes far more real, and the terror that the Angels created that day is so disturbing it explains a lot about what the Stones became and have become. I mean, after that, can you really blame the Stones for turning into such a business – besides the fact that they're all in their 60s now? They put on a free show, things got weird, they try to calm down a really enormous crowd, they're afraid for their own lives at the same time, and then the Angels kill this scared-shit guy. That would change anybody's perspective. In the beginning of Gimme Shelter, they sing "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at the Garden in New York, and its power is nearly immeasurable; every legend of how great they were is affirmed with that sequence. But then just three years later, in Cocksucker Blues, they've become this deranged, bloated group of rock stars. Mick's fake black accent has slurred so much it's racist, Keith is throwing TVs out of windows, and the whole feel of their music is doped to the gills, defeated. It's the band that put out a "greatest hits" record called Sucking in the '70s and meant it.

I think what people my age, at least, don't realize is that at one time the Stones were not so jaded. They believed in and even wielded the power of rock 'n' roll. They played with it, incorporating anything that would upset the status quo, beginning with openly sexual songs and posturing, then moving into the dark imagery and occultism of "Midnight Rambler" and "Sympathy for the Devil," and then Altamont happens, and it all just blows up in their faces. You can see a direct line from Mick wearing an Uncle Sam hat and telling people he's going to kill the king to the band's lurid but decidedly safer eye makeup and the flat-out confusion of the mid '70s. Regardless of how great all of those records were, Mick and Keith stopped writing music that was in any way going to start any trouble, except for the faintly political slant of "Heartbreaker." After Altamont, they became a rock band – a very good one, but really just a rock band.

The best rock song ever

There is only one Rolling Stones. I mean, is there a better rock 'n' roll song than "Jumpin' Jack Flash?" No, there isn't. Are you gonna try and tell me that Alan Parsons Project's "Eye in the Sky" is better? Or "Tuesday's Gone"? Come on. Maybe AC/DC comes close with "Jailbreak." The Icky Boyfriends nearly did it with "I Was...." But really nothing matches the perfect yell-your-head-off punch that is "Jumpin' Jack Flash." The charging opening chords of the studio version were a call to arms in the '60s, for all bands everywhere to play heavier, louder. The main riff itself, if you listen to Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out's live version, is the foundation for all rock music that came after it. It's a pounding, repetitive prepunk riff.

The chorus doesn't even matter – all that matters is the way the riffs go together and the moment when the drums come in. It is the most exciting song in rock music. Michael Keaton couldn't kill it in Night Shift, and Whoopi Goldberg tried to ride its coattails in her own movie, but the song came out on top, obviously the best part of that stink bomb. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" lived on, as intense and chicken dance-inducing as ever. Even now the Flamin' Groovies' version from Slow Death, a collection you better go buy right now, is the best song made available to the general public in years. It will never be on the radio, ever, and if it did come on the radio while you were driving, you might actually go insane. With overtrebled guitars splitting your eardrums down the middle and Chris Wilson's howling vocals amped up and distorted to the point of sublanguage glee, the song and the fuck-it-all energy it represents is a true force of nature.

Then there are all those other good Stones songs. Even the awful records, the ones after Undercover – OK, Tattoo You, sorry. Even those records have songs that don't take a lot of self-deception to enjoy. "Too Much Blood," "Love Is Strong," "Might as Well Get Juiced" – these are good songs, sort of, and seeing the Stones play them live would be an electrifying experience. Shoulder to shoulder with 10 zillion classic rock fans, staring at the Jumbotron. It's still worth it to hear just a fraction of the power they once had. They still have the power, I know it. I'm not lying to myself. Well, maybe a little.

Rolling Stones play Tues/4, 8 p.m., HP Pavilion, San Jose. $50-$300. (415) 421-TIXS.