Death on the Installment Plan

Growing old gracefully the Rolling Stones way


Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones once grumbled, “We’re a terrible band, really, but we are the oldest. That’s some sort of distinction, isn’t it?” Never mind that he said that in 1970, when most of the Stones were still in their 20s and the band was nearing the very peak of its greatness. By this point, in 2007, many of their earliest fans would agree to the first proposition and add to the second only that the distinction is a painful one—for the fans themselves. Whereas the Beatles, also in 1970, it so happens, satisfied rock’s romantic imperative by splitting up in a collision of egos that only made the Fab Four seem all the more fabulous, the Rolling Stones have shown the sort of long-term commitment, accommodating and unlovely at times, that tends to vex the romantic impulse. They’ve never broken up, never said farewell, never had to come back, and have suffered only one frontline fatality, Brian Jones, an early victim of the rock life who, after being booted from the band, drowned in the pool behind his mansion. With barely a glance toward his chlorinated grave, the rest of them have rocked on remorselessly, with increasingly wretched excess, defiant of age, some heavy drug use, attendant legal troubles, and their own boredom.

Is this a sure sign of the band’s appalling lack of embarrassment or one of the greatest F-you rock-’n’-roll gestures ever? The two aren’t mutually exclusive. Either way, mocking the Stones for being too old is almost as old as the band itself. But a backlash to the backlash may finally be upon us, in the form of dutiful rock amanuensis Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones concert documentary, Shine a Light, scheduled for release next spring. Having Scorsese (“our best,” as the film historian David Thomson somewhat sarcastically refers to him) turn his kliegs on the Greatest Rock ’n’ Roll Band in the World would seem to be a literally superlative undertaking, yet there’s reason to worry. The word is that Shine a Light will resemble Scorsese’s Last Waltz, a loving little recital film that had all the immediacy of a musical interlude on A Prairie Home Companion. Although his films are often marked and enlivened by black comedy (After Hours, Goodfellas), Scorsese seems overcome with reverent awe when in the presence of musicians (whether it’s The Band, in The Last Waltz, or Bob Dylan, in the more recent No Direction Home). And it’ll hardly be a service to the Rolling Stones if he turns too fond a gaze on their sometimes grim, sometimes fascinating determination and presents them instead as preternatural showmen and sainted yarn-spinners, their less savory, more workaday aspects glossed over with hagiographic good intention.

Scorsese does deserve credit, however, for making a date with the senior-circuit Stones. (His film centers on a couple of 2006 appearances at New York’s Beacon Theater.) After all, what’s so everlastingly neat about young rock stars? Anybody can ride youthful get-up-and-go to the top of his game—with an exuberance that’s often mistaken for rebellion. A recent book by the Danish photographer Bent Rej, The Rolling Stones in the Beginning, captures the band in exactly this period. These wonderful photos show five lads having a blast, roughhousing backstage, making a mess of dressing rooms, driving auditoriums full of teens to a furniture-smashing frenzy, and—in quieter moments—enjoying some newfound spending money. At the same time their playfully ill-tempered sound was beginning to take over the charts, they earned a wad of cash cutting a jingle for Rice Krispies cereal. A quarter of a century later, as the Stones hit the road with Budweiser sponsorship, the always amusing Neil Young, from his mountain hideaway south of San Francisco, was issuing fatwas against rock-’n’-roll commercialization, as if corporate involvement profaned what once was.

The bitterest critics, indeed, have always been those who were once convinced that the band, its music, and rock in general stood for something deeply meaningful: in a word, revolution. Even if that faith went unrewarded, and rock proved to be just another profit-making enterprise, the belief alone was apparently so profound that it was very meaningful, thereby entitling the now-disheartened to outrage over the bogus foundations of their belief. It’s hard to imagine what the revolutionary implications ever were of, say, Jimi Hendrix’s amplifier-humping antics in Monterey Pop. The Woodstock documentary, admittedly, did a fair job of spelling out the rock-as-revolution theme, but mostly by wedding a socialist realist aesthetic (the faux field hands, the corny tractor cameos) with a Sesame Street sensibility (this concert brought to you by the numbers “One, two, three, what are we fighting for?”).

In Gimme Shelter, the Rolling Stones’s own documentary from that wonderfully revolutionary period, we find Mick Jagger repeating, “Who’s fighting, and what for? Who’s fighting, and what . . . for?” But this was no follow-the-bouncing-ball antiwar sing-along à la Woodstock. Jagger was standing out in the chill air of a dark December night in 1969, addressing the spasms of violence occurring immediately in front of the low-slung stage at the Altamont Speedway, a stage all but overrun by tripping hippies, agitated Hell’s Angels, even an oblivious dog. The Angels—ostensibly providing security in lieu of police—were surging into the crowd and knocking people even more senseless with pool cues and, while the cameras were rolling, stabbed to death a black dandy who flashed a pistol in front of the band. In his kooky concert garb, with his voice quavering, Jagger, the author of “Street Fighting Man,” seemed like a trick-or-treater who’d wandered into a dangerous sandlot.

To be fair, however, the Rolling Stones, a few clever lyrics aside, never put much stock in revolution, the youth movement, or the counterculture in general. They never hoped to die before they got old, never argued that all you needed was love, never warned against trusting the over-30 set. Pressured to make some declaration of solidarity with the growing protest movement, Jagger would simply say, “We admire your involvement, but we’re primarily, um, musicians.” A drug-addled Keith Richards, the seeming poster boy for anti-establishment living, echoed the sentiment in a 1971 Rolling Stone magazine interview (reproduced in The Rolling Stone Interviews: 1967–1980): “So ridiculous, cats asking what to do about the Vietnam War. ‘What are you asking me? You’ve got your people to get that one together.’” And yet fans insisted that any group of libertines who flouted authority with such aplomb, who sang songs like “Sympathy for the Devil,” who courted mayhem at their concerts, had to be revolutionaries at heart, if only sly ones. Hence the acute dismay over the corporate-sponsored antiques road show the group has become. But as the former Mick Jagger consort Marianne Faithfull wrote in her autobiography, about the pseudosatanic nihilism that the band once shopped:

It’s a simpleminded point of view, the idea that your icons really are what they appear to be. A peasant, religious attitude, basically. . . . The only reason that the Stones were not destroyed by the ideas they toyed with is that they never took them as seriously as their fans.

Or, better to say, they took them seriously in a different way. Alan Clayson, in The Rolling Stones Complete Discography, cites the late-1960s “craze for theatrical diabolism” and offers this choice vignette: “Perusing Melody Maker as a stockbroker would the Financial Times, Mick would remark, ‘There’s a big following for these hocus-pocus bands, so obviously the subject has a vast commercial potential.’”

Jagger always was a wizard.

Several years ago, the writer John Strausbaugh took up the age-old complaint about veteran rockers growing old disgracefully. In his sometimes hilariously grumpy, sometimes grindingly earnest Rock ’Til You Drop, Strausbaugh halfheartedly runs through the old rock-once-meant-something, at-least-we-thought-rock-once-meant-something, well-anyway-rock-should-mean-something arguments before declaring with certitude that rock is about “new,” “change,” “rebellion,” “youth,” and “freedom,” and therefore anyone over 30 and encumbered with success should be forbidden from performing it, lest they rebel against such categorical limitations and freely make asses of themselves and thereby bring shame to the apparently delicate, dignified business of youthful rebellion. Strausbaugh’s main offenders, naturally, are the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger, looking like he’d just taken an emetic, made the cover of Strausbaugh’s book, the subtle message being that the band must be sick to death of playing—and its fans sick to death of hearing—those smash hits from yesteryear, and that only an unseemly, all-around nostalgia drives the enterprise at this point. These days, that line of thinking goes, a wizened Mick Jagger, after several hours of preconcert shiatsu, is up there wiggling and dreaming that he’s still the coked-up joker he used to be, and today’s fans, listening to “Brown Sugar” for the 4,000th time, are imagining that danger still fills the air, that a rampaging Angel might bring a pool cue down on the head of that software developer three rows up. But nobody who’s ever slogged through a bootleg copy of the Stones’s unreleased ’72-tour documentary—Cocksucker Blues, which is set largely in the deepest bowels of America’s hockey arenas and in crappy hotel rooms with the shades drawn—could imagine anyone being nostalgic for that claustrophobic existence. Anyone but Strausbaugh, that is:

The Stones tour in ’72 was the ultimate sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll tour (watch Keith in Cocksucker Blues nod out backstage, gaunt and skeletal, wilting before your eyes in slow motion like a dying lily in a time-lapse film). The Stones of 1972—that I can understand feeling nostalgic for. Who among us boomer rock fans isn’t nostalgic for that?

A typical romantic, Strausbaugh is especially turned on by the beautifully doomed, and doesn’t appreciate that Richards ended up an indomitable weed rather than a dead flower. In Underworld, his own epic tour of the boomer years, Don DeLillo gets much closer to the actual experience of watching Cocksucker Blues, summoning “the endless noisy boredom of the tour—tunnels and runways.” One of that novel’s characters “loved the tunnel blue light and the nothing-happening parts, everybody’s got cameras and they’re shooting nothing happening.” Indeed, the most memorable moment in that drug-saturated film, aside from the staged, in-flight sex scene, is when Keith Richards—sounding like a completely sozzled Bertie Wooster—struggles to order some fruit from room service. Robert Greenfield, the author of S.T.P., a first-hand account of that outing, laid it bare:

By this time in the tour, one month after it has begun, it’s hard to pretend anymore. The thrill is gone. All of the things that were going to happen on the road have already happened at least a thousand times. . . . The boredom is everywhere.

It’s not quite as groovy to think of Keith Richards wilting backstage from the monotony of playing two shows a day in service of Young America’s rock-’n’-roll fantasies. Quoting the band’s longtime factotum Jo Bergman on her feelings for the ’72 tour, Greenfield would also write:

“It wasn’t fun,” she’ll say afterward. “And it wasn’t supposed to be. Be efficient, make money, and don’t hurt anyone. That was the given system.” For someone in as deep as she is, five years in, who has suffered with the band since the days when things were a lot less respectable and a lot more spontaneous, it hurts. It has almost become a job.

Of course, it always was a job, however unconventional. The Rolling Stones toured and recorded nonstop for the first three years of the band’s existence, briefly burned out (making a dippy psychedelic album, enduring various arrests and court appearances), and then set to work becoming bigger and better than ever: harder, darker; more rock, less pop. The reason they kicked Brian Jones out was because he was unemployable— too stoned and incapacitated to be of use in recording sessions, and too tangled up in drug charges to secure the visas he’d need for overseas promotional tours. Furthermore, Jean-Luc Godard’s Sympathy for the Devil leaves no doubt that there’s a lot of tedious, time-consuming work that goes into creating that raw, spontaneous rock-’n’-roll sound. Fast-forward through Godard’s pulp-Marxist mumbo jumbo and you find the band in the veritable cube warren of a recording studio, going through the rock equivalent of a dull, desultory staff meeting, a brainstorming session, out of which—after many starts and stops, many alterations and retakes, many smoke breaks and overdubs and hours of expensive studio time—emerges a snappy classic (the title track). Never mind today’s Stones being sick of playing their hits after decades of touring; they’ve probably always been sick of their songs before those songs even made it to radio and gave listeners the sense of fresh excitement.

That, as the saying goes, is why they made the big bucks. They bored themselves silly that such excitement might live.

By the early 1980s I was a fan. One day I was in the living room with the Stones on TV, the beautifully doomed Hal Ashby’s film of their most recent world tour. In walked my dad, who stood there awhile watching Mick Jagger prance and strut around the enormous stadium stage. “That guy’s my age,” he finally said. “How would you like it if your old man acted like that?” He then puckered his lips and began twisting convulsively, sticking his ass out and lifting a leg now and then—all of this made funnier by the fact that my dad is semi-crippled from crashing his jet when he was in the Marines. He can’t walk on his crooked, atrophied legs without a marked limp, so his Mick dance was a special treat. And then it ended abruptly, and he hobbled out of the room.

It was an unlikely lesson in cool. I was briefly annoyed, in that chippy adolescent way, at this unprovoked mockery. But what was there to defend? As I’d noticed even years earlier, Mick—who often moves like a near-parody of a Motown girl singer—was obviously courting laughter. And what harm was there in mocking the already self-mocking? Especially when the mockery itself was so utterly ridiculous? Mick and my dad, I knew, were both unassailably confident men acting like clowns. You’d have to be confident to so casually embarrass yourself the way they were willing to. My teenage brain, nervously dedicated to cracking the deep mysteries of cool, nearly short-circuited at the thought of it.

Richards, like my dad and his roguish, war-survivor squadron-mates, got on darkly comic terms with death at an early age, and he sounds like them when he jokes, “I’m happy to be here. I’m happy to be anywhere.” Or, “I just hope to wake up, and it’s not a disaster.” Granted, to make “disaster” your reference point is to set an exceedingly low bar, which probably helps explain the buoyant foolhardiness such men can continue to engage in. But the buoyancy’s the thing. These men all got a personal glimpse of mortality sooner than most, which seems to have instilled in them a firm belief that life, however haphazard and humiliating it may be, or you may make it, is for living. And the more, the better. Not given to existential crises, such guys tend to proceed through their work years with an unselfconscious gusto that can make life seem like a busman’s holiday. Simply put: they like what they do and are ever on the lookout for opportunities to keep doing it.

During one of the Rolling Stones’s fallow periods, Richards used his free time to organize a concert for (and with) his hero Chuck Berry, to celebrate Berry’s 60th birthday. Yet another documentary was shot: Hail! Hail! Rock ’N’ Roll, in which Berry at times appears moved to little more than fantastic prickliness, correcting, reproving, and otherwise belittling Richards as Richards leads the pickup band through rehearsals. Scowling and fuming in response, like a frustrated kid whose best is never good enough for the old man, Richards, by this time a middle-aged guitar colossus who might justifiably have felt he was too old for this, nevertheless backs down, or gets in line for another attempt, which at most earns him a touch of condescending praise. His commitment to the homage is so genuine that it’s easy to overlook how endearing and uncommon it is for a wealthy megastar to put up with such abasement. Richards’s nostalgia for that old Berry magic may be abiding, but what propels him through this episode, beyond his own unassailable confidence, is presumably that same ineffable sense of purpose that’s seen him through almost 50 years of dizzying tour schedules and mind-numbing recording sessions. Whether or not the work brings easy amusement, the man seems fulfilled by the mere process. It might just be that this undead junkie showboat is admirably well-adjusted.

My dad’s Marine Corps coterie and the Stones were both burdened with past glory by the time they were in their 30s, and responded with an even more hard-earned glory, one inextricably connected to aging and effort—that of simply carrying on professionally in the tall shadow of an early peak, and refusing to let it dim the present. This would seem to be the opposite of nostalgia. Ceasing a productive, fulfilling activity (or asking others to do so) for no other reason than to preserve it in memory, in an idealized state, untouched by the mounting blemishes of time—that’s more like nostalgia. And though generally harmless, such nostalgia can lead one to fixate on the associations of youth (one’s own youth or another’s) and can make growing old gracefully a tricky prospect, the more so if you’re an aging writer like Strausbaugh stuck on a moment than if you’re an aging rocker like Jagger living perpetually in the moment.

As it is, the Stones of legend aren’t the Stones of old. The Stones of legend are the too-old Stones, the black-comedy Stones, making a mockery of their own aging, even their own physical wreckage, in a long, rude goodbye that never ends. Before, they were just the best in a crowded field, but their truly singular contribution has been to play through the closing credits and beyond, never stopping, and irritating all those whose taste runs more toward romantic comedy, if not straight romance—those who want the lights to come on and the show to end at the moment of peak infatuation, leaving hearts bursting with a sort of puppy love.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Jon Zobenica lives in Carmel Valley, California. His writing has appeared in such publications as The Atlantic, Quillette, The New York Times Book Review, and the Scholar.


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