The People Vs. the Rolling Stones

Help me out with something here, readers.

Is hating the Rolling Stones a dangerous and contrarian “emperor-has-no-clothes” kind of stance? Or is it obvious and tiresome, like declaring “Y’know, I really hate flying coach”?

Because I have recently had yet another flare-up of a lifelong disdain for the aged bad boys of rock ’n’ roll and I just need to know: In terms of hatred for the Stones, am I part of the 1 percent, or the 99 percent?

If you haven’t heard, I’m sorry to be the one to break the news, but the Stones recently announced that they’re getting back together for a series of concerts to mark their 50th anniversary as a band.

The first of those concerts, in fact, is set to take place today in London with a few follow-ups shows in early December in New York and New Jersey. The big news this time is that former Stones Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor will join the band for a reunion that I can find no evidence that anyone was even asking for.

In the news items about the new tour, I looked in vain for that word “farewell,” but alas found nothing of the kind. The Stones have apparently just turned the corner on the way to 60.

Hey, it’s no skin off my nose – or maybe I should say lips – if audiences still want to see a bunch of scrawny old guys plow through “Honky Tonk Women” for 10-millionth time. But, to quote a Stones song from the disco era, how are we ever going to “Miss You” if you won’t go away?

I’m not here to argue that “Sticky Fingers” or “Exile on Main Street” weren’t groundbreaking rock ’n’ roll records. Of course, the Rolling Stones of that first decade were giants of the genre. If rock ’n’ roll was invented to give voice to teenage alienation, then no song has ever topped “Satisfaction” in that category.

And I’m not declaring that all aged rockers need to do the world a favor and disappear. Bob Dylan has been touring and recording longer than the Stones, but the obvious difference is that Dylan has gone through several wholly distinct creative periods – many of them weird and awful, but that just underscores his artistic integrity. Dylan is still, even at 71, capable of surprises.

The Stones, by contrast, are the world’s most expensive jukebox. Put in a quarter – or, to be more accurate, $830, which is the general admission price for the New York show – and out comes “Brown Sugar.”

I’m a kid of the ’70s, so it’s true that the Stones’ greatest period of creativity was already in decline when I started buying records. But, in terms of image and career arc, I can’t resist a comparison to a band of my era. When KISS first emerged in the mid ’70s, they also were a dangerous band that scared the wits out of parents. Yes, it’s a comparison likely to give a Stones fan an aneurysm. But in both cases, a transgressive teenage rock sound has become a pitiless and cynical corporate brand.

With more than a half century of rock music behind us, we fans have learned a few overarching truths about the rock revolution. And one of them is that bands have a lifespan, at least good ones do. The Beatles’ break-up was shattering for millions back in 1970, but looking back, who can doubt such a thing was inevitable? Up until the moment when John Lennon was killed, the pressures for a Beatles reunion were building to a “Day in the Life” kind of crescendo. Maybe, the Fab Four would have succumbed to the pressure and re-united for a few shows just for the paycheck. But can you imagine the intact Beatles in their 70s playing shows today? Lennon never would have allowed that to happen. Just imagine what John would have to say about Jagger and the Stones today? There’s a tweet I want to read.

Those of us who love rock ’n’ roll, from Chuck Berry to the White Stripes, like to think of great rock music as a kind of untamable buckin’ bronco on which very few can ride for long. The Sex Pistols, the best bad rock band in history, came together for one brilliant album and one insane besotted American tour, before dissolving before the world on stage in San Francisco. That’s an extreme case, sure, but man, what a shooting star that was. Try to imagine the Sex Pistols playing in 2012. It would be like eating a great meal you ordered 30 years ago.

A band’s lifespan doesn’t have to be short. REM, for instance, bowed to the inevitable a couple of years ago after a long and magnificent career that I’m sure has set up all the great grandchildren of the band for life. Perhaps the dreams of U2’s Bono is troubled by such thoughts right about now too.

The point is that the Rolling Stones have transcended that natural lifespan for a rock band at a terrible price. These guys are a zombie band now, a cynical oldies act with nothing new to say to the world except, “pay me.”

For any true music fan, the ironies are almost too bitter to contemplate. The band who said “I can’t get no satisfaction” are the very definition of “satisfied.” The band who said, “You can’t always get what you want,” continues to get everything they want by ransacking their legacy.

But, in one surely unintended way, Mick and Keith and the boys are right. For those of us immune to the charms of the Stones, we can’t ever get what we want.

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