December 5 , 2005
horses couldn’t drag them off stage
Tom Chaffin is visiting scholar in history.
During their periodic “Elvis is Alive!” jags,
the tabloids routinely treat us to manipulated photo images that
conjure how the King might look today—that is, had he lived
beyond 1977 and the age of 42.
The whole exercise is tacky. But those images probably
come as close as we’ll
get to glimpsing what time might have done to major acts (most now deceased)
of rock’s 1950s and ’60s golden era. Because they died young, we’ll
never know how Elvis, Jimi or Janis would have looked and sounded in middle and
The Rolling Stones, however—still on the road,
still recording new material—afford
us the opportunity to witness how golden-era greatness holds up in the 21st century.
The Stones won their first admirers in 1963 when they
rocked the Crawdaddy Club in the London borough of Richmond. The
band by then
had soaked up influences
from jazz and country to R&B and rock. However, unlike the Beatles, who idolized
Elvis, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards found their North Star in Muddy Waters,
Jimmy Reed and other great Chicago and Delta bluesmen. Long before he formed
a band named after a Waters song, the teenaged Jagger mail-ordered blues albums
from America and, with his childhood chum Richards, listened obsessively.
By most accounts, the Stones still earn their “greatest
rock ’n’ roll
band in the world” title. At their Atlanta concert in October, the band’s
riveting “I’m a King Bee” energy remained intact—only
now it’s propelled by more polished musicianship. Even so, I’ve been
struck by how many critics feel obliged to make sneering references to age: Jagger
is 62; Richards, 61; Charlie Watts, 64; and Ron Wood, 58. Even Jagger, invoking
a song from their new album, brought up longevity: He said they’d thought
of calling this the “Oh No, Not You Again!” tour.
Why the cultural discomfort with a band that survives
beyond the few years of most rock acts? After all, architects, authors,
directors and classical
musicians all are expected to work as long as they can. And most people—reasonably
assuming that experience improves—register no surprise when an artist’s
twilight years yield his or her best work.
So why withhold such assumptions from rock performers?
Well, for starters, the
form is still stereotyped as “teen music”; its frequent sophistication
gets overlooked. But more important, I’m convinced that fans expect their
heroes to be signatories to a rock ’n’ roll Faustian pact. In exchange
for early glory, musicians agree to self-destruct while young or, failing that,
quietly shuffle off into the underworld of the oldies circuit, condemned to re-create
their early hits before ever-smaller audiences.
Finally, in the case of the Stones, yet another factor
the Joyce Carol Oates syndrome. Over the years, Oates has published more than
100 books. Her fiction enjoys a sturdy literary reputation. But how much higher
would that reputation have soared had she published fewer books (perhaps only
one or two novels) before dying an untimely, sensational death?
Reconsider the old Beatles vs. Stones rivalry of the
1960s. During their brief but prolific recording career (only about
the Beatles produced a
dozen studio albums—about half the number that the Stones have produced
over four decades. By conventional wisdom, the Beatles created the more enduring
musical legacy. But how much does that judgment issue from the fact that the
Beatles, by leaving the field early, guaranteed an enduring nostalgia for their
work? Likewise, by staying for the long haul, how much have the Stones invited
critics to take them for granted?
The received wisdom has the Beatles, through a playful
eclecticism, infusing standard rock with a newfound sophistication.
peerless rockers (“Satisfaction,” “Let
Me Down Slow”) to ballads (“Ruby Tuesday,” “Biggest Mistake”),
Jagger-Richards ranks with the best of Lennon-McCartney. And from the Indian
raga shadings of “Paint It Black” to the Moroccan stylings of “Continental
Drift,” they even boast their own eclecticism.
And unlike the Beatles, who abandoned touring soon
after achieving stardom, the Stones went on to become a legendary
stage act. By
dancing, preening his way across countless stages all over the world—belongs
in the elite company of Frank Sinatra and Elvis as one of our era’s most
charismatic live performers.
As Richards has lately said, it’s not to rock
stars who die young that he and the band look for role models; they
look instead to great bluesmen such
as Waters and Willie Dixon, whose work only became more resonant as the years
Besides, as Richards also said, he’s too old
to find another trade. “I’ve
said it before—this
is all I can do. I’m a lousy plumber.”
This essay first appeared in The Los Angeles Times
and is reprinted with permission.