STONES
Men in Tights
 
Thoughts on the Rolling Stones’ return to New Zealand after 20 years. 
 
By Chris Bourke (NZ Listener, April 1995)
 
 
“Why stop? We’re getting gooder and gooder.”
 
­                               – Mick Jagger, 1981.
 
“I’m much better now I’m 40. I’m fatter, so it’s funnier.”
 
                                – Gary Glitter, 1980.
 
I: What a drag it is getting old
 
For about 25 years now, the selling point of every Rolling Stones tour has been the refrain from one of their earliest hits: “This could be the last time …”
 
In an earlier age, when being outrageous came more easily, the end of the Stones always seemed imminent; one or other of the band seemed destined for jail for drug possession or death through drug abuse. More than a few people close to the Stones in the golden era never saw 30 (Brian Jones, Gram Parsons). So it must be worrying as their colleagues (roadie Ian Stewart, pianist Nicky Hopkins, producer Jimmy Miller) start dying of natural causes.
 
Time, age and longevity are the big issues on the Voodoo Lounge tour, and for that, the band only has itself to blame. They’ve had more farewell tours than Nellie Melba[1], teasing “this could be the last time” all the way to the box office. The record breaking 1989 Steel Wheels tour followed a feud between Mick and Keith that was so well publicised it now seems planned. Before that came tours for Tattoo You in 1981 (Mick: “I won’t be singing ‘I Can’t Get No Satisfaction’ when I’m 40”) and Some Girls in 1978, when the punks were baying for the Stones’ blood, and the Mounties wanted Keith Richards in prison.
 
They have coped with growing old by simply refusing to, but for these icons of youth music, time has been an obsession since the beginning. J B Priestley wrote a series of “Time” plays, and lived to the age of 90[2]; a hit album could be compiled from the Rolling Stones songs on the theme: ‘Time is On My Side’, ‘Time Waits for No One’, ‘Out of Time’, plus ‘Not Fade Away’, ‘It’s All Over Now’ and ‘Start Me Up’ (“… and I’ll never stop”). The title, naturally, would be The Last Time – of the album and the tour.
 
Why should age be an issue? Richards is disdainful of Jagger’s “Peter Pan complex”, preferring to emulate the longevity of his jazz and R&B idols. “I want to see how far I can take this thing. If I can grow up, then surely my music can.” No one said to Picasso at 56, “Don’t bother developing that Guernica sketch”, or told Irving Berlin, “There’s no business like show business” when he was 66.
 
Combine the ages of the four remaining Stones and you get 202 years, which takes us back to George Washington and the French revolution. So for pop stars, they are old. But the Rolling Stones are currently at their most influential since their creative peak in the early 70s. The Black Crowes and Primal Scream worship at the altar of the Stones’ dissolute classic Exile on Main Street[3]. Current alternative darling Liz Phair has built a career out of Exile in Guyville, a woman’s reply to the 1972 album.
 
Voodoo Lounge is no classic, and in this era of classic hits radio, the Stones’ greatest relevance is as mentors. The band itself may be trying to make time stand still, with the state-of-the-art tour displaying them as a covers act, paying extravagant tribute to themselves. But to say the Stones should have given up years ago to become talkshow hosts or nightclub owners is to say that their music never mattered – that it was all just part of the fashion business.
 
Van Morrison has said, “I’m a musician, I do what I do.” The Stones don’t know what else they could do, and they’re having too much fun to find out (not to mention the money). Still, there is something silly about these old men in tights. Just before he died, John Lennon sneered that the Stones would be a joke in the future, with their evil black makeup and bad boy posturing: “When you’re in your 40s and still in a gang, it just means you’re still 18 in the head.”
 
While Jagger takes a gym on tour, Richards and Ron Wood are happy to grow old disgracefully. And Charlie Watts remains bemused: “I just find it all rather embarrassing!”
 
II: Girlie action, and other sonnets.
 
Charlie, resplendent in three-piece Armani suit, must cringe at the sight of his op shopped cohorts writing songs. Picture the scene at the recent sessions for Voodoo Lounge. Keith: “I’ve got a riff.” Mick: “Great. I’ve got a lyric: ‘Hey, hey, you got me rocking now / hey, hey, there ain’t no stopping me … I was a hooker, losing her looks / I was a writer, can’t write another book.”
 
But ‘You Got Me Rocking’ is certain to be the newest crowd pleaser at Western Springs: it’s another great version of the generic thumper the Stones have been 
re-writing since Keith heard ‘Satisfaction’ in his sleep 30 years ago. To the untrained ear they may all sound very similar. But to the purists in the $95 seats, these Variations in Three Chords are as diverse as the 100 plus symphonies Haydn based on the sonata form[4]. What make a Stones song different isn’t the addition of an Elizabethan harpsichord or Bach choir, it’s what happens to the riff. We’ve danced to it fuzzed (‘Satisfaction’); played stoned, with cowbell (‘Honky Tonk Woman’); played stoned, and asleep (‘Tumbling Dice’); played by acoustic guitars, with sneeze (‘Jumping Jack Flash’), by acoustic guitars, with sexist racism (‘Brown Sugar’) and with confusing stop-start timing (‘Start Me Up’). When heard opening Voodoo
Lounge in ‘Love is Strong”, the riff is upside down and backwards. That didn’t really work, so when Toyota was developing its new TV campaign they only purloined the video from ‘Love is Strong’. They re-arranged ‘Start Me Up’ to images of new Corollas and thought up a snappy slogan: “Start It Up”.
 
Talent. Whew. No wonder these people are rich.
 
III: Satisfaction is guaranteed for all.
 
With the Voodoo Lounge tour predicted to gross US $300 million that’s nearly - half the fiscal envelope[5] – the Stones aren’t going to rock the boat (is that a song?) by suddenly surprising us with a musical make over, like Dylan and Lilburn[6] going electric. As living icons and a lucrative corporation, the Rolling Stones® have responsibilities to their market, just like McDonald’s, or Lion, or DB: they may not make the best burgers or beer in the world, but they’re reliable, consistent and value for money.
 
Since their return to the concert stage in 1969, following the limbo years of Brian Jones’s decline, with each new tour the Stones have had to surpass themselves in theatrics. In 1972-73, the gimmicks were cheap: a bucket full of rose petals and mirrored lighting (New Zealand saw the daylight version). They upped the ante in 1975 with the inflatable penis prop, and in 1981 Mick swept over the crowd in a cherry picker. But the Steel Wheels overkill of 1989 changed stadium rock forever: a massive industrial set with working lifts, more computer lasers than NASA, a blitzkrieg of fireworks and a walk-on role for Guns N’ Roses[7]. Among the props for this tour is a massive inflatable Elvis.
 
Keith Richards, however, is dubious about the escalating gimmickry. “Mick is more involved with what’s happening at this moment – and fashion,” he said in 1988. “I’m trying to grow the thing up, and I’m saying we don’t need the yellow lemon tights and the cherry picker and the spectacle to make a good Rolling Stones show. There’s a more mature way of doing it.” 
 
As pop stars in the mid 60s, the Stones played small theatres and ballrooms around provincial Britain; riots were so frequent their 20-minute set rarely lasted more than 10. Nowadays, there are no riots: all seated venues and all ages audiences resemble an ordered, hi tech Nuremberg rally. “The audience is staid,” said Paul du Noyer, editor of staid music mag Mojo. “They’re not here to rock, but to watch in awe.” The Stones don’t yet look silly, or undignified, says du Noyer, they come on like a restored steam engine, puffing again in all its glory. “It’s an affirmation of virility, of appetite undiminished. Age has not withered me yet, Jagger is saying – and he says it convincingly.”   
 
IV. The Stone alone.
 
Spare a thought for young Darryl Jones who at 31 was born the year the Rolling Stones released their first single. He is standing in for long-time bassist Bill Wyman who, at 58, is tired of being un rock star. But will Jones, who has played with Miles Davis and Sting, become the Jimmy Nicol of the 90s?
 
Jimmy Nicol may not be remembered by many, but he was the drummer who temporarily replaced Ringo, for part of the Beatles’ Australasian tour. Nicol’s experience inspired a moving Listener editorial by Monte Holcroft: “Where Jimmy came from, we do not know; where he goes to, we cannot guess; but for 12 days he knew the sweet taste of fame. ‘I feel lousy,’ he said, and not long afterward, went off to the airport …”
 
Wyman, meanwhile, is happily ensconced in his third successful marriage, going through his receipts and old bus tickets for the next exciting instalment of his memoirs[8]. His departure led to fevered speculation in the music press. Odds were offered on his replacement: Paul McCartney (experienced, but likes wife on stage: 200-1), Sting (English, but a jazzer: 100-1), Danny Bonaduce of the Partridge Family (a bit rusty: 400-1), a bass machine (no looker, but neither was Wyman. Wouldn’t quit though: 70-1)[9].
 
V: Crossfire hurricanes.
 
From the beginning, even before they started flirting with drugs and the Devil, society felt there was something depraved about the Stones. They didn’t smile like the Beatles, and had longer hair; they got caught urinating outdoors.
 
The young Stones weren’t a law unto themselves, just adhering to Little Richard’s First Law of Youth Culture: attract the kids by driving their parents up the wall[10]. Now that the Stones audience has, like the band, grown older (if not grown up), the amended law for 1995 seems to be, attract the parents and drive their kids up the wall.
 
Last December it took only a couple of hours for the Rolling Stones to take $3 million out of New Zealand’s recreational economy; a few days later, it happened again with the “sudden” announcement of a second show. At the front of the queues around the country were unreconstructed fans, who looked as though they’d partied all night before lining up around 4.00am. The few teenagers in the determined queue were outnumbered by men with a sprinkling of grey hair, many of them with mobile phones. On one side of me, a self-employed painter was trying to queue jump by booking tickets on the phone; on the other a corporate lawyer told his secretary he’d be a little late in today.
 
Thirty years after they first played here, anticipation of the Stones arrival is still like a scene from The Wild One: there’s a combination of arousal and fear before the gang hits town[11]. Eighty thousand people will make the pilgrimage to Western Springs this Easter. We will be there not for nostalgia or to feel young, just to enjoy the act we’ve known for all these years. We want to see if the Stones are still the “greatest rock’n’roll band in the world”, not just the grayest.
 
 
 
 
 
© Chris Bourke, 1995

 



[1] Nellie Melba (1861-1931), Australian soprano, famous for her endless “farewell” tours.

[2] Ten years before writing this article, I wrote a piece on Priestley’s Time plays. I headlined it “Time is On My Side”. At the time, he was still alive, but he carked it while the Listener magazine was on the presses, causing great expense as a change was made. My alternative headline “Time Waits For No One” was rejected.

[3] Bill Janovitz’s 2005 analysis of the album The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St is recommended www.continuumbooks.com while Robert Greenfield’s 2006 Exile on Main St: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones is not, a surprise after his 1973 on-the-road book STP: Stones Touring Party, which was only eclipsed by Stanley Booth’s brilliant account of the 1969 US tour, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (1985).

[4] With thanks to Gregory Sandow for this idea, from a piece he wrote on Chuck Berry in the Village Voice in 1987. Unfortunately not on his website: www.gregsandow.com

[5] A mid-1990s attempt by New Zealand’s National (conservative) government to pay off multiple long-standing Maori tribal grievances with a big cash cheque. Negotiations are continuing.

[6] Douglas Lilburn, New Zealand’s leading contemporary composer (1915-2001). Influenced by Vaughan Williams and Aaron Copland, he shifted to 12-tone and electronic music from the 1960s. http://www.douglaslilburn.com/

[7] Speaking of men in tights, what was Axl Rose thinking with his micro-shorts?

[8] Actually, Wyman’s lavishly illustrated follow-up Rolling With the Stones was more fun than the beautifully printed, official Rolling Stones Anthology. See the Books section of this website.

[9] Hat-tip to the usually sober, and now defunct, US Musician magazine.

[10] A line from Robert Christgau’s essay in the original Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock’n’Roll. www.robertchristgau.com

[11] ibid