Through the Past (Lightly)

Rolling Stones
Soldier Field, Chicago
Tuesday, Sept. 23

When Keith Richards gets aroused, he gets a wild, distant look in his eye, his voice cracks, and his left leg rises slightly, the way a cat's hindquarters do when you stroke its butt. Richards' leg goes up when he plays a signature guitar line in a song like “Honky Tonk Women”; when he finds himself at a mike in front of 50,000 people with his longtime partner, Mick Jagger, to sing a chestnut like “19th Nervous Breakdown”; or when he gets a moment to sing one of his quixotic solo songs, his arms around a pair of backup singers, his winning grin disarming all before him. Seeing that pleasure, it reminds you that the Rolling Stones are very lucky people. At a time of strange cultural torment many years ago, they self-selected themselves to play roles that didn't exist and whose implications none could have understood. In the 35 or so years since, they've maintained their position with the mysterious benefits of charisma, the unflagging canniness of Mick Jagger, and the help of a wavering but formidable discipline.

But that maintenance in recent years has not been pretty. The irregularity of the Rolling Stones' touring schedule captures the vicissitudes of the band bleakly. In the mid-'60s, there were great rushes of tours as the scruffy, ill-mannered aggregation (the Oasis of their day, only deadlier) made their name. Magisterially, they hit America with escalating foofaraw every three years from the late '60s to the early '80s; if the 1972 tour movie Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones is any indication, the band was taking its audience to more convincingly dark places than any of its peers. Then came more than a decade of doldrums, as Richards slept a heroin-lidded sleep and a disgusted Jagger vainly tried to construct a solo career for himself; the band played only one series of American dates between 1981 and 1994.

But now back to health and self-respect, the band, a voracious moneymaking machine wary of the declining record sales it faced in the '80s, no longer takes chances. The Rolling Stones don't record albums per se: Instead, the group erects six- or 12-month publicity campaigns during which it proffers an album, a tour, a live album, and a live film or video. An agreeable, chuckleheaded press assures consumers that the Stones are back in top rock 'n' roll form on album and marvels endlessly that the group is able to show up and perform. The tours, for which the band grosses well into the nine figures, are of course the financial center of these affairs, but this year, the money, I think, is only half the reason the group is back on the road again. The other is timing. Not yet ready for the inevitable final tour — with the band members closing in on 60 it should come at some point close to the millennium — the Stones hit the road quickly for one extra $100 million-plus payoff. One more, and then the weary Charlie Watts can relax, Richards can embark on a busman's retirement of guest shots and loopy ad hoc tours, and Mick Jagger may finally shut the fuck up.

At the opening of the tour on a nippy night in Chicago last week, you had to admire the financial single-mindedness. Corporate sponsor Sprint chipped in $4 or $6 million; besides the logo everywhere, the company got its customers tickets to the best seats. (If the arrangement was the same as it was with Budweiser on the Voodoo Lounge tour, Jagger came in to fellate bigwigs and major clients at a meet-and-greet before the show.) Jagger says that corporate sponsorship is necessary to make the tour profitable; actually, it just makes it more profitable. The seats on the grass of Soldier Field (the lakefront football stadium where the Chicago Bears play) were packed together so ludicrously tight that fans were having trouble standing up for the songs. T-shirts were $30 plus; tickets were $60 — plus another $8 in TicketMaster charges, at least half of which was funneled back to the band. The Stones grossed $3 million-plus for a performance of slightly more than two hours, and for all that couldn't get their sorry asses onstage until 75 cold minutes after Blues Traveler had finished their opening set.

Not even the band has paid much attention to the new album, Bridges to Babylon. Why, it must be their best record since Some Girls! Richards has a lot of natural dignity, but it's hard to hear it on Babylon, as he, Ron Wood, and Watts are mushed along by their grim leader. Whose idea was it to put the incoherent “rap” or “toast” or whatever it is in the middle of the slow ballad “Anybody Seen My Baby?” Then there's Jagger painting a gritty urban portrait in clumsy swipes on “Out of Control”: “The drunks and the homeless/ They all know me.” Oh. “Gunface,” another of those pinched Stones rockers, contains Jagger's most hateful imagery: “I stick a gun in your face/ You'll pay with your life …/ I'm gonna teach her how to scream.” It would be more offensive if Jagger's idea of vocal menace was anything more than risible. And at this point he's so transparent about the plasticity of his motives that it's hard even to concentrate to hear what bullshit he's selling this particular year.

Richards, as usual, contributes the only things of interest on the record, a wan but diverting reggae tune, “You Don't Have to Mean It,” and an oddly ambitious torch song, “How Can I Stop,” which ends with an intoxicating sax solo by Wayne Shorter. Jagger shows his lack of interest by not appearing on either. The band steals the chorus of “Anybody Seen My Baby?” from “Constant Craving,” and the arrangement and instrumentation of “Out of Control” from “Papa Was a Rolling Stone.” After years of telling us that the band is “getting back to basics” with generic producers like Don Was, the group now tries to earn points by moving further away, using the Dust Brothers on two tracks, “Anybody Seen” and “Saint of Me.” Those wondering what this clash of titans would produce musically will be disappointed; when the Stones and the Dust Brothers go eye to eye, the Dust Brothers blink. And now both Jagger and Richards in interviews disparage their contributions. [page]

The show was vapid, too. Everything was gold, including some vaguely Babylonian columns. There was a big oval video screen. The stage was flanked by a pair of enormous inflatable naked women. The one on the right was on her hands and knees, breasts dangling, nicely positioned on a pillow for entry from behind. Very, very classy. (And say what you will about the Stones, you have to admit that they've set the standard for the use of inflatables in stadium concerts in the post-Animals era.) Jagger always tries to display a little political incorrectness (the last time it was remotely interesting was in 1978, with Some Girls). The 1989 tour had big-busted hooker balloons; in 1994 the Stones flashed a video montage of big-chested babes. At the end of it, a sad thing in the second row felt compelled to bare her own breasts for a video camera that had magicked itself next to her. This year, Jagger came up with a crude, pornographic animation sequence to accompany “Miss You.” Naughty Rolling Stone!

The band didn't even make a stab at mood: Just about every song was bathed in low-budget stadium-concert crap lighting. (When you have a video screen going overhead, you don't need spotlights.) They played 24 songs, 15 of these from the eight- or nine-year burst of inspiration that ended in 1972 with Exile on Main St. Throw in the obligatory touchstone singles of the following decade — “It's Only Rock 'N Roll” (yawn), “Miss You,” “Start Me Up” — and that was about the show. They played two cuts from the new Babylon album (I've seen the Beach Boys play more new songs in concert) and one or two alleged rockers from the '90s, like the pallid “You Got Me Rocking.” There was one surprise, and a nice moment it was — I'll get to that in a minute. The other left-field selection was “Little Queenie,” the Chuck Berry rocker the band made its own on the live Ya-Ya's some 30 years ago.

Mick Jagger can't dance anymore: He looks like some guy playing Rumpelstiltskin in a dinner theater. Stalking down the runways trying to stir up the crowd with some hot moves, he came across like a street person. When he clumsily tried to plug his stupid Web site, an audible titter ran through the crowd. (The Web shtick was supposed to produce a surprise request from fans online. Jagger made a big deal out of whether the band knew “Under My Thumb,” but they'd rehearsed the song and the shtick that weekend.) Jagger didn't even try to hit the high notes on songs like “Ruby Tuesday” or “19th Nervous Breakdown,” but I appreciated that for once he went to the trouble of articulating his lyrics; this gave the show a less contemptuous cast than others I've seen. But then the teleprompters probably helped.

“Little Queenie” was the first of three songs the band delivered from a satellite stage built in the middle of the area. (Yeah, I know — U2 did this about 45 years ago.) It wasn't “unplugged”; there were guitars, an electric piano, and a trap set for Watts. To make a point they turned off their stupid video screen and let “Queenie,” “Let It Bleed,” and “The Last Time” fend for themselves, which they almost did, and for a bit the band, lit by bright white light, surrounding by adoring fans, and silhouetted against the stark clouds rushing by off Lake Michigan, was somewhat interesting. It was hard to enjoy it, though, because gracious Charlie Watts, who now looks like David Brinkley, seemed so uncomfortable out in the cold. I have a lot of respect for Watts, but then a lot of good drummers play in bad bands. On the main stage he actually had the set list lettered on a clear plexiglass wall next to his kit.

A lot of the songs the band played were good; the lyrical turns in “Tumbling Dice” and “Let It Bleed” (“cheatin' like I don't know how” in the former, “steel guitar engagement” in the latter) can still give you a frisson. But then you remember that the songs meant something very different too long a time ago. The reason the words “The Rolling Stones” have weight is that, back when it mattered, they challenged something like the status quo. They did it intermittently, cheesily, and sometimes wrongly (on songs like “Under My Thumb”), but it wasn't really easy or obvious at the time and, as I said before, you have to give them credit for making things up as they went along. But “Sympathy for the Devil” is played now for nostalgia; it's pleasurable only to the extent that the audience members not think about what it meant, that they just close their eyes and take it. In this way, your average '90s Rolling Stones concert is a lot like watching TV, except that you're out in the cold in the midst of a mob of Sprint-using yuppies who've sprung $70 for a two-hour vacuous thrill.

I hate to keep talking about Richards, but he is an amazing figure, and when you're trapped in a stadium watching Mick Jagger attempt to strut you'll settle for anything. The show's one alluring moment was of course Richards' solo spot. He did two songs: One was “Wanna Hold You,” the faux-soul rave-up from 1983's Undercover. For me the one zinger of the evening was “All About You,” the clangorous ballad, done Hi Records style, from Emotional Rescue. Sung in Richards' disreputable growl, the song delivered echoes from the band's dark period, Richards taking potent swipes at his blood brother: “I'm so sick and tired/ Of hanging around/ Jerks like you.” Some years ago you might have found the song daringly subtextual; at the show that night, after too many lousy albums and so many money-grubbing tours, it sounded merely bald and unpleasant. Then Richards' leg raised again and it was hard to begrudge him the pleasure. Keith Richards is rock's last naked lifer, and he'll do anything, even stand on a stage with a nostalgia band fronted by Mick Jagger, to play one more show. [page]

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