Stones kick continues in Alcott household.

I know that Shine a Light is good because my wife came up to me the other day and asked, apropos of nothing, “So, like, are people as interested in the Rolling Stones as they are in the Beatles?” This is my wife who, generally, would rather gouge out her own eyes than talk about musicology. The question was so out of the blue that I thought for a moment she was talking about eBay sales. To which she said “No, I mean, do people, you know, talk about them the way they talk about the Beatles?” I said “You mean, do people generally recognize the scope of their musical statement the way they do with the Beatles?” To which she replied “Yeah, I guess.” Anyway, she was really impressed with Shine a Light, although she wanted Scorsese to pull back a little every once in a while to see the whole stage picture. And it’s true, the sheer relentlessness of the movie tends to make it an exhilarating and exhausting experience. Watching Mick Jagger leap and dance about for two hours feels like a workout.

My wife’s question got me curious, so I started surfing around the ‘net to see if there were any more-or-less serious musicological analyses of Stones music out there beyond, you know, “man, they’re awesome.” This seems to be a fairly typical site — highly opinionated, musicology-free, utterly enthusiastic. Keno’s list of Stones albums in order of preference, however, made me just about fall down and twitch on the floor. How could someone with such an obvious ardor for the band list Exile on Main St. at #10? And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Anyway, his list got me thinking about my list. And so, at the request of absolutely no one, here is my list of Rolling Stones albums in order of preference. And, as I am not a musicologist, this list is analytically useless.

Making matters worse, I have no opinion regarding all their early work from England’s Newest Hitmakers to Between the Buttons — I have all the records and enjoy them when they turn up on iTunes, but I honestly couldn’t tell you if “Little Red Rooster” is on 12×5 or Now! or if “Route 66” is on December’s Children or Out of Our Heads. This should probably disqualify me from making a list like thisat all.

1. Exile on Main St. — The high-water mark of their mature style and still their most complex, intriguing artistic statement.

2. Sticky Fingers — Almost as good as Exile on Main St.

3. Some Girls — Not as good as the first two, but twice as much fun as either.

4. Emotional Rescue — Almost as good as Some Girls — a hugely underrated album. Including the ridiculous title song.

5. A Bigger BangKind of a cross between Exile and Some Girls — as considered as the former and as fun as the latter.

6. Black and Blue — The Stones most underrated album. I like everything on it except “Fool to Cry.”

7. Beggar’s Banquet — A great album, but I can’t stand “Jigsaw Puzzle.”

8. Let it Bleed — another great album, but I can’t stand “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” which is twice as long as “Jigsaw Puzzle.”

9. Dirty Work — No wait, this is the most underrated Stones album.

10. Tattoo You — Side 1 is absolutely killer. Side 2 tends to bore me.

11. Undercover — A perfectly decent Stones record, but I can’t stand “Too Much Blood.”

12. Steel Wheels — While there’s nothing I can’t stand on this record, there’s only a handful of songs I’m completely nuts for.

13. Goats Head Soup — Better than people give it credit for, but I can’t stand “Winter” and “Can You Hear the Music.”

14. It’s Only Rock n Roll — Not as good as Goats Head Soup. I can’t stand “Till the Next Time We Say Goodbye” and “Time Waits for No One.” Or “If You Really Want to Be My Friend.”  What is it with the long titles on this album?

15. Aftermath — a perfectly decent album I can think of nothing in particular to say about.

16. Voodoo Lounge — Wow, out of 15 songs, I only really like 5 of them, and there are a stunning 5 I absolutely can’t stand.

17. Bridges to Babylon — Not as good as Voodoo Lounge. Wow, did I just say that?

18. Their Satanic Majesties Request — Well, what did you expect?



Some thoughts on Shine a Light

Shine a Light presents such a dazzling, complex array of signifiers that it can be an overwhelming, even exhausting viewing experience. It is also, of course, a very well-shot concert movie documenting a show by a very good rock-n-roll band. So there’s that. Either way it’s worth the $11.

First there is the fact of the Rolling Stones. They’re not just old at this point, they’re really quite old. Like, painful-to-look-at old. You watch them shambling around before the show, greeting dignitaries and dickering about details, creases and canyons in their decrepit faces, and you want to turn away in embarrassment. They don’t just look too old to be playing rock-n-roll, they look too old to leave the house. Then they launch into “Jumping Jack Flash” and, in the space of a guitar riff and a dance move, your embarrassment transmutes into awe. They’re simply flabbergasting to watch. Mick Jagger works harder in any given five minutes on stage than I have in thirty years. And he is propelled forward by Charlie Watts, who works just as hard and receives not half the credit. This band ran out of things to prove about ten thousand shows ago, and yet there they are, still doing it, still blowing away any and all comers. I cannot imagine a performer alive who could watch this band perform and not feel like they had frittered away their life with cautious half-measures. Of performers of their generation still out there, only Bob Dylan has better songs and a comparable list of hits, but he, to my knowledge, has never danced a step in his life and has certainly never succeed in keeping an ensemble of this quality together.

I’m going to come right out and say that the Rolling Stones are, right now, the best they’ve ever been. I don’t know how they pulled that trick off, but that’s what’s happened. Songs that, by all rights, should have been hung out to dry thirty years ago not only sound better than ever, they feel more lived in and more authentic.

“Authenticity”, of course, is the thing that’s haunted the Rolling Stones since the beginning. When they were in their twenties, it was embarrassing to watch them play the blues. They were obviously enthusiasts, but the language of the songs was not theirs — it belonged to another generation. They looked like kids dressing up in their parents’ clothes. Then, as the 60s moved on, they injected more pop and psychedelic elements into their work, and their take on the blues became more ironic, almost a goof. No one believed that Mick Jagger could get no satisfaction, nor could they realistically be expected to believe that he was born in a crossfire hurricane. By augmenting their worship of the blues with a hip, ironic stance (and some pretty damn good songwriting) the Rolling Stones made the blues go pop. In the 70s their sophistication grew to the point where they could meet the blues head-on, fusing pop and the blues into a powerful new form that could include everything from “Brown Sugar” to “Tumbling Dice” to “Angie” to “Beast of Burden.” This era is where the Stones connected with the world and made their mark. As the 80s marched onward, the Stones seemed a little desperate to “keep up,” to remain hip. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it much more embarrassing to watch Mick simper and strut through the 1983 video for “She Was Hot” than to watch any of the moves he pulls in Shine a Light.

(The 80s, it should be noted, beginning as they did with the murder of John Lennon, weren’t good for any 60s act, and the Stones records from that decade hold up better than those of any of their contemporaries, Dirty Work included.)

Anyway, here we are in 2008 and somehow all those layers of irony that the Stones piled on top of the blues have been transformed, through time and experience, into something like authenticity. And in the process of witnessing this, both through decades of listening to the Stones and watching Shine a Light, I find myself questioning the whole idea of authenticity itself.

Take a song like “Far Away Eyes.” This is a goof on country songs, openly disparaging and sarcastic, if lovingly so. I don’t think it would ever become a genuine country hit for anyone, and yet, somehow, over time, its central message, that there is such a thing as a companion whom you can always depend on despite your faults, seems more genuine than it did in 1977. Watching Shine a Light, with a 62-year-old Jagger shouting his way through the song, suddenly the song took on a different meaning for me. Tying together the bleary, worse-for-wear floozy of the chorus with the cynical gospel radio station of the verses, out of nowhere, makes dramatic sense. The narrator prays to the radio station that tells him the Lord is always by his side for a girl who will always be by his side. And perhaps the girl is the Lord, and perhaps the narrator is merely forging the same sex-and-God link that singers (and preachers) have hammered at for a century. Of course, we never find out if the narrator’s prayer is answered — Mick Jagger’s career is, after all, built on unanswered prayers.

Or take “Shine a Light” itself — how could Mick Jagger, ultra cynical, ultra-calculating, jet-set rock star, mean this lyric of humility and redemption? On Exile on Main St., “Shine a Light” feels arch, almost cruel — it’s one thing to make fun of country music, but why pick on gospel? And yet in the context of Shine a Light, “Shine a Light” comes off as, impossibly, genuine and heartfelt. What changed, apart from the singer acquiring the years and wisdom it would take to sing such a lyric?

(Or maybe Scorsese includes the song as a pun — the show, after all, is set at the Beacon Theater.)

So I find myself thinking about the blues and this whole notion of authenticity. Who is to say, at the end of the day, that an ironic goof on the blues form, by a bunch of English guys barely in their thirties, is a less “authentic” presentation of the blues than, say, Robert Johnson?

(Notions of authenticity and authority run throughout Shine a Light, I think intentionally so.  The Stones bring on Jack White, whom I find very authentic if not very authoritative, at least not standing next to Mick Jagger, Buddy Guy, whom I find authoritative but not especially authentic, and Christian Aquilara, who is technically proficient but neither authoritative nor authentic.)

And while we’re on the subject of Robert Johnson, there’s this: I read an article a while back about how Robert Johnson, composer of “Hellhound On My Tail,” did not only sing the blues. There is evidence, the article said, that Johnson preferred to play standards and show tunes in his live sets, but played the blues because, well, that was what was popular at the time.

This takes nothing away from the achievements of Robert Johnson, but the article blew my mind. If Robert Johnson — Robert Johnson — was not sincere, did not “mean it,” was merely performing what the marketplace demanded, was not “authentic,” then who is? And what, then, is the difference between “Stop Breaking Down Blues” and “Honky Tonk Women?” How is one “authentic” and one a cynical goof calculated to exploit the marketplace?

I very much enjoyed seeing the Rolling Stones live a while back, from the other side of a baseball stadium — they didn’t just put on a show, they presented an argument for how life can be lived. But Shine a Light both confirmed my suspicions and shattered (sorry) my preconceptions. The Rolling Stones, somehow, now command the kind of respect and authority they used to confer upon elder bluesmen. The fact that they can accomplish this and remain a stunning, thrilling live act is something indeed.


Rolling Stones, Dodger Stadium 11/22/06

They can’t get no.

I can no longer say that I have not seen the Rolling Stones in concert.

Partly I was motivated to attend this show out of generational duty: I don’t want my grandchilden to one day say to me “What, you were on the planet at the same time as the Rolling Stones and you never went to see them?”  Partly, I was curious as to how a group of multimillionaire sexagenarians (emphasis on sex, tee hee) could possibly get up on an enormous stage in a huge stadium in front of tens of thousands of people and play songs where they rail against the establishment, pine from unrequited love, celebrate substance abuse, loose women, serial murder and Satanic worship, and, of course, complain about a lack of satisfaction in their lives.  What could such a show possibly mean?

Turns out, they sidestep the question of sincerity by their mere presence.  Sure, they’re singing songs of sex and drugs and rock-n-roll written by twenty-five-year-olds, but they’re singing them here and now, old men, performing with the energy and enthusiasm of men half their age.  They can’t possibly mean hedonist, sybarite songs like “Honky Tonk Women” or “Sympathy for the Devil” — what they’re celebrating is their ability to keep performing anything at all.  But sweet hopping Jesus do they perform, and with great authority and abandon.  More than once my wife cringed, worrying that Mick Jagger was bound to pop a knee joint or slip off the stage.  There was not a trace of boredom, rote performance or forced bonhomie on stage.  When Mick went into a wild, spastic dance that sent him jittering across the stage, it wasn’t “part of the act,” it was what he genuinely felt like doing at that moment.  And we cheer and sing along not because we worship the devil or get crazy on drugs every night, but because we are inspired by the Stones’ refusal to stop playing.

And you know, they’re not just enthusiastic, they’re humble.  The Stones weren’t just glad to be there tonight (Keith thanked his brain surgeon, who happened to be in the audience), they were genuinely humbled that so many people were nice enough to come out to see them.  Mick would sing a song about getting high or  a woman torturing him through her indifference and then say something to the audience like “What a nice group of people you are tonight.”  They went through a terrific, drawn-out version of “Midnight Rambler” and right after Mick threatened to “stick a knife right down your throat,” he politely thanked the audience for their patience (the show got started late, after having been moved from Saturday because of Mick’s throat infection) and then actually apologized for the traffic.  It kind of undercut the whole menacing-serial-killer vibe, but like I say, menace didn’t really seem to be the point of the show.

Even though they’re in a stadium, tiny figures on a gigantic stage, they perform as though they are in an intimate club playing for the hell of it.  There is very little spectacle in the show and the emphasis is on music, the, god help me, subtle interplay of guitars and drums and band camaraderie.  They blow notes, goof around, crash into each other.  There’s nothing flashy on stage to distract from mistakes, the sound is sometimes muddy and there are no apologies made for fluffing.  To solidify the “club” atmosphere there is a section of the show where the middle of the stage breaks off and moves slowly from center field to home plate, and suddenly the biggest band in the world is playing on a tiny stage in a sea of faces, careening around and grinning like idiots.

This evening they played two songs from their new record.  Otherwise, there was nothing from after 1983 (“She Was Hot”) and very little from after 1974 (“It’s Only Rock n Roll”).  That means 22 years of their discography was completely ignored, and yet they still found 20 or so terrific songs to play, not a dud in the bunch, and not to walk through but to genuinely play, play like they would honestly not rather be doing anything else at that moment.

Early on, Bonnie Raitt came out to sing a verse of “Dead Flowers” and I remember thinking “Gee, you know, if that was your only hit song, you’d still have a pretty impressive career,” but it was probably one of the least well-known songs of the evening.  (“Dead Flowers” is also one of the few songs that sounds better as the singer gets older — when Mick was 30 he was being snide and ironic, now he sounds sincere and sadder-but-wiser.)

So, Mick might no longer feel as though he has been crowned with a spike right through his head, and he may no longer see a red door and want it painted black, and he may no longer feel that it’s absolutely necessary to call him the tumbling dice.  But he and the others have found a way to keep playing those songs after 40 years and still make the performance mean something, even if the meaning is mainly in the act of performance itself.  The songs celebrate bad behavior, loose morals and throwing one’s life away, but their performance celebrates perseverance, longevity and a life well-lived.