On the surface rock and roll changes at an amazing pace. The influence of a figure like the Maharishi can appear and disappear in a matter of months. Talk about old fashioned rock and roll finds itself dead before it begins. Yet some things do remain, while others maintain enough of their former selves so that the logic of their growth at least makes itself obvious.
An example of someone who doesn't change is Elvis Presley. His recent TV special was a testimony to the vitality of his original style. How many rock stars of today might be able, ten years from now, to do an hour of the songs of 1968 and make it come alive as a contemporary experience? Presley at his best is about as eternal as rock and roll can ever expect to be.
The Rolling Stones are constantly changing but beneath the changes they remain the most formal of rock bands. Their successive releases have been continuous extensions of their approach, not radical redefinitions, as has so often been the case with the Beatles. The Stones are constantly being reborn, but somehow the baby always looks like its parents.
In many ways 1968 has turned into another one of those blues revival years. The Stones were into that when it was still verboten to show up at Newport with an electric guitar. It wasn't until five years after they recorded "King Bee" that Slim Harpo finally made it into a white rock club. Happily, even back then, the Stones never got bogged down in the puritanism that mars so many of the English blues bands. They were from the beginning a rock and roll blues band. They may have mimicked Harpo note for note, Keith Richards may have played a straight Chuck Berry bag for three-quarters of their first album, but it always wound up sounding like rock and roll: loud, metallic, and trebly. The Stones were the first band to say, "Up against the wall, motherfucker," and they said it with class.
Since that beginning the Stones have tried their hands at a lot of things: arrogance, satire, social commentary, "psychedelia," lewdness, love songs, you name it. Each phase seemed to flow naturally from the one that preceded it and none of their phases ever really changed their identity as a band. In every album but one it seemed to me that they managed to feel the pulse of what was happening now and what was about to happen. For example, "Satisfaction," that classic of the rock and roll age, both expressed the feelings of a moment and foreshadowed what was about to unfold: the elevation of rock and roll to the primary cultural means of communication among the young. There we were in the early summer of 1965 with folk music dead and nothing really exciting going on. And then there were the Stones sneering at the emptiness of what so many people saw all around them, not telling you to do anything about it, but letting you know that they feel it too. The music, with its incessant, repetitious, pounding guitar and drums, and that tension filled voice, was so permeated with violence that just listening to it was cathartic.
And the Stones live. If the violence of their music was cathartic, how to describe their concerts? I saw them several times during their early American tours, most memorably in Lynn, Massachussetts, in the spring of 1966. The Stones had their usual major dates lined up on their itinerary and the Lynn gig was not one of them. Lynn is a suburb of Boston and they must have decided to do a quickie number for less than their usual fee in order to fill in an open night. The concert was held in an open air football field that held 10,000 people. It rained that evening, a steady drizzle, and when they finally came on there was a lot of tension and movement.
Everyone wanted to get the show done so that they could put the money into the bank. There was no possibility of a makeup date. Jagger emerged in a tee shirt and spread his hands out like Jesus. He thanked everyone for being there and the band went into "19th Nervous Breakdown." The instruments were out of tune, as well as nearly inaudible. Watts had trouble keeping the beat. Everything was a mess except for Jagger, who miraculously managed to deliver. He filled the song with drive and energy and it was enthralling to hear him ringing out through the drizzle over practically no instrumental support. The band went on its disjointed way for the entire set unable to worry about the sound while the rain was pouring down on them, and Jagger continued to go his.
The crowd that night was filled with high school kids and the were very restless. A group of them had massed in front of the stage and the local DJ who had presided over the show decided to come on stage and tell the kids that the concert wouldn't go on until they all pulled back. The Stones ignored him and went on with "The Last Time."
As the set drew to a close they went into "Satisfaction." I had seen them do it under ideal circumstances a year earlier and it had been superb. They had gone through the song then with full energy and intensity and then quieted things down a little. Jagger had taken off his jacket and put it near the drums. Then he had picked up a tambourine and walked around the different sides of the stage, talking to the chickies. Towards the end, the band had picked up to full volume, Jagger had thrown the tambourine into the audience, draped his jacket over his shoulder, and done a Frank Sinatra exit. As soon as he had vanished, the band followed him. It had been an altogether beautiful and tragic spectacle.
Jagger attempted the same bit that night and got as far as picking up the tambourine. The audience broke the police line and completely surrounded the stage. Brian Jones signalled to Jagger, who was in a trance, that they had better split. The cops did their best to clear a path but by this time there were literally hundreds of kids milling around what was supposed to have been the Stones' exiting area. When the Stones got into their limousines the cops started exploding tear gas. Idiots that they are, they neglected to put on masks to protect themselves from the gas and were soon incapacitated by their own tear gas cannisters. A great deal of commotion ensued but presumably the group made it out of there safely.
Violence. The Rolling Stones are violence. Their musc penetrates the raw nerve endings of their listeners and finds its way into the groove marked "release of frustration." Their violence has always been a surrogate for the larger violence their audience is so obviously capable of.
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