I'm 'fraid rock & roll has no future," Mick Jagger said. His famous lips formed a perfect moue of distaste, as if they hated to utter such treason.
Jagger was curled up on the chocolate-brown sofa in the living room of his second-floor Manhattan apartment. Golden sunbeams and raucous street sounds flooded through his open windows, and he welcomed both, jumping up to lean out the window when a reggae beat wafted in from a passing radio.
"Why doesn't it?" I asked him while opening two bottles of Löwenbräu.
He turned back from the window and laughed. The flashing diamond set in his left incisor was a mark of his long years of service to rock & roll. The age lines around his eyes were as old as the weariness and cynicism in his voice.
"'Cause it doesn't," he said flatly. "There is no future in rock & roll. It's only recycled past." He sounded genuinely sad. We both fell silent and stared into our beers.
As a band, the Rolling Stones are now eighteen years old. Mature rock & roll, as represented in their new album, Emotional Rescue, is a strange new territory, and the Stones still don't know exactly what to do with it, even while they're doing it. It's a curious half-world they inhabit; it's as if they rule a kingdom that exists out of time, but one that nonetheless exists and whose citizens demand the Rolling Stones. No substitutes accepted.
Though they have never sold records in enormous quantities (Some Girls was Number One for only two weeks in 1978), their legend and aura make most other popular bands pale by comparison. Just the hint of an impending Stones invasion can strike terror in the hearts of city, state and even national governments. Canada has still not fully recovered from the Stones' extended stay in 1977, when Keith Richards was arrested and tried on charges of possession of and intent to sell heroin. Had he gone to jail, there would doubtless have been rioting in Toronto. When Richards was arrested in Fordyce, Arkansas, during the band's 1975 tour, hordes of young, angry longhairs surrounded the jail. The judge quickly decided it would be in the interest of public safety to let Richards board the chartered plane that suddenly appeared in Fordyce.
The Stones can justifiably be proud of their image. The fact that they as grown men — rich grown men, at that — can actually perpetuate the spirit of adolescent rebellion is remarkable in itself. The fact that they seem to mean it is astonishing.
Back at Jagger's apartment, Mick was patiently explaining, at great length, why rock & roll is really not worth talking about.
"Rock & roll is a funny thing," he said. "There are two different attitudes, right? One is the English attitude, like when Pete Townshend talks about rock & roll like a religion. And then there are the others, like me, who think it's really a lot of overblown nonsense. Why bother? I mean, it's not worth bothering about. As a form of art or music."
"But, Mick, is it a form of art? I mean, England's got all these art students forming bands now, and they talk about it as art and about 'distancing themselves from rock & roll's traditions."'
"Well." He poured another glass of beer and thought for a moment. "I do kind of see it as a form of art, but what I'm saying is that there's no point in me trying to start some spiritual or cultural organization to distance myself from the traditions of rock & roll. It doesn't seem important enough. In other words, it's not a great movement in painting. I just think . . . I don't know. I'm not going to take sides, really. I think the music seems to be in a pretty healthy state because there are so many things going on."
Warming to his subject, he got up and began to pace around the couch. "And then you've got all these idiots who review rock & roll — I can't read them. All these people who try to read so much into the music, read things into it that aren't there. It's totally phony, isn't it, because I know that the things they read into it aren't there."
"Is that like these theoretical bands that say they're reinventing rock & roll?" I asked.
"Oh, yeah, I mean, for anyone who is in some sort of business or art or whatever you want to call it, and who actually makes larger claims for himself — I don't know what that is. Let's take Rough Trade [a British independent label], right? To my mind, it is connected to the rock establishment because it's gonna make a journalistic impression. They have a great line, don't they? Journalists will hook stories on that, and they'll be noticed no matter how anonymous they say they want to be. Does that make sense?"
"Yeah. They can be noble and still be in the rock press. When you talk about there being two attitudes to rock & roll, would that mean that there are two ways to play 'Louie, Louie,' and one of them is to claim that it's art?"
Jagger laughed. "Yeah, yeah, I think so. That was Frank Zappa's thing. He based his musical teachings on that, and it was one of his ways of saying rock & roll is all trash. And it is trash. This very irate disc jockey said to me, 'I was having this interview with Johnny Rotten, a.k.a. John Lydon, and he said that rock & roll is a lot of rubbish, trashy music, and I was shocked!' And I said, 'Well, that's one of the few things I am able to agree with him on. It is all trash."'
"Have you ever talked to Lydon? That might be funny."
Mick headed for the kitchen: "No, I haven't talked to him and no, it might not be very much fun at all."
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