As much as the recorded product, the rock and roll concert scene seems mighty unhealthy these days. I hardly ever go to see name bands anymore myself, because most of them are so incredibly boring. Standards of performance are very low, and those few artists with enough talent or interest to put on a credible show often end up turning in performances so professionally, predictably competent that you walk out with the palest satisfaction and few memories. In the past year I have watched Ten Years After stumble through a set equal parts plodding monotone and splintered noise, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young invoke Woodstock to compensate for boring everyone to tears, and the Band and Creedence Clearwater recite their albums to such perfection that I fidgeted. I had to draw the line of most resistance when Led Zeppelin hit town last month for a 2-1/2 hour tour-de-force. But I asked a friend with more fortitude how it was, and he raved: “Oh, shit. I took eight reds and just sat there thinkin’ the Zep was gonna play forever — man, I felt so good!”
Into this depressing scene ripped the Rolling Stones barnstorming their way across America last fall for a tour which left most audiences satisfied and well-nigh spent, but got reviews mixed and ultimately perplexed because few of us were sure what to expect or, once the hysteria of the actual performance had drained away, how to react. In 1965, caught up in a hurricane of bopper shrieks, we accepted the whole thing as sort of a supernatural visitation, a cataclysmic experience of Wagnerian power that transcended music. In 1969 they were expected to prove themselves as a stage act, but the force of their personalities and the tides of hype and our expectations cancelled all our cynical reservations the moment Mick strode out and drawled hello to each home town. There they were in the flesh, the Rolling Stones, ultimate personification of all our notions and fantasies and hopes for rock and roll, and we were enthralled, but the nagging question that remained was whether the show we had seen was really that brilliant, or if we had not been to some degree set up, pavlov’d by years of absence and rock scribes and 45 minute delays into a kind of injection delirium in which a show which was perfectly ordinary in terms of what the Stones might have been capable of would seem like some ultimate rock apocalypse. Sure, the Stones put on what was almost undoubtedly the best show of the year, but did that say more about their own involvement or about the almost uniform lameness of the competition? Some folks never did decide.
Liver Than You’ll Ever Be, appearing last spring, provided a partial answer. It was a good album, as live rock albums go — “Carol” and “Midnight Rambler” especially shone. Some people were enthralled by it, but I found the musical interest of most of the songs mighty ephemeral, and in general preferred the clattering thunder of Got Live If You Want It, which in terms of looseness, energy and general right-on shagginess could make a fair bid for being the rock concert album of all time. There are more important things than playing on-beat and on-key, and that fine line between slam-bang exorcism and unedifying noise is what would seem to make a great live LP.
All of which is why Get Your Ya-Ya’s Out is such an unfettered delight. This album, at last, proves the fears of those who cared to fear groundless. More than just the soundtrack for a Rolling Stones concert, it’s a truly inspired session, as intimate an experience as sitting in while the Stones jam for sheer joy in the basement. It proves once and for all that this band does not merely play the audience, it plays music whose essential crudeness is so highly refined that it becomes a kind of absolute distillation of raunch, that element which seems to be seeping out of Seventies rock at a disturbing rate. Where most live efforts seem almost embarrassing in their posturings and excesses, and even The Who Live at Leeds held tinges of the Art Statement, Ya-Ya’s at its best just rocks and socks you right out of your chair. You can not only love it for what it is, you can like it for what it isn’t.
The set opens with a brief collage of MC introductions from all their tour stops, and then rolls right into a solid, methodical “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” Neither it nor the next three songs on side one quite match the energy level reached in “Midnight Rambler” and sustained through all of side two, but subsequent playings reveal the live “Jack Flash” to have a certain fierce precision which the studio single lacked and which makes the latter sound almost plodding by comparison. Here the bottom is full and brooding and the group as a whole has a bite as sharp as a pair of wire cutters.
Next comes Mick, teasing the little chickies: “Uh oh, I think I bust a button on mah trous-ahs … you do’ want mah trousahs to fall down, now do ya?” I had a friend once who nearly provoked me to fisticuffs when he remarked that Mick’s appeal was “perverted.” Now, the thing that strikes me here is how essentially positive and even wholesome, in terms of what’s in the wind in 1970, Mick’s onstage stud-strut is. Jim Morrison makes like The Flasher and screams “Love your brother!,” Iggy practically turns the mike into a dildo, but Mick just flaps his lips, grinds his hips and chortles: “This is me, honeys — yearn!”
“Carol” is fine but definitely weaker than the version of Liver, and for me “Strange Stray Cat” and “Love in Vain” provide the low points of the album, the former by a certain clutter and the latter by not being that inspiring a vehicle in the first place.
But all traces of disinterest or disappointment skedaddle with the first swaggering chords of “Midnight Rambler.” Mick can hardly wait to get started, flinging out rippling harp riffs and muttering lyrics before the others even begin, and certainly this great song made to be done live, has never been rendered with more purging viciousness. Every riff in it is so pristinely simple, yet so directly and deliberately placed that its locomotive rushes and icy invective take on more power the closer you come to learning them by heart. Let It Bleed’s version seemed sinuous, somehow cool and detached in its violence, like one of Norman Mailer’s Fifties hipsters. Here the song’s celebratory rage comes bursting with a juggernaut wallop, Mick wrenching inchoate nonverbal vocalisms from his throat in the stop-time middle section, the audience roaring back (one crazed cat hollering “God damn!” in between), and the final frosting some wiry, lunging new riffs from Keith that build magnifiicently to the crashing climax.
The second side opens with another great audience riff — an insistent chick yells “‘Paint It Black,’ you devils!” and the Stones answer with an airborne “Sympathy For the Devil” that beats the rather cut-and-dried rendition on Beggar’s Banquet all hollow, and spotlights a ringing Richard solo that’s undoubtedly one of his best on record.
From there on out the energy level of the proceedings seems to soar straight up. “Live With Me” is just great ribald jive, but “Little Queenie” as done here is alltime classic Stones. Just strutting along, leering and shuffling, the song has all the loose, lipsmacking glee its lyrics ever implied. This kind of gutty, almost offhand, seemingly effortless funk is where the Stones have traditionally left all competitors in the dust, and here they outdo themselves. I even think that this is one of those rare instances (most of the others are on their first album) where they cut Chuck Berry with one of his own songs.
“Honky Tonk Women” is just a joy, after Liver’s half-realized run-through and Joe Cocker’s hack job, gutbucket rock and roll flowing out fine and raucous as a river of beer, but “Street Fightin’ Man” takes the show out on a level of stratospheric intensity that simply rises above the rest of the album and sums it all up. Keith’s work here is a special delight, great surging riffs reminiscent of some of the best lines on the first Moby Grape album, or the golden lead in Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her.” I don’t think there’s a song on Ya-Ya’s where the Stones didn’t cut their original studio jobs, and this one leaps perhaps farthest ahead of all.
The Seventies may not have started with bright prospects for the future of rock, and so many hacks are reciting the litany of doom that it’s beginning to annoy like an inane survey hit. The form may be in trouble, and we listeners may ourselves be in trouble, so jaded it gets harder each month to even hear what we’re listening to. But the Rolling Stones are most assuredly not in trouble, and are looking like an even greater force in the years ahead than they have been. It’s still too soon to tell, but I’m beginning to think Ya-Ya’s just might be the best album they ever made. I have no doubt that it’s the best rock concert ever put on record. The Stones, alone among their generation of groups, are not about to fall by the wayside. And as long as they continue to thrive this way, the era of true rock and roll music will remain alive and kicking with them.