When the Rolling Stones first appeared on Hollywood Palace in 1964, it was none other than Dean Martin who, as the traditional bibulous compère, found himself in the unrehearsed position of messenger of ill tidings. The Visigoths were at the backstage door, and as Martin took hold of the microphone and himself – perhaps realizing at that parlous moment of delirium tremens that the era of the fourflusher and the crooner was over – he announced in a voice of forced casualness and feckless incredulity: “I’ve been rolled before, and I’ve been stoned before, but take a look at these guys!”
For here in Hollywood, on the turf of filmmakers like Nick Ray, Robert Aldrich and Sam Fuller, was nothing less than the living musical embodiment of American film noir – a group which took the spectral underside vision of the American dream as revealed in films like They Live by Night, Kiss Me Deadly and The Naked Kiss and latched onto it the unassimilated sexual vitality of the music of Slim Harpo, Solomon Burke and Howlin’ Wolf.
Even in that early, undifferentiated surge of rock groups that announced the English rock & roll renaissance, it was easy to distinguish the Stones from the Dave Clark Five, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Kinks or the Beatles. No other group presented (or has ever presented) that eerie quality combining the hustling menace of the spiv, the coolness of the dandy and the unpredictable amorality and frivolity of the Greek gods. And from the moment they landed in America, these soul survivors of British imperialism, these half-scruffy, half-exotic exiles on Main Street naturally and exuberantly took on the role of devil’s advocate for what was then beginning to be thought of as the Love Generation.
It was in 1965 that I first saw the Rolling Stones perform live on a bill with Paul Revere and the Raiders and the Byrds at a less than sold-out concert at the San Francisco Civic Auditorium. The Raiders played dressed in revolutionary regalia; the Byrds performed songs like “The Bells of Rhymney” with an unforgettable naiflike, street-urchin radiance. And then out came the Stones . . . glinting, disengaged, self-prepossessing – the visual incorporation of an idea: four expressionless lean and hungry instrumentalists, spoken for by their shining, narcissistic knight. And the words with which the poet Arthur Symons once described the famous Parisian music-hall dancer, Jane Avril, perfectly caught this idea as Mick Jagger and the Stones embodied it that San Francisco evening:
Alone, apart, one
Before the mirror,
face to face,
Alone she watches
In the mysterious
She dances for
her own delight,
A shadow smiling
Back to a shadow
in the night.
– “La Mélinite: Moulin Rouge”
The Stones began the set with “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love,” and at the words, “I need you, you, you,” Jagger danced up to the front of the stage, pointing sinuously to what everyone in the audience seemed to think was each one of us. But the wonder of that moment lay in the fact that each of us knew inside that this singer needed nobody at all. With Elvis and the Beatles, you felt you had a chance. With the Stones, you knew you didn’t want one. In fact, we willed them not to need us, for it was only if we were kept outside, only if the idea of distance itself were hypostatized, would we be able to see ourselves and the world afresh – like a child accidentally overhearing the adults late at night, drunk with strangeness.
This is the secret of da Vinci’s Mona Lisa – not so much what is betokened by the smiling face (the mysterious and inaccessible inner self), but rather what is conveyed in the landscape behind her – closed within itself – that landscape about which the German poet Rilke once wrote: “It had been necessary to see the landscape in this way, far and strange, remote, without love, as something living a life within itself, if it ever had to be the means and the motive of an independent art; for it had to be far and completely unlike us – to be a redeeming likeliness of our fate. It had to be almost hostile in its exalted indifference if, with its objects, it was to give a new meaning to our existence.”
Exalted indifference: Innocent malice. Careless cruelty. It is these ambiguous mixtures of emotion which we find in songs like “Play with Fire,” “Back Street Girl” and “Star Star” – a mixture revealing the disturbing yet fascinating quality of a child grown up too soon, like a six-year-old dragging on a cigarette. And it was this “child” who dangerously explored the ever-lurking but disapproved world of sex and drugs in songs like “Under My Thumb,” “Sister Morphine” and “Monkey Man.”
Yet when the Stones were at their most exploitative, they seemed their most liberating, because we became aware of the reversal of that social and psychological pathology by which the oppressed identify with their oppressors: We sensed that the Stones, from their position of indifferent power, were singing in the voice of the hurt and abused, thereby magically transcending all humiliating barriers (“But it’s all right now/In fact it’s a gas”).
And in the guise of that distant, irresponsible child who continually rejected all appropriate modes of feeling (“I’m hiding sister and I’m dreaming”), the Stones revealed secrets about ourselves and our world. From “Get Off of My Cloud” and “19th Nervous Breakdown” to “Mother’s Little Helper” and “Have You Seen Your Mother, Baby,” the Stones once and for all pulled open the blinds, exposing – while both celebrating and attempting to exorcise – the demonic ghosts of the Oedipal family romance and of all forms of social hypocrisy, so that we could see that the emperor and the empress were really wearing no clothes.
But when the Devil appeared at Altamont, his Satanic Majesty – with a little help from his friends – disillusioned us and helped to destroy our idea of the Stones. What had been young and distant was now too weary and too near. Art and life became commingled and confused in both the minds of the group and its audience. And it was Exile on Main Street – the last Stones masterpiece – that powerfully and compendiously summed up both the history of the music of the Sixties and the breakdown of the culture that supported and was sustained by it.
Rock & roll continues to stand – however wobbly (“It’s only rock ‘n roll”). And as the media always demand some group to play the role of “Greatest Rock & Roll Band,” why not the Soul Survivors? Most promoters and critics agreed and the audience felt obliged – especially since a large part of this audience had never seen the Stones before.
Now, following the example of the 16th-century revolutionary Anabaptist commune at Munster (whose days were filled with pageants, messianic banquets, sexual parties and public executions) rock & roll has, for a number of years, tried hard to fill the vacuum caused by a lack of community by attempting to fabricate and construct the form of a dramatic ceremonial cult along the lines of David Bowie, Alice Cooper and others.
Ceremonial trappings by themselves, however, can never create the sense and feeling of ritual that one can experience in just the first few bars of songs like “Honky-Tonk Women” or “Gimme Shelter.” And the Stones, unfortunately, have gone the way of the ceremonial cult. Their current tour – at least the concert I saw at Madison Square Garden in New York – revealed a concern only for fancy stage spectacle, fashionable pastel lighting, muffled sound, a circuslike phallic monster ballooning into the air, buffoonery and horseplay by members of the band, Jagger rolling around the floor in shepherd pajamas and occasionally coming up with a few karate-inspired dance gestures, and a generally unsurprising and unrevealing set of reinterpretations of their old songs. (Remember how the Stones used to perform “Stray Cat Blues” live a few years ago, turning their hard-edged recorded version into an almost haunting lullaby?)
In fact, this concert reminded us that the recent Stones songs have no more secrets to reveal – or conceal. “Fingerprint File” was already Yesterday’s Papers when it came out. And “Luxury” is hardly Satisfaction. Moreover, what all this ceremonious cakewalk finally disclosed was simply that behind the incantation, the gestures, the charm lay … nothing. The spirits did not rise. The final mystery was that there was no mystery.
This is the lesson of most ceremonial cults, and it is hardly up to the Stones to produce miracles out of a lot of props and tricks. Once an audience gets used to showy technology, it’s hard to go against the grain of expectation. But as Mark wrote in the New Testament to explain why Jesus did not perform miracles in Nazareth: “He could not do it, because they did not believe in him.”
Now, it must be said that most of the audience at the Garden that night really seemed to believe in the Stones. Perhaps it was just a few of us who had now become distant and indifferent ourselves. Perhaps, too, there were some persons there who were disappointed that Jagger wasn’t about to stick his hand in his heart and “spill it all over the stage,” as he himself sang in “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll.”
Belief requires dreams. And I’m still dreaming that the next time the Rolling Stones appear onstage, there’ll be just five of them, plainly dressed in black – “Back to a shadow in the night” – with no stage effects or shining draperies behind them, just a few direct lights, and they’ll be playing and singing some new songs – songs that will demand, like Salome, only our heads.
This story is from the September 11, 1975 issue of Rolling Stone.