I will not be seeing the Rolling Stones next weekend when they play at the brand-new Barclays Center, two miles from my house in Brooklyn. I absolutely wanted to: I went to a game there a couple of weeks ago and was struck by what a great venue it would be for rock shows, big enough for a major act but still small enough to feel intimate, with good sightlines everywhere in the house. The Stones are, depending on when you ask me, either my favorite band ever or somewhere in the top five, and this show was one of only five scheduled to commemorate the band’s 50th anniversary. This could be the last time. May be the last time, I don’t know!
Let me save you some time: Who wants to see a bunch of septuagenarians try to rock? While that is a very valid argument, I would counter that although they haven’t made a memorable album in about 30 years (I’d say 35 — I never cottoned to Tattoo You) they sound better live now than at almost any time since Brian Jones was in the band. Although they made great records in their peak period — the Beggars Banquet – Let It Bleed – Sticky Fingers – Exile On Main Street run is one of, if not the very best achievements in the whole rock canon — they sounded pretty lousy in concert most of the time, from the available evidence: their 1969 live album Get Yer Ya-Yas Out; Gimme Shelter, the concert movie that turned into a horrifying document of the doomed free concert at Altamont Speedway; and Cocksucker Blues, the banned document of their 1972 U.S. tour. Even when they played well, as in certain moments on the Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones concert film (also from 1972), they always seemed to be plagued by sound problems, or tempo problems, or Mick’s not being able to hit the notes he hit on the records, or the band seeming not to quite remember the rhythm of the tunes, or whatever.
Whereas, modern advances in monitoring, so the band can actually hear itself, plus the (relative) sobriety of the band means that even though they’re not all that much to look at anymore, they generally get a lot closer to the sound of their best albums than they ever used to. Plus, in recent years they’ve eased up on their dogged insistence on playing half the songs from whatever forgettable new album they’re using as an excuse to tour, and broken out more interesting album cuts. So it’s arguable that they are a better bet now than they have been for quite some time.
But I’ve seen the Stones a couple of times already. The opening show, at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C., of the 1989 Steel Wheels tour was my first big rock concert (I was 16), and I saw them again at the same venue on the 1994 Voodoo Lounge tour. (They were way, way better in ’94.) And as much as I love them — I cannot possibly overstate the importance of the aforementioned four-album run to my musical identity — I don’t know how I can justify paying $1,700 dollars for any two-hour experience, much less one where I have all my clothes on.
They hooked me, though, by floating the rumor that Mick Taylor, who replaced original lead guitarist Brian Jones in 1969 and played on three of those four albums I keep mentioning before quitting in 1974, would be rejoining the band for these shows. Rock nerd boner! And as promisingly, bassist Bill Wyman, who served 30 years in the band before quite sensibly retiring to count his money and enjoy his young (young) wife in 1993, would also be returning. Wyman was always dead last in any ranking of Stones in terms of awesomeness, looks, height, stage presence, songwriting, or just about any other metric except pulling groupies, but he still played the bass line on “Bitch” and “Miss You” and “All Down The Line,” and he wrote the riff to the most important tune in the Stones’ whole catalog (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”). In any case, the thought of the exact band, to a man, that played Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street reconvening… let’s just say I found a way to justify spending more cash than I’d ordinarily be comfortable with to get into the show.
So when the show at Barclays was announced, I dutifully went to the Stones’ website like the lifelong sucker fan I am for details. I saw that in a sadly typical corporate promotion, there would be advance tickets sold just to American Express cardholders a few days before they officially went on sale to the public, and having an American Express card, I noted the advance date and time and when that time came, I went to Ticketmaster, requested two tickets at the cheapest available price ($175 — I just wanted to be in the building), and got an error saying there were no tickets that matched my request. So I try again. And again. I try again, but select “Any Tickets” instead of the cheapest, and immediately I get through: two tickets in the upper deck can be had for only $850 each! Well, I might be crazy, but I’m not rich, so I try again, and again, and again, and again to get a pair of “bargain” $175 tickets. No joy.
I figure, maybe there were only a limited number of seats available for the AmEx thing, I’ll try again when tickets go on sale to the public. Exact same experience, exact same result.
A few days later, the new documentary on the band, “Crossfire Hurricane,” premiered on HBO. In case the preceding 941 words have not made it clear, I am something of a scholar when it comes to the Rolling Stones (and, let’s face it, pretty much every band I like, but let’s stay with the Stones). Read every book, seen every movie, bought every album in every format, some more than once. And while there were no new facts I didn’t already know in the film, there was a lot of footage I hadn’t seen before, and the film wisely skipped details about the members’ childhoods, or formation of the band, or even its earliest gigs, and started at the moment they started writing songs, and ended at the 1981 tour, which is the moment they stopped being an important creative force and became a revenue center (this current tour being the apotheosis of that iteration).
It was also very interesting to hear the Stones themselves talk about some of the big moments in their career. I knew that Brian Jones had died a couple of weeks after he was fired from the band, but I’d never heard Mick or Keith talk about it. (I’d read interviews, but that’s not the same thing.) I knew Keith’s heroin problem was a major obstacle in the recording of Exile on Main Street, but I’d never heard him, or Mick, or Bill or Charlie, talk about it.
Incidentally, one of the great things about this documentary was that Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor were a part of it. I bought a book called “According to the Rolling Stones” about 10 years ago that was the Stones’ answer to the bestselling (far superior) “Beatles Anthology” book — an oral history of the band, with tons of photographs — and while it was interesting, I couldn’t help noticing that it made every effort to pretend that Bill Wyman had never been a part of the band, and minimize Mick Taylor’s contribution. For some reason, it seems that if you quit the Stones, even after 30 years, you’re dead to them. (And yet, I made a concerted, 30-minute effort to give them $350 for two hours’ work.)
So having them in the fold narrating the band’s story along with Mick and Keith and Charlie (Woody doesn’t come in until the last ten minutes of the film) lent the whole thing an air of authenticity, rather than a calculated cash grab, as so many Wagging TongueTM-stamped enterprises are.
A few things about “Crossfire Hurricane,” which is probably the best overview of the Stones’ (relevant) career I’ve seen (though, I’ve only watched it two and a half times — I’ll have to see it at least three or four more before I can pass judgment): One, they were a pretty smokin’ live act in the early, Brian Jones-fronted, pre-drug bust era. The versions of “It’s All Over Now” and “The Last Time” (which I believe are from the recently unarchived film Charlie Is My Darling) in the film are awesome.
Two, I really appreciated how alternate and rare live versions of most of the Stones’ catalog were used to adorn the film, rather than the brilliant but overfamiliar versions of the tunes that have become part of the cultural wallpaper. It brought a freshness to the whole thing and reminded me just how great a songwriting team Jagger and Richards are (were) and, in the super-choice live versions of “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Loving Cup,” what a killer live act they were when they wanted to be.
(Side note on the Stones’ dodgy live performances in the ’70s: While late-night channel-flipping, I recently caught part of the concert film Some Girls [God bless the Palladia channel], which was shot in a small venue in Texas during the band’s 1978 U.S. tour. I stumbled into it when they were playing a note-perfect rendition of the Bakersfield-country parody “Far Away Eyes,” which I’d always regarded as one of the few weak cuts on the last-gasp 1978 Some Girls album. But in the film, they put the tune across totally convincingly, with Jagger starting out the drawling recitation on piano, then switching to a Fender Rhodes, while Ron Wood plays perfect pedal steel and Keith adds tasty country fills. Then a fiddle player comes out for an awesome solo. For the first time, I liked, nay loved, this song. But then they go into the typical Stones show denouement — “Brown Sugar,” “Satisfaction,” “Jumping Jack Flash” — and it’s rote and sounds like the band can’t wait for the show to be over.
The point: the Stones are only really good live when they’re trying to win an audience over, and that’s most often the case when they’re trying to sell new material that they’re excited about, because they’re obviously (and quite understandably) sick to death of “Brown Sugar”/”Jumpin’ Jack Flash”/”Satisfaction.” So, most of their concert films have a song or maybe two where the band is totally engaged and playing great, but it’s one song in a set of 15+ tunes that they couldn’t be more tired of, so the overall impression is that they suck live. “Crossfire Hurricane” does a great job of compiling these great moments. Another example: They didn’t even release their 1968 TV Special “Rock N’ Roll Circus” until the late ’90s because it was so weak, but it has easily the best live version of “Sympathy For The Devil” I’ve ever seen — they actually play the tune the way they recorded it, all piano, bass, and percussion, and Mick actually goes for all the high notes, which I’ve never seen him do elsewhere. Back to “Crossfire Hurricane.”)
Three, the Stones seem to be liberated by their old age to talk about some of their past indiscretions: Jagger freely admits that he and Keith were doing a lot of drugs in the period before their bust, and even allows a shot of himself doing a backstage pre-show bump off a switchblade.
Four, the loss of Brian Jones never really resonated with me, because so much emphasis has been put on his sad, addled final days, but the footage of Jones being interviewed and interacting with the rest of the band really drove home his musical skill, his personal appeal, his role in the band, and why he, not Jagger, was the most famous member in the early days.
And five, the Black and Blue album, released in 1975 and the first to feature Ron Wood, is not the total loss of a treading-water record I wrote it off as when I first heard it — I mean, it is, but the tune
“Hey Negrita” has a great riff, supplied by Wood (though of course he was denied a songwriting credit), prominently featured in the movie to signify his arrival in the band. (Side note on Woody: the 2006 concert film Shine A Light shows the Stones as good as they can probably get at this point, and interestingly, the sound mix has Keith’s guitar panned hard to the right and Woody’s hard to the left, which really drives home the fact that in the 21st-century Rolling Stones, Ron Wood is doing 90% of the heavy lifting [as well as the medium and easy lifting] guitar-wise. I always thought he was a scrub and I see now that I was totally wrong.)
The point being, “Crossfire Hurricane” was great, and it made me feel a lot better about not going to the Barclays show, Taylor and Wyman reunion or no. The band I wanted to see was on HBO — HBO On Demand, no less — and I could enjoy them in their heyday as much as I want for $14 a month. (I’ll probably stop watching it in two or three months.)
Then, earlier this week, reviews from the first of these five shows, at the O2 Arena in London, started popping up, and confirmed that Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor had indeed been part of the show. My heart sank for a moment as I remembered again that I wouldn’t get to see them when they come to Brooklyn. But then I read on: Wyman only played on two songs (“Honky Tonk Women” and “It’s Only Rock N’ Roll”) and Taylor on one (“Midnight Rambler”), and they didn’t play together at all.
Goddammit! Even when the Stones do something cool anymore, it’s not that cool. The bass player who played on EVERY GOOD SONG IN THE STONES’ CATALOG gets trotted out for two songs out of 25? This guy played the monster bass line on “Miss You”! You have it in the set, and you don’t have the guy who wrote it play it? What is that? And the tunes you do have him play are two-note nothing bass lines? Why have him on at all? Likewise, you have the guitar player who played all the solos on all the Stones’ best albums, and you bring him out for one tune? (A tune that has no guitar solos, no less, so having him wank all over it for 12 minutes makes it seem like he’s ruining it?) How do you not play his tour de force “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” with him and the also-present Bobby Keys so they can do their awesome dueling solos? (I can sing you both solos note for note, by the way, if you need your memory refreshed.) How do you not have him play the slide solo on “All Down The Line”? You have the exact personnel that played “Bitch” and “Rocks Off” and “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar” in the building, and you don’t have them all play together at once? WHAT IS THAT?!?!? They turned what should have been a great and magnanimous and celebratory gesture into a gimmick, the same as having Sheryl Crow duet with Mick on “Live With Me” or somesuch typical latter-day lameness.
The YouTube footage of the Wyman/Taylor spots in the recent show combined with “Crossfire Hurricane” totally cured me of my urge to see them on this or any future tour. It’s a Christmas miracle!
I’ll close with this: even though it’s easy, and totally justified, to hate on Mick Jagger for running the Stones as a cash cow first, second and third and as a band maybe fourth or fifth, I can’t help admiring the fact that he has not had any plastic surgery. The dude is 69, and has been looking pretty ragged since the mid-80s, and is so vain he once married the female version of himself. One would imagine he’d be the first on line at Dr. 90210’s office (or at least, right behind Wayne Newton) to keep his famously plump lips from thinning out and his face from transmogrifying into the drawn visage of the Crypt Keeper, but he hasn’t. So, kudos, Mick: Stay Ugly!