One of the earliest anthologies of rock music criticism was called The Age of Rock, which was intended as a serious, opening volley in the war to make rock respectable. Not surprisingly, it had several articles on the Rolling Stones, supposedly capturing them from adolescent rebellious beginnings to mature adulthood - say 1969 or so. Now into their fourth decade of live performance, it seems faintly remarkable to contemplate the resonance of that phrase, 'the Age of Rock.' As if to imagine what my grandchildren might say, wide-eyed and wonderingly, "tell me what it was like to see Jagger perform." And as long as he is still performing, it can still be considered that first great age of rock, though several generations have come and gone since he began pouting, leering and shaking on tiny west London stages. Since then the Stones have become the establishment, going from the dizzying gamut of 'butterflies broken on the wheel' - the properly outraged Times editorial that greeted their bust for narcotics in the Sixties - to economic engines of spectacular proportions, generating immense wealth and power and insulation from wheels not of their own construction.
"Age" has such a geologic ring to it, conjuring prehistoric predators and ancient vistas. And the British press has been hooting and jeering at the thought of the Stones on stage again, calling them the Strolling Bones, among other witty epithets. But if they are dinosaurs, it is a reminder that in an era in which reunions seem to fizzle more often than reignite, it's worth remembering that the Stones never really quit. And they aren't doing anything radically different from what they set out to, though at this scale it seems coy to say so. Still working, still 'rocking,' despite the almost quaint sound that phrase now carries; perhaps especially so when applied to such well-known, grandfatherly miscreants - and artists. For that is the other thing about the term 'dinosaurs:' they were big. They dwarfed everything that came after. And when they were still around, they did, in fact, rule.
Pearl Jam turned in a good set - very good, it seemed, for an opening act. Not sacrificial at all, just good solid rock, played well. It kind a struck me that half of what we were seeing was based on an audience receptive but ignorant of much of the vocabulary and history of rock, which Pearl Jam knows very well indeed. A timeless need, and a possibly immortal answer, but - but. Half of their answer was original; and all of it was pretty damn good.
The place was full by the end of their set - not that it had been empty before, but there was clearly an element in the audience uninterested in an opening act, no matter who it was; a lot of Stones die-hards there. And surveying this Nuremberg-sized crowd, roaring and surging in the half-light, it was interesting to note the comments from the fans around me, chattering away about their devotion. It struck me that Stones fans though they may be, it is still so apparent that the scene in the Bay Area has been conditioned and educated by the Dead and its fans, best seen in how Stones fans are behaving like Deadheads, going 'on tour' even if only to see largely the same set, night after night. It reminded me of seeing my friend and ex, Robyn, at the last tour, when she was working the show and looked tired and cross about it all; her one remark about the music was 'yeah, Mick's mixing it up a little bit.' More than a little this time, it looks like, if you check out the set lists posted at their tour site. I tried to access those before the show, and after I had clicked into the site, while I was waiting for it to load I had a twinge; you know they don't change their set, why spoil the surprise? And Netscape crashed, right as the screen was loading. Best to let it lie. And nice to know that I don't have to be the historian of the evening: I can write impressions; someone else will get the bones down.
"Your trip to Babylon - will begin in a moment." In a place that size, an announcement like that had to be made so that people had fifteen minutes to try to wend their way back to their seat. Like a few blocks walk across town for folks in the upper seats - or on the field, for that matter - trying to make it to concessions and a restroom. Miscellaneous notes and thoughts before they began: the smashed post-college fan bopping around to Pearl Jam, and grabbing me at one point and saying with this drunken, wide-eyed intensity, "Look! At ALL the people!" And she was right; it was a remarkable spectacle. And that was before it was completely full ... Such a strange power play to buying a band like Pearl Jam to open ... and the hardcore Stones' fans, especially the yuppies and the girls; even some of the women, dressed as white trash debutantes, carefully wearing the out-sized tongue and lips that are the Stones trademark ... and a surreal menagerie of industrial symbols for a Greek media chorus, capped by the KGO radio station dirigible frantically circling overhead like some Madison Avenue firefly on speed, almost audible in the lag time before the Stones came on, crowd oblivious to the sounds of the Stones' instruments being tuned and tweaked on stage, muttered dronings wafting out over the din of the PA droning intermission music: Sex Pistols, James Brown, odd juxtapositions, anxious and edgy sounding against the gathering storm.
Which started with a thunderous, Wagnerian-sized explosion of light, smoke and music, Keith Richards striding out, all self-mocking grin and a few historic guitar licks to launch the show. No more notes taken during the show; just a long bath in music and power. My my.
It's tempting to discuss the staging, from the first burst of fireworks, exploding out in a ring of fire from the Pink Floyd-like circular screen that was the centerpiece of the stage display, to the inflatable Babylonian woman to the split-level stage, flanked by stadium-sized statues, towering stacks of scaffolding, speakers, machines and lights ... so much media focused around these frail little humans running around beneath, or rooted in their little safety zones. But all of that felt, somehow, normal; the Stones made it so, acting as if it were a playground; despite its impressiveness, regardless of the choreography ... saying, look at our little accouterments; they don't dwarf what mere human performers can create.
The morning after the show, I looked over the front page of the day before's afternoon newspaper, The old Hearst flagship The Examiner, thinking to refresh my memory of the media packaging of this grand media spectacle. Such an odd, and faintly macabre, note struck by the surrounding headlines, especially given the theme of last night's show, if one could call it a theme. A set of themes, really, as old as the Stones, as rock really, all mixed and reshuffled into something redolent but new. From the young man's anger of the frustrated search described by "Satisfaction" to the matured, saddened angst of "Anybody Seen My Baby" is a short step, musically, even if it represents more than a doubling of the age of the singer.
At the top, a squinty Bruce Willis, pointing a gun off to one side, with the clever caption "The hits just keep on coming," and the inexplicable subtitle: "Willis in plotless 'Jackal.'" Plot ceased mattering a while ago in Hollywood, you can guess; or this move makes it irrelevant.
But the headlines beneath provided the teeth: "Clinton orders ships to Gulf," before bombing the hell out of what's left of Iraq, once again; "Death sentence in CIA shootings," a banner call trumpeting another state-sanctioned murder by the only Allied country in World War II to still execute its citizens for crimes other than high treason ... and in the middle, a worker on a scaffold, looking at an immense, three story high statue of a stylized figure in gold, one of the two mammoth stage set pieces that will sandwich the Stones' evocation of Babylon. And the story? "Rolling Stones show, rain storm expected to snarl Friday commute." A time when it's obvious and odd to see the media play such a manipulative role, happy to shape a response, happier still to report an affected aftermath as proof of prognostication, though their own role would never get much mention.
But even the usually wretched local media had a usable line about the concert; dead on, actually: "Their consummate professionalism - so at odds with their incorrigible image - is what makes songs we've all heard a thousand times work so well in a live setting." In fact, Sullivan's review was pretty much on the money, though he missed the chance to ask some of the bigger questions - why are they still relevant; why could they do this, fill Oakland Stadium four nights in a row; why did Pearl Jam agree to open, when they could fill it by themselves?
Other media reactions were interesting, if much less relevant. The Infamous Essman was on the front page, writing almost nothing of the music, just the scene, which to him consisted of a family of rich yuppies taking their teen-aged, clueless kids - who wanted to see Pearl Jam, didn't give a shit about the Stones, saw the show and ended up saying - surprise, surprise - that they liked them. Difficult not to think of it as a comment about Marin County, and its irrelevance. Essman even made a classic Essmanism, saying that they played Ruby Tuesday when in fact they didn't.
The real theme of the piece - which sounded as if it were a bad movie's script of a newsroom - was the intergenerational nature of the show, which must have been the default theme of so much of the press for this tour. It was trumpeted by The Examiner, too, in a dreadful piece by E-- Beeman. Put together all of the themes - disruption of 'normal' city life (as if media events could be considered abnormal),generations of fans coming together in homage of media spectacle and personality, and grandparents still rockin' - and it sounds like a bad journalistic assignment. The odd thing is: these are fairly reasonable rubrics, if equally noxious cliches. It could be a title for the show: "Reasonable Rubrics, Classic Clichés." But that dismisses what happened that night, and the music simply doesn't stand for that treatment.
Nor did the generations always mix gracefully, either. About five or six songs into the Stones' set, long after everything felt established, a middle-aged couple materialized in the aisle, looking anxiously (she), aggressively (he) for their seats, which were apparently occupied by the raging post-frat crew around us. Which turns out to be the case, legitimately, but not before exchanging disdainful and slightly heated words about ownership, finally decided by an usher showing up, walkie-talkies appearing and all this tumult in the aisles between various scurrying minions, with the upshot being reified tension between combatants, hot-headed post-collegians next to middle-aged establishment, each hating the other in perfect coldness lit by the periodic glare of the stage lights. Enough to power a small city, the press release claims. Illuminating exactly the sort of rebelliousness in my smoldering, post-frat seatmates that the Stones advocated in their early years, all the irony of the pose writ large on the magnificently false clash of cultures here, just warring generations of the Establishment in their primordial tussle.
The middle-aged man was tired, though, and didn't really protest at the solution: two chairs jutting into the aisle, overly wide partly to permit such a solution, I realized. He started bopping happily, slightly, fairly quickly; anxious to get into the mood, whatever was left. He was short, bald and comfortably portly, even stout, dressed in L.L. Bean catalog casual wear, replete with baseball cap and suspiciously perfect looking teeth. And it launched me into some thought tangents, one of which was how we live in a culture where the pressure to define oneself by work and work alone makes any other sort of self-development difficult, and suspect. Check out the looks around if you ever intimate that career aspirations are ever less than a full life's ambition. And he was the apotheosis of the successful adaptation to that paradigm, the smiling bald-headed big company executive archetype in his fifth-row seats, which probably cost him $250apiece, though that was but a small price to pay for the privilege of being able to pick up the phone and say, "two tickets, please; good ones." Put it on the account. Second wife at his side, permed and starved and painted, she happy and bouncing, a little drunk and hating how young the rest of us were, and he, tired, eyes crinkled happy, 'look what I have provided,' and absent-mindedly bopping around to a few songs, mostly just smiling, rocking, thinking of the next deal he had to push through or perhaps just missing the good old days when leveraged buy-outs meant such money for successful raiders ... and it was kind of stark: he wasn't really having fun; and she was trying too hard. The roles didn't really permit that kind of departure. Both very successful at what they did, but this didn't match the life. And if she had wanted the kind of man who danced well and grooved to the Stones, she needed to give up the country club.
I woke up the next day with "Anybody Seen My Baby" running through my head; kind of seminal Stones, in a way, I think ... nothing much there lyrically, just instant rock cliche: "Has anybody seen my baby?" repeat for duration of song, almost no other lines, and certainly none that stand out. But two things catch it and twist the thing into something memorable: Jaguar's singing, and Richard's melody and guitar line. Keith's capacity for writing quintessential rock lines hasn't diminished, even if he'll always sound defined by the parameters he established. Kind of like when Wayne Gretsky complained that the worst thing about getting old was always being compared to a younger version of himself. (And losing.) And Jagger isn't going to create another rock standard; there don't seem to be many of those anymore. The era that defined them - rock in its youth - has passed, and they have the stubborn grace to hang on.
But this little pop cliche turns into something memorable despite itself, simply because Jagger's voice can project a sense of intensity and poignancy that is unique and still very compelling; and Richards can do the same with a guitar line, and when you look at them working very hard indeed on a huge stage sprawled out across an entire stadium field, and see the perfect concentration and magnificent intensity and sheer pleasure and pride in doing such a goddamn good job entertaining 60,000 fans, you have to say: they can make a statement with almost anything. Still looking, still working; I have a feeling that I have seen the lion in winter, and it was a wonderful visit. There is nothing more for them; this was proof - you can do this forever, it is simply entertainment, artistry for its own sake, and now everyone who follows knows what the pinnacle is all about.
Pink Floyd fans would be quick to disagree. After all, the last Floyd tour offered more spectacle than the Stones, though not much more. But the Stones played their own music. Yes, supplemented well by several other musicians - three additional vocalists, a horn section, and a keyboardist, but the arrangements were no more lush than what the songs called for, certainly no more than they had done in the studio. And no one supplemented any of the Stones on their own instruments, the way many reformulated bands have - even other dinosaurs, like Pink Floyd.
Musically, a great show; and as spectacle, as entertainment, it had a number of images that stuck in the brain afterwards, anchors to help shape the memories as they rooted. When that bridge came whipping out, snaking its way into the crowd before Little Queenie, it was impossible not to see the symbolism as the Stones made their way like aristocracy descending into the hoi-polloi, and whooping it up royally when they got there; something of a tribute, by the bad-boys to their fans, making it clear that Babylon is the fans, and their world, and that walkway descending out over and into the crowd is their acknowledgment of that ... not just breaking the proscenium arch, but also rebuilding it in their midst. We all believed in their new clothes, too. And they seemed far from naked.
The other image from that night that I couldn't quite fit in anywhere else was of the videographer assigned to Mick, running all over the stage around and behind and in front of this wiry, energetic madman. He was always around, hunched over a huge camera and trying to be inconspicuous, but going after that shot, always, running full-tilt over the stage, as if Mick were deliberately trying to shake him sometimes, just get free of this nagging reminder that everything he was doing had to be filtered, and that most people weren't seeing him, but just something on TV, like at home, only windier, colder, as crowded as an airliner, and looking at a stage the size of your thumb. Babylon is a primal image for decay, breakdown, and corruption, and in classic Stones fashion, the ambiguity and overtones made for exactly the sort of controlled chaos they have always engendered, and always thrived on. A great show.
It's Only Rock 'n' Roll
Let's Spend The Night Together
Flip The Switch
Has Anybody Seen My Baby?
Saint Of Me
19th Nervous Breakdown
Out Of Control
All About You
Wanna Hold You
When the Whip Comes Down
You Got Me Rockin'
Sympathy For The Devil
Honky Tonk Women
Start Me Up
Jumpin' Jack Flash.
You Can't Always Get What You Want
1. Contemporary Reviews
Edvins Beitika, "Old Stones Still Have Plenty of Roll, "San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 15, 1997, pp.1, A14.
Zachary Coile, "Traffic jam session," SanFrancisco Examiner, Nov. 14, 1997, pp.1, A18.
Craig Marine, "Stones coat it with 'Brown Sugar,'" San Francisco Examiner, Nov. 15, 1997, pp.C1, C9.
Joel Selvin, "Rock of All Ages: Parents take a new generation to see Rolling Stones," San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 15, 1997, pp.1, A15.
James Sullivan, "Pearl Jam Does Little Gig to Warm Up for Big One," San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 14,1997, p.C13.
James Sullivan, "Satisfaction - Guaranteed: Rolling Stones storm through familiar classics," San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 15, 1997, pp.C1, C3.
2. Other Sources
Booth, Stanley. Dance with the Devil: The Rolling Stones and their Times. New York: Random House, 1984.
Eisen, Jonathan, ed. The Age of Rock: Sounds of the American Cultural Revolution. New York: Vintage, 1969.