Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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It Isn't Only Rock and Roll

My friend Anne Hill and I went to see the Rolling Stones in Toronto a few days before they got to New York. Our Row K tickets put us in the combat zone, with visual access blocked by less-privileged fans who'd fought their way to the forward aisles. So we stood up for most of a two-hour set in an un-air-conditioned hockey rink, packed in among dozens of human space heaters. It was tight like that. At one point I reasoned with a third-line forward who had edged in behind me by standing on his feet, and later I threatened to push a scrawny photographer off Anne's chair.

The hostility felt good, like the sweat--a survival mechanism that distracted me a little from the Stones but brought me closer to the reality principle, which is half of what the Stones are supposed to do. I experienced it as neither programmatic nor vindictive, just practical. I figure anyone who isn't willing to stand up for two hours doesn't deserve to see the Stones, especially on a free ticket. And I was jumping up and down quite a bit more than the sightlines demanded anyhow.

Later I had it from reliable sources that this show was the worst of the current tour, and I can believe it. It certainly wasn't transcendent. And yet there I was jumping up and down. For the simple truth is that the Stones never put on a bum show--they're transcendent when they're good and merely good when they're bad. If the guitars and the drums and Jagger's voice come together audibly in those elementary patterns that no one else has ever managed to simulate, the most undeniable rock and roll excitement is a virtually automatic result. To insist that this excitement doesn't reach you is not to articulate an aesthetic judgment but to assert a rather uninteresting crotchet of taste. It is to boast that you don't like rock and roll itself. For the Stones are the peak of the term.

For some reason (because this could be the last time? I don't know) the Stones' preeminence in their chosen field of endeavor seems finally to have earned them genuine respect in the world at large. Their music has achieved the third station of truth--first ignored, then denied, it is now taken for granted--as their image has softened, from satanic majesties down to playmates of Andy and Bianca into friendly Garden-variety celebrities. Tour one post-Altamont, in 1972, was a time for recriminations both thoughtful and mindless in the press. This time, however, the Stones are presented not only as great professionals but as great professionals doing likable work.

The Stones, yes. Yes, we are told by Frank Conroy (a litterateur who also, the blurb says, "plays jazz piano professionally") and Joyce Maynard (who when she was younger was heralded as the youngest writer in the world) and Nik Cohn (whose history of rock loses much of its fine flash just when the music is getting serious), yes, this Rolling Stones music can be wonderful stuff. It makes Frank feel good right down to his socks; it introduces Joyce to sex and danger; it satisfies Nik's need for urgency and rage. They really like it, they do--but they don't go overboard. Conroy, who since he writes for the Times magazine must know, determines that the Stones understand the zeitgeist no better than their audience. Maynard, who is into waltzing these days, concludes that they no longer speak for Her Generation. Cohn, who has been lamenting the brief half-life of supernovae for at least a quarter of his own, warns that they've become smug caricatures of their own uncouthness. The great Rolling Stones mind-fuck has ended if it ever really began, of that we are assured--it really is only rock and roll.

Well, perhaps it is. As Mick has noted in one of his more regrettable moments, time waits for no one. Like all of us, the Stones are subject to history--the world's (Conroy's hustle), their fans (Maynard's hustle), and their own (Cohn's hustle). And they do seem to be wearing down a little. Their two most recent albums, Goat's Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, represent a nadir. It's hard to imagine the Stones even recording songs as tritely portentous as "Dancing With Mr. D," or "Time Waits for No One" or "Fingerprint File" five years ago, much less releasing them or (as they do, with "Fingerprint File") performing them live. And even the peaks of these albums--which I would identify as "Starfucker" and "If You Can't Rock Me," respectively--simply don't match "Rip This Joint" and "Sweet Virginia" and "Soul Survivor" and "Happy" on Exile on Main Street, or "Bitch" and "Brown Sugar" and "Moonlight Mile" on Sticky Fingers, or (God knows) "Gimme Shelter" and "You Can't Always Get What You Want" on Let It Bleed or "Street Fighting Man" and "Salt of the Earth" on Beggars Banquet. Lists compiled by other Stones fans might differ, but not their conclusions; relatively speaking, the two latest LPs are forgettable stuff.

But that is only relatively speaking, for even at their most perfunctory the Stones remain, at least so far, the peak of the form: what's more, it's relative to their late work, all recorded well after what observers like Maynard and Cohn regard as their apotheosis. However passionate and urgent the music of the Stones early years (say, The Rolling Stones Now) and middle period (try Aftermath) continues to sound, it is simply not as rich and powerful as the work of their supposed decline. Even proceeding from the common supposition that the middle period extends through Let It Bleed, with the decline beginning at Altamont (now almost half a career behind them, by the way), we are left with Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street on the saggy side of the dividing line. Joyce Maynard says Sticky Fingers is the last Stones album she bought, and I understand why--it was confusing when it came out, trifling with decadence just when a lot of us were anticipating some sort of apology or retribution. But listening to it now, a lot, I think it may stand as their best album ever, with the competition coming from Exile, a two-record set so dense and various that it is only after three years that I'm finally beginning to feel some fatigue with it. Joyce could do worse than trade in some waltzes for a copy.

All this opinionizing is intended to remind you that the Stones are real Artists with an Oeuvre that relates to the well-known Zeitgeist. Such aestheticism is unorthodox for me--I like to locate music culturally, at its intersection with society--but it does get down to what I value about the Stones. It is a little obtuse, after all, to downgrade a rock group because rock culture itself has become so pluralistic and unfocused, hence decreasingly relevant--especially when the rock group has done much better than most with the available options. When Joyce Maynard declares evenly that she has outgrown the Stones and Nik Cohn triumphantly records the indifference of some designated everypunk--when two people who should know better ignore the work to tell us that this group doesn't conform to their obsolescent notion of what rock and roll should be--they make it easier for a man-about-letters like Frank Conroy to misrepresent that work altogether, albeit with moderately kind intentions.

The Stones' music used to create the impression that it was for kids because the Stones were quite young and their manager steered them towards an audience of adolescent rebels. But now they are in their mid-thirties, what's left of the rebel youth culture has lost much of its credibility and all of its cohesion, and Rolling Stones songs like "Torn and Frayed" and "Soul Survivor"--in fact all of Exile on Main Street--are about growing old with rock an droll. This music is weary and complicated and ironic and buried in its own drudgery, with all the old Stones themes--sex as power, sex as love, sex as pleasure, distance, craziness, release--piled on top of the implicit obsession with the passage of time. But it rocks harder than ever.

For what distinguished such songs from the ambitious work of other mature groups is not just that the Stones can manage all the extra thematic involvements but also that they rock even harder while doing so. Their music has always attracted the smartest fans because it never let its own realism get it down. It insists that it is possible to think and act at the same time, and at its most transcendent it promises a plausible triumph to those who are listening at peak attention. That may not be the zeitgeist, which is looking pretty dreary these days. But it's a really terrific substitute.

We are all still thinking about aesthetics here, what you can get from the records that you need even more than you want. But as masters of their options, the Stones haven't given up on culture. Because the promise of rock and roll is one teenagers are readier to believe, the Stones still got the kids and there were plenty of them at the Garden for the New York opener. But the crowd was markedly older than the one in Toronto, it was also hipper, more affluent, and more Mediterranean. The cross-section felt like youth culture revisited. When Carola and I arrived at 8:20 the already fierce energy level was being whipped higher by some fancy lighting and the dozens of steel bands who had been hired to roam the arena in lieu of an opening act. It had been years since I'd been in such a galvanic mass audience. Gradually the steel bands centered in front of the mirrored pyramid that would unfold into a six-pointed star stage at showtime. The crowd wanted the Stones. When the steel bands began to play "Satisfaction" instead, there was some ominous booing. But the Stones arrived in the nick of time.

From the loge, I could consider the art of the Stones more coolly. I have my reservations. Jagger's hyperactive stamina, two hours of motion, is an athletic marvel, but his moves aren't getting any subtler or more organic and he's pouting too much. Billy Preston is the most actively offensive in a long line of less than worthy side musicians. The selection of songs could be subtler and more demanding. And perhaps because it was opening night in New York, they were working too hard. Not a great show.

But there is an aesthetic purpose to all this. The 1972 tour really did suggest retribution. It was careful and even friendly; "Sympathy for the Devil" was not performed, the spirit of the gentle, musicianly Mick Taylor permeated the proceedings. Taylor's replacement, Ron Wood of the Faces, is a raver with a guitar as dirty, technically speaking, as Billy Preston's organ, but a lot more bracing. And because the others are constant his spirit comes through. The Faces are arrogant, but not in the majestic fashion of the 1969 Stones, and the bumptiousness of the Stones 1975 show is reminiscent of their foolish playfulness. Jagger's rubber voice has taken on some high trills and a faintly tasteless Satchmo growl, and though I'm pleased to report that he's kicking his inflatable penis more and caressing it less, that dumb joke seems to epitomize his current attitude. I was struck by a new move in which he rolled down an incline like a little kid getting dizzy. He could stamp his foot and say "We are too the Rolling Stones" and it would not be out of character.

The climax of New York was "Sympathy for the Devil." All the steel drums came out again and played so loud you not only couldn't hear the words, you could barely hear his voice. Was this statement deliberate? I wondered. But Eric Clapton appeared and ripped off a stuningly filthy solo, the steel rang on, and without intending to--I've never been too crazy about "Sympathy for the Devil," which I regard as middlebrow--I began to get a buzz of transcendence.

"Sympathy for the Devil" was a coup, a genuinely impressive reassertion of their old prerogatives, and I went away high. When I consider it coolly, though, I think it's more than possible that they've peaked. But Anne and Carola, neither of whom had ever seen the Stones, each thought her respective show was the best she'd ever seen.

I wonder what I'll think of them in 1978.

Village Voice, June 30, 1975