I am not the kind of person who skips over Keith Richards’ grackle-voiced contributions when I listen to Rolling Stones records. Nor would I want to listen to an entire album of his croaking either. Keith’s there to lend a little bit of soulful grit to what’s become a very shiny and polished enterprise, but he’s hardly a born frontman, in either personality or vocal gifts. Not all of the Keith songs are standouts, but they never fail to reset to the mood to an earthier level. As far as the obligatory “let’s let Keith have the mic” numbers go, this one is by far one of my favorites. It is such a poignant outro, without even knowing the knotty history behind Steel Wheels. It’s all there in his voice. You can hear the many miles and years logged to get to that precise moment, the history and tragedy and burned bridges and grudgingly given love that make the Rolling Stones the often barely-functioning family that they are.
In my formative years I spent more than a few good hours watching The Rolling Stones’ Steel Wheels tour documentary. I watched that VHS tape relentlessly. I loved the album a lot too. What that means, among other damages, is that I really can’t in any way make an objective judgement about that particular set of songs. I’ve been told that Steel Wheels is really just not a very good album, but goddamn it, I think it’s a really fucking great album. It’s definitely one of the best Rolling Stones albums to come out of the 80’s, and you can’t argue with that because the bar was set pretty low in the 80’s. I know that the Stones pump out a lot of songs like that sound just like this one. But I’m still attached to it, the way some people remain attached to their matchbox cars or their high school sports trophies or their tattered dreams.
The Rolling Stones, circa 1989, doing what they do best – swaggering, aggressive rock’n’roll. You could say that this sound and posturing has become calcified, and it has, but still, nobody does it better. The Rolling Stones didn’t start out as a band that writes songs for stadiums, because they’re older than the stadium era, but that’s what they’ve become. They helped invent stadium rock, and you can blame them for a lot of other people’s shit music as a result of that. By 1989 they were already a well-oiled machine selling sex and attitude as a futuristic mass spectacle. Some fans gripe that the band has sold out its soul, but we all know that Mick Jagger exchanged his soul for the promise of an eternally fawnlike physique sometime in the mid-sixties, while Keith Richards picked up the vampire virus in Marrakesh. The Rolling Stones have no choice but to carry on writing hard-riffing rock songs and filling up stadiums; they signed a blood oath with the devil to go on being The Rolling Stones for all of eternity. The Rolling Stones are going to be playing when the world melts.