It’s Mick Jagger in the persona we know best: a smug fuckboy who knows he can be a dick and get away with it because he’s got boundless sexual charisma. Mick Jagger is the best kind of fuckboy, the kind who is absolutely gleeful and unrepentant, fully confident he’s got what girls – and boys! – want. As opposed to the other types, the insecure whiny ones who rely on fake sensitivity and postures of vulnerability in an attempt to make themselves seem harmless and appealing. Nobody wants a wolf in sheep’s clothing, though, everybody just wants the wolf. Or the sheep, some people are into that too, nothing wrong with a little lamb, as long as it’s authentic lamb. But yeah, in the real scheme of things, all the little red riding hoods can’t wait to line up to get eaten by the sexy cocksure wolf. You can call it problematic all you like, but it’s the way of nature.
I love the Rolling Stones when they’re at their most weird, and they never broke away from their usual hitmaking formula harder than they did on Their Satanic Majesties Request. In all fairness, 1967 was a bumper crop of psychedelic albums striving to emulate the surreal sing-along ebullience that sounded so effortless when The Beatles did it. But among all of the attempts to make a worthy reply to Sgt. Pepper, nobody failed as hard as The Stones. They didn’t just fail to capture the Summer of Love spirit, they made mockery of it. With three-fifths of the group being embroiled with the criminal justice system, nobody’s head was exactly open to waves of cosmic love or whatever (something Mick Jagger was always too much of a flinty-eyed realist to fall for anyway.) The Stones’ use of popular hippie musical tropes only exposed those gestures for what they were: empty posturing and hopelessly naive ideology unhinged from reality. The sixties only went downhill from there.
Whatever thoughts you may have on The Rolling Stones, put them aside and just admire Mick Jagger’s bedazzled physique. Man, his hips are so tiny! Pure sex in little white tennis shoes. Also stop and appreciate how weird the 1970’s must have been to allow this spectacle to even take place. The blues gods never intended their music to be turned into a drag show such as this. But the Stones took the blues and turned it into a gender-bending, drug soaked burlesque, yet somehow they still retained the mystique of guys who were not to be fucked with. The implication of danger lingers, making the glitter and spandex look like a lure to entrap the hapless. The pretty drag queen will seduce you, then the other guys will quietly slit your throat. A very real probability given that Keith is known to carry a switchblade. We know that the 70’s Stones roadshow was a literal den of iniquity, complete with an all-you-can-eat buffet of narcotics, adolescent groupies, and unconscious bodies discreetly disposed of through the back exit. Everyone who survived it with their brain cells still intact agrees that it was actually pretty miserable, but somehow the misery is all part of the sordid glamour, the idea that rock’n’roll is a force of Dionysian chaos that steamrolls anyone who dares to dance the dance. Who cares about the trail of ruined lives and dead bodies? It’s only rock’n’roll!
Maybe ‘uplifting’ isn’t the first idea you’d associate with The Rolling Stones. Their credo of hedonism may aspirational to some but it sure ain’t inspirational in the “Hang in there, Buddy” sense of the word. I can’t tell if it’s inwardness that they lack or outwardness, but what they’re kind of notorious for their selfishness. But yet, they’re not entirely without sensitivity, and that’s often overlooked. Mick Jagger may not be prone to openness in his writing, but he often writes with empathy and he definitely has a writer’s talent for observation. So many Rolling Stones songs are filled with details about the kind of people who float around in the rock world and the oft-not-very-happy lives they live. A few of them may flourish, but many end up being casualties, and it’s not that living the rock star life is dangerous and deadly; it’s that people are attracted to that kind of living because they’ve already blown it in the normal world. This applies to one of the Stones’ most unfortunate casualties, their former leader Brian Jones, who was formidably gifted but absolutely unsuited to any kind of life at all. Jagger may have made a calculated decision to save the band by kicking out its sickest member, but clearly he wasn’t unaffected watching his formerly close companion turn into a wreck of a man. This song dates back to 1968, when those wounds were still fresh, and it feels like an attempt to find some sliver of absolution in a sad and ugly story. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but some people just want to destroy themselves, and all you can do is watch them and pray.
This was one of the Rolling Stones’ last big hits, and you can definitely feel them teetering on the edge of self-parody. In the video you can see them tumble right over. It’s right there in the sweet spot, if you can call it that, between effortlessly funky and mindlessly childish. Rumor has it that Mick Jagger composed this ode to non-reciprocated lust about his ex-wife Bianca, to whom he stayed married for seven years despite neither one showing any signs of liking each other very much. It’s certainly unlikely that Jagger would have much experience of being frozen out by stand-offish women unless those women had already been burnt out by years and years of his bullshit. Either way, it’s deeply silly, and as far as songs about mindless lust go, pretty harmless. If the worst thing you ex-husband can think to say about you is that you’re “goddamn cold” you’re getting off pretty lightly.
The Rolling Stones may have been slightly out of their element playing phosphorescent psychedelic pop music about love and rainbows, but they’ve rarely written anything prettier. No one was immune to the dizzy highs of the Summer of Love, not even a group whose key members actually spent the summer in and out of jail. Anyway, the Stones’ fabled sympathy towards the dark side was mostly savvy marketing (although, one trail of corpses later, it does seem to have been a self-fulfilling prophecy.) Mick Jagger could just as easily sold himself to the public as a nice young man who went to a very good school, but the pop market already had enough nice young men and the public wanted a bete noire. With this kind of songwriting and less carnage, the Stones could have become pillars of the British Empire a lot sooner.
This is everything that’s wrong with the Rolling Stones: another one of Mick Jagger’s absurd tales of mindless sexual conquest backed with the same tired riffs. By 1983 the Stones had sunk into self-parody, and judging by the tongue-in-cheek video, they were well aware of it. Taking the stance of “yes, we’re pretty silly at this point but we’re good at what we do” was understandable. Imagine trying to generate new ideas when you’re 40 years old, you’re trying to record your 17th album and you hate your coworkers. Jagger’s urge to take himself seriously would take the shape of an abortive solo career. (At this point he was hoarding his ‘best’ songs for his own project.) Keith Richards had stopped taking himself seriously around the time the band stopped being blues purists, and the others had never taken themselves seriously in the first place. The fans, meanwhile, proved that they didn’t need seriousness to keep them paying for the product. And that collective attitude kept the Stones rolling straight into the millennium and beyond. They don’t care if they’re not relevant, they just do what they do. They’re also among the last of a dying breed, literally. Blues based rock music is struggling today – nobody takes it seriously anymore! Also, nobody wants to listen to songs about the simple pleasures of fucking and discarding an interchangeable series of women. It’s just not what the conversation is about today. This entertainment is retrograde. There are many elements of rock star culture that we can’t zoom away from fast enough – the glorification of predatory sexual behavior, for example – but I don’t think we’ll ever lose our fascination for figures like Mick Jagger, people who are so larger than life that the very idea of their lifestyle is enough to fuel decades of profitable work.