I sense an element of irony in the Rolling Stones’ exhortation to drink to all of the hard working people. The Stones don’t care about anything but themselves. They’ve never bothered much with pretending to be socially conscious or politically active, except for some vague up-against-the-man posturing. They did all come from working-class backgrounds, so there’s that, but they pretty quickly established themselves as their own class of doped-up aristocracy. “Do we look strange to you?” they ask, hoping for a resounding yes. I don’t really want self-awareness from The Rolling Stones; I like to imagine them communing with demons and occupying a space-time bubble far removed from us peasants. They certainly occupied their own world in 1968, into which this is only a cracked glimpse.
You can’t sanctify Mick Jagger, but you can give him a knighthood. The Rolling Stones have made an uneasy truce between their anti-establishment beginnings and their current position in the high echelons of society. Keith Richards would really rather still be pissing on gas station walls, but he’s yoked into this demented aristocracy too. The Stones don’t stand for anything except themselves, and they never really have, even at their most controversial. They’ve found that it’s not even really necessary to change and stay relevant when what you represent is hedonism. Fans want the glamour of louche living, unabashed decadence, expensive squalor, endlessly unsatisfied appetites.
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.
Whoever the muse behind Ruby Tuesday was – and accounts differ – she sounds like a real cool person. Songs very often come out of the ether without anything specific for inspiration, and just as often what inspiration there was gets forgotten while the tune lingers. Especially when the composers were, not to put too fine of a point on it, tripping balls, as was often the case with the Rolling Stones. We can surmise that somewhere in the past there was a groupie or a fling or a brief encounter with some free-spirited woman who lived a life far more exciting than what most women were curtailed to, and she made one hell of an impression on Keith Richards. She certainly, in her musical incarnation, exemplified the psychedelic era, in which the young broke away from the landmass of convention and floated out to sea on an iceberg of drugs and big ideas.
“The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”
The Rolling Stones are strung out in the south of France, and the strain is starting to show. Leave it to those degenerates to turn a glamorous and idyllic life into a crawl through the gutter. Legend has it that Villa Nellcote had been requisitioned by Nazis during the occupation, and the outlines of old swastikas could still be seen on the basement walls. (It’s now owned by a Russian oligarch.) That lends Exile on Main St. an appropriate touch of evil. 1972 may have been the last time that The Rolling Stones still seemed haunted by devils, before they turned ‘dancing with Mr. D’ into high camp and appeared dangerous to nobody but themselves and their familiars. Of course, The Stones’ orbit continues to be marked by tragic death and inexplicable acts of survival, but nobody worries anymore that the corruption will somehow rub off on their children.
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.
The Rolling Stones recently made a blues album, their first straight-up blues album since the 60’s. The Stones can do their thing in their sleep at this point, so the question is not whether or not it’s a good album. The question is, once again, whether the Rolling Stones are the greatest living blues band or just a pastiche of one. Back in the day, when every other band was a blues band, the Stones were – arguably – the best of the bunch; now they’re among the last of their breed. The question remains, though: is it really the blues? If it’s a bunch of middle class white guys from the suburbs of London? What if it’s a bunch of elderly white guys who are richer than God? Can they achieve authenticity through sheer bloody-mindedness and depravity? The answer in 1968 was, I think, very much yes. What the Rolling Stones did was very authentic, although perhaps not in the way they intended. It never really sounded like real American blues, but it was believably enough its perverted English cousin. It was blues unique to its time and situation, born from the unique angst of its creators. Are the Rolling Stones still the greatest living blues band, despite being obscenely wealthy old men? Given that not many people are much given to either playing or hearing the blues these days, yes. The Stones still play the blues as though their ability to master the blues could still impress people.