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.
In between the hits, we find Rolling Stones songs that are not about the usual sex’n’drugs crap. All that strutting would be a pretty meaningless posture if Mick Jagger didn’t occasionally show glimmers of vulnerability and self-awareness. Nobody, not even Jagger, can maintain eternal cockiness as a full-time job, and it’s endearing to think that he may mope and worry about his hair turning grey. (It’s hard to imagine Jagger maintaining his longevity without a fluffy head of hair.) It’s also endearing to know that Jagger, like anyone else, just wants a little sympathy and a pat on the head. You can have sex with thousands of people, but not all of them will pat you on the head afterwards.
I’m currently in the early chapters of reading a biography of Mick Jagger, not because I think there’s anything new left to learn, but because it’s a story I never get tired of revisiting. Jagger’s decades-long-and-counting notoriety has always been fueled by sex, as much if not more so than music. He’s had an awful lot of women saying ‘yeah’ to him, often without even being asked. Unlike a lot of rockers, Mick Jagger didn’t suddenly start attracting women because he was famous; he became famous because he was already irresistible to women. Girls followed Jagger home from school when he was a kid, they followed him when he was a nobody blues singer without two shillings to rub together, and The Rolling Stones shot to fame because a handful of girls grew to hundreds to hundreds of thousands to millions. If many of the Stones’ songs are sexually crass – and a great many of them are – at least they come by it honestly. If they’re sexist – and a great many of them are – it’s not the bitter sexism of desperately insecure twerps whose ego depends on capturing and locking down a female trophy. It’s the cavalier attitude of a real Casanova, a man for whom trophies mean nothing, who doesn’t quite understand jealousy or commitment, who doesn’t want or need to lock anyone down and resents the pressure to settle down himself. If he doesn’t put the ladies on a pedestal or see them as particularly valuable, it’s because they’ve always delivered themselves to his door and he doesn’t see what the big deal is. John Lennon wrote about stalking and killing women who rejected him; Mick Jagger always did the opposite.
“You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown…”
New York City in the 70’s was a dirthole riddled with filth and crime, making it the perfect place to be strung out and at loose ends. It may have been a miserable place to live, but the people who lived there – and the ones who just visited – were busy mythologizing it as a smoggy Babylon of self-expression and debauchery. So of course, The Rolling Stones, connoisseurs of sewer-rat glamour, gravitated there. Mick Jagger happily hit the cocaine circuit of Studio 54 in the company of celebs like Andy Warhol and David Bowie, while Keith Richards relished the city’s turn-a-blind-eye anonymity as he fought his heroin addiction and the unraveling of his family. The Stones create their own Babylon wherever they go, it’s what they do, but they sucked up the highly specific place energy of 70’s New York and added to the canon of quintessential New York albums.
See, what’d I tell you? Blues isn’t blues unless it sounds like garbage. The Rolling Stones knew this, better than most any other English blues band. Resources are no substitute for soul, and if you don’t have a colorful life to draw on, you’d better create one. Maybe that’s why they were so hellbent on turning themselves into human wreckage. They may not have come from very bluesy backgrounds, but they could reinvent themselves as people with something to sing the blues about. Drugs, debauchery and existential dread, as it turned out, make for great blues.
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.