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Not Fade Away: The Rolling Stones Return
December 7, 2012 | 9:00AM

by Jesse Young

Legendary rhythm and blues act Rolling Stones play the Barclays Center in Brooklyn tomorrow, Dec. 8 starting at 8 pm. 

So, the Rolling Stones put out some new songs.

This, in and of itself, is not terribly remarkable. The new songs – two, to be precise – have been sutured onto the band’s latest greatest hits compendium, a fairly meager enticement to re-purchase the same two dozen decades-old hits. Neither track will win converts anew.

The gentler of the pair, “One More Shot,” begins with an almost-farcically lazy Stones riff. The sloppy opening cascade of Keith Richards’ guitar chords could be any song in the band’s catalogue, from “Street Fighting Man” to “Mixed Emotions” and everything in between. This is the kind of tossed-off riff that Keith probably plays in his sleep – it’s the Rolling Stones as the world’s greatest Rolling Stones cover band.

The new songs are a prelude to the Stones’ brief three-city fiftieth anniversary tour, currently in-process: two London dates have come and gone, with a handful of shows yet remaining in Brooklyn and Newark (with further dates sure to come). The clips that trickled out from the first two arena shows showcase largely what one might expect from the modern-day Stones – Mick Jagger remains alarmingly vital and rail-thin, while Keith Richards and Ron Wood’s guitar interplay is sluggish and slipshod. Guesting on the Muddy Waters’ jam “Champagne and Reefer” at the second London gig, Eric Clapton made clear how badly the band needs a reliable lead guitarist. Clapton’s solos were tightly-phrased and tasteful, in stark contrast with Woods and Richards’ shapelessly ramshackle riffing. Mick Taylor – the band’s stunningly talented lead guitarist from their ’69-‘74 peak years – also turned up at one of the London shows, displaying almost none of his once-titanic talent – you can watch his solo on “Midnight Rambler” careen haplessly into a jumble of flubbed notes at 2:50.

And therein lies the beauty of The Rolling Stones. This is a band – now entering its sixth decade on earth – that displays a near-pathological disinterest in confounding its critics. The nakedly capitalist impulses that drive the band’s tours ($800 tickets? In Newark? Really?) are approaching KISS-like extremes, minus only the action figures and branded condoms. This is not a band struggling and yearning to recapture the cultural relevance that escaped them some three decades ago. No: this is a band reveling in the ragged glory of being the Rolling Stones. Still aghast at the cheeky arrogance of calling yourself “The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band”? Go fuck yourself. It’s true.

I came to the Stones as a kid. My father’s favorite band was hard to avoid in our household – I remember staring at the dingy bathroom stall that graces the cover of Beggar’s Banquet and being baffled by its casual, offhanded vulgarity. Abbey Road this was not. And the music contained therein? One can look askance at the self-conscious satanist posturing of “Sympathy for the Devil,” but you cannot argue with its unearthly, eerie energy. “I shouted out/Who killed the Kennedys?/When after all/It was you and me.

While they made some incredible recordings, the Stones’ songcraft still seemed accessible. The sleazy, incessant pulse of their best music wore its influences proudly – ripping off Chuck Berry and Robert Johnson became the stuff of high art. Stood up against than the almost-baffling melodicism of the Beatles’ contemporaneous work, the Stones’ late-60s output is earthy, warm, and very human. For me at least, the band’s songs could be broken down and mostly understood; at their core, these were craftsmen, not blinding visionaries.

While the Stones’ bad boy image was a carefully constructed pose, it nonetheless endures – and often ends up obscuring some really appallingly good music. While 1973’s “Star Star (Starfucker)” is known primarily for the staggering filthiness of its lyric, it’s the winning Chuck Berry boogie underneath that makes the song worthwhile. I’m still not sure I entirely understand what’s going on in the raucous sex-and-slavery fable that is “Brown Sugar” (Tent show queen? What?). And that’s one reason why I find myself coming back to the band again and again: I don’t really care whether the mumbled lyric in “Rocks Off” is about heroin or women or god knows what. What I do know is that the horn charts in that song capture all the coiled, electric energy of an awesome party I wish I invited to.

The band has willingly abetted its own myth-making in recent years, releasing a tantalizing array of re-masters, reissues, bootlegs, and career retrospectives. Some of the best, like last year’s official release of the long-lauded bootleg Brussels Affair (Live 1973), showcase the band at their combustible, menacing peak.

However, some elements of the Stones Inc. nostalgia machine only grow more irritating as I grow older – like the idea that 1972’s Exile on Main Street is the Stones’ greatest and most towering achievement. The album’s repute has become inextricably linked with the circumstances of its recording: cut in the basement of Keith Richards villa in the South of France while the band was fleeing confiscatory British income taxes, it’s a bleary-eyed and intermittently-brilliant mess of a double album. However, too many critics assume that the album’s debauched, incoherent sprawl indisputably marks it as the group’s finest work: they are wrong. I’d take 1969’s Let It Bleed over Exile any day – the former’s mix of boozy country blues (“Let It Bleed”) and apocalyptic riff rock (“Gimme Shelter,” “Midnight Rambler”) strikes me as a far more satisfying statement.

As the Stones’ story becomes ever more clouded by worshipful hagiography, it’s also important to remember what made the band so cool to begin with. For me, so much of it begins and ends with Keith’s guitar. Richards bastardized an open guitar tuning popularized by American Delta bluesmen – open G – and perverted it into an aggressive rock voicing, rich with twanging Telecaster bile. I’m not qualified to discern the deeply fraught racial politics of a bunch of white British boys appropriating the musical vernacular of the black American south, but I do know that “Start Me Up” is a song that cannot exist without Richards’ guitar tuning. And it’s the reason why you often see Keith Richards playing six-string electric guitars with only five strings, because he only needs five goddamn strings, thank you very much.

And so, in the face of the Rolling Stones’ present crassness and sloppiness, my affections for the band remain essentially undimmed. Because when you’ve survived 50 years, and all the drugs and infighting and death that it entailed, you’ve earned the right to do as you please. Because, even when you don’t have to, you still insist on making spittle-flecked new rock ‘n’ roll well into your retirement years (I’d point to “Saint of Me,” “Let Me Down Slow,” and “You Got Me Rocking” on that count). Because you’ve been doing this so long that jokes about your age now just seem tasteless. Because Brian Jones died and Keith Richards somehow hasn’t yet. Because your new music video has Noomi Rapace topless in it. Because you still make this look easy.

So, the Rolling Stones put out some new songs. And I like it. It’s only rock ‘n’ roll, after all.

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