Sarah lives in Cardiff and The Rolling Stones were playing at the stadium down the road. She debated on Facebook on whether to take her children to see them — to introduce them to a unique and formative classic rock band. Sarah’s friends were divided on the wisdom of this, but I was not. I hate The Rolling Stones so much I sometimes think I must actually love them. As many a blues artists has noted before them, it’s a thin line between the two.
Let’s get this straight at the outset though. I don’t hate The Rolling Stones’ music. I hate what they represent, and like so many antipathies, my relationship began as an affair of the heart. I started out enthrall to them and what I perceived as their dangerous personas, their glamorous auras, their satin scarves, their diphthongs, their androgyny, their vices. I swooned to the sound of Exile On Main Street, I truly love the songs “Gimme Shelter,” “Tumbling Dice” and “You Got The Silver,” I can play “Dead Flowers” on guitar. But I wasn’t their lover, I was their victim…and when they lost my fandom, I became ashamed of it, and they grew monstrous in my mind. I felt implicated in their crimes.
Once they were dead to me, I went through four of the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, and depression. It was, however, a mourning period unsupported by the community at large, who continued — who continue — to be absorbed in every value and grace note and spectacle they present. That this is so is why and how it comes to be that, fifty plus years after their debut, the Rolling Stones are on tour this summer, playing enormous venues like the one Sarah eventually went to in Cardiff.
Yeah, I lost that debate, and so it occurred to me that it might be time for me to come to terms with my hatred, in order to reach at long last, the fifth stage of grieving, acceptance. What follows is a fugue of sorts, in five parts, the same number of times I’ve seen them live.
1) The first time I saw The Rolling Stones was at the Oakland Coliseum and it was on Mick Jagger’s 34th birthday. A helicopter strafed the crowd and dropped little packages on its head, which proved to contain fortune cookies with inserts that read “happy birthday Mick,” and irony of irony, I recall thinking then that he was as old as the hills. A few years later, I went to see the band at Candlestick Park with my friends Lori, Kathy, and Kathy’s boyfriend Nick. The opening act was Santana and it took us practically all day to get there because we walked from, like 24thand Mission. I’d never seen Hunter’s Point neighborhood of San Francisco up close, and it shocked me a little, because I’m stupid and white and grew up in the suburbs, and I’d lived in the Bay Area my whole life and still didn’t know we had a ghetto, or what it looked like. The relationship — or non-relationship — between The Rolling Stones and race and class and economics was a closed book to me at that time: I knew nothing about any of those things. I didn’t know that “Some Girls” was a paean to groupies, I didn’t know that the Stones were fans of black music who had somehow occupied it without giving it proper credit, none of it. I just had your basic bad time at the concert, i.e. I had to pee the whole time, the stage was way up high so I had to crane my neck, a bunch of drunken frat boys stood in front of me yelling shit, and Mick was wearing balloon pants and looked like a clown.
( 2) Years passed. I was in college and Cocksucker Blues was playing one night only on campus, with Robert Frank, the filmmaker, in residence. I went with my friends and was shocked straight by the scene in it, in which a bunch of gross looking roadies take turns having sex with a teenage groupie while the Stones stand around beating bongos. Years later, this is what I wrote about it in my book, Exile In Guyville: “I’m old enough now that I understand that to some people the sight of girls masturbating and having sex with a bunch of men is erotic, but at the time, it just seemed depressing….The desperate girl was depressing. The lecherous roadies were depressing and disgusting. Most of all the, the Stones, staring down at them, bored and disdainful, were depressing — like noxious villainous Roman emperors no one in their right mind would root for, because itwould be like rooting for Caligula.”
( 3) Then it was high grunge and I was in the thick of it. My idea of a good show at that time was one where you got into a small mosh pit and pressed sweaty flesh with shirtless boys and possibly the lead singer, while guitars ground out super loud and ominous chords behind a relentless drum and absolute roars of rage, where you basically became one with noise…a show by the Fluid or Fugazi or the Afghan Whigs. Meanwhile, in real life, for my day job, I covered bands like Nirvana and Metallica for Rolling Stone and Spin. In 1991, I was asked by Entertainment Weekly to review “Flashpoint,” the live Rolling Stones LP, and when I turned in my copy the editor called me up to beg me to change the letter grade I gave them, F, but I refused. I re-read it recently and I was surprised at how kind I was to the band, which may have been copy editing thing: I didn’t actually use any swears, though I did call the record an embarrassment, question why, after 28 years together, the band couldn’t play “Paint It Black” in synch, and conclude that it was “a crass, predictable, and poorly executed — and I hope, for the sake of anyone who enjoyed the tour live, not entirely accurate — document of what sounds like the band’s exploitation of its public’s loyalty and love.”
Good thing the internet didn’t exist then or I would have been doxxed and then stoned to death.
( 4) In 1997, I went to see the Stones at the Oakland Coliseum again, this time in support of their record “Bridges to Babylon.” Pearl Jam was opening, and I was sort of friendly with that band, having just returned from touring Eastern Europe with them, including witnessing a triumphant gig in Istanbul the likes of which I think the Stones will only ever dream of playing, so I had super good seats. Neil Strauss, then the critic for the New York Times, was seated next to me: soon he would write a best-selling book about how to pick up, use, and exploit the good will of women that sort of distilled what the Stones whole ethos projects. Meanwhile, on stage, the Stones had a giant mechanical dragon that moved around on stage behind them, and in the midst of their machinations, I had this apocalyptic vision of what would was going to happen to that dragon in the future: it would sit in some junk yard, somewhere, and start up feebly one day when everyone else on the planet was dead.
Musically, that Stones show was much like the one I’d heard in Flashpoint, same songs, same motions. “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Start Me Up,” “Get Off Of My Cloud.” Johnny Ramone was seated behind me, and as he got up to leave, I turned to him and said, “Johnny, I like your band so much more than this one.” I was always glad I did that. It was one of my life’s few right moments.
( 5) The next spring, I saw them again at what’s now called the SAP Arena in San Jose, where the Sharks play, and sat in the sports box with the publisher of the paper I worked for. It was 4/20 on the actual day that Columbine happened, and that incident was much on my mind, to the point where I couldn’t concentrate on the show below me…but I might not have been able to anyway. The sports box was a million miles away from the stage and everyone in it was laughing and talking and eating hors d’ oeuvres while the Stones played down below. Mid-show, the publisher introduced me to a man he described as Neal Cassady’s son, like this; “Gina, this is Neal Cassady’s son!” Like he didn’t have a name, or an identity of his own.
Then he turned to me and said, “I can’t believe I get to be in the same room as Mick Jagger!” I looked around the cavernous arena and I thought, ‘Dude! This is not a room!’ Honestly, you might as well say, ‘I can’t believe I get to be on the same planet as Mick Jagger…or Mother Theresa, or Pele…or a man who may possibly met Jack Kerouac when he was a baby.
And therein lies the rub, really; that’s what they’re selling, year in, year out, their high ticket prices are predicated on the idea that you get to be in the same vicinity as them. Also, it’s a brand thing, like buying a Porsche or carrying a Prada bag or bragging about having seen Hamilton — just a very obvious way to show that you have money. When I was young and idealistic and all into Fugazi and punk rock, that infuriated me, but now that I’m older, I try to see those things in perspective, as harmless quirks of the human psyche that, well, twas ever thus.
As for brands and marketing, advertising is now such a foundational part of capitalism, apparently the global economy would collapse if we didn’t all buy into that mindset.
That said, there’s a small little part of me that still feels betrayed by the Rolling Stones, not because they are making so much money off humanity’s weak need to draft off others’ supposed coolness, and not because they have marketed themselves into meaninglessness, and not because their live shows are boring retreads that are essentially the same as seeing Bachman Turner Overdrive at an Indian Bingo parlor only more expensive, but because way, way down underneath their cocky, sexist, toxic white masculinity, there was some incredibly great music. The Stones are like my parents now, a hollow shell of what they once were, and as with my parents, I no longer feel angry. It seems funny to say this, but I now even think that they might have sold themselves short. After all, as of this writing, seeing the Stones in Berlin next week costs less than 75 euros on Stubhub. But the Rolling Stones as a concept is just like the ad says it is: priceless.
Originally published at foolsrushinredux.blogspot.com on June 18, 2018.