Wednesday, November 28, 2012

This afternoon's listening


It's not a bad way to spend 40-something minutes of a cool November day, listening to the Stones as the sun sinks behind the Nebraska plains well before suppertime.

This is the time of year when you're really starting to miss the daylight we had just the other day, it seems like. And you're wanting it back.

But as Mick Jagger says, "You can't always get what you want."

True, true. . . .

"But if you try sometimes, you just might find you get what you need."


Like a late fall fix of 1969's "Let It Bleed," one of a stretch of albums the Rolling Stones made back when the Rolling Stones made albums that mattered. Mick from London -- another Mick from London, Mick Brown who writes for The Telegraph -- says that hasn't been the case for a very, very long time. And he adds that the bad boys grampaws of rock 'n' roll should just hang it up after a half century.
On Sunday night, while the Rolling Stones were performing for 20,000 people at the O2 in London – the first of five concerts they will be playing in London and New York to mark their 50th anniversary – one of their early heroes was also making an appearance a few miles across town, in the somewhat shabbier surroundings of the Kentish Town Forum.

Bobby Womack is the veteran soul singer who wrote, and with his group The Valentinos recorded, the original version of It’s All Over Now, which gave the Stones their first number one hit in Britain in 1964. Womack once recalled his chagrin at his mentor Sam Cooke giving the Stones his song, and depriving him of having the hit himself. “I was still screaming and hollering right up until I got my first royalty cheque. Man, the amount of money rolling in shut me right up.”

Womack, 68, who styles himself as “the Soul Survivor”, has survived drug problems, near-penury and cancer. He was performing songs from a new album, The Bravest Man In The Universe (modesty was never his strong suit), produced by another, younger admirer, Damon Albarn.

The Rolling Stones, who started out as a rhythm and blues covers band, borrowing heavily from black artists such as Womack (a debt which, to their credit, they have always warmly acknowledged), are now among the wealthiest entertainers in the world, a thriving corporation, steered by a CEO – Mick Jagger – who has demonstrated a mixture of shrewdness and business acumen that makes him the peer of any more strait-laced captain of industry.

The Stones are reportedly being paid more than £15 million for their five shows. Ticket prices for the London performances range from £95 to £375, with a “VIP hospitality” ticket priced at £950, and no concessions for the pensioners who are the group’s most devoted audience, many of whom will doubtless have travelled to the O2 on their Freedom Passes. 
We can put aside Jagger’s blithe explanations that when it comes to ticket prices the group are merely hapless victims of market forces, or Ronnie Wood’s shrugging dismissal that “we’ve got to make something”. The Stones long ago set the benchmark for shameless cynicism when it comes to exploiting “the brand”. Among the luxury items on offer when the box-set of Exile On Main Street was released two years ago was a limited-edition box of three lithographs, “signed individually by Mick, Keith or Charlie”, priced at £1,999.99. Note, that’s “or”, not “and”. 
By one account, the biggest crush of the night at the O2 was not at the front of the stage but at the merchandising stand, where eager customers were spending £200 on a poster of a gorilla’s face – the artwork on the cover of the the band’s newly released greatest hits, Grrr!. Of course, one should not begrudge a handful of pensioners a few bob in their declining years, but as Johnny Rotten once said, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?”
(snip)

It is an odd paradox that while the Stones have not made an album worth listening to since Tattoo You in 1981, they are bigger business now than they ever were – the prime example of Sixties and Seventies rock music as heritage industry. The Stones performing their greatest hits, Brian Wilson performing Pet Sounds, Van Morrison performing Astral Weeks – these are rock music’s equivalent of the blockbuster Jackson Pollock or David Hockney retrospective.

Some manage this trick better than others. It is a tired and familiar trope to point out the irony of old rockers, who can barely make it to the stage unaided, singing the anthems of their rebellious youth: The Who, for example, singing My Generation at the Olympics closing ceremony (or to be more precise, half the Who, the rhythm half having sadly fulfilled the song’s prophecy). Paul McCartney has become a national institution, wheeled out at state occasions to sing the creaking Hey Jude – the post-war generation’s We’ll Meet Again – with ever-diminishing effect. Surely it’s time to give it a rest?
YEAH, I can agree with that. The Stones lost me with "Some Girls," on which they tried to be disco-relevant in 1978. The lowlight was the title track -- Google the lyrics and cringe.

Anyway, Brown was just setting the stage for his coup de grace . . . which I also can go along with.
Watching the splendid documentary Crossfire Hurricane, shown on the BBC over two consecutive weekends, reminded you of just how glamorous, how dangerous, how romantic the Stones were in their prime; a different species altogether from the cadavers who emerged, as if from creaking coffins, on to the O2 stage. Jagger is, as they say, marvellous for his age but nobody would describe him as “a soul survivor” – unless one counts surviving the inconvenience of tax exile, two expensive divorces and, by his own account, “dozens” of paternity suits.

It was always said of Jagger that his ambitions were to mingle with the aristocracy. He achieved that and more; in a sense, the Stones became the aristocracy themselves, in the process exhibiting some of the more disagreeable characteristics of their caste, with all the air of entitlement and the barely concealed disdain for the paying punter.

Another song comes to mind. “Let’s drink to the hard-working people/Let’s drink to the lowly of birth/Raise your glass to the good and the evil/Let’s drink to the salt of the earth.”

The song is Salt of the Earth by … the Rolling Stones. It was not a song they found time to play at the O2. They did, however, perform It’s All Over Now. Surely now, it’s really time it was.
AT LEAST we still have the albums from when the Stones still mattered.

Albums from a time before the talented cads became whatever it is they are today, which I suspect bears an unfortunate resemblance to the dirty old men of Bide-a-Wee Manor, regaling nurses half their age with stories of how they used to be somebody as they try to cop a feel.

0 snappy rejoinders: