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Through the Present, Darkly
In Defense of the Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones are playing the Tacoma Dome and, despite the $163.95 ticket price, I'm going. Alone.

None of my friends who dig the Stones would be willing to blow even a quarter of that, and everybody else is quick to dismiss them as boring old farts. I can't blame them -- why should they care? And, as a person who likes to think he has discriminating tastes, why should I care? Should anyone care at all?

Regardless of their well-deserved rock-icon status, the Stones of today are an easy target for myriad criticisms -- they're irrelevant has-beens, they're coasting on their long-lost brilliance, they suck. To punks, indie-rockers, emo kids and others who take these things far too seriously, the Stones epitomize everything wrong with rock 'n' roll, while some too-cool-for-school hipsters will shun anything with widespread popularity -- these people I cannot help.

I also cannot help but love the Stones, even though many of these charges ring true. As such, I've often felt the need to justify this love.

I became a fan at age 8, when "Miss You" was in heavy rotation. At that point, 1978, the Stones had already been at it for 16 years, and their then-current album Some Girls proved to be their last truly great effort. The Stones sharply plummeted into mediocrity a few years later, just as my teenage obsession blossomed. By the time I was in high school it was downright uncool profess a mere liking of the Stones -- while they were doing the "Harlem Shuffle," my hell-bent-for-leather, Judas Priest-loving peers wrote Mick Jagger off as a faggot (imagine that).

I'm 33 now, perhaps a bit of an oldster in rock years, yet a mere child compared to the average Rolling Stones fan. This was no more evident than the one time I managed to see them live, at the Kingdome in '94. (I went alone then, too.) I was surrounded by nostalgic baby-boomers who clapped en masse along with some songs and swayed en masse to others, reliving the hippy-dippy '60s.

The show itself was tightly choreographed, highly theatrical, and consummately professional. The sound was horrible, the security tight, and from my 300-level vantage point, Jagger appeared an over-caffeinated worker ant. I caught myself watching the show on the jumbo video screen more than the show itself, when not distracted by lasers, explosions, and this giant, metallic, fire-breathing, cobra-type thing...

Still, it was the goddamn Rolling Stones, in the flesh, giving their all. That alone made it worthwhile.

I usually find such overblown spectacles off-putting (that particular tour grossed an all-time industry record $124 million, which still stands), but the Stones have always been a spectacle, once billing themselves as the "World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band." Although scandal often overshadowed their music -- rampant drug use, high-profile busts, the mysterious drowning of charter member Brian Jones, Altamont -- the Stones never presumed to be much more than entertainers. That's all I wanted, and that's exactly what I got.

Nowadays, the Stones continue to repeat the pattern they began in the late '80s: lengthy hiatus, mediocre studio album, massive world tour, questionable live album, repeat. However, instead of releasing yet another new studio album, this time they've mingled in just four so-so new tracks among 36 older hits on a two-disc retrospective, Forty Licks -- the title refers to the collection's song count, as well as the current Licks tour, as well as the number of years the Stones have played together (Jagger, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, anyhow).

Though they're hyping their unprecedented longevity as a selling point, more often their age makes them the butt of endless jokes ("Hey! You! Get off of my lawn!"). Certainly they aren't the same hungry young R&B brats who drew initial inspiration from Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, then about the same age as the Stones are now. (Watts is the oldest member at 61, while Jagger, Richards and Ron Wood are 59, 58 and 55, respectively.)

Yet the Stones still hold sway over today's young rock 'n' rollers. As they were influenced by their delta-blues elders (along with Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochran and others), the Stones similarly influenced nearly every subsequent band of note, right down to current darlings the Strokes and White Stripes, both of whom have opened earlier shows on this tour.

These adherents evidently cut their teeth on Stones' first decade of work, a killer string of singles and albums which climaxed with 1972's monumental Exile on Main St. The Stones cruised along on a slightly lower plateau through their second decade, and then pretty much lost all momentum after their '81-82 tour.

However, it would be unfair to dismiss today's Stones for falling short of their past accomplishments. Their early output set the bar ridiculously high for themselves (and for rock in general), a standard which few acts could ever possibly live up to. Granted, they have slowed way down, but Jagger can still stomp, shout and work it on out with the best of 'em, and Richards' guitar still snarls as it did on Let it Bleed, only with decades of additional practice.

Lord knows why they keep it up: they're filthy rich and have nothing to prove, and they've already received far more adoration (and sex and drugs) than nearly everyone who's ever lived. They could've gracefully bowed out before they became "irrelevant" (assuming rock itself is of relevance to anything). Instead, they soldier on. Unlike Muhammad Ali, Elvis and other faded icons who feebly tried to reclaim past glories, the Stones have yet to embarrass themselves, and I'll be the first to speak up when they do. Whatever their motivation, they've earned the right to do whatever the hell they want -- more power to 'em, I say.

This time around, Mick and co. are playing a mixture of stadium, arena, and theater shows, often in the same city. Alas, the Stones' only Northwest date will be at the Tacoma Dome.

Their first-ever appearance in the City of Destiny will be at a venue slightly larger than the Key Arena (née Coliseum, where they played in '65, '66, '72 and '75), yet half the size of the Kingdome ('81, '94, '97). Of course, "arena rock" leaves much to be desired, but the Stones had outgrown the club circuit as early as 1965 and fully transitioned to arenas by 1969, with their best years still ahead of them.

In Tacoma, they'll no doubt perform the ten or so obligatory crowd-pleasing chestnuts for the umpteenth time, but the real treat will be what else they'll play, having a few hundred other titles in the Jagger/Richards songbook to draw from, along with all the other nuggets they've covered over the years.

Personally, I could live the rest of my life without ever hearing "Satisfaction" again (Jagger himself famously remarked that he couldn't imagine singing it beyond 30), but there's also "Respectable," "Bitch," "Rip This Joint," "Monkey Man," "I'm Alright"...

Really, the Stones haven't changed that much since the '60s -- then as now, they're decadent rock stars staging major concert tours, except everything has gotten progressively bigger and crasser. If nothing else, they continue to break new ground by performing far later into their careers than any other rock band -- maybe in another 40 years, someone will be saying the same thing about the Hives. Or maybe not.

In any case, none of this quite justifies my absurdly expensive concert ticket. I rarely part with such cash on any single thing, and I do feel somewhat silly sticking up for globetrotting zillionaires. However, where the Stones are concerned, it's hard for me to be rational -- they always get the benefit of my doubt. It's that voice, those guitars and those drums, playing those classic songs which keep me coming back -- to my ears, "Brown Sugar" alone blows away damn near anything else ever recorded. (Incidentally, the Stones have always been superior to the Beatles -- was there ever any question?)

And when I exhaust all other arguments about why I still love the Rolling Stones, I simply say: for chrissakes, it's only rock 'n' roll.

Written in November 2002.

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© 2004-2011 Steve Mandich