A Deep and Enduring Satisfaction: on Seeing the Rolling Stones
My grandmother and I sat in the living room, watching a musical on her venerable black and white Zenith. I wish I could remember the musical – it might have been Carousel, or South Pacific, or something earlier – but whatever it was, it made my mother’s mother tear up.
It must have been 1982, because I remember I was proudly wearing my new Clash t-shirt, one that had the Combat Rock album cover upon it. I’d spent all my savings to order it through the mail, and it had arrived just days earlier.
Grandmother gestured at the shirt. “I feel sorry for your generation. Rock music isn’t beautiful. When you’re older, you won’t be able to weep when you hear the songs of your youth.”
I did not argue with grandmother often. The idea of an old me tearing up at “Rock the Casbah” struck me as absurd. Perhaps grandmother was right: the clang and crash and beat of rock might be compelling, but it wasn’t the stuff to make anyone cry in bittersweet remembrance.
I thought of that this past Sunday, when Victoria and I went to see the Rolling Stones. This was her birthday present, and I could just swing tickets high in the nosebleed sections. For at least 30 years, if not more, the Stones have sold out arenas to fans who are convinced this might be the last chance to see these most-celebrated of rock pioneers. I remember reading an article decades ago talking about how absurd it would be to imagine Mick Jagger still performing into his 50s; Sir Mick is now 78, and judging by what we heard and saw at Sofi Stadium on Sunday, he has years and years left within him.
More than 50,000 people stood and sang along with Mick in the wondrous, brand-new, five-billion-dollar home of the Los Angeles Rams. At 54, I was perhaps the median age of those present; there were children as young as my kids, and many folks from the same generation as the lithe performers on the stage. At 35, my wife was among the younger adults in the crowd. And, contra my grandmother, many of us wept to hear the crashing, clanging sounds of our youth.
I cried first when the Stones launched into “Wild Horses,” perhaps the most obvious tear-jerker in their repertoire. A quick glance around, and plenty of other folks, most my age or older, had tears streaming down their bare faces as well. I cried again, somewhat more surprisingly, when Mick changed into a shimmering emerald jacket to sing “Sympathy for the Devil.” I thought of the famous and much-debated lines from Don McLean’s “American Pie,” in which the singer declares (almost certainly of Jagger and “Sympathy”):
Oh, and as I watched him on the stage
My hands were clenched in fists of rage
No angel born in Hell
Could break that Satan spell
I cried at the thought of how often Mick has performed this song, and how he has lived long enough to see it evolve from shocking listeners to comforting them. As the ageless, peerless, elegantly svelte front man swaggered around the stage, the fellow in the row in front of me put his arm around his teen granddaughter, and they sang together:
Pleased to meet you/
Hope you’ve guessed my name.
What once unnerved and threatened has become benign. Jagger’s great trick is not just to be perpetually youthful, it’s to be at once both dangerous and reassuring. As a friend of mine put it recently, “Mick’s the sort who could and would steal away your wife – or your husband – but also make you an excellent cup of tea and comfort you afterwards.”
Perhaps I wept because Mick gives me hope. If he can still pull himself together to perform at such a high level, if he can be so reliably wry in interviews, so dutiful in his commitment to entertain, who are we – the schlubby middle-aged, raised on the Stones – to give up? It’s not that we’ll ever be Mick, or Queen Elizabeth, another aged figure whose relentless determination to show up no matter what inspires and humbles. It’s that if he can keep doing what he’s called to do, even on nights that he must not want to, then surely we can keep facing our own “shoulds” and “have-tos” with determination and cheer.
(I admit that’s a particularly capitalist reading of Mick’s meaning, turning the world’s most famously louche rock star into an exemplar of the Protestant work ethic. Mick went to the London School of Economics. He might agree.)
Sentimentalist that I am, I thought of Tennyson’s best-known and most-derided poem as Jagger leaned up against the miracle that is Keith Richards (Sunday, the two celebrated the 60th anniversary of their first meeting):
Tho' much is taken, much abides; and tho'
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts…
Much abided indeed.
The Stones sang most of their classic hits, with two notable omissions: “Under my Thumb” and “Brown Sugar.” Ours is not an age that can read irony or satire well, and the sexism of the former song is not in keeping with the times. The latter track was written to decry slavery – but includes the refrain:
Brown Sugar, how come you taste so good?
Brown Sugar, just like a young girl should.
The Stones removed it from their set list without comment, and only explained themselves after rock journalists inquired about its absence on the current tour. Mick explained “We’ve played ‘Brown Sugar’ every night since 1970, so sometimes you think, ‘We’ll take that one out for now and see how it goes. We might put it back in.’” Richards was more direct: “Didn’t they understand this was a song about the horrors of slavery? But they’re trying to bury it. At the moment, I don’t want to get into conflicts with all of this shit.”
Always savvy, the Stones’ decision to pull “Brown Sugar” doesn’t just suggest a willingness to evolve with rapidly changing cultural imperatives. It’s a welcome reminder that the most successful artists do not take their own work product terribly seriously. Richards suggests that he’s exasperated by contemporary delicacies – but that unlike so many of his peers who wade into the culture wars with both boots, he’s not about to make an issue of it. They are, after, all, the Rolling Stones – not the Rock Walls. (See, in contrast, their near-contemporary Eric Clapton, who has waded into vaccine politics with a fierceness almost designed to lose fans.) A rolling stone gathers no moss, and does not allow itself to become peevishly out-of-touch. The band survives and sells out arenas in their dotage because their politics are as flexible as Mick’s Gumbyesque body. Depending on your views, this is either a virtue or a vice – or perhaps, it’s just one valid choice among many.
The 135-minute show closed with two encores: the intoxicating “Gimme Shelter” and, of course, “Satisfaction.” This final song was recorded in the spring of 1965, 56 years ago. Go back 56 years before that, and it’s 1909 – and you can be quite sure no one was singing songs from the Edwardian era in 1960s London, or anywhere else. But this song endures, even in and perhaps because of its glorious absurdities. In “Satisfaction,” Jagger laments that he can’t make it with any girls – and despite all the counterfactuals bouncing in our heads, we all sing along with our greatest living Casanova.
Aching backs and sore knees and a pandemic notwithstanding, 50,000 of us stood bare-faced, pogoing in place, singing about our own ne’er-forgotten adolescent frustrations. I like to think our voices echoed not only to Sofi’s rafters, but to the jet planes above, on their final approach into LAX.
We left exalted, satisfied, and moved. And I was reminded, down to my core, that my beloved grandmother was wrong about the power of rock and roll.
Someone with better seats than ours taped Sunday’s performance of “Sympathy:”
Wonderful! Also, thanks for posting that video-really enjoyed it.
Hugo...really glad you enjoyed the Stones. Love the way you started it off with your grandmother's observation about the long-term value of her music vs your music.