Illustration by Kathryn HyattI believe it was Elton John who once said that Keith Richards resembled an old monkey dancing around onstage with a boner. The fact that this analogy was posed by a pudgy, fiftysomething drag queen sporting yellow hair plugs combed into Beatle bangs does not mitigate the statement's horrifying precision: the Rolling Stones are goddamn embarrassing to behold. Does anyone of either gender actually want to fuck these people on the merits of their steaming, androgynous sexuality anymore? Not bloody likely, is it?! Yet today, I am here to defend the Rolling Stones. Because for all the group's misguided attempts to preserve their image of youthful insurrection in the face of active decrepitude, they still fuckin' rock. And—let's explode Rolling Stones Myth No. 1 right here and now—it tweren't always thus.
MYTH NO. 1: THE ROLLING STONES CAME OUT OF THE GATE AS A "GREAT BLUES BAND."
The Stones' debut album of 1964 contained two important songs. One was "Tell Me," the first Jagger/Richards original, which was R&B/doo-wop-based, plus a rave-up version of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away," which was nascent punk rock. The rest of the album was a cluster of covers by the likes of Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, et. al. Each was as white as a young Englishman's ass.
And the Stones' trajectory continued thusly though the course of another two years and four albums. A smattering of powerful, defining originals such as "Satisfaction," "The Last Time" and "Get Off My Cloud" were matched with a coterie of largely milk-sop blues and R&B covers, as the band wallowed in a self-styled image of being Trashy White Boys From the Wrong Side of Town.
It wasn't until 1966 that the band finally hit its stride and attained lasting greatness. Aftermath was the sound of the Stones coming into their own, with 11 throbbing Jagger/Richards originals and no covers, among them the sinister "Paint It Black"; the gorgeously Anglophile "Lady Jane"; and those twin towers of hissing misogyny, "Stupid Girl" and "Under My Thumb."
And just as significant as the great new tunes were the contributions of Brian Jones—not a very good guitar player, but a man who piddled around just enough with such unconventional instruments as sitar, recorder, dulcimer and marimba to keep the proceedings interesting and unique. The Stones continued on this righteous path of experimentation through three more albums, culminating in Their Satanic Majesties Request, which brings us around to exploding Rolling Stones Myth No. 2:
MYTH NO. 2:SATANIC MAJESTIES REQUEST WAS NOTHING MORE THAN A FECKLESS ATTEMPT TO APE THE BEATLES'SGT. PEPPER ALBUM; IT REMAINS THE DARKEST HOUR IN THE GROUP'S HISTORY.
Funny how the whole world will buy into blatant bullshit if it's repeated often enough. Yes, Satanic Majesties was highly imitative of Sgt. Pepper—easily the most bloated, stupid and boring Beatles' album, but let's save that analysis for another day—but it's among the finest in the Stones' canon all the same. And here Jones' multi-instrumental obsessions explode in startling concussions of sound. The Stones ended phase two of their career not with a whimper, but with a psychedelic ejaculation for the ages.
Phase three of the Stones begins in 1968 with the tuff-as-a-junkie's-artery Beggar's Banquet album, the first to successfully integrate the blues into the Stones' sound. The phase deepens as the group unceremoniously boots Jones from the fold (he subsequently croaks, of course) and replaces him with guitar god Mick Taylor, leading up to the sublime Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street albums. The group was now at its creative peak, with seven all-time classic albums under its belt and a sound so consistently powerful we may never behold the like again. Think about it: in the space of a few short years, this group gave us "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Sympathy for the Devil," "Honky Tonk Women," "Gimme Shelter," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Brown Sugar," "Bitch," "Sway" and "Dead Flowers," to name only the creamiest of an amazingly bountiful crop. It was here that the Stones' greatness was sealed forever, even if they never played another note that rang true—which, thankfully, was not to be the case. So now, let's explode the final Stones myth:
MYTH NO. 3: THE ROLLING STONES HAVE BEEN USELESS FOR THE PAST 20 YEARS.
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Caca. In fact, the two most recent studio albums, Bridges to Babylon and Voodoo Lounge, hold up better than such "classic" albums as Some Girls and Tattoo You, even if they don't shine as incandescently as in their heyday. All of which makes the Glimmer Twins' insistence on looking and acting like overripe poofters even sadder. Happily, this tomfoolery cannot assuage the fact that the Stones are still a great, venerable rock & roll band that has no earthly right to sound as fierce as they do while collectively edging into their 60s.
I remember the excitement I felt when my older brother brought home the Stones' first album in '64. Here I am, almost 40 years hence, anticipating their latest release and concert tour with high hopes that the group will almost surely deliver upon. And is it not a damning indictment of the sorry state of contemporary rock & roll that as I write this, a Stones compilation is wrestling with an Elvis compilation for the No. 1 album status?
The fact that the Rolling Stones—the Rolling Stones' music anyway—has almost never disappointed makes me feel good about my own relative geezerliness. I just wish they'd put away the Halloween costumes because they make my monkey boner go limp.
THE ROLLING STONES PERFORM AT EDISON INTERNATIONAL FIELD, 2000 E. AUTRY WAY, ANAHEIM, (714) 940-2000. SAT., 7 P.M. $90-$105.80. ALL AGES.