BACK IN 1978 EVERYBODY THOUGHT The Rolling Stones were finished.
From "Paint it Black" in 1966 to "Cocksucker Blues" in 1972, the group staked a claim to it's own aesthetic category--the epic hedonism and dark bargains that lay at the seductive, chocolaty center of hippie utopianism.
The Stones didn't just write songs about it. They didn't just live it out for us as godly proxies in gossip pages and Glimmer Twins songs. They performed it as ritual night after night in the dueling imp dances of the Keef, the dark lord, and Mick, the trickster, exorcising, for 3:59 anyway, our most frightening, dangerous impulses. Because they provided us release, we pardoned The Stones their indulgences, even the aesthetic ones (Their Satanic Majesties Request).
But indulgences do take their toll, not only on the body and mind, but also on the heart, which grows jaded, isolated, numb. By the time punk washed through the rock industry like an enema, everything about The Stones seemed wasted--washed out and thrown away--not only their guitar player, not only the vapid songs ("it's only rock and roll but I like it"), but the whole act--the imp dance had become a sad oscillation between apathy and egotism.
That's why Some Girls hit like El Nino--appearing unexpectedly and changing our weather for years to come. It was a bolt out of the blue, hopped up, coke fueled, relevant in a way that had been true of no Stones album since Let it Bleed, comprising both the familiar (great guitar-driven Temptations cover) and the strangely original ("Shattered," even they couldn't make the song sound like that again).
Like everyone else, I did not expect anything great out of The Stones in 1978. Their previous record, Black and Blue, had one good song, "Memory Motel," that was stretched in length to pad out the album of filler around it. There was also a radio-friendly mid-tempo ballad, "Fool to Cry," which was exactly the kind of record for which punks despised the old timers. "Streets of Love," the Stones' latest single, is exactly the same kind of record. But dammit, I haven't been able to get "Street of Love" out of by head for three weeks. Could it be that The Stones have summoned their strength once again to deliver a great record out of the blue?
Improbable I know. Between "Satisfaction" and Some Girls, between The Stones' original rise and fall and resurrection, was a span of 14 years. It has now been 24 years since Tattoo You, the Stone's last good album. In the intervening time The Stones have turned into a bland, venal, corporate enterprise. Perhaps I shouldn't criticize them for that. As they did in the 1960s The Stones today merely reflect the dark soul of the zeitgeist. Greed is the new hedonistic utopiansim.
When the wheezy Stones machinery gets cranked back into action every couple of years for another big payday, everything is for sale. The Stones hit the road with more sponsors than a NASCAR team. I've already seen the band in the TV spots for one of the tour's sponsors, Ameriquest who pay to reach the Stones' core audience--wealthy aging boomers willing to shell out $100 or more for a night of watching the Stones on a really big TV in a football stadium. (For $250 The Stones will sell you an "on-stage" seat--that is really an SRO, behind-the-stage, obstructed view area. A coupla grand and Keith will sell you those skull rings. For $100Gs the group will make you the bass player.)
A few years ago The Stones stopped making records. They didn't need new albums to fill football arenas, which is where most of their money was made. So why bother crafting the albums anymore. Anyway, they didn't have anything to say. And no one wanted to leave St. Tropez or the English countryside for a couple of months in the eternal night of a recording studio, arguing about chords and rhymes. (Well, nobody except Keith.)
But this time The Stones seem to have made an album not merely to have merchandise to sell at the T-shirt tables, but because there was emotional music to be made. At least that's the line The Stones' and their publicists are feeding the press. (The band would be running that routine no matter what the record sounded like. The Stones are nothing if not career-minded.)
But on the basis of three songs The Stones released recently to iTunes, I'm excited about a Stones record like I haven't been in 25 years.
The radio single "Streets of Love," is indelible in part because the melody and imagery are as familiar as old socks. But Mick Jagger is great, reading the verses in his soft, hyper-enunciated, "Play with Fire" voice. Jagger was always rock's most dramatic singer. Not grandiosely melodramatic like Jim Morrison or Bono, but dramatic in an intimate way. Like a screen actor relying on small gestures versus a stage performer emoting, Jagger was always better suited to the recording studio than the concert hall. (On tour, trying to power his voice over the churning guitars, Jagger sounds like a tone deaf seal, his voice quickly getting hoarse a few dates into a tour. But the Jumbotron screen is his metier.)
"Rough Justice," the uptempo b-side, has the feel of a boogie throw away, but it's the kind of boogie throw away upon which Exile on Main Street was built and features a wicked, all-in, lighting flash of a slide guitar solo (too wild to be the impeccably professional Ron Wood).
But the Stones always could get by on attitude and sound better than any band. They could do an album of Celine Dion songs as uptempo boogie shuffles and it probably would sound good. That's why the most impressive of the three new songs is the stripped-down, slow, grinding blues. Nowhere to hide in the production on this one. It sounds to me just like 4 guys in a room. Sounds like Beggar's Banquet. Best of all are the lyrics which involve a preacher ranting on a street corner about trouble of increasingly apocalyptic sorts. It's coming, he says, "I can read it like the back of my hand."
When the Stones came back last time in 1978, it seemed majestic. The greatest rock and roll band in the world responding to punk, shaking off the doldrums, and returning to the pitch. The truth is that until now, Some Girls was the Stones' last hurrah, and in a way the beginning of the end of the rock era. In 1978 hip hop was just emerging from the Soundview projects in the Bronx, US interest in global music was in its nascent stages, rock and roll was still a potent cultural force. In 2005, rock is just another subgenre in a world of musical choice, no longer a cultural force in any but a financial sense. Maybe, just maybe, the Stones have returned one last time to show us how (oh, and to make a little scratch besides).