Sentimental for the Stones Ages

AP Photo/Schroer

The Rolling Stones aren't playing anywhere within 900 miles of New Orleans on their "50 And Counting" tour, so it's not exactly as if I have an anguished decision to make now that the Feds have confiscated my Lear jet. But unless offered a free ticket, I doubt I'd have felt any qualms about staying home with Philip Larkin's Collected Poems and my toenail clippers even if the boys had taken it into their heads to headline JazzFest in NOLA last week. (This year's crowd had to settle for lesser dinosaurs: Billy Joel, Hall and Oates, Fleetwood Mac. Word is that Billy—now inching his way back into critical respectability, since you can't deny Mr. Glibmeister's songcraft—knocked it right out of the park.)

Not that I ever saw them in their prime. My one and only Stones concert was in 1994, by which time I was being paid to go and wouldn't have considered attending otherwise. As intense as it was—defining my high-school and college years from the moment a 15-year-old me bought their Hot Rocks greatest-hits compilation at, ahem, the Guantanamo PX—my version of Stones-mania was all about the records, above all the great run from 1968's Beggars Banquet to 1972's Exile on Main Street.

Thanks to my genius for timing—or my parents', anyway—those albums were already back catalog by the time I discovered them. The first Stones release I bought when it was new was Goats Head Soup, and talk about a letdown. But just when I was getting fed up with their slipshod Seventies crapola, 1978's Some Girls renewed my fanhood—for a while, anyway.

No doubt, my indifference to the current tour is a convoluted form of sentimentality. The Stones' music was so exhilaringly vital to my present tense back then that I can't imagine getting much pleasure out of its gargantuanized regurgitation 40-odd years later, shorn of any context except its own mastodon monumentality. I dug the Stones for how bracingly they engaged the (then) contemporary world; steeped in their time's juices, they were pithily at odds with most of its fatuities. With all that ideally preserved in my CD collection, why muddy things up by letting myself in for a night of feeling thunderously alienated from an audience with an altogether different take on the whole shmear?

Then again, I'm well aware that my preference for my own private Rolling Stones over any 21st-century public facsimile is snobbish at best—so I'm a Stones snob, big deal; it's not like being against universal health care, or something—and delusional at worst. Their inability to go on being "my" Stones after 1978 or so is hardly, or anyway not wholly, their fault. They only did so in the first place with a big boost from ye olde Zeitgeist, not that Mick and Keith couldn't have worked a mite harder on their songwriting in later decades. Otherwise, they're professional entertainers, always were. Their artistry at their peak was electrifying because it worked in tandem with that premise, not in opposition to it.

Delivering excitement was and is their basic job—not the only one, but what anything extra used to depend on. So long as they can still manage that, nobody's getting cheated, not even at $600 a ticket for those who can afford it. Despite my innate prejudices against those who can afford it, the downright charmingly archaic mutters of "rip-off" in some quarters presuppose a community of spirit between the band and its customers that hasn't been part of ye olde Zeitgeist in 40 years (sorry, Fugazi: I know you did your best) and that the Stones tried to live up to precisely once—at Altamont.

All that's noteworthy about the tour's extravagant ticket prices—low-end ones cost $85—is that Jagger's fabled business acumen may be slipping in his literal old age. Advance sales have been more sluggish than anticipated, and if the boys have nonetheless been playing to full houses so far, that's reportedly only because of concert-day sales at steep discounts. Filthy lucre has always been to Mick what heroin was to Keith Richards, just as craving hoity-toitiness was to him what Jack Daniel's was to Keith Richards. But he used to be sharper about what the traffic would bear.

Still, despite some surprise at how many of my gamy peers expressed excitement when the tour was announced—Jesus, you still don't have anything better to do?—I wouldn't dream of knocking any thirtysomething or, more likely, fortysomething who wants to see the Stones just because they're DA ROLLING STONES: you know, a legend. My one concert in '94 left me convinced I'd witnessed the world's greatest Rolling Stones tribute band in action, but I'd still feel awfully sheepish meeting the Reaper without ever having seen Charlie Watts in person (never mind the other bozos). Even if one of my more caustic Facebook correspondents is right when she says, "People go to say they have been—like Disneyworld," what's so appalling about Disneyworld? From her meant-to-shrivel tone, I'd bet anything Deb's never been there.

As I haven't either, but would you like to know why? Because I want to preserve my memories of Disneyland, that's why, and presumably, you can spot the pattern—not to mention the comedy. The difference between "my" Rolling Stones and the 2013 edition may very well be nothing more than the difference between a theme park I cherish and one I don't, in both cases for idiosyncratic reasons that ultimately have eff-all to do with the project's overall nature and purpose. Private snobberies are fun, but I do try to avoid mistaking them for actual superiority.

As for why thousands of people are ponying up—even at discounted prices—to watch a clutch of septuagenarians play their 40-year-old songbook, "nostalgia" is clearly an inadequate term. Not many of the ticket-buyers were born long enough ago to have any reality to get nostalgic about. Given the Stones' original image, that they've ended up as the longest-lived band in rock history—and really, now famous for that alone—could be described as their ultimate act of perversity.

Sure, their latter-day music-making might have been more interesting if they'd chosen to confront the aging process. Cf., for instance, Bob Dylan. But determination to stay DA ROLLING STONES came first—prioritizing the act, not the band, let alone the artistry. Even the likes of me can't help being impressed that these geezers are still pulling off what is, essentially, a charade. Your sense of the "authentic" Rolling Stones mostly has to do with when and why it first beguiled you, but that is almost certainly no skin off their withered but expensive noses.

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