A FAN’S NOTES
Let’s Spend Our Lives Together
I love the Rolling Stones and this love, despite the existence of Dirty Work, has not and will not fade away. The Stones have existed in one form or another since 1962. I, a misfire of Vatican Roulette, have been around since the last year of the post-war baby boom, 1960; I have no memories of life without the Rolling Stones. I remember their London label 45s spinning on the blue and white Fleetwood suitcase hi-fi, a penny Scotch taped to the tone arm, in my sister’s pink bedroom. I remember their appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show on black and white Sunday nights. Their feral beauty and musical fury matched the maelstrom of my puberty. Surely these decadent degenerates were cooler than dandruffy Father Moyle our parish priest, and clean cut hockey players like Jean Beliveau and Bobby Orr; perhaps that slight observation was the genesis of the many bad decisions I would go on to make throughout my life. There were the midnight showings of Sympathy for the Devil, Gimme Shelter and Ladies and Gentlemen the Rolling Stones, and with the films came all of the delightful substances teenagers ingest to either ease or hinder their path to adulthood. ‘Tumbling Dice’ remains my all time favourite song ever and the words were easy enough to memorize although it took me a few years to decipher the slurred lyrics buried in the peculiar rhythms of the funky sludge; enlightenment became a game: You can be my partner in crime (provided you knew the code).
I remember slouching on a downtown Montreal sidewalk in 1978. Me and my friend Norm were lined up outside Sam the Record Man on rue Ste-Catherine est waiting for Stones Some Girls tour tickets to go on sale when the store opened at 9 am. They cost $9 or $10 – the stubs sell for $50 on eBay now - trouble was the show would be performed in Buffalo, a city in a different country. We bought a pair of seats for a mutual friend in Toronto who in turn arranged for the four us to board a radio station sponsored bus headed 90 minutes south to Rich Stadium in the Buffalo suburb of Orchard Park. Norm and I rode the train to Toronto. Wide-eyed and worldly, we sipped beers in the bar car. The waiter, a patient black gentleman and in retrospect, incredibly gracious with a pair of tipsy, evolving humans, spent a little time educating us about Chess Records and the Chicago blues. And didn’t this man, whoever he was, enrich my life with a little gentle advice? ‘The Stones are good, man, but they listened to Muddy and the Wolf.’ Message received: go backward, dig deeper.
A joint came down the line during the concert. Maybe Journey was playing? ‘That’s harsh,’ I gasped. Somebody said, ‘Paraquat!’ the insecticide the US Drug Enforcement Administration was spraying on marijuana fields at the time. Back home a few weeks later at a party I toked on another harsh joint. ‘Paraquat?’ I asked knowingly. The guy shrugged, ‘No, I couldn’t get any so I sprayed it with Raid.’ Well… fuck. These poisonings proved to be mere girding for one of the two upper New York State dates of the Stones’ 1981 Tattoo You tour that I was pleased to attend. My friend Mark and I were on a midnight rocket luxury motor coach aimed from Montreal to Syracuse. As we approached the border he handed me a gram of hash: ‘Eat this.’ Why not? Mark ate two grams. I think there were two or three supporting acts on the bill at the Carrier Dome. I believe one of them might have been Molly Hatchet. I came to, thank God, when the Stones kicked off their set with ‘Under My Thumb.’
The next 34 years got a little strange. Rock music lost its cultural dominance to more modern forms of pop music. The analogue record industry imploded shortly after greedily gouging music fans enamoured with its latest and greatest format: shiny, twinkling compact discs. The Stones released just six studio albums, the latest being A Bigger Bang (2005), and a handful of singles sprinkled onto compilations of their older hits. Everything was decent if infrequent; their ability to write and cut tracks that ignited the wows and flutters dwindled to the level of mere mortals. That said there’s still a staggeringly good 90-minute cassette to be cherry-picked from their late career, corporate incarnation. If you haven’t drunk their Kool-Aid as I have, the only essential Stones recording released during these years is, unsurprisingly, the live Stripped (1995) which features intimate acoustic renditions of a slew of their best known songs.
We are ageing, tottering on the edge of infirmity. The Stones, given the myths of their lifestyles in their heyday, should all be dead; the Ramones, a much younger and equally vibrant band, alas, weren’t too tough to die. Each time I watch the Stones’ war paint ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ promotional film from 1968 I get goose bumps and the hairs on the back of my neck stand at attention like porcupine quills. These visceral feelings spring up every time I’ve watched the Rolling Stones take their stage. It always takes me a moment to settle down and breathe and comprehend that we will share the same space and time for a couple of hours. While sparks still fly on E Street and their own set lists have become increasingly generic since the massive circus maximus of the 1989 Steel Wheels tour, the Stones rarely fail to blow the roof off the venue – provided it has one. Even at this late date, give me a Stones ticket over anybody else.
I have no conditions but I have quibbles. The band possesses more than enough cool cachet to do virtually anything they want during a performance. They are after all the Rolling Stones. Unlike certain Fortune 500 companies, the Stones tend not to tinker with the formula that got them to what John Lennon famously described as the ‘toppermost of the poppermost.’ Their audience shells out a significant amount of dough for a seat in this day and age, and it’s easier for the casual fan to contextualize a rendition of what was once a Billboard Top Ten bestseller rather than new material. I mean, who hasn’t totally disrupted a wedding reception mincing around to ‘Honky Tonk Women?’ The same cannot be said about ‘One More Shot’ although the riffage and the vibe are, well, pretty fucking Stonesy and any sane rock band would kill to cut a song like it. For the hardcore legion there is always a crumb that didn’t chart, what the modern music press now annoyingly calls a deep cut; if they ever played a non-album B-side such as ‘Child of the Moon’ or ‘Think I’m Going Mad’ in my presence my head would explode; unfortunately the risk is minimal.
Our journey together through the past comes complete with newly minted baubles and souvenirs. The Stones have re-released both Exile on Main St. (1972) and Some Girls (1978) with bonus discs rich and rife with ditched or reconfigured songs and alternate versions of their standard warhorses. Sticky Fingers (1971) gets the same treatment next month. What was unacceptable to them then is now pure gold to fans like me. (I’ve no idea when they began writing and recording ‘Zip Mouth Angel’ but if this song never sees the legal light of day it will be a capital crime.) They have also followed Bob Dylan’s elfin lead (perhaps not for the first time) by releasing ‘official’ bootlegs of live material which used to quietly circulate among fans who knew the code.