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The Stones: Important men making unimportant music

Jagger should start the show saying: ‘Our new stuff is crap, but don’t worry, we won’t play any.’

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones.
Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones. Columnist Neil Steinberg suggests that he might have nudged ahead of band leader Mick Jagger on the coolness scale, thanks in part to his masterful book, “Life.”
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The Rolling Stones are in town — Hi, Mick! Hi, Keith! — for two shows at Soldier Field, Friday and Tuesday, kicking off their North American tour.

I’m going to the second show. Yes, I know, you’re thinking, “That’s out-of-character for you, Neil. Aren’t you more of an opera guy?”

Yes I am. But there is an explanation: My wife really likes the Stones. I’ve forced her to sit through many hours of Wagner. Turnabout is fair play.

The tour almost got scuttled after Mick Jagger had a health scare. But a new heart valve got tucked in and he seems good to go.

The man is 75, but that’s nothing for a bluesman. Jimmy Johnson performed a strong set at Blues Fest a few weeks ago and he’s 90. Bobby Rush is 86, and shimmied for an hour with two enormous, scantily-clad dancers.

(Am I the first guy to see Rush’s dancers and think, “Venus of Willendorf”? Maybe. They were very large. That is not a criticism. My attitude was: ‘Good for them, I bet employment opportunities are limited for 250-pound dancers.’ My wife was uneasy with Rush’s sexism, and it did cross my mind that the city of Chicago was sponsoring a bawdy show. But the dynamics of race, music and offense are complicated, and I can’t imagine any complaint getting traction.)

See why I’m not the ideal rock audience? I’m not good at unreflective enthusiasm, at forming my fingers into horns and waving them above my head, screaming “Woooo!!!”

Here, I’ll try it.

”Woo.”

Pathetic, like a koala moaning in its sleep.

I was a regular concert goer, once. The Ramones. The Clash. But in recent decades I’m better at losing myself to Wagner than to power chords. There’s too much to puzzle over, particularly with a cultural icon like the Stones. Mick is the leader, once the sex symbol, still the focus for his rooster on a hotplate dance moves. Keith was always in the background, cigarette dangling off his lip.

But Richards has risen in cultural estimation, perhaps surpassing Jagger. His 2010 autobiography “Life” helped. I can’t recommend it enough. The parts you’d imagine would be most interesting — wealth, fame, music — are the least noteworthy, especially when he natters on about open chord tuning. He makes groupies seem like concerned neighbor women who bring soup, check up to make sure you’re still breathing and, sometimes, if you’re not too stoned, sleep with you. Rather it’s the ordinary stuff — his mom and dad, his pets — that fascinate, told in his distinctive voice.

Before reading “Life,” I would have thought the most deliciously-skewered character in all literature was Brunetto Latini, Dante’s teacher, whom he treats with such respect in “Inferno” you almost forget that it’s Dante who created this Hell and put his old friend in it, among the sodomites.

But Richards vivisects Jagger. He is so complimentary, so careful to give him credit, and strains never to tar Jagger as the self-absorbed jerk he so obviously is. For a few hundred pages, Richards offers his bandmate various slightly amazed little nods and compliments, all the while setting the stage for his full infamy to be laid in glorious understatement. It’s brutal and majestic.

But we’re straying from the concerts. Fittingly, it’s supposed to rain. It usually rains at Blues Fest. Through some miracle it didn’t this year. But nature is vindictive; a downpour would be payback. The Stones are essentially a blues band, and while the blues draw the rain, they are also protective of age. Rock is young, and rock musicians are expected to stay creative. Both Bruce Springsteen and Madonna have new albums out. The Washington Post recently put them under a magnifying glass with a shiver of revulsion, like a pair of prehistoric fish found swimming in an abandoned pool.

Unless you are a fan, critic Chris Richards writes, you might hear “important people making unimportant music.” Ouch. A stinging assessment that might hold true for the Stones now were the blues not so forgiving to the aged. Nobody expects Jimmy Johnson to pen new riffs. Jagger should start the show saying, “Our new stuff is crap, but don’t worry, we won’t play any.” But nobody goes to a Stones concert expecting artistic honesty and it would be a little late for them to start now.