Going Soft 

ROLLING STONES

SOLDIER FIELD, SEPTEMBER 12

Songs sing in your head but not necessarily in your mind, if you get the distinction. "Rocks Off," by the Rolling Stones, I'd heard a thousand times before the chorus--"I only get my rocks off when I'm sleeping"--hit home. In 1972 Mick Jagger, worn and torn after a mind-fucking eight years as not only an international star but a vivid symbol of sybaritic arrogance and vigor, was writing about what he knew, what he felt: not only was he so emotionally debilitated that he couldn't get it up anymore, he was also finding the discovery liberating. "I can't even feel the pain no more," he crowed. "Rocks Off" was one of the golden oldies the Stones dusted off for their current American tour, and it had a metaphorical punch: while the Stones desperately want to prove that they can get it up for touring, the unpleasant fact is that in the studio they've been impotent for years.

Voodoo Lounge, the band's latest album, is a limp demonstration of the problem. What I call Very Late Period Stones albums are made with a flaccid sameness. A big-name producer (Steve Lillywhite, Chris Kimsey, Don Was) is brought in to focus the group's thinking or whatever. Jagger and Keith Richards publicly settle their latest feud and notify the press that they've settled down for some good old-fashioned rock 'n' roll songwriting sessions. The leadoff track rocks, to demonstrate the band's continuing energy. Keith songs, two per album, appease the faithful. And still the damn things contain nothing like a hit, despite all the foofaraw and hype. Jagger's lyrics (which the band unaccountably began printing with 1985's Dirty Work) are comical exercises in contrived toughness:

I'm sneaky as a snake

I'm dirty as a dog

I'm rutting like a goat

I'm horny as a hog.

Whoa--down, boy! That's not from some novelty song, please note: that's from the supposed-to-be-dangerous grinder, "Terrifying," from Steel Wheels. Its rather strained chorus goes, "I get these strange strange strange desires."

Jagger has had five years between albums to come up with new songs. For Voodoo Lounge he has a germ of a song idea: his love is--what? What might be just the right mot to capture the intensity of his lustful emotions? Aha--he thinks--how about fire?

You better stand back

The flames are high

Better get help

Can't stop the fire

Sparks will fly

When I get myself back to you, baby.

Jagger's partisans will point to his "serious" songs, recognizable by the presence of something other than strung-together cliches for lyrics. They are carefully rationed, one per album, and invariably contain huge embarrassments. In the allegedly incendiary "Undercover of the Night," Jagger name-checked "one hundred thousand desparos / Lost in the jails of South America." He was talking about desaparecidos ("the disappeared"). On Steel Wheels his major statement was "Blinded by Love," in which he advised the males in his audience to watch out, 'cause the gals'll get you into trouble. His female demons were Cleopatra ("Poor Mark Antony's senses were drowned / And his future was doomed") and Wallis Simpson, who's described in the song as "a parvenu secondhand lady." Jagger, motivated by his wallet and his dick, in that order, reveals himself here as a monarchist and a pig. On the new album there's a song called, with depressing familiarity, "Blinded by Rainbows." In it, Jagger comes down hard on modern-day terrorists and those who crucified Jesus ("Is your conscience clear. . . . Do you sleep at night / I doubt it"). And he means it to sting.

Richards's songs are, as usual, the highlights, but his solo albums have more and better of them if you like that sort of thing. On Stones albums he's a character actor, whether the grizzled philosopher ("Slipping Away") or the I'm-no-good-for-you-babe rogue (the new "The Worst"). Voodoo Lounge continues his musical slump; you'd have to go back at least to "Undercover of the Night" but probably to "Start Me Up" to find one of those classic Stones guitar lines. (You'd have to go even further back to find a whole song that worked.)

At Soldier Field, on the second part of a two-night stand, the Stones played an inoffensive set that lacked the vulgar predictability of their Steel Wheels outing and the enervation and shtick of the 1981 Tattoo You tour. Like most bands that try to play stadiums (U2 is the only exception I can think of offhand), they had no business being there, lacking both the musical muscle and conceptual vision to pull it off, but for a Very Late Period Rolling Stones show, it was almost not bad. The stage, a pointlessly ornamented, steel-girdered roller-coaster-looking contraption, featured a big video screen in the middle and a few garish accoutrements, including a fairly strong blast of flame from a tower at the beginning of the show and a set of bizarre balloon figures, which were inflated during "Honky Tonk Women." For that song, the video showed a montage of femmes fatales and generic babes. A sad thing in the second row, probably a plant, bared her chest for a roaming video camera. U2 puts video screens onstage, too--about a hundred of them, all blasting a dizzying technological stream of found and created video art, in front of which the band carves a moving and unforgettable evening of humanity and fun. The Rolling Stones flash tits and blow up some balloons. Ho-hum.

If you knew nothing about the Stones, the show would tell you this: that the band has a new album, from which they played some songs just so the whole operation wouldn't feel too much like a Frankie Valli oldies show; that the band's previous album was 1978's Some Girls, from which they played three songs ("Miss You," "Beast of Burden," and "Shattered"); that their record before that was 1972's Exile on Main St, from which they played four songs ("Rocks Off," "All Down the Line," "Tumbling Dice," and "Happy"); and that prior to that they'd had some 60s hits. With the exception of the new songs, which everyone involved could have done without, this abridged version of the Stones' career is unassailable. The Some Girls songs, particularly, were pleasantly close to what a band like the Stones should be doing: catchy, memorable tunes teeming with hooks and riffs, each brandishing a potent bridge and touching on mature and substantive lyrical themes. But of course, that was all 16 years ago. Where the band's calamitous show at Alpine Valley in 1989 was heavy on novelty numbers ("Ruby Tuesday," "Dead Flowers"), the surprises this year were more substantive. "Monkey Man" didn't live up to its initial promise but was nevertheless a treat, and while "Wild Horses" hasn't stood up terrifically in the 25 years since Richards wrote it for Gram Parsons, neither did Jagger's reading of it slide over into lugubriousness.

Jagger alternated between the tired ("Aw-right Chi-ca-GO!") and the tolerable, until the last few songs, when he donned a Voodoo Lounge T-shirt, perhaps the most low-budget move I've ever seen a major rock star make, which is saying something. (He didn't go so far as to say that shirts just like it were on sale in the lobby for $27.) Richards and Ron Wood were themselves. Darryl Jones, filling in for my departed namesake, got a warm ovation from his hometown. Charlie Watts is a pretty good drummer, but he wasn't shaking the foundations of the stadium, as a local critic put it, and so what if he is good. The Firm had Jimmy Page for a lead guitarist, and they sucked. So do the Stones.

"For the record, 1975 is the Stones' sixth American tour," wrote a Rolling Stone writer as the band prepared to visit America for the Black and Blue tour. "Their first three (1964, 1965, 1966) were spaced a year apart. Their next three (1969, 1972, 1975) marked three-year spans. To follow the mathematics, tours seven, eight and nine will be nine years apart, hitting us with cometlike regularity in the years 1984, 1993 and 2002, with the tour of 2002 being the first ever by a 60-year-old rock & roll band." Quibble about the math if you must (it's 1994 and the band's on its tenth tour); you can just about hear the writer chuckle as he typed those lines. Did anyone in 1975 think that fantasy was anything but zany? But here we are, just shy of 20 years later, and the Stones, who were already on the artistic wane at the time, are not only still with us, but thriving, their great appeal and financial coherence resting on music recorded 15, 20, and 30 years ago.

Two things make this situation more bearable. Five years ago the Steel Wheels album was universally lauded; its accompanying tour was the largest grossing ever to that point. (Pink Floyd broke the record this year.) The music industry, awash in classic rock, seemed to be sinking into a black hole, and the fixation on the Stones rankled. Today, things are demonstrably different; classic rock has been beaten back, and better bands than the Stones get the attention and sales they deserve. Second, those who despise what the Rolling Stones have become can take some solace in the work Jagger must put into keeping the artifice up: sucking up to Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner and the rest of the press, smiling and grinning for the Budweiser party at every stop, putting the best face on the utter failure of his solo career, hawking his wares on a home-shopping network. You could hope that the numbness he celebrated in "Rocks Off" so many years ago doesn't entirely blank out the indignities of his current position.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Karen A. Peters.

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