The Rolling Stones Wear Their Years Well

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Rolling StonesMick Jagger stands thin as a stripper’s pole at the edge of the Rolling Stones’ lip stage and extends his right arm into the audience, palm up.

“Did you hear about the midnight rambler,” he sings to his Boston fans, a 69-year-old face that’s a caricature of his image 50 years ago, beautiful and ugly at the same time with so many wrinkles it looks like a candle bleeding wax in his image.

“Well, I’m talkin’ ’bout the midnight gambler, yeah. One you never seen before.”

The band is walking the line, a razor sharp rock behemoth that has 12,000 fans on the edge of their seats.

“Well you heard about the Boston…”  The band brings the whip down, and stops. The crowd is waiting for the word never to be uttered. I turn to my friend Bill Nowlin, and our eyes connect with 50 years of shared memories. In our minds we’re completing the song’s never stated line. “Well you heard about the Boston… strangler.”

Fifty years ago, Bill and were students at Tufts University when the Boston strangler terrorized Bean Town. I can remember walking dates back to their dorms at Simmons College. Until the strangler struck, men weren’t allowed through the Simmons gates after midnight, but terrified of this monster on the loose, they changed the rules and allowed us to escort the women to the vestibules of their dorms, which around one a.m., turned into groping passion pits. Thank you, Mick! Thanks for the memories.

I’ve been a music journalist for 44 years. I never pay to hear music. I’m spoiled rotten, but I paid $250, drove 200 miles to and from Boston and laid down $39 to park the car to see the Stones from nose bleed seats. I’ve done it 10 times since 1965. I look at it this way. The Stones have saved my sanity – such as it is – time and time again in a half century.

During those 50 years:
I’ve done time in Vietnam.
I’ve survived a failed marriage to my first wife.
I’ve lost my corporate job in advertising.
I’ve lost my retirement security in the stock market.
I’ve had two hip replacements.
I’ve juggled the inevitable fire drills that come from having two children of my own, four stepchildren and six grandchildren.

That’s not to say I haven’t had a great life full of adventure. I was editor of a daily newspaper in ‘Nam for the generals running the war. I’ve edited a tattoo convention program, a corporate magazine on industrial power systems, an underground weekly, and several blues publications. I’ve interviewed rock and blues legends by the thousands and have a wife who takes care of me like June Carter did John, but the one consistency over 50 years has been The Rolling Stones.

They’ve changed the cultural paradigm that now allows me to walk into a fine restaurant without wearing a jacket and tie.

They’ve written the book on adults behaving like children, just bad enough to wag tongues but not hurt anyone.
They were my entry into real blues with their spot-on covers of delta blues classics.

They are underground cultural heroes who clawed their way to the very top.

Some might argue that they’re no longer the world’s greatest rock band. But half a century in, they can still fill a huge stadium for two nights in Boston. Who else in American music with three original members left standing can claim that throne?

At fifty years into their career, they’re not afraid to wear their longevity on their sleeve, selling scores of t-shirts with variations based on the theme of “50 and counting” at $40 a pop and selling tickets to their mosh pit for thousands. Call it entitlement, but given what they’ve meant to my life alone, I’m not complaining.

I saw their 1965 tour schedule in Billboard, and Bill and I called the promoter. We were the first to call. Could we have front row center? Sure, come on down. We did the Carnaby St. thing and dressed like dandies. We got teargassed chasing their limousine at the Manning Bowl in Lynn, Massachusetts. Weeks later, virtually the only white people in the theater, we’d be teargased again at a James Brown concert where we carried our wallets in our front pockets as pick pockets pinched our asses looking for fat wallets.

This concert was on my bucket list. It was more than a road trip. It was an odyssey of the four amigos: my friend George, who at 62, had never seen the boys; Joe, a CPA tax prep guy who once flew to Austria to see them, has 1500 CDs of concerts and recorded outtakes, and has lost count of how many times he’s seen them live; and Bill, who spent time on the road with them in 1981 as a Rounder Records founder traveling with George Thorogood who was opening for the band.

I asked Joe to bring outtakes from Beggar’s Banquet and Sticky Fingers. He brought enough recordings from that “sweet spot” era to cover most of the trip. The rest of the time, we listened to a CD from their Chicago concert a week earlier.

Joe wore a Stones 50th anniversary t-shirt. I wore a t-shirt with a Dick Waterman performance photo of Mick in 1971complete with dog collar, hair flying and lips suggestively open. At the rest stop on the Mass Pike, we ran into a gal named Cindy, who runs a website called www.ilovemickjagger.com. On the site, she has photos of herself with everyone in the band. She and her significant other had seats in the pit. We didn’t ask how much they paid, but we heard those tickets were going for up to $6,000.

Two guys in white shirts stood outside the Four’s Restaurant, a block from the TD Garden where we were to rendezvous with Bill. My knee jerk first thought was these guys aren’t going to let us in looking like road kill. Of course, I forgot, this is 2013. Do we need reservations? Hell, no. How long a wait? Just a few minutes. Can we drink at the bar? The guy looks at me sarcastically and says, “What a great concept.”

At the bar, we ran into a man from Oklahoma who said he’d painted the Stones lips on the hood of a classic car. He was on vacation with his wife, who was going to see the Stones for the first time. She may have been a Stones virgin, but she was appropriately tart for the part.

A beautiful dark-haired woman with a rock on her left hand the size of a sleet ball asked me when the picture of Mick on my chest was taken. I told her 1971 — which tells you how old I am. She looked me straight in the eye and said, “I don’t care how old you are.” I jokingly pushed her husband aside and whispered in her ear, “Let’s go.” Thankfully, everyone laughed.

At the Garden, this short woman stopped me and looked longingly at my t-shirt. I was thinking to myself that this lady could be my grandmother. Then I did the math and figured out she was probably younger than I am. “May I hug you,” she asked. Why not?

I can remember standing in line to buy tickets to the Stones in 1981 and overhearing a kid eying me and telling his friend that I must be one of the Stones’ older fans. That was 32 years ago. Thirty two! With each succeeding tour the audiences seemed to get older and older. In 2006 it was walker city and music industry people. This time it was a real cross section. Was it because tickets were easier to come by and people wanted bragging rights to see the band “for the last time?”

What I get out of a Stones concert has evolved as they have grown over the years. In the ’60s, they were brash, providing the yin to the Beatles’ yang and corrupting the world’s view of Brits as stuffy while teaching us in the states to appreciate our own musical heritage, and cementing the link between blues and rock and roll. Brian Jones was a slide guitar master. Mick’s vocals applied delta blues braggadocio to a white punk context before the term punk rock was invented.

In the ’70s and ’80s, Keith Richards picked up the slack after Brian died, and the group’s live concerts featured a barbed wire spike that impossibly erased the line between raw and slick. He was both at the same time. The band got tight, and the songs paved the way for a couple of generations of hard rockers from Aerosmith and Guns ‘n Roses to Jack White.

The last 20 years The Stones have become their own cover band, smart and sparkling in their presentation, but unable to write songs like they once did that were cutting edge, but primal at the same time. Of course, the big question today is can men circling 70 still pump rock iron for two hours and 20 minutes without a break?

Yes!

Are they as good as they were in 1965, ’81 and ’89?

They’re better than they were in ’65, but too uneven in their long set to equal the magic of ’81 and ’89. “Paint it Black” sounded better than in the ’60s. “Emotional Rescue” with Mick’s falsetto made me wonder why they had never before this tour covered it in concert.  “Midnight Rambler” alone was worth the trip.

Mick doesn’t run as fast as he did. Keith’s guitar playing sometimes comes off as if he were playing in slow motion, and both he and Mick looked and sounded like they were on the last leg of a marathon about two hours into the show, as in fact they were. Mick was singing flat on “Sympathy for The Devil,” and the huge screen image of Keith made his face look like a wet sack of potatoes as he struggled through “Start Me Up,” “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar.” I identify with these guys in their refusal to let age conquer their art, and I held my breath, praying they wouldn’t keel over in the last run.

When they returned for the encore, however, they rallied. Boston University’s 24-voice Marsh Chapel Choir carried them into the stratosphere like an Oklahoma hurricane on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” Jagger made us believe he’s still “Jumping Jack Flash,” and Ron Wood flaunted the no smoking laws, puffing away madly through “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction.” And Keith with the help of the past member Mick Taylor on second guitar made the strings sing.

To me the Stones represent a tenacity and love for the music that I find in aging blues artists like B. B. King, the late Hubert Sumlin and Honeyboy Edwards. It’s an attitude that often transcends the limitations aging places on our muse. One of my best friends, Bob Rossetti, died a few weeks ago. I wrote a eulogy for him that sums up how I feel about the role that veteran musicians play in spurring us all on.

I said, “Freedom is what our relationship was all about. Somehow, our spirits soared when we were together. We visited the great bluesman Gatemouth Brown in his hotel room in New York City weeks before he died. There Gate was lying prostrate on the bed, oxygen flowing through his nose. It took four people to get him up, dressed and into the wheel chair.

“We all wheeled him through underground tunnels to B.B. King’s club, propped him up and pushed him out on the stage. Suddenly he came alive. His performance was a better elixir than the oxygen. Bobby and I looked at each other. Nothing had to be said. Some things are more important than breathing. Our friendship was like that. No matter what the pain we were going through, it all seemed trivial next to that bond.”

My friend George is not a Stones virgin anymore. Throughout the concert he kept showing me the hairs standing up on his arm. Joe took in his 30th concert and got back in a car two days later to see them again. Bill and just looked at each other and knew we were still okay. I may have two bionic hips and his teeth may be rotting, but we’re still doin’ it.  And James Brown may have died on Christmas day, but the Stones can still rock and roll.

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