Greg Saunier heard “Start Me Up” when he was 13 and from that day forward has devoted his life to rock music. He is the drummer for Deerhoof as well as a composer and producer.
When we first meet our hero, his maracas are too loud and his guitar is a rectangle. His journey is already complete and his balls are pre-expanded to superhuman size. What need has Bo Diddley to go into all the gory details anyway? His white audience doesn’t want to hear it and his black one already knows it from first-hand experience. Let the celebration begin:
“I use a cobra snake for a necktie
Now tell me who do you love”
Love is still the goal by the time a certain British economics major gets ahold of the myth. But Mick Jagger knows he’d better get into specifics, lest he be laughed off the stage as a fraud. Bitten by a boar. Check. Spike through his head. Check. Best friend shoots water rats and feeds them to his geese. Check. OK, let the celebration begin:
“It’s all right now, in fact it’s a gas
Don’t you think there’s a place for you in between the sheets“
Then the ’70s happened, and after that the ’80s. There were ’90s, 2000s, a few tweens. Plenty of time for a new myth to be created and it goes like this: People like the Rolling Stones achieved coolness. Thousands of bands took up this new myth and made it their own.
But what of the mythical lads themselves, who meanwhile never broke up, never needed a reunion tour, never stopped putting out record after record? It seems that the more other bands have emulated their myth, the greater the polarity of response to anything the actual Rolling Stones do. If you believe the diehards, they are perpetually marking a return to form, proving they still got it. If you believe the critics, they are perpetually repeating themselves, foolishly, with ever-diminishing returns. Two sides of one coin, praise or scorn based on the accuracy of their imitation of their own adolescence, at increasingly absurd distances from actual adolescence.
They’re both wrong, and I’m more interested in the use value than the entertainment value of my favorite band. Part of me wants to believe that they are still imitating forebears like Bo Diddley “authentically,” as in their youth. Indeed, the lyrics of their fall 2012 single “Doom and Gloom” have a familiar ring:
“I crash-landed in a Louisiana swamp
Shot up a horde of zombies but I come out on top…
Baby won’t you dance with me”
But you can’t hear this song without noticing the Stones copying “the Stones.” For better or worse they provide the requisite rough-sounding guitars and thwacking 2 and 4 backbeat, Mick yelling mostly on one note (F, one of his favorites), and a grand total of three chords, two of which are Keith’s signature open-tuning combo.
Yet that’s not the whole story either. Too many details are off. With its of-this-exact-mainstream-moment aesthetics, the song also smacks of an attempt to keep up with the Joneses, to imitate not the youth of 1972 but the youth of 2012. At which point the logical among us might ask: You’re the Rolling Stones and several decades of youth culture have based themselves on your myth — aren’t you now imitating an imitation of yourselves?
It’s an especially odd affair, considering the questionable accuracy of any of these Stones simulators. Attempts to ape history’s most obvious rock & roll role model, Keith Richards, were always doomed. First of all, the myth of Keith-the-wasted-anti-hero-who-cares-not-if-he-lives-or-dies has never been able to account for his vitality and charm in interviews and documentaries, the unhurried pace of his playing and his personality, his endless desire to sink his teeth into a song and discover it anew each night, his repeated assertions that his job as a musician is to pass it on and grow it up, his tendency to get teary when he talks about his mum.
And it is not only Keith’s legendary constitution and a crackerjack legal team that have made possible his endless cheatings and recheatings of death and the law, while imitators more likely turn into creepy junkies with a death wish. Keith “The Human Riff” Richards is unthinkable without a helping hand from his bandmates: Ronnie “Woody” Wood, whose decades-long attempt to keep up with both Keith’s partying and his disjointed playing style make him the perfect enabler; Charlie “Charlie Watts” Watts, the quiet fellow in the back who’s been married to the same woman since the mid ’60s and doesn’t even like rock & roll, but lays down the dependable, unfussy grid on which Keith is free to indulge his passion for ragged, playful syncopations as well as errant behavior; and Sir Mick “Brenda” Jagger, whose persistently perfect body and take-charge personality create a space for Keith to be the rebellious, intuitive underdog within the band, and whose acceptance of knighthood was gift-wrapped for Keith, now at liberty to express his outlaw indignation.
In the absence of such improbable circumstances, younger imitators from the Stooges to Aerosmith to the White Stripes took the idea of a riff, for Keith a rough template on which to improvise funky, risky dual-guitar interplay, and redefined it as a slab of rock, to be repeated frankly and safely and with the distortion turned up. A guitar part easily mimicked and a tone easily purchased at the store.
It is just such a guitar that we first hear at the beginning of “Doom and Gloom.” Not Keith at all, but Mick, doing his version of the Keith emulators. In fact the resemblance between Mick and his model is so strong that a lawsuit may be in order: listen to the beginning of 2009’s “Keep Your Head Up” by one of the best and most blatant of the contemporary followers of the Stones Myth, the Eagles of Death Metal.
Absent from “Doom and Gloom” is any hint of the Stones’ hallmark weaving guitar interplay. Mick paints most of the canvas himself with his mechanical repetitions, leaving but a corner each for the other guitar player guys. Ronnie, not normally known for his restraint, barely touches his guitar, throwing in only a few leads. Keith contributes a self-parodying embellishment whose purpose would seem to be nothing more than to identify “Doom and Gloom” as a Stones song. His signature two-chord building block, from which his most famous riffs are formed, is here reduced to simply the two chords themselves, turned down in the mix, a mere whiff.
Charlie sounds more like a drum machine doing a “Charlie Watts-style beat” than he sounds like himself. His trademark tic of avoiding his hi-hat every time he has hit his snare since 1977 — he hit them together once in 1978 on “Lies” and another time in 1986 on “Had It With You” — has been corrected at last. A young, expensive mix engineer was brought in to beef up the drums with samples and distortion to obscure the actual performance.
The Stones bragged that they had finished their new song ahead of schedule. The same Keith who was fascinated with the mysticism of the recording process, immersing himself in the subtleties of his dirty tones, irregular arrangements and meticulous textural dabs, getting everything just so, regardless of how many days in a row he had to keep himself awake, now looks upon himself as “The Riff Master” who can whip out the perfect nugget at a moment’s notice. Once again, the students of the Stones have become the professors, the Jack Whites and Steve Albinis of the ’90s teaching the Stones to stop believing in Santa Claus and just let ‘er rip in one take. Raw and spare, this is the sound of the Rolling Stones finally throwing down their gauntlet in the 21st Century Volume Wars.
Mick, whose waistline-oriented reputation is one of eternal youth, yells his way towards oblivion, always ahead of the beat, rushing to the next grisly thrill, a personification of Italo Calvino’s idea that “what many consider to be the vitality of the times — noisy, aggressive, and roaring — belongs to the realm of death, like a cemetery for rusty old cars.” Where “Who Do You Love” was a list of negatives ironically used as selling points, and “Jumping Jack Flash” was a list of negatives that had to be overcome, “Doom and Gloom” is simply a list of negatives. The “dance with me” part is quickly glossed over to make room for the nasty bits, making a fetish of dismissal and loathing. Actual danger is replaced with in-depth whining disguised as danger, exploited as light entertainment, just like a list of Yahoo! news headlines read from the safety of one’s home computer.
The same is true of the video, which is fixated on the star of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo making herself throw up, fighting off zombie attacks, triggering nuclear explosions with her middle finger, and showing her tits in a trash pile. Somebody even coughed up enough for a head explosion. Once you’ve identified who plays which guitar parts on the song, you notice that, when the video bothers to show one of the boys strumming, it’s almost always the wrong one. Their classic rock moves are divorced from any musical reason for being, and turned into the stereotyped poses that those who never understood always figured they were in the first place.
This is more than just a few rookie gaffes. The Rolling Stones seem to be consistently contradicting their own artistic message. Why? Perhaps a clue is to be found in the new 50-year anniversary documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, in which Mick openly describes the band’s late-’70s retreat from danger not as an accident of age, but a deliberate survival strategy amidst ever-increasing vilification, their own stretched-to-the-limit patience, and the constant threat of either incapacitation, incarceration, or death as a result of drug abuse. His solution? Let the celebration begin. Create a fun, colorful version of the band, desensitized to critics’ dismissal, game to act the fool, courting laughter with playful mockery, not only allowing but inviting the insults of society, each one a feather in their cap. In other words, turning their career into an explicit acting-out of the “Who Do You Love” myth.
And by late 2012 any mocking of society necessarily included a mocking of their own imitators. It is more than just a matter of beating the next generation at their own game. It is a satire of the self-loathing inherent in going retro. The Stones are “feeling kinda hurt” because in their children “all I see is doom and gloom.” So the song is a sonic, lyrical, and visual depiction of the misapprehension of their band. If the celebratory payoff seems overly brief within the song, it is because the real-life payoff comes when you buy a ticket to their show.
Just as a skilled dominatrix must love men in order to properly do her job of abusing them day in, day out, the Stones keep their anti-Establishment reputation intact by loving those who make up their target as well as their fanbase: the Establishment. The priciest Stones tickets on Ticketmaster are for the Tongue Pit, directly in front of the stage. Mental images of french-kissing moshers are instantly erased upon seeing Youtubes of their recent concerts, which clearly show the Tongue Pit filled with the only people who could actually afford the tickets: old bankers who can’t clap in rhythm. The Rolling Stones’ stance of “adolescence” and “rebelliousness,” as well as the tendency in their concert films, music videos, and ads to show girls in their 20s singing and dancing, is not meant to attract girls in their 20s, but to create a pornographic fantasy that lures older wealthy men who are dissatisfied with their boring lives. These fans lust for the vicarious thrill of seeing Mick and Keith and the gang do what they themselves have forgotten how to do, or never knew how to do.
I am no banker, but I am a fan, both as a musician and as a human being. The Rolling Stones are past retirement age and hardly need the bread, yet they play on. And if this final verse plays out properly over the next year or two, they will proclaim not what they proclaimed when they were young, but rather what few, including the young, understand: that rock & roll is not only for the young. Deliberate retention of qualities like freedom, sexual energy, sass and boldness are viable and advisable and worth celebrating — except for those 99% of people who value complacency and believe in giving up.