V. Stones At The Crossroads

It was 1981. MTV happened. The video for "Start Me Up" was a regular on this strange new network and it depicted what looked like either the coolest group of guys in the world, or the sickest, ugliest guys in the world. Or both. (The whole secret to The Rolling Stones and Rock in general: Beauty/Ugly.) Tattoo You was number one for nine weeks in Billboard. Other than Face Dances, Ghost In The Machine and Rush's Moving Pictures, it was the rock album of the year and The Rolling Stones were still THE band of the day. "Start Me Up" is the last great Stones single, and rightfully peaked at number two. It is also the 'crossroads' record of their career and begins their last great chapter. '81 is the end of the prime period and the beginning of the 'pro' Stones which has lasted to this day. In effect, everything they've done since is a reworking of "Start Me Up," Tattoo You and the '81 tour.

Tattoo You is their last great album. For "Start Me Up" and "Waiting On A Friend" alone, it would rank highly in the catalog, but this dirty party also features "Worried About You," the frightening "Heaven," and the jungle-groove workout of "Slave." "Slave" is the end of something also, just like "Start Me Up." It's the last part of Mick Jagger's paean to New York City, begun on Goats Head Soup and developed on Some Girls and Emotional Rescue. It ranks with "Hot Stuff," "Miss You," "Shattered," and "Emotional Rescue" as one of the great salutes to/send-ups of our beloved Manhattan island. You can feel the street in that groove, proving Charlie Watts is one of the great geniuses of rock drumming and The Rolling Stones are a musical phemonena matched by no one. Nobody plays like these guys. At once funky, loose, ridiculous, sexy, cartoonish, and funny as hell, the sound of these four or five or six guys playing together behind Mick Jagger's patented slur / dance / cum / mock / bullshit / pose / satire / guts / dick / heart / sneer / smirk / TinaTurner For WhitePeople is like nothing else in pop music. It's the most FEEL music ever. Which is why Keith Richards so astutely describes it as 'body music.' If rock and roll is a black euphemism for sex, then The Stones are the ultimate Rock and Roll. And this dynamic is all over Tattoo You. In fact, it supercedes the songwriting, which for the most part is strong, and at times, brilliant. Again, "Start Me Up," "Waiting On A Friend," and "Worried About You" are top Jagger/Richards compositions, and "Tops" and "Heaven" are terrific latter-day Glimmer Twins as well. It's interesting to note that while the album was basically a compilation of different sessions from the previous nine years, there is a flow and unity to it, as consistent as Some Girls and almost as iron-clad as Sticky Fingers or Exile On Main Street. But it's a not a definitive statement like those other records were. It’s more subversive in it's mocking pop sensibility and guttural jones. "Little T&A" is the other prototype for third (and last) period Stones. Like "Start Me Up," it's as modern Stones as post-'81 gets. It also introduces the other great singer in the band, although this could be traced to "You Got The Silver," "Happy," "Coming Down Again," "All About You" and the transcendent counter-vocal on "Memory Motel," where Keith actually outdoes his Twin.

As far as the tour, it was the biggest of it's kind to that date, and the first major rock tour to fly on a corporate tab, a big deal at the time, and proof that The Stones were the band to beat at the dawn of the '80's and MTV. There are iconic images of that tour, many that would define the latter-day Stones just as the songs on Tattoo You had done. Mick in spandex, almost anorexic, but in shape, probably better shape than anyone who saw the tour, Keith and twin brother Ron Wood filling those huge stadium stages with two guitars, gallons of Guinness, pose and attitude. Nobody poses better than Keith Richards. That's more than half of what the man is doing when he plays. Like Charlie, it's more what he doesn’t play than what he does. The thrill is in the symbolic gestures he makes that celebrate the instrument, and in turn, the form, for rock is defined by the electric guitar. (Pete Townshend is the human being who looks the best with an electric guitar on, but Keith Richards defines the posture and the pose like noone else.) And Ronnie twins him, shadows him, makes him laugh. The interplay on a giant stage still feels intimate, like a shared private joke in a bar late at night. This dynamic is what sets The Stones apart from everyone else who ever tried to tackle a stage that big. Again, only Pete Townshend seems as capable, but he attacks the space instead of inhabiting it. The Grateful Dead did it, but LSD was needed to wholly appreciate that experience. Bruce Springsteen and Prince know how to do it, but let us remember that both men surround themselves with an entire community! And then there’s Bono, who does it better than anyone since them. But The Rolling Stones remain bigger than all. Others know better the scents and the sounds, the vibes and the visceral. I'm commenting more on the philosophy of the thing, and the spiritual accomplishment of those five guys standing on stages far too big for anybody to really play. Anything is possible, however, when you've got "Start Me Up," "Jumpin’ Jack Flash," and "Satisfaction." How else do they continue doing it well past sixty? Maybe they really did sign in blood with old Lucifer. He must be a Stones fan. And who isn't, really?

Dec. '03

My hands are greasy, she's a mean, mean machine.