“You can be watching TV and see Coca-Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca-Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca-Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca-Cola, too. A Coke is a Coke and no amount of money can get you a better Coke than the one the bum on the corner is drinking… “ Andy Warhol. ‘ One Man Show: The Stable Gallery’ 1962.
“When I’m watching my TV. And that man comes on to tell me how white my shirts can be. But he can’t be a man ’cause he doesn’t smoke the same cigarettes as me…” The Rolling Stones. ‘Satisfaction’ 1965.
Like many, but by no means all, of tonight’s audience at The Oracle Arena I was lucky enough to experience most of my adolescent rights of passage in those culturally bi-polar years immediately after 1967’s San Franciscan Summer of Love and just before the arrival of Anarchy In the UK.
An accident of birth for sure, but one that helps me I think to understand the historical context of just what’s going on here tonight and maybe offer a few answers as to just why. It allows me also, for now at any rate, to ignore the toxic whiff of the critics for once. The faint praise that’s met this outing so far. And the acres of lazy and tedious explanations of exactly why it is, or isn’t, or indeed should be ‘the last time’ for all concerned.
The popular assumption that the Rolling Stones were somehow standard bearers for any part of the cultural revolution that briefly flowered in their heyday and in my adolescence was always well wide of the truth anyway. A consequence of a particularly original blend of public hedonism and presciently globalised debauchery that they succeeded in making their very own during those years rather than any obvious or intentional political agenda. That and a run of quite spectacularly good records that they made at the same time.
Besides, watching four millionaire english pensioners sweat blood and tears in the name of nothing better than that for two and a half hours in an American basketball arena, is, when you come to think about it, probably about as genuinely a counter-cultural experience as you’re likely to get this side of a Lonely Planet guide these days anyway. Tonight is the the second night proper of the Fifty And Counting Tour and the show, to be honest, is far from perfect. But it’s certainly surprising. And it’s been a while since you’ve been able to say that about The Rolling Stones with any conviction at all.
The start is strangely subdued. ‘Get Of Of My Cloud’, for all of its American English lyrical pretension isn’t really that much of a song. It’s dated and it sounds it. It hasn’t the muscle to open an arena show either. And to me it just compounds the schoolboy error of the curtain raising hagiography. Something that definitely needs surgery or amputation before this show venture outdoors in an English summer. Even if Johnny Depp does manage one good line about ‘good songs to do bad things too’. There are other lapses too. The gorilla suit is a mistake. If only a brief one. And the overpriced merchandising gives fresh meaning to the word tacky. But I digress.
‘It’s Only Rock’N’Roll’ itself falls flat too. And after ‘Live With Me’ and ‘Paint it Black’ in fact i’m afraid it’s all looking about as predictable as Andy Warhol’s Coca-Cola. Or the mythical washing powder commercial of Jagger’s derision. And then something, well two things, actually, really quite miraculous happen. And they happen like this:
Over the familiar, predictable even, chords of ‘Gimme Shelter’ backing singer Lisa Fischer shimmies front stage. And as her sublime soul voice lets rip on “War, children, is just a shot away. Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away” straight into the pirouetting Jagger’s face her words somehow seem to spark the necessary fifty thousand volts though Dracula’s body. The key turns in the ignition. Phew. Finally we’re off and running. ‘Gimme Shelter’’s thrilling climax brings the rest of the graveyard on stage to life too, and the room to it’s feet. And then Tom Waits shuffles onstage. And with a tip of his trilby to Keith, your favourite local undertaker growls into ‘Little Red Rooster’ whilst logo lips himself blows all over the whole extraordinary business on harp.
Mick Taylor’s nightly guest spot on ‘Midnight Rambler’ is less of a surprise, of course, but no less welcome. For one thing his presence seems to raise Ron Wood’s game by several notches all night. On ‘Dead Flowers’ particularly Ron’s playing is simply sublime. And, maybe it’s just me, but isn’t there something darkly ‘au courant’ right now about ‘Midnight Rambler’s oddly oblique story of a serial killer on the run in Boston of all places? ‘Doom And Gloom’. the best thing Jagger and Richards have written this century by some considerable margin, seems to teeter for a moment on the brink of social commentary too: “We’ll be eating dirt sitting by the side of the road”. Well, maybe not you, Mick, nor me for that matter, nor anyone actually in the house tonight in all probability, but it’s very nice to see that you’re still up and paying attention.
The confidence on stage is infectious now. Daryl Jones, an infinitely better player than Bill Wyman ever was, and the legendary Bobby Keys between them take ‘Emotional Rescue’, Katarina’s all time favourite Stones’ song by the way, somewhere entirely fresh and completely thrilling. While Chuck Leavell (whose tasteful fills have graced scores of wonderful records for all sorts of people from The Allman Brothers to The Proclaimers) works his own magic the other way around. Cheerfully restoring ‘Honky Tonk Women‘, a song that I’ve always found to be a bit tired, to the rollocking piano boogie of its origins.
And so, inevitably, to Keith’s bit. And I really have to be honest now and tell you that personally I’ve never been able to find anything remotely Brechtian at all about a singer who can’t sing. But love him or love him he does desperately need a new joke. “It’s good to be here, to be honest it’s good to be anywhere” was never exactly Oscar Wilde to begin with but unlike the man himself it’s not a line that’s worn especially well. And I’m sure Harper Collins would really be much happier with a few well chosen lines from the book. But tonight, at least, I’m happy to say that we get away lightly with ‘Before They Make Me Run‘, one of his better ‘songs‘, before, mercifully, he introduces ‘Happy‘. Where at least there’s Mick and Lisa to put up some covering friendly fire.
Not to worry. If you really want singers, it turns out that you are in the right shop after all. As Act Three, or what they now call ‘the encores’ in rock’n’roll shows, goes up on the massed ranks of the San Jose State University Chorallers. Which I guess is American for Choiristers. And their everything and the kitchen sink, and then some, intro to ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’.
And suddenly we’re not just in a basketball arena listening to a rock’n’roll band anymore. No, now we’re at Carnegie Hall listening to Gershwin. And we’re on Broadway at a Sondheim first night. And on the red carpet premiere of a Martin Scorsese film too.
And if that’s only rock’n’roll then I like it, like it. Yes I do.
By way of a brief postscript, and thanks for hanging on in here, if you have, I should mention too that I have no quibble with the 85 bucks that I’ve paid for my ‘lucky dip’ ticket tonight. Accounting for UK inflation at least that’s almost exactly the same that I parted with the first time. At the now long demolished Apollo in Glasgow, on September 16th 1973.