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Wild horses couldn't drag them off stage

November 06, 2005|Tom Chaffin | TOM CHAFFIN's latest book, "Sea of Gray: The Around-the-World Odyssey of the Confederate Raider 'Shenandoah,' " is due from Farrar, Straus and Giroux in February.

DURING THEIR periodic "Elvis is Alive!" jags, the tabloids routinely treat us to manipulated photo images that conjure how the King might look today -- that is, had he lived beyond age 42 and 1977.

The whole exercise is tacky. But those images probably come as close as we'll get to glimpsing what time might have done to major acts, most now deceased, of rock's 1950s and '60s golden era. Because they died young, we'll never know how Elvis, Jimi and Janis would have looked and sounded in middle and old age. The Rolling Stones, however -- still on the road and recording new material -- afford us the opportunity to witness how golden era greatness holds up in the 21st century.

The Stones won their first admirers in 1963 when they rocked the Crawdaddy Club in the London borough of Richmond. The band by then had soaked up influences from jazz and country to R&B and rock. However, unlike the Beatles, who idolized Elvis, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards found their North Star in Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed and other great Chicago and Delta bluesmen. Long before he formed a band named after a Waters' song, the teenaged Jagger mail-ordered blues albums from America and, with his childhood chum Richards, listened obsessively.

By most accounts, the Stones still earn their "greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world" title. At their Atlanta concert last month, the band's riveting "I'm a King Bee" energy remained intact -- only now it's propelled by more polished musicianship. Even so, I've been struck by how many critics feel obliged to make sneering references to age: Jagger is 62; Richards, 61; Charlie Watts, 64; and Ron Wood, 58. Even Jagger, invoking a song from their new album, brought up longevity: He said they'd thought of calling this the "Oh No, Not You Again!" tour.

Why the cultural discomfort with a band that survives beyond the few years of most rock acts? After all, architects, authors, film directors, classical musicians are expected to work as long as they can. And most people -- reasonably assuming that experience improves -- register no surprise when an artist's twilight years yield his best work.

So why withhold such assumptions from rock performers? Well, for starters, the form is still stereotyped as "teen music"; its frequent sophistication gets overlooked. But more important, I'm convinced that fans expect their heroes to be signatories to a rock 'n' roll Faustian pact. In exchange for early glory, musicians agree to self-destruct while young or, failing that, to quietly shuffle off into the underworld of the oldies circuit, condemned to re-create their early hits before ever-smaller audiences.

Finally, in the case of the Stones, yet another factor obtains -- call it the Joyce Carol Oates syndrome. Over the years, Oates has published more than 100 books. Her fiction enjoys a sturdy literary reputation. But how much higher would that reputation have soared had she published fewer books -- perhaps only one or two novels -- then died an untimely, sensational death?

Reconsider the old Beatles vs. Stones rivalry of the '60s. The Beatles during their prolific six-year recording career produced roughly a dozen studio albums -- about half the number that the Stones have produced over four decades. By conventional wisdom, the Beatles created the more enduring musical legacy. But how much does that judgment issue from the fact that the Beatles, by leaving the field early, guaranteed an enduring nostalgia for their work? Likewise, by staying for the long haul, how much have the Stones invited critics to take them for granted?

The received wisdom has the Beatles, through a playful eclecticism, infusing standard rock with a newfound sophistication. But from peerless rockers ("Satisfaction," "Let Me Down Slow") to ballads ("Ruby Tuesday," "Biggest Mistake"), Jagger-Richards ranks with the best of Lennon-McCartney. And from the Indian raga shadings of "Paint It Black" to the Moroccan stylings of "Continental Drift," they even boast their own eclecticism.

And unlike the Beatles, who abandoned touring soon after achieving stardom, the Stones went on to become a legendary stage act. By now Jagger, running, prancing, dancing across the stage, belongs in the elite company of Frank Sinatra and Elvis as one of our era's most charismatic live performers.

As Richards has lately said, it's not to rock stars who die young that he and the band look to for role models. They look instead to great bluesmen such as Waters and Willie Dixon, whose work only became more resonant as the years rolled by. Besides, as Richards has also said, he's too old to find another trade. "I've said it before -- this is all I can do. I'm a lousy plumber."

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