Robert Christgau

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2325

Mick Jagger was never a rocker. He wasn't a mod, either. He was a bohemian, an antiutopian version of what Americans called a folkie. That is, he was attracted to music of a certain innocence as only a fairly classy—and sophisticated—person can be. Unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney (and Bob Dylan), his ambitions weren't kindled by Elvis Presley; his angry, low-rent mien was no more a reflection of his economic fate than his stardom was a means for him to escape it.

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Something similar went for all the Rolling Stones. "What can a poor boy do / Except sing for a rock and roll band?" was the way they opted out of the political involvement that most young rebels found unavoidable in the late Sixties. But not only weren't they poor boys when they played that song, they never had been—except voluntarily, which is different…. This is not to say the Stones were rich kids; only Brian qualified as what Americans would call upper middle-class. Nor is it to underestimate the dreariness of the London suburbs or the rigidity of the English class hierarchy. But due partly to their own posturing, the Stones are often perceived as working class, and that is a major distortion….

[Insofar] as they wanted to be earthy … they risked a vulgarity that was mere indeed. Inspired by the coaching of Andrew Loog Oldham, the publicist/manager who undertook the creation of the Stones in their own image starting in the spring of 1963, they chose to be vulgar—aggressively, as a stance, to counteract the dreariness and rigidity of their middle class suburban mess of pottage. (p. 182)

[The] Stones' willingness to "exploit" and "compromise" their own bohemian proclivities meant only that they assumed a pop aesthetic. Most artists believe they ought to be rich-and-famous on their own very idiosyncratic terms—the Stones happened to be right. To sing about "half-assed games" on the AM radio … or glower out hirsute and tie-less from the Sunday entertainment pages was integrity aplenty in 1964.

Perhaps most important, the Stones obviously cared about the quality of the music they played. If this music recalled any single antecedent it was Chuck Berry, but never with his total commitment to fun. It was fast and metallic, most bluesish in its strict understatement. Clean and sharp—especially in contrast to the gleeful modified chaos of the Beatles—this striking but never overbearing music was an ideal vocal setting, and if it was the guitars and percussion that established the band's presence, it was the vocals, and the vocalist, that defined it. (pp. 182, 184)

All of [the Stones], Jagger included, were attracted to the gruff, eloquent directness of so much black music; relatively speaking, they became natural, expressive, sexy, and so forth by playing it. What set them apart was Jagger's instinctive understanding that this achievement was relative—that there was a Heisenberg paradox built into the way he appreciated the virtues of this music—and his genius at expressing that as well. The aggressiveness and sexuality of the form were his, but the sincerity was beyond him—partly because he was white and English, and especially because he was Mick Jagger. He loved the blues for their sincerity, yet their sincerity was the ultimate object of his pervasive anger…. "An empty heart / Is like an empty life," he sang in one of his early lyrics, adding nuance to qualification as always, so that even as it adhered to all the lost-love conventions, the song evoked the most basic condition of his existence.

Jagger is obsessed with distance. He forces the Stones' music to gaze across (and down) the generation gap and the money gap and the feeling gap and the meaning gap. But then, powered by the other Stones—all of them, like most of the Stones' fans, somewhat more simple-minded than Jagger—the music leaps, so that as a totality it challenges that frustrating, ubiquitous, perhaps metaphysical margin between reach and grasp that presents itself so sharply to human beings with the leisure to think about it. This dual commitment to irony and ecstasy makes the Stones exemplary modernists. Without a doubt, it has been their readiness to leap that has won the Stones their following—no one has ever rocked on out with more ecstatic energy. But it is their realism, bordering at its most suspect on cynicism, that makes all that energy interesting, and ensures that their following will never be as huge as that of the high-spirited Beatles (or of a technocosmic doom show like Led Zeppelin, either). After all, not everyone wants to be reminded that it is salutary to think and have fun at the same time. But that is what it means to get up and boogie to "Street Fighting Man," or to party to a paean as steeped in irony as "Brown Sugar." (p. 184)

From "Satisfaction" to the end of the decade, the Stones' aesthetic stature became more heroic. Their R&B phase began with two very good albums that culminated in a classic third, The Rolling Stones Now! Then came their long middle period, beginning with two very good transitional LPs—Out of Our Heads and December's Children (and Everybody's), both of which contained many R&B covers but sold on the strength of their originals—that seemed slightly thin only when compared to those that followed. Aftermath, Between the Buttons, Beggar's Banquet and Let It Bleed are all among the greatest rock albums, and Flowers, although it includes three previously released album cuts, sounds every bit as valid on its own. Furthermore, although the 3-D/psychedelic/year-in-the-making response to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Their Satanic Majesties Request, is remembered as a washout, the tunes prove remarkably solid and the concept legitimate in its tongue-in-cheekness. I would rank it as a first-rate oddity, and note that the title alone was the single greatest image manipulation in the Stones' whole media-happy story.

After "Satisfaction" it was no longer satisfying to accuse the Stones of imitation; after Aftermath, their music came almost entirely out of their heads. Blues-based hard rock it remained, with an eventual return to one black classic per album, but its texture was permanently enriched. (p. 186)

By proclamation and by vocal method—[Jagger] slurs as a matter of conviction, articulating only catchphrases—Jagger belittles his own lyrics, an appropriate stance for a literate man who has bet his life on the comparative inexplicitness of music. Nonetheless, Jagger's lyrics were much like the Stones' music, aesthetically: pungent and vernacular ("Who wants yesterday's papers"); achieving considerable specificity with familiar materials ("You got me running like a cat in a thunderstorm"); and challenging conventional perceptions more by their bite than by any notable eloquence or profundity ("They just get married 'cause there's nothing else to do"). But whereas the Stones' music extended rock and roll usages, Jagger's lyrics often contravened them. He wrote more hate songs than love songs, and related tales of social and political breakdown with untoward glee. The hypocrisy and decay of the upper classes was a fave subject—many songs that seem basically antiwoman (although certainly not all of them) are actually more antirich. He was also capable of genuine gusto about sex (not as often as is thought, but consider the open-hearted anticipation of "Goin' Home" or "Let's Spend the Night Together") and wrote the most accurate LSD song ever, "Something Happened to Me Yesterday."

But that was as far as it went. Traditionally, bohemian revolt has been aimed at nothing more fundamental than puritan morality and genteel culture. That's the way it was with the hippies, certainly, and that's the way it was with the Stones. They did show a class animus—even though it wasn't proletariat-versus-bourgeoisie ("Salt of the Earth" evokes that struggle no less sensitively than it evokes Jagger's distance from it), but rather the old enmity between the freemen of democratic England and its peerage—and a penchant for generalized social criticism. They earned their "political" aura. But their most passionate commitments were to sex, dope, and lavish autonomy. Granted, this looked revolutionary enough to get them into plenty of trouble. The dope-bust harassment/persecution of individual Stones did keep the group from touring the States between 1966 and 1969. But their money and power prevailed; in the end, their absence and their apparent martyrdom only augmented their myth and their careers.

Throughout this time, the Stones were heroes of mass bohemianism. They lived the life of art, their art got better all the time, and as it got better, remarkably enough, it reached more people. But although their art survives, its heroic quality does not; the Stones betray all the flaws of the counterculture they half-wittingly and willingly symbolized. Their sex was too often sexist, their expanded consciousness too often a sordid escape; their rebellion was rooted in impulse to the exclusion of all habits of sacrifice, and their relationship to fame had little to do with the responsibilities of leadership, or of allegiance.

Not that leadership was Mick's—or any ironist's—kind of thing. All he wanted was to have his ego massaged by his public or bathed in luxurious privacy as his own whim dictated. This he got, but it wasn't all roses—it was also dead flowers. Early on, in "Play with Fire" or "Back Street Girl," say, he had attacked decadence with a sneer—it was something that happened to others, especially the idle rich. By "Live with Me," or "Dancing with Mr. D.," the implication was that Mick's life of pop star luxury was turning him into a decadent himself.

But if Mick was a decadent, he was also a professional. His project of radical self-definition flourished where so many others failed…. His talent, his resilience, his sure pop instinct, and a boom market in creativity all contributed to Jagger's singular preeminence. (pp. 186-87)

[Whatever] the specifics—pinpointing is always difficult—the Stones acknowledge their complicity in a world in which evil exists. Above all, they are anything but utopians. They never made very convincing hippies because hippie just wasn't their thing. Jagger's taste for ecstatic community was tempered by that awareness of limits that always assured the Stones their formal acuteness. A successful artist may epitomize his or her audience, but that is a process of rarefaction—it doesn't mean conforming to the great mean, even of the time's bohemianism. So while it is true that the Stones' flaws and the counterculture's show a certain congruence, utlimately Mick is congruent to nothing—he always leaves himself an out. He doesn't condone the Midnight Rambler or Mister Jimmy, he just lays them bare. His gift is to make clear that even if the truth doesn't make you free, it needn't sap your will or your energy either. As with most bohemian rebels, his politics are indirect. He provides the information. The audience must then decide what to do with it. (pp. 187-88)

After Altamont, the Stones played with a vengeance. Sticky Fingers, in April 1971, appeared to trifle with decadence just when some retribution seemed called for, and on its two masterpieces, it definitely did. "Moonlight Mile" recreated all the paradoxical distances inherent in erotic love with a power worthy of Yeats, yet could also be interpreted as a cocaine song; "Brown Sugar," in which (if you listen with care to a rocker so compelling that it discourages exegesis) Jagger links his own music to the slave trade, exploits the racial and sexual contradictions of his stance even as it explores them. Exile on Main St. … was decadent in a more realized way: weary and complicated, barely afloat in its own drudgery, with Mick's voice submerged under layers of studio murk, it piled all the old themes—sex as power, sex as love, sex as pleasure, distance, craziness, release—on top of an obsession with time that was more than appropriate in men pushing 30 who were still committed to what was once considered youth music. It stands as the most consistently dense and various music they've ever made.

Arguably, those two albums are the Stones' summit. It is now as long since Altamont as it was between Altamont and the Stones' recording debut, and the Stones, their halfhearted fantasies of a new cultural order long since forgotten, have found their refuge in professionalism…. Goat's Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll are mere product, musicianly craft at its unheroic norm, terrific by the standards of Foghat or the Doobie Brothers but a nadir for the Stones. Even the peaks—"Star-fucker" ("Star Star") and "If You Don't Rock Me," respectively—had déjà entendu musical and lyrical themes, and it's hard to imagine the Stones putting their names on tunes as tritely portentous as "Dancing with Mr. D." or "Time Waits for No One" in their prepro days. Only rock and roll indeed….

The 1976 album, Black and Blue, put the Stones' recent failures in context…. It was no masterpiece, but it was rock and roll that didn't deserve an "only," a genuine if derivative departure that showed off artistic professionalism at its best—creative ups and downs that can engross an attentive audience. Not what we want, maybe, but what we can use.

Only rock and roll? The Stones are the proof of the form. When the guitars and the drums and the voice come together in those elementary patters that no one else has ever quite managed to simulate, the most undeniable excitement is a virtually automatic result. To insist that this excitement doesn't reach you is not to articulate an aesthetic judgment but to assert a rather uninteresting crotchet of taste. It is to boast that you don't like rock and roll itself. (p. 188)

Robert Christgau, "The Rolling Stones," in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll, edited by Jim Miller (copyright © 1976 by Rolling Stone Press; reprinted by permission of Random House, Inc.), Rolling Stone Press, Random House, 1976, pp. 182-88.

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