Through the past (lightly)

The Rolling Stones grind along in their worn-out money machine

When Keith Richards gets aroused, he gets a wild, distant look in his eye, his voice cracks, and his left leg rises slightly, the way a cat's hindquarters do when you stroke its butt. It happens when he plays a signature guitar line, like in "Honky Tonk Women"; when he finds himself at a mike in front of 50,000 people with his longtime partner, Mick Jagger, to sing a chestnut like "19th Nervous Breakdown"; or when he gets to sing one of his quixotic solo songs, his arms around a pair of backup singers and flashing his winning grin. Seeing his pleasure, you're reminded that the Rolling Stones are very lucky people. During a time of strange cultural torment, they elected themselves to play roles that didn't exist, with implications none could have understood. In the 35 or so years since, they've maintained their position with mysterious charisma, the constant canniness of Mick Jagger, and a wavering but formidable discipline.

But in recent years that maintenance has not been pretty. The irregularity of their touring schedule captures the band bleakly. In the mid-'60s, there were great rushes of tours as the scruffy, ill-mannered aggregation (the Oasis of their day, only deadlier) made their name. Magisterially, they hit America with escalating foofaraw every three years from the late '60s to the early '80s; if the 1972 tour movie Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones is any indication, the band was going to more convincingly dark places than any of its peers. Then came more than a decade of doldrums as Richards slept a heroin-lidded sleep and a disgusted Jagger vainly tried to construct a solo career. The band played only one series of American dates between 1981 and 1994.

But now the band--a voracious moneymaking machine wary of declining record sales--no longer takes chances. They don't record albums per se: Instead, the group erects six- or 12-month publicity campaigns during which it proffers an album, a tour, a live album, and a live film or video. An agreeable, chuckleheaded press assures us that the Stones are back in top rock 'n' roll form and marvels endlessly that they're still performing. The tours, which gross well into nine figures, are the financial center of these affairs, but this year the money seems only half the reason. The other is timing: Not yet ready for the inevitable final tour--with the band members nearing 60, it should come close to the millennium--the Stones have hit the road for an extra $100 million-plus. One more, then the weary Charlie Watts can relax, Richards can embark on a busman's retirement of guest shots and loopy ad hoc tours, and Mick Jagger may finally shut the fuck up.

At the opening of the tour on a nippy night in Chicago two weeks ago, you had to admire the financial single-mindedness. Corporate sponsor Sprint (their logo was everywhere) ponied up millions and was able to offer its customers early tickets to the best seats. (If the arrangement was the same as it was with Budweiser on the Voodoo Lounge tour, Jagger came in to fellate bigwigs and major clients at a meet-and-greet before the show.)

Jagger says that corporate sponsorship is necessary to make the tour profitable; actually, it just makes it more profitable. The seats on the grass of Soldier Field (the lakefront football stadium where the Chicago Bears play) were packed together so ludicrously tight that fans were having trouble standing up for the songs. T-shirts were $30 plus; tickets were $60, plus another $8 in TicketMaster charges--at least half of which was funneled back to the band. The Stones grossed over $3 million for a performance of slightly more than two hours, and for all that couldn't get their sorry asses onstage until 75 cold minutes after Blues Traveler had finished their opening set.

Not even the band has paid much attention to the new album, Bridges to Babylon. Why, it must be their best record since Some Girls! Richards has a lot of natural dignity, but it's hard to hear it on Babylon, as he, Ron Wood, and Watts are mushed along by their grim leader. Whose idea was it to put the incoherent "rap" or "toast"--or whatever--in the middle of the slow "Anybody Seen My Baby?" Then there's Jagger clumsily painting a gritty urban portrait in "Out of Control": "The drunks and the homeless/They all know me." Oh. "Gunface," another pinched Stones rocker, contains Jagger's most hateful imagery: "I stick a gun in your face/You'll pay with your life.../ I'm gonna teach her how to scream." It'd be more offensive if Jagger's idea of vocal menace was anything other than risible. At this point he's so transparent about his motives that it's hard even to care.

Richards (as usual) contributes the only things of interest on the record: a wan but diverting reggae tune, "You Don't Have to Mean It," and an oddly ambitious torch song, "How Can I Stop," which ends with an intoxicating sax solo by Wayne Shorter. Jagger shows his lack of interest by not appearing on either. The band steals the chorus of "Anybody Seen My Baby?" from k.d. lang's "Constant Craving" and the arrangement and instrumentation of "Out of Control" from "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." After years of "getting back to basics" with generic producers like Don Was, they now try to earn points by moving further away, using the Dust Brothers on "Anybody Seen" and "Saint of Me." Those wondering what this clash of titans would produce will be disappointed; when the Stones and the Dust Brothers go eye to eye, the Dust Brothers blink. Now both Jagger and Richards disparage their contributions.

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