Through the past (lightly)

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

The show was vapid. Everything was gold, including some vaguely Babylonian columns. There was a big oval video screen. The stage was flanked by a pair of enormous inflatable naked women. The one on the right was on her hands and knees, breasts dangling, nicely positioned on a pillow for entry from behind. Very classy. (Say what you will about the Stones, but they have set the standard for stadium inflatables in the post-Animals era.) Jagger always tries to display a little political incorrectness; the last time it was remotely interesting was in 1978, with Some Girls. The 1989 tour had big-busted hooker balloons; in 1994, a video montage of big-chested babes. This year, Jagger came up with a crude, pornographic animation sequence to accompany "Miss You." Naughty Rolling Stone!

The lighting was low-budget stadium crap--when you have a video screen going overhead, you apparently don't need spotlights. Of 24 songs, 15 were from the burst of inspiration that ended in 1972 with Exile on Main St. (I've seen the Beach Boys play more new songs in concert.) Add the obligatory touchstones from the '70s--"It's Only Rock 'N Roll" (yawn), "Miss You," "Start Me Up"--and that was about it, save two cuts from the new Babylon album and one or two alleged rockers from the '90s like the pallid "You Got Me Rocking." There was "Little Queenie," better on the live Ya-Ya's some 30 years ago.

Mick Jagger can't dance anymore; he looks like some dinner theater guy playing Rumpelstiltskin. When he clumsily tried to plug his stupid Web site, an audible titter ran through the crowd. (The Web shtick was supposed to produce a surprise request from fans online. Jagger made a big deal out of whether the band knew "Under My Thumb," but they'd rehearsed the song and the Web shtick the previous weekend.) The other embarrassing moment came when Jagger said, "Well, you've got da Bulls, da Bears, and now you've got da Stones," unintentionally highlighting the difference between Michael Jordan and a wizened fop coasting on decades-old pop songs. Jagger didn't even try to hit the high notes on songs like "Ruby Tuesday" or "19th Nervous Breakdown," but for once he was actually articulating his lyrics; this gave the show a less contemptuous cast than others I've seen. But then the teleprompters probably helped.

"Little Queenie" was the first of three songs the band delivered from a satellite stage built in the middle of the area. (Yeah, yeah, U2 did this about 45 years ago.) To make a point, they turned off their stupid video screen and let "Queenie," "Let It Bleed," and "The Last Time" fend for themselves, which they almost did. For a bit the band--lit by bright white light, surrounding by adoring fans, and silhouetted against the stark clouds rushing by off Lake Michigan--was somewhat interesting. It was hard to enjoy it, though, because Charlie Watts--who now looks like David Brinkley--seemed so uncomfortable out in the cold. I have a lot of respect for Watts, but then a lot of good drummers play in bad bands.

A lot of the songs were good; the lyrical turns in "Tumbling Dice" ("cheatin' like I don't know how") and "Let It Bleed" ("steel guitar engagement") can still give you a frisson. But then you remember that the songs meant something very different too long a time ago. The reason the Rolling Stones have weight is that--back when it mattered--they challenged something like the status quo. They did it intermittently, cheesily, and sometimes wrongly ("Under My Thumb"), but it wasn't really easy or obvious at the time; you have to give them credit for making it up as they went along. But "Sympathy for the Devil" is now nostalgia; it's pleasurable only to the extent that the audience members not think about what it meant, that they just close their eyes and take it. In this way, your average '90s Rolling Stones concert is a lot like watching TV, except that you're out in the cold in the midst of a mob of Sprint-using yuppies who've sprung $70 for a vacuous two-hour thrill.

I hate to keep talking about Richards, but he's an amazing figure; and when you're trapped in a stadium watching Mick Jagger attempt to strut, you'll settle for anything. The show's one alluring moment was of course Richards' solo spot. He did two songs: "Wanna Hold You," the faux-soul rave-up from 1983's Undercover, and the one zinger of the evening--"All About You," the clangorous ballad, done Hi Records style, from Emotional Rescue. Sung in Richards' disreputable growl, the song echoes from the band's dark period, swiping at Richards' blood brother: "I'm so sick and tired/ Of hanging around/ Jerks like you." Some years ago the song was daringly subtextual; that night--after too many lousy albums and so much money-grubbing--it sounded merely bald and unpleasant. Then Richards' leg raised again, and it was hard to begrudge him the pleasure. Keith Richards is rock's last naked lifer, and he'll do anything, even stand on a stage with a nostalgia band fronted by Mick Jagger, to play one more show.

The Rolling Stones play the Texas Motor Speedway Saturday, November 1.

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