Exile on Easy Street

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 long-time 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 back-up 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 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-Sixties, there were great rushes of tours as the scruffy, ill-mannered aggregation (the Oasis of their day, only deadlier) made its name. Magisterially, they hit America with escalating foofaraw every three years from the late Sixties to the early Eighties. 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 they mount six- or twelve-month publicity campaigns during which they proffer 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 and 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 Bill Wyman just turned 61 and his bandmates on his heels, that 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 in late September, you had to admire the financial single-mindedness. Corporate sponsor Sprint (its 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 a 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 so ludicrously tight that fans were having trouble standing up for the songs. T-shirts were $30-plus; tickets were $60 (we should have it so good; here they're $81), with another eight bucks in TicketMaster charges -- at least half of which was funneled back to the band. The Stones grossed over three million dollars for a performance of slightly more than two hours, and for all that couldn't get their sorry asses on-stage until 75 cold minutes after Blues Traveler had finished its opening set.

Not even the band has paid much attention to the new album, Bridges to Babylon. Why, it must be the boys' 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 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 farther away, using the Dust Brothers on "Anybody Seen" and "Saint of Me." Those wondering what this clash of titans produced 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.

But back to the vapid show. 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, 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 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 Street. (I've seen the Beach Boys play more new songs in concert.) Add the obligatory touchstones from the Seventies and Eighties -- "It's Only Rock 'n' Roll" (yawn), "Miss You," "Start Me Up" -- and that was about it, save two cuts from Babylon and one or two alleged rockers from the Nineties, like the pallid "You Got Me Rocking." There was "Little Queenie," better on 1970's live Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out.

Mick Jagger can't dance any more; he looks like some dinner-theater guy playing Rumpelstiltskin. When he clumsily tried to plug his inane Website, 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, surrounded 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 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 audience members ignore its darker intentions; they just close their eyes and take it. In this way, your average Nineties 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's solo spot. He did two songs: "Wanna Hold You," the faux-soul raveup 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's disreputable growl, the song echoes from the band's dark period, swiping at Richards's blood brother: "I'm so sick and tired/Of hanging around/Jerks like you." Some years ago the song was daringly subtextual. On this night, after too many lousy albums and too much moneygrubbing, it sounded merely bald and unpleasant. Then Richards's 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 Friday, December 5, at the Orange Bowl, 1501 NW 3rd St, 643-7100, with Smashing Pumpkins, Dave Matthews Band, and Third Eye Blind. Showtime is 4:00 p.m. Tickets cost $81.

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