While other bands slip their mortal coil, break up, or stop filling stadiums, the Rolling Stones remain rock's steadfast, if shambolic, zombies. They move inexorably on, changing not their plan of attack so much as their appearance. (And honestly, even that hasn't changed much thanks to Keith Richards’ preemptive embalming and the fact that whenever a member is lost to creative differences or a bizarre gardening accident, they find an equally lifeless replacement.) On August 21, the Rolling Stones are on tour. Again.
Despite the band's latest release, “A Bigger Bang,” with its “controversial” anti-war song, “Sweet Neo-Con,” the Stones haven't broken new ground since they pioneered blues-based rock in the '60s. Arguably, the Stones haven't even put out an interesting album since the '70s. Plus, they're old (and some might add, fairly unattractive).
If logic prevailed, we'd be paying $9.95 to see the Rolling Stones at the State Fair on a triple bill with Cheap Trick and Foghat. Instead, decade after decade, the Stones wander the face of the earth via a relentless tour schedule. And we, as if held by voodoo curse, pay up to $400 per ticket, powerless to look away.
Pact with the devil? Are the Stones, like the title of their mediocre 1967 psychedelic pop experiment, playing at “Their Satanic Majesties Request?” Certainly it seems like a deal brokered by Ol' Scratch — sell your immortal soul for eternal fame only to play the same songs over and over again, night after night, year after year, to stadium-sized audiences, well into your 60s.
Alas, the truth is probably far less glamorous, though equally sinister. The Rolling Stones are a successful brand, and we mere mortals love the comfort of our favorite brands.
For sure, the Rolling Stones totally rock — this wouldn't be a successful band/brand if they didn't. Catch “Jumpin' Jack Flash” or “Sympathy for the Devil” when you're flipping around on your car radio, not thinking about the time Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were on “The Simpsons,” and you find your brain screaming, “Omigod! These guys totally rock!”
The Stones figured out early on that you can rock, and also understand the value of branding. “The World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band” was a title the Stones bequeathed to themselves, and soon enough, neither media nor fans could think of the name of the band without its slogan. (You know, like Rice-A-Roni, “The San Francisco treat!”) And as the band's audience demographic shows, it's a theme irrevocably burned onto Baby Boomer brains.
The Glimmer Twins vs. the Lads from LiverpoolAs the legend goes, the Stones got noticed by fostering a bad-boy image diametrically opposed to the already super famous (and allegedly squeaky-clean) Beatles. Turns out, both the Stones and the Beatles were a bunch of drug-experimentin', groupie-swappin', maharishi-followin' hippies. But while the Beatles broke up, 40-odd years later the Stones are still relatively in tact, a well-oiled money-making dynamo.
Keenly avoiding career pitfalls, the Stones stayed on track with hardly a falter. When founding member Brian Jones wanted to lead the group's sound toward the more experimental (i.e. less commercial) direction, he was booted out. When Jagger and Richards had their big falling out in the '80s, equally-lame solo careers prompted them to do what's best for business — kiss, make up, make a record, and launch the "Steel Wheels" tour, which grossed over 140 million dollars.
Seems like just yesterday late-night talk show hosts, not to mention everyone in your office and all the kids at school, riffed on the Stone's “Steel Wheelchairs” tour. (Get it?! Wheelchairs! They're old.) But that was 16 years ago. The Stones ain't getting any younger. And except for kids dragged to concerts by well-meaning grandparents, neither is their audience.
The Stones' current tour sponsor is not a company that sells cola or beer, the national emblems of eternal youth. It's Ameriquest — mortgage company. “Hey! You! Get off of my lawn!” late-night hosts might quip.
Despite the image of creepy-yet-well-dressed drummer Charlie Watts keeping any Frisbee or ball that comes into his yard, it's still youth the Stones are selling. Or at least, avoidance of the grave. After all, who's avoided the grave better than infamous substance abuser Keith Richards? And Mick Jagger, whom Truman Capote once described to be “as sexy as a pissing toad,” still manages to impregnate age-inappropriate super models, well past his pissing-toad prime.
The image of Ron Wood checking his digital watch on the Jumbotron may cause some concert-goers to feel the march of time — but it won't be enough to stop the “The World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band.”
I doubt even holy water can do that.
Helen Popkin, who will not be trying to scalp tickets to a Stones' concert, lives in New York and is a regular contributor to MSNBC.com.