riffs: STONE SOUL SHOW
December 4, 1969
If you are American it is enough, and if you are also black it is much more — to make you reluctant to fall under the ironic spell of British skill in American black-roots music. But say “rock ‘n’ roll” in free association, and the people fire back “Beatles and Rolling Stones,” then and only then in diminuendo procession you may hear “Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Elvis, Hendrix, Joplin,” etc.… Time and again over the last four or five years we’ve heard on these shores the Beatles and Stones knocked as recording studio bands who don’t really play or sing so well, as walking financial empires, as potential break-up groups and as opportunists who don’t pay dues. You hear that their compositional talents are running out — the Beatles just before “Hey Jude” and the Stones after “Their Satanic Majesties.” You don’t hear rebuttal from the Beatles-Stones complex for most of a year, and then usually around Christmas they each appear suddenly, lay an lp full of rock classics on you, and consequently wipe out all but the top competition. If the albums are — like Abbey Road and Let It Bleed — not a couple of juggernauts, you have to admit that they’re at least something you get intense pleasure from. And though you — and they — may know that Aretha, Ray, Chuck, Dylan, Elvis, Jimi, Janis and company are not to be outsung or outrocked by any Stone or Beatle it becomes clear yearly that the Stones and the Beatles have their own individual sonic worlds fused from scores of influences wherein they rule as monarchs, kingdoms which have as much extra-financial richness and lasting beauty as any in popular music history. It is clear, also — teenyboppers aside — that these two bands stay on top by basic dint of sheer musical gift. On Thanksgiving at the Garden it was wipe-out time again — this time live after a three-year absence — at the hands of the Rolling Stones.
Until the Stones arrived last Thursday with amplifiers adjusted perfectly and the crowd reduced for near-perfect listening, I was about to mount a crusade to close the Garden to everybody but the Knicks and the Rangers. James Brown, Blind Faith, and troops of big names had been through there with their performances piped poorly from revolving stages, and I frankly didn’t want to go up there any more. But it is now a truth that the Garden is playable. The simple matter of Stones acoustic acuity (not one of their strengths in the past) made much of the difference. The audience, too, was cool. Though there was a charge to the stage by hundreds mid-way in the concert, never was there 1964-style screaming and sobbing to drown out the music. I think that the spirit of Woodstock and 1969’s relative musical sophistication have made American youth appreciate that music drifts in through the ears and that Stones are only human beings with a message coded basically in notes, words, and in this instance dance, since Jagger’s the man.
It was a beautiful evening, graded out in a crescendo pattern from Terry Reid’s disappointing low-key, nature-intimate songs, through B.B. King’s guitar wizardry and audience participation warmth, through the outrageous sex machinery of Ike and Tina, to the revival gospel show of the boys from London. The moment of orgasm was reached perfectly in Jack Flash Jagger’ s crowd-participation ejaculations of “Satisfaction” and “Honky Tonk Women,” as the full lights of the Garden came on, to reveal 12,000 extremely non-Nazi groovers doing together what rock and roll and its progenitor gospel music are supposed to make you do — namely, come together.
You heard Mick Jagger, in powerful, full voice all through the set, and a band that was tight and powerful, giving out unashamedly with a lick from this c&w cat and a growl from that soul man. Even Mick’s own “Satisfaction” was filled out by himself to include some of Otis Redding’s recorded interjections (“I’ve got to have satisfaction”). But the results were pure, elemental Jagger-Stones alloy.
The results also represented the kind of path to authentic music power that many American and suburban white singers who love blues and country might adopt. Rule one: don’t be bashful. Rule two: imitate and steal from everywhere for a year or so, then let your subconscious mix it into your own thing — do not go back to copying once you’re in phase B. Rule three: happen to be born angry with cause for anger. Rule four: happen to be a bitch of a composer-musician. Good luck. America needs you. Or at least music needs you.
AS THEY SAY, Mick Jagger is quite a performer — unfortunately and perhaps sadly too, because that’s about all he is, a performer, an actor, and even then you have to wonder what all the fuss is about. Off stage he may be something more, and in fact did seem to be at the press conference last Wednesday afternoon at the Rainbow Room. But some part of him didn’t make the trip from atop Rockefeller Center to the stage in Madison Square Garden. Maybe he has a stand-in. Who then is the real Mick Jagger: the cool and elegant young man of the press conference, unflappably answering each question as politely as possible under zoo-like conditions, or the skinny kid in the Marvel Conics get-up, mincing his precious way through an act as contrived and programmed as anything presented by Lawrence Welk?
But still — isn’t that the point, aren’t the flitting and the flouncing and the mugging intended to create an effect? Aren’t the Stones striving to create an aura of outrageousness. Isn’t that what they are all about, their evil, their badness (God knows the hype sure says so)? Well, no doubt that’s the thrust of Jagger’s act, to be ominous, to be a threat to the virtue of sons as well as of daughters. Maybe unisex will solve man’s most pressing problem in a future when all the world is the caricature that Jagger presents. But it’s banal. Its hard to feel any sort of threat from Jagger toward anyone.
The truth is, if you’re a feeling person, there ain’t much of anything to feel from the Stones. There’s no soul, there’s no heart, there’s only the body. Big deal. Of course, they did do that — they and others — get the body into white music. But by now that’s an old movie, a re-run, circa 1966 at the latest, and solidly in the category of camp.
Like Bogart, who said he came to Casablanca for the waters, I felt misinformed at the Garden last week. I had swallowed the hype. For instance, I had been told Jagger was a great dancer. Absolute tripe! You can’t be a great dancer unless every fiber in you is in the movements. And I had been told there’s no one like Jagger for getting an audience together. Aaagh! When an audience really gets together, the stage is merely a focal point, not a pedestal. Yes, true, he did have the whole damn gymnasium writhing in Sheer Orgiastic Abandon, but that was merely part of the program. It wasn’t spontaneous, it wasn’t real.
Sorry about all this — and I wouldn’t be quite so terse if room permitted — but it seems to me the Rolling Stones are just another sacred cow, and a pink one at that.
AND NOW FOR a word from the back of the house: Two on the aisle, and far down front, is the usual privilege of the critic, and though I’ve often thought of writing of the lot of the 99 per cent who pay, I’ve never been willing to do the research involved. I’ve never sat out a concert in the second balcony of the Fillmore East. I wonder how many rock writers have. I’ve never even been up there. Clubs and concert halls, all offer the writer optimum sight and sound.
It is not always easy to convince Broadway press agent types that one paper really needs tickets for six or eight writers, as well as a photographer’s pass, to cover one concert. The way it went down was we got one photographer’s pass plus three press tickets, one of them for a writer who is not a music reviewer. Carman and Brian paid for their tickets which it turned out were for very good seats, in the front rows. My press tickets placed me with a lot of the rest of the press in a section on the floor of the Garden farthest from the stage, about the third row from the back, a long way from home. Which gives me the unsolicited opportunity to write about what it’s like to be just another listener sitting almost anywhere (there were many worse seats).
Previous concerts I’ve heard at the Garden — Blind Faith, the Doors, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix — had convinced me that from any position in the house the Garden is absolutely not viable for the presentation of music. Not so. As far back as we were, the sound was acceptable. Not great, but more acceptable than, say, the mixes on the U.S. version of the Stones’ albums. The sight line, as long as the audience sat down, was infinitely preferable to the profferings of the revolving or non-revolving center stage. It would have been better with binoculars — which I’m told were on sale in the lobby.
On the other hand, the distractions of being so far from the action made the concert just another one by a good rock group. The audience was up, it was down. Which meant we were standing on our seats, weaving cobra heads over it all, or we were sitting civilized. Civilized? For the Stones? The Stones they were, magic they weren’t. From back there Mick Jagger was a little stick figure with tiny featureless face, singing well enough but wasting energy in meaningless posturings all about the stage. Tina Turner cut him all to hell as a dancer. Jim Morrison, who had seemed downright boring with his calculated schtick at the Garden a few weeks before the Miami fiasco, was in memory a better — because more disciplined — showman. But, you see, I watched Morrison from the third row. The Stones were tight instrumentally, but none of it came together as Stones-exciting till “Live With Me,” maybe three-quarters through the set. There had never been reason till then, from where we were, for the audience to be on its feet. From that point on there was reason, and it may have been because much of what the Stones did thereafter was fresh to them, from the new album, Let it Bleed. Or maybe it just takes them that long to warm up — I’ve never seen them live before.
My friend the rock musician would like to grade audiences — which ones applaud the right solo, etc., all the nuances of response. I’d say any Madison Square Garden audience has to be a C audience by definition, but the one on Thursday rated as high-achiever C. The Stones deserve a standing ovation all around just for seeing to it that there was more to the show than a high gate. Too many other big names have settled for just that. I think the audience’s mostly exemplary behavior was largely a result of their getting a fair shake, insofar as that’s possible at the Garden. Good production, good show. Definitely not great.
And while I’m throwing roses to the Stones, that’s what they came up smelling like after a riotous press conference on Wednesday. Riotous press, that is. The affair was composed of unlikely opposites which, made one, did not become art. The site was the indisputably glorious Rainbow Room, high above etc. Any organization stopped there. From the moment the Stones appeared, the event was a melee of tv cameramen vs. still cameramen and underground press vs. overground and “I’M here getting a story, so why aren’t you taking notes and who do you represent?” “How does it feel to fill a dead man’s shoes?” Mick Taylor was asked. “You don’t have to answer that,” Brian Keating yelled, and Taylor didn’t. The Stones, through it all, tried to give reasoned answers. In the din, besides the shouts of “Communist!” by one tv cameraman, just about the only thing I heard after the first quarter was that the Stones, in case you don’t already know, are doing a free concert in San Francisco this Saturday. Why not New York? Jagger answered, “It’ too cold.”
Only the Stones came off as sane, and that crossed my mind Thursday night as the low-achiever Cs rushed stage after the only encore the Stones had offered so far on the current tour. “Shall we wait for the riot or leave?” says I to the cowboy. We had seen the heads busted after the Blind Faith concert, so we went home to listen to Let It Bleed. There was no riot, I hear.