The Stones

An essay on the older
By CAMILLE PAGLIA  |  November 16, 2006

This article originally appeared in the August 26, 1994 issue of the Boston Phoenix.

On August, 1, the Rolling Stones launched their 43-date 1994-’95 world tour at RFK Stadium in Washington, DC. The timing is perfect. In the five years since their Steel Wheels tour, grunge rock has risen, flourished, claimed its first victims, and begun to lose its avant-garde edge. Great bands full of promise, like Guns N’ Roses have imploded. The 25th anniversary of Woodstock, celebrated by a crowd of 300,000 has forced a nostalgic reassessment of a quarter century of popular music.

The Rolling Stones, their Satanic majesties of the idealistic hippie ‘60s, have returned like vampires who will not stay in their grave. The title of their new album, Voodoo Lounge, suggests the dark wells of pagan magic from which the Stones draw their seemingly inexhaustible energy. Now in their 50s , they face the paradox of making young men’s music with aging bodies and declining will. Indeed, the oldest Stone, 57-year-old Bill Wyman, refused to rejoining the band, causing the most serious personnel crisis since 1969, when the brilliant and beautiful Brian Jones drifted off into drug abuse and was fired.

Each new generation of rockers who have tried to surpass and displace the Stones — from the punk-era Sex Pistols on — has failed. The turbulent alpha-wolf  collaboration of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, archaically rooted in their childhood friendship, is one of the greatest creative alliances in the 20th-century arts. The old dogs reappear again and again to reclaim their territory and teach the young whelps a lesson.

The Voodoo Lounge tour was heralded by a crescendo of orchestrated publicity and commercial tie-ins, the kind of global marketing campaign that the Stones pioneered, thanks to the sharp business sense of Jagger, a student at the London School of Economics when the band began in 1962. The QVC cable channel, normally a bourgeois bazaar for women’s jewelry and pastel floral sheets, was suddenly pushing a menu of Rolling Stones T-shirts bedecked with horned devils and grisly grinning skeletons.

The VH-1 rock channel, MTV’s more staid stepsister, upstaged its rival with an eye-popping week of saturation Stones coverage. Videos and live footage from throughout their career dramatically demonstrated the enormity of the Stones’ achievement to an audience that wasn’t even born when the band was already world-famous. Even older and more jaded viewers had to be astounded at the magnitude of the Stones’ performance history.           

As an exploit in rich rock archaeology, VH-1’s “Stones TV” stunt eloquently demonstrated the massive collapse of MTV, which has degenerated into sophomoric triviality. The music-video art form was lamentably short-lived, its chronology tellingly following that of Madonna’s career as a major tastemaker (1983-’91). It is noteworthy, therefore, that the Stones have marked their return with a stunning new video, “Love is Strong,” whose surreal special effects and eerie, avant-garde tone make it one of the best the music industry has produced in years.

A parody of 1950s black-and-white science-fiction films, “Love Is Strong” shows the Rolling Stones slouching like rough beasts through the bleaks streets and parks of Manhattan, which they dominate like titans. Jagger is at his panther-like best, his writhing body, taut and controlled, his eyes fiery and deranged with Romantic intensity. Unfortunately, neither the tour concert nor the new album as a whole sustains the demonic vision of the video, which implies that the Stones have recharged themselves at the occult origins of black rhythm and blues, typified by the short, wild life of Robert Johnson.

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