At the kickoff for the Rolling Stones' long-awaited U.S. tour, Mick Jagger wiggled like a sperm cell and gesticulated like a traffic cop steering a five-way intersection at rush hour. He hip-shuffled his way back and forth across an enormous stage decorated like some ancient Babylonian whorehouse, whipping the 54,000 Stones fans gathered at Soldier Field in
Chicago into a grade-A rock 'n' roll frenzy. Underneath the fireworks and
the puffs of dry ice, between the blaring horn section and the buttery
swell of backup singers, there were undeniable moments when the Stones
broke through as themselves, soaring sloppy as a flopping fish, rattling
loose as ball bearings in a glass jar, playing raw and simple rock 'n roll.
The pre-show hype was as incessant and inescapable as an ad
campaign for a new triple-layer burrito at Taco Bell. DJ's prattled on,
promising front row seats for the five thousandth caller and there were
endless newspaper articles touting Mick's pre-show workout regimen, the
band's roots in Chicago Blues and their new "genius" collaboration with
the Dust Brothers. Then the Stones sightings began: a secret show at a
local club sent fans scurrying to their cars; rumors of a sound check at
Soldier Field had boats circling Lake Michigan along the shores near the
arena. Stones Web sites began to download slower and slower as fans
surfed into the wee hours trying to guess where the Stones might pop up
next -- sitting in at a local blues club or sweater shopping at Henri Bendel?
Nobody seemed to care if the new CD was any good. The Stones were in town! The Stones! Even the mayor cashed in on the hype with a news brief reassuring the public that
hazardous, fire-propelling propane tanks had been nixed from the show.
Local news teased us with footage of Jagger stepping out of limos all over
town. "Up next, another drive-by shooting and (tasteful pause) find out why
the Stones can't get no satisfaction with city officials." Channel 7's
jovial weatherman, standing in front of his five-day
forecast, proclaimed, "Hey you, get offa my cloud. It looks like clear
skies for the Stones!"
By show day, I was so queasy with Stones hype I felt like I'd
eaten a three-pound bag of mini-Snickers bars. But the crowd pouring into
Soldier Field was anything but jaded. The parking lot was a sea of
screaming fans: "The greatest band on earth!" "Yeah, Stones rock!"
Still, we were a long way from Altamont. Long-haired freaks and
bikers were the clear minority. We could have been queuing up for a Bears
game or a Wisconsin craft show. Forty-something couples milled about in
football sweatshirts buying nachos and light beer. Vendors hawked roses and
Subway sandwiches. Even the women's bathroom line felt more like Marshall Fields than
a rock show. Middle-aged women sporting Farrah flips whispered, "Pardon me"
as they squeezed through to the stalls. One woman in neatly-faded jeans and
rose lipstick addressed the line, "Does anyone have any ... feminine
protection?" In unison, the ladies fumbled for their purses.
The show's start was electric. With a giant explosion, the
band roared into "Satisfaction." Keith Richards came stumbling out in
sunglasses and a long leopard-print coat. Ron Wood followed in bright red, and
finally Jagger came strutting down a staircase in his standard clown/ TV
pimp stage garb -- black tux and blue scarf with gold fringe fluttering in the
wind. The video screen exploded with fast cuts -- Keith's skull ring as his
fingers flayed into power chords, Mick's leathery face glistening with
sweat, Charlie Watts stony and dignified, looking très Urban Outfitters in
a collarless zip-up jacket, holding his drumsticks like a 19th century country gentleman loosely grasping the reins of his horse and buggy.
The band tore through the first half hour with a stream of
dependable hits. The crowd roared along to familiar choruses: "Let's spend
the night together ... It's only rock 'n' roll but I like it, like it, yes I
Jagger marched across the vast stage with wild thrusting hips and
flailing arms, his lips and chin jutting huge across the video monitor. He tore
off coats and pulled on hats, stripping off his tuxedo jacket to a bright
yellow overshirt then down to a blue rhinestone muscle shirt then whipping
on black leather jackets, a red velvet long coat, a pullover sweater, a
silver windbreaker and sundry scarves.
Richards played the rock 'n' roll fool. He strutted center stage for
his sloppy, three-note solos, face pained and puzzled as his fingers bent
strings. He wandered back and forth between Ron Wood and bassist Darryl
Jones, facing them while he played as if begging help in figuring out the chords.
Wood kept to the side stage, trying to keep out of Jagger's way as
he frantically whirled like 100 Stevie Nickses, playing the almighty
rock dervish -- somewhere between a drag queen kick boxer and a first-grade
music teacher, wildly hand-clapping to entice the crowd into singing along.
Watts remained expressionless, refusing to crack a grin even when the video
monitor splashed him in close-up.
The Stones definitely had their moments. There was the gritty "Honky
Tonk Women," roaring with Richards' off-kilter guitar and his howling
out-of-tune back-up on "Ruby Tuesday." And there were more poignant moments as well,
like when the soft trombone glided into, "You Can't Always Get What You Want."
There was also an unfortunately high cheese factor. The horn section swelled up to
cover many of Richards' charmingly simplistic guitar riffs and the trio of
backup singers quickly roared in whenever Jagger's voice faltered. The
videos exploding over the giant monitor descended into shots of women
gyrating in corsets during the few new songs played as if in some desperate
attempt to help the audience focus on the new material. During "Miss You,"
the videos flitted between dirty cartoons and shots of dead rock stars as if
to keep the audience awake while eulogizing Lennon, Garcia, et al.
When the band paused to call up their Web site on the giant monitor, choosing a song from a list voted on by fans on the Internet ( the winner, with a grand total of five tongues: "Under My Thumb"), it seemed more like a chance for Jagger to catch his breath than any real attempt at cyberspace excitement.
But, overall, it was hard not to love the Stones. They were clearly
aiming to please -- which in itself is remarkable given their unshakable
status as rock icons. There was an air of inclusiveness about the night.
All of us, even the gray-haired man next to me in baseball cap and Dockers
felt cool enough to join in when Jagger sang, "Brown sugar, how come you
dance so good?"
There's a sense of genuineness to the Stones' hugeness, as if they
refuse to feel the irony of stardom -- of being at once gray-haired and larger-than-life.
They seem comfortable with the simple truth that many a rock star grapples with unsuccessfully: that their job title is not social commentator or dark prophet, but simply entertainer.
"It's good to be back," Richards told the crowd. "It's good to be."