Rolling Stones, Elton John, Genesis

Published November 5, 1997 10:43AM (EST)

There's a particularly inventive panhandler on the New York subways, one
you see mostly around Christmas time, when the cars are crowded and people
are burdened with gifts and anxiety. He wears a helmet that has been spray-painted silver, and he sports an unruly Dr. John-style beard that is spattered
with silver itself. He carries a rather damaged-looking alto sax and his
pitch does not begin with a plea but rather ends with an observation.
Instead of speaking, he begins to squawk through his horn, making the most
god-awful racket. Imagine a cat caught in a garbage disposal or a set of
bagpipes tumbling in a dryer and you begin to get the idea. Those around
him try to cover their ears, some cry out in protest -- "Can't anyone make
him stop?" -- but he plays without listening until he has made his point.
Pulling the reed from his lips, he finally announces, "Money makes me go
away!" Dollar bills are produced and held aloft; it looks like the encore of a
King Sunny Ade concert.

Money makes me go away. Would that it were so with rock's elder
statesmen. But as the return of Fleetwood Mac, Hall and Oates, Billy Joel
et al makes clear, money does anything but make them go away. If it did, we
could take my editor's suggestion and start a collection to buy them each a
golden parachute. (How much would you pay not to hear Jethro Tull again?)
But the sad fact is that each time a once-great band like the Who reunites,
it claims it's the end: You won't have Roger Daltrey to kick around
anymore. But then John Entwhistle finds himself up against it again,
ex-wives and such still giving him hell, and soon he's calling his old
mates. Then we're treated to the unwelcome spectacle of Pete Townshend on
stage encased like a mummy behind a glass wall to protect his broken ear
drums, giving the old windmill a half-hearted turn as across town some
Broadway showman turns his old music into fodder for the tourists who were
too out of it to go see the Who when they mattered, when Keith Moon was still
alive. ("Oklahoma? OK.")

Everyone is still reeling from the discovery that Bob Dylan didn't just have
another good album in him -- he had a great album, one as heartfelt and
original as "Blonde or Blonde" or "Blood on the Tracks" -- choose your
decade (actually some of "Time Out of Mind" sounds like it was recorded in
another century). And Patti Smith, God bless her, has kept the faith on
"Peace and Noise": These are songs forged of necessity and passion. No A&R
man had to coax this one out of her. ("This chick thing is big, Pats; the
way I see it, those Lilith dames owe you a piece of the gate.")

But the Rolling Stones: Why? You trying to tell me they didn't have enough
money? I guess it's comforting to know that they can still crank out rock
riffs and boozy ballads in their sleep. Too bad they have to take that
judgment literally. "I've seen it all a thousand times," Mick sings on "Too
Tight." "I sang that song, I wrote that fucking book." He could be talking
about every band -- every move, every pout -- that's come down the pike since
"Sticky Fingers." So why does the band sound so pale, as if they were
covering Aerosmith B-sides? Yeah, Keith's got a few good songs, Charlie
Watts still drives the bus -- but come on. This is one band that could skip
the trends. The Stones need the Dust Brothers like Green Day needs strings.

Then there's Elton John, who's been in a bit of a pissing match of late with
Keith Richards, who accused him of making a living off of "dead blondes."
Having the biggest selling single in the world is not enough for Ellie, it
seems. He wants respect, too. Forget about it. His new album, "The Big
Picture," will doubtless ship platinum and is probably playing at your
dentist's office right now. Continuing his triumphant reunion with
wordsmith Bernie Taupin (who bills himself simply as "Taupin"), Elton (who,
strangely, has never billed himself simply as "John") gives us 52 minutes
of inspirational drivel, filled with rhetorical questions such as "Is
loneliness the same as being free?" (answer: no) and titles like "Recover
Your Soul" and "Live Like Horses." The latter is an exhortation. Eat green
apples, the singer/songwriter seems to be saying. Crap in the street.

Genesis is back, too. Well, sort of. Phil Collins is not with the band.
Ray Wilson has taken over vocal chores on "Calling All Stations," sounding
a lot like someone doing Phil Collins at a karaoke lounge. Songs are
written by Genesis veterans Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford and, "Congo" -- a
song that has nothing to do with the Congo, where Belgians once enslaved
and butchered the natives -- gets the sensitivity award for the opening
lines: "You say that I put the chains on you/But that's not really true."
"Calling All Stations" features songs about aliens, alienation and really
mean girlfriends, and it all sounds like it's been filtered through Cream
of Wheat.

Of course, you can't blame these bands for making music; what else are
they gonna do, practice law? Even a once-great group like the Stones can't
relax, knowing that a totally washed-up wanker like Bowie is worth $919
(according to BusinessAge). The Thin White Puke came up with a
novel scheme earlier this year, marketing interest-bearing bonds from his
old song royalties. Buying a piece of that action means that every time you
hear, say, "Space Oddity" on the radio it means ch-ch-ch-change in your
pocket. Just wait until Billy Joel goes public: People won't let him stop
performing, ever; he'll be singing that bloody "We Didn't Start the Fire"
until the flesh falls from his bones. Can't stop the music, Billy: Your
investors won't let you.

By Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

MORE FROM Sean Elder

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