Commentary: Finding a role for the Rolling Stones

The Rock Hill HeraldDecember 23, 2012 

Maybe the great rock stars of the ’60s can find a way to avoid getting stuck in the nostalgia gig.

I was thinking this while I stayed up way too late watching the 12-12-12 benefit concert for the victims of Hurricane Sandy. Producers obviously rigged the show to appeal to the people with money to donate to the cause: aging baby-boomers who will tune in any time to watch geriatric guitar heroes from the past.

“This has got to be the largest collection of old English musicians ever assembled in Madison Square Garden,” Mick Jagger accurately observed.

Jagger and fellow Rolling Stones Ronnie Wood, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards look more than old. They look cured and dry-aged over smoldering hickory chips.

Someone recently told me that the collective age of the Stones is older than that of the Supreme Court. But, hey, give them credit – they can still rock the joint, which is more than you can say for Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas.

Jagger, at 69, still bops across the stage like a Chinese gymnast on peyote doing a deranged floor exercise. And the rest of the Stones have barely lost a step either.

Another British icon, Roger Waters, did admirable versions of some old Pink Floyd stuff with the help of Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder. Waters still looks lean and rangy.

Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend, surviving members of The Who, also still appeared to have their chops. Daltrey clearly has stayed in shape – and was proud enough about it to unbutton his shirt during the performance of “Pinball Wizard.”

Impressed? OK, yes, but keep your shirt on, Roger.

Eric Clapton still is, if not God, at least a high-ranking archangel.

Paul McCartney started his set with “Helter Skelter,” one of the Beatles’ harder-rocking, angrier songs, in keeping with the general flow of the evening. “When I’m 64” might have seemed out of place.

I don’t really care whether Paul is great anymore. He can skate by on lingering affection from his Fab Four days for the rest of his life as far as I’m concerned.

All in all, though, the English invaders from the ’60s comported themselves well Wednesday. Still, I hope they can find new ways to stay relevant.

As Daltrey and Townshend launched into “Baba O’Riley,” I imagined younger viewers thinking, “Wow, it’s the theme song to ‘CSI.’” Decades have passed since it was just a Who song.

The old rockers need to be careful – nostalgia pageants can be embarrassing. Just check out one of those specials they play during pledge weeks on PBS.

They’re supposed to bring back fond memories but often they can be a little creepy. Performers we haven’t seen since we were teenagers come out all tinted and rouged, straight from Madame Toussauds, and they have young, attractive backup singers to help them keep the rhythm and hit the high notes for them.

It can be a sad spectacle, and I hope it doesn’t ever happen to the Rolling Stones.

The Stones are beginning a new tour in celebration of 50 years of rocking and rolling. And it’s not like they need to break new ground. They have half a century of good material to draw from.

And perhaps all these aging rockers, the good ones, are creating a new paradigm that defies the requirement that genuine rock stars must die of drug overdoses before they get old. Maybe our aging heroes from the ‘60s can occupy a respectable new berth, something akin to the space we reserve for revered old blues singers or jazz masters.

As long as they don’t have to dance, they should be fine.

But I wonder if some of the old guys still might have something new to offer. Or is it all oldies all the time?

I like the old stuff, too, but I would humbly offer one small tip to those elderly Englishmen who were kind enough to perform Wednesday: Check out Tony Bennett.

James Werrell, Herald opinion page editor, can be reached by email, at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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