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You get what you need

That is, if you have the cash and the stamina to still roll with the Stones

Thursday, March 11, 1999

By Gene Collier, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- At Central Piedmont Community College in Charlotte, N.C., Rob Cassell teaches a course called History of the Rolling Stones. Five hours before he would see them here for the 28th time, more shows than probably Keith Richards remembers, Cassell was speaking somewhat academically about colliding cultural forces.

Despite high ticket prices, Keith Richards, left, Ron Wood, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts can still pull in the fans to live shows. (Associated Press photo) 

This is what it's come to.

The band's crest of self-anointed greatestness, if you will, certainly has longevity as a component, but the forces that have managed to flip the old question, "Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?" to "Would you let your grandmother marry a Rolling Stone?" cannot be explained by the mere passage of some 40 years.

"It's talent obviously, but a key element is also the blues basis of the music," the 45-year-old Cassell was saying in a basement bar across town from the MCI Center. "Their influences, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, instilled in them a music for the ages. Blues, like jazz, is timeless. So it's like Keith said, the blues players they idolized played into their 70s. Why shouldn't they?

"I look at them mostly as the soundtrack of my life. Their music, a beautiful blend of blues and Berry-like rock 'n' roll, has always been there for me. It's not like a sports team that's up and down. It's not just staying at it going on 40 years, it's being at the top of their game that long."

At this, the tour stop before Pittsburgh then, it was clear that the band's audience more than likes them. It respects them.

"There are very few acts that I still go out of the way for," said Tony Rzepela, 33, of Philadelphia. "If I'm smarter than the artist, I'm not interested. These guys still nail it. Even if it's not always great - and it's not always great - you find that they gave you everything they had that night. With age comes a certain knowledge - ours and theirs - and you realize that they knew what they were doing all along."

    Music Preview:

'The Rolling Stones'

Opening act: The Corrs.
Where: Civic Arena.
When: 8 tonight.
Tickets: Sold out.

Close Encounters: Fans get within a Stones' throw, but only a few get autographs

Stones' song list is set for the blues

Web pulls hard-core Stones fans together in bar

News Links: The Rolling Stones


There is no second-guessing by this crowd. Too many millions of dollars have been made and spent, then made and spent and made again by the marketing genius Michael Philip Jagger to say the Stones overplayed their hand by charging up to $300 for tickets on this tour, their first all-arena gallop in 20 years. The band couldn't give a pick about this being called the Exiles on Wall Street tour, but they might have changed the atmospherics.

"There is a problem with the ticket pricing," said Bjornulf Vik of Norway, who is president of the Stones' European fan club. "With those prices, they're maybe losing out with young people. That's why I enjoyed the Fort Lauderdale show so much. It was an open-air place with a lot of young people. They bring a lot of excitement."

Though there were fans as young as 15 and as old as 59 at the shows here, the core audience is moving through its 30s and 40s, which might represent all the excitement you can handle when you're trying to present an authentic "Jumpin' Jack Flash" at age 55. Richards, who looked 55 when he was 35, doesn't look much worse today. Jagger's 55 is impossibly youthful given his mileage. He has the body of a 14-year-old athlete, and that's probably the age at which he last gained a pound. Charlie Watts, the guy next to me said, "looks like he jumped off an autopsy table." Watts is 57.

"My father thought the Rolling Stones were a cult," said Don Lancaster, 33, of Annapolis. "Now I'm taking him to this show. He's 59. I told him, 'This could be the last time, I don't know.' He knew I had an extra ticket. He called me up and said, 'Hmm, maybe I'd better inspect this.

"He knows I've been listening since I was about 5. I remember doing jumping jacks to 'Jumpin' Jack Flash.' "

In a crowd of 20-odd thousand, there can be 20-odd thousand entry points to Stones culture, and that's not just the result of the band's colossal shelf life. The Stones have always magnetized an eclectic audience that appreciated the unique artistic edge they brought to their work. That's in addition to the bikers. From the days when their rehearsals above a bar in London's West End brought visits by Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Pete Townshend and the Beatles, to the spectacle of Truman Capote cooing on Johnny Carson's couch about the drinks concocted by tenor sax man Bobby Keys while Capote accompanied the Exile on Main Street tour, to the very notion of Andy Warhol designing the cover of their "Sticky Fingers" album, they've been for so many not merely the band to see, but the place to be. Four months into the O.J. Simpson case in 1994, defense attorney Robert Shapiro partied with the Stones.

"In my formative years," 30-year-old Jill Barry was saying before the Sunday show, "I was listening to Duran Duran, Culture Club, the Thompson Twins. I thought the Stones were old news. Then I got to college and a classmate begged me to listen to 'Exile on Main Street.' I heard things like 'Happy' and 'Rip This Joint,' and there was such a joy there and an intensity that I'd not heard in any band I knew. That was 1987, and I figured I'd never get the opportunity to see them. I figured they were done.

"So '89 came [the Steel Wheels tour] and I saw them in D.C., Sept. 24, 1989, then I flew to Miami to see them and drove to Atlantic City, all that with money I didn't have because it didn't matter. Nine shows later, here I am."

To many, the backdrop of Stones history is the staging for where their lives went.

Doug Potash, or StonesDoug, as he calls himself in deference to his Internet site, has two license plates with Stones lyrics attached to the back of his coat. One is a Maryland plate that says SHDOOBE, the other an Illinois tag that says SHTTRED. He's been this way since the '60s.

"I grew in Cherry Hill, N.J., thinking it was only me who felt this way," he said. "Then I saw them at Steel Pier in Atlantic City in '66. I met them. Brian Jones stuck his arm out of the bus and I tried to rip the buttons off his shirt." Of course, Doug's 47 now. He wouldn't do that to one of them today. Would he?

Doug is like the vast majority of the Stones following. Almost as old as the band, the people who see them now know everything the Stones would and wouldn't do, and there isn't much in the second column. And at the same time, they'll old enough now to know everything they themselves would and wouldn't do.

So when Jagger appears before them and sings, "You'll never make a saint of me," the only memorable song from the band's last studio work, "Bridges to Babylon," it's not just another of his generally apolitical lyrics. "Saint of Me" has in fact been on and off the set list for this tour, but in Washington, Jagger sang it like an anthem, with his arms spread, and the crowd thrilled to it. It was as though they could see themselves and their entire generation in it.

To them it was not a tortured point that Bill Clinton, the first boomer president, three years younger than Jagger and Richards, has been skewered as the moral driftwood of this generation. They made him a Rhodes Scholar and a lawyer and they made him the president of the United States, but they'll never make a saint of him.

"I've gotten people hooked on them, and I've got people in their 40s acting like they're in their 20s," said Mike Parungo, 41, of North Carolina. "But I've outgrown a lot of it. The rebelliousness. You can't do that when you've become a conservative fascist. I think we take our cue from Mick; we do not reject materialism."

In D.C., the Stones authored the same kind of earnest hyper-performance that has earned them consistent praise from music critics who do not seem to have consciously lowered the bar for them. They were tight and careful, but still quite brazenly in your face.

"Almost 30 years after the Beatles broke up, the Stones not only keep filling concert venues but also continue to warrant our attention," wrote the Los Angeles Times' Robert Hilburn. "How many bands from 1995 can even make that boast in today's stagnant rock climate?"

And thus maybe that is what we're seeing as well, the beginning of the end of the genre this band epitomized. At Vectors, the club inside the MCI Center the other night, 29-year-old Bernie Bennett of Annapolis, Md., was saying that very thing.

"You know," he said, "when Keith dies, they'll have to rename the music something, because that will be the end of rock 'n' roll."

You could argue that position, certainly, but it's probably better left to history, or at least to the faculty at Central Piedmont Community College.

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