Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Any Old Way You Choose It Book Cover

The Rolling Stones
They Need Us; We Need Them

The difference between the Rolling Stones who played this country in 1969 and the Rolling Stones who climaxed their 1972 American tour with four sold-out concerts at Madison Square Garden is the difference between a group and a band. The distinction is subtle, and sometimes unnecessary, but crucial. The Stones of the sixties were not only coherent as a unit; despite a great deal of surface evolution, they were also deliberately static. Instead of dealing with the paradoxes of real life in their time, they chose to defy them--nothing less, nothing more. In a way, Brian Jones epitomized this choice by his knack for melding esoteric musical modes into the old context. So did the opening acts of their 1969 tour. B.B. King and Chuck Berry are so much the unchallenged masters of their chosen idioms (urban blues, rock and roll) that they need never grow another inch.

It was as if the 1969 Stones were telling us: "This is what we do and what we've always done. We do it better than anyone, and that's enough." But the 1972 Stones--with Mick Taylor, Jones's replacement, risen from his former anonymity to unresented partnership and almost all the lead guitar parts, and Nicky Hopkins, Jim Price, and Bobby Keys, session men to the world, fully integrated into the band for this ride--are something like Stevie Wonder, who opened the tour this year. Wonder is a black musician who has been around even longer than the Stones, but because he began at age twelve, he has never stopped evolving. The 1972 Stones seem committed to evolution as well. Without surrendering their identity, they are determined to survive in the living world.

Not that the Stones have turned into another demi-impro jamming band. Far from it. Every change is calculated, and even if Charlie Watts is permitted a solo drum break and Taylor and Hopkins and Keith Richard take the place out front for a moment, Mick Jagger prevails. His image and performance dominate the band. But he has evolved, too. Just so no one misses his uncanny compulsion to undercut his own fabled demonism with humor, this time he is playing the clown, the village idiot, the marionette. He scratches his head and scampers over the stage fixtures like a monkey man; he drools and sucks his fingers and lolls his tongue; he bows from the waist like a mechanical doll or a butler. If someone throws a likely hat from the arena, he puts it on.

Mick is working for his audience as never before. The fans get off automatically, erupting with the first bars, but Mick struggles to double and triple the explosion. When before has he echoed Sly Stone--"Higher!"--or implored the audience as he does in "Sweet Virginia": "Come on down, I beg of you"? When has he asked for our help? When has he acknowledged how much he needs us?

Well, we need him, too. His new fans may react uncritically to a legend, but for those of us who have been with him from the beginning, every tour and album by the Stones represents a new crisis. Will they do it again? No one else has survived as fully public--that is, touring--artists since Year One of the new era. The Stones are it. Last night, as Mick sang a few bars after the ecstatic rave-up at the end of "Street Fighting Man," he shook his head in wonderment, as if to say: "Whew, how 'bout that? We beat the game again." Then he walked off.

And soon the entire ensemble--both the expanded Stones and Wonder's band Wonderlove--came back on. Instead of the usual serving-woman, Mick himself led the sightless Stevie to the microphone, holding his hand. Jumping up and down with the sheer energy both men must sometimes substitute for joy, the black man and the white man brought everybody together with a blast from the past, "Satisfaction," the only sixties-identified song the band performed all night.

"I can't get no," we all screamed. But we were satisfied.

Newsday, July 1972

The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street (Rolling Stones). Incontrovertibly the year's best, this fagged-out masterpiece is the summum of Rock '72. Even now, I can always get pleasure out of any of its four sides, but it took me perhaps twenty-five listenings before I began to understand what the Stones were up to, and I still haven't finished the job. Just say they're Advancing Artistically, in the manner of self-conscious public creators careering down the corridors of destiny. Exile explores new depths of record-studio murk, burying Mick's voice under layers of cynicism, angst, and ennui: "You've got a cutthroat crew/ I'm gonna sink under you/' I got the bell bottom blues/ It's gonna be the death of me." A plus.

Any Old Way You Choose It, 1973


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