Against All Odds, Keith Richards Didn't Die Again Today
Divorcing the Rolling Stones Isn't Easy
Being That Pure
My student, Dalton, told me his mom wouldn't let him go to Game Stop last night at midnight to get the just-then released version of Black Ops 2. He was chagrined, but not pissed. Dalton is either 15 or 16 and he has the ability right now to be troubled by nothing so great that a good, obsessive dose of Call of Duty Black Ops 2 won't cure.
"Game Stop closes at nine tonight. I lied to work [McDonald's] that I had a transportation issue and had to be done at eight. I have to get to the store before it closes." His dad would pick him up and since the Game Stop is maybe 30 feet from the McDonalds, he'd have his new Black Ops by 8:03 or so, at the bargain price of $59.99 before tax. And tomorrow, there is absolutely no chance Dalton will have slept before he comes in for his afternoon class. I would expect and hope for nothing less.
When I was Dalton's age, I forfeited sleep and money for my own obsessive cause: five defiantly disagreeable, drug abusing miscreants, who even then seemed like they were on the verge of turning really old, otherwise known as the Rolling Stones.
I didn't really consider them a rock band as much I did a source of soft pornography. They had a song called "Starfucker" and sang about overt blow jobs - from divorcees, no less - in "Honky Tonk Women." In my tender years, I got most of my sex education from lyrics stuck in between raunchy Stones riffs. If I was deciphering Mick Jagger's singing accurately - always an iffy proposition - "Brown Sugar" was about some highly kinky, S&M, interracial, sea pier sex, replete with whippings under a midnight moon. Holy shit. What insecure, product-of-the-Cold-War kid could say no to such tabooed and murky going ons? Not I.
[Sidenote: My parents came home unexpectedly one Friday night when I was blarring the "Starfucker" chorus. If you're familiar with the song, the word 'starfucker' gets repeated something like 433 times. I was mortified that my parents were hearing it, that I would get shamed, in trouble. It was like being caught pleasuring one's self - painfully uncomfortable. Except my parents could not translate Mick Jagger English into anything intelligible, and my mom merely started hummng the melody, oblivious to the words. I had dodged a bullet.]
People talk about Keith now being a freaky looking Freddy Krueger sort, but I thought they were really ugly even then. Hideously so, like a train wreck I couldn't turn my eyes from. We had no internet then of course. It was still pre-cable and VCRs hadn't even come out yet. Jesus, it sounds stupid when you think about how little technology we had. The only way I ever actually saw the Rolling Stones as a kid was on album covers - big vinyl - or in magazines like Creem, The Trouser Press, or Rolling Stone. They looked ominous - I didn't want to meet them; I was certain they'd be egregious asswipes. [I wonder if they are. Ron Wood certainly seems like a boozy douche. Keith somewhat like a caricature.] Their album titles both repelled and attracted me: Goat's Head Soup was the first one I owned. December's Children, Their Satanic Majesties Request, Beggars Banquet: what the fuck did any of that mean? It sounded important. I thought they were sending secret messages to the world. "Don't do your homework. Your parents are stupid. Drugs aren't that bad." I was fifteen.
It'll sound funny now, but in 1981 the Stones toured to promote the Tattoo You album and it was known, not assumed, but absolutely known as a fundamental truth by the rock world that it would be the Stones' last tour ever. Lennon had been shot a year earlier and most of the other '60s rock guru legends like Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix were long-since dead from one type of OD or another. Keith Richards had been voted 'the rock star most likely to die next' for the seven previous years in Rolling Stone. He would die soon, any minute. You just felt it. Apparently, he was getting his blood "changed" - the way you change the oil in your car - in Switzerland every six months or so, just to clear out the tainted-by-heroin juices and get some fresh stuff circulating in his Dracula-like torso. I like to imagine that when I donate blood now it's going to some equally ridiculous cause, like keeping Nicholas Cage alive for whatever reason.
The Rolling Stones were the very first concert I ever saw, that tour in Louisville. To say I skipped school to do so would be a tad understated. I hitch-hiked to Louisville down I-65 in deep fog, found a biker who scalped me a $15 ticket behind the stage for 50 bucks, traded my coat for a tab of acid, saw Andy Warhol [he was really there - I wasn't just hallucinating], and got to spend two hours in the same building with Keith Richards & company. If you gave me five minutes and a pencil, I could recall the set list from that night's show in order. They started with "Under My Thumb" and ended with "Satisfaction." I passed out in some guy's van in the Kentucky State Fairgrounds parking lot.
I missed a lot more school that tour, seeing four other shows: two in Cleveland, one wherever Northern Iowa University is, and one in Detroit where I sat with a bunch of kids from Ontario who were on their own Keith-trek because the Stones were legally barred at the time from ever entering Canada again. I wanted to hitch-hike to New Orleans and catch them in the Superdome, but I had pushed my high school to the edge of expulsion, plus I was exhausted and beyond broke. Remember though, we were sure that they'd never tour again. I slept for two days and cried because the saga was over.
College, job, marriage, kids, divorce, life did the inevitable to my obsessive passion for the Rolling Stones. I moved on. Actually, I've wished they'd stop making music many times since 1981. The Red Hot Chili Peppers had become my favorite band by 1991, with Blood, Sugar, Sex, Magik. Keith Richards became a parody of himself. I'd hear that he fell from a coconut tree in Indonesia or had smoked the ashes of his deceased father in a joint [the first true, the second not]. During the '90s, somebody told me that Clinton was the first president to "ever be younger than the Rolling Stones." I mulled that over. Fast forward to now and the lowly Kansas City Royals, for chrissakes, mean more to me than the guys I once took hitch-hiking pilgrimmages to share time with.
Then today Keith Richards was on NPR. I had just pulled into my apartment complex, parked and kept the key ignited enough to hear the radio. Few people can pull off looking good while crying, so I tried to get myself together asap, but unexpectedly, I wept with a torrential abandon while Keith explained why "Street Fighting Man" was, in his dissipated opinion, the best story-song the Stones ever made. NPR blasted the song, while Richards cut in here and there, raspy and ravaged, explaining how and why he used an acoustic guitar on a song that sounds extremely electrified.
I wondered about the tears and decided it was the confluence of my student Dalton's exuberant obsession with his video game and my recollection of something similar at his age. I also decided during that interview that I didn't want anyone else to die. Ever. Not Keith Richards, not Alyssa Block the interviewer, not you, not anyone. And I didn't want my 8-year-old, my last baby, to turn nine - I wanted him to stay as absolutely flawed-yet-perfect as he is right now. I know it's stupid and impossible and ultimately counter-productive, but part of me feels that way still, right now, as I type this.
I wonder if Keith Richards has a perspective that Dalton simply can't: that life is as hard as it is beautiful. I hope Dalton doesn't have a clue and that his biggest obstacle remains chugging enough Mountain Dew and Red Bull to stay awake playing Black Ops 2 all night for awhile yet.
Endnote: NPR is interviewing each of the Rolling Stones this week. It's been 50 years since they first played together in London's Marquee Club.