A Dream Comes True
Earlier today I'd written to my pal The Straightman up in Seattle, remarking on a terrific rendition of Blind Willie Johnson's “Nobody's Fault But Mine” as performed by the legendary (and personal faves) Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. Our mutual friend and noted Bluesman Michael “Hawkeye” Herman had sent me a link to the video after I'd posted Blind Willie's original 1927 recording. The Straightman replied that he thought there was a less-than-cordial “no play” agreement between the former Led Zepsters (turns out the video & recording are from 1994). Well, I'd heard there were some bruised feelings over The Robert's continued refusals to “get the band back together” and do a Big Bucks Reunion Tour which I have to give him credit for because I would imagine there's a significant amount of cash - mountains of it - just waiting to be scooped up by the three remaining original members and their drummer of choice.
But hey: back when Led Zeppelin ruled the world Plant was fond of saying he'd be a musician even if the big money wasn't there, because it was the music and getting it to "the people" that mattered. Make no mistake, I'm not about to put him up for sainthood, and I don't doubt he still makes a decent wage, but in the years since the demise of LZ my respect for the guy has grown exponentially because he's playing and recording when and what he wants without any pressure to fill stadiums or deliver blockbuster albums and refuses – refuses – to even entertain the thought of pretending to be ROBERT PLANT OF LED ZEPPELIN THE GOLDEN GOD OF THE 70's. Those days and that persona are long, long gone. He's still Great with a Capital G, but he's moved on. So y'know, later on being a museum piece.
Whilst finishing that last paragraph with thoughts of other BIG STARS who have spent the past decade (or several decades) milking out every last dollar before they drop spinning into my head, the following realization came to me: some dreams and wishes do come true. But before I get into specifics, a bit of history:
The story goes that Keith Richards realized his true vocation when he spent one afternoon in a dingy English cinema, eating ice cream and watching Chuck Berry strut his stuff through the now all-but -forgotten Jazz On A Summer's Day. That the original guitar-slingin' brown-eyed handsome man was backed by smirking jazzers mattered not to the future Human Riff: he heard the call and never looked back.
Over the years he would meet his idol numerous times, often emerging the worse-for-wear: one time he made the mistake of coming up behind the Chuckster and laying a hand on his shoulder, a transgression for which he was rewarded with a roundhouse right to the eye. On another occasion, a lit cigarette was dropped inside his shirt. But hey, it's only rock & roll, right? Later, the two would nearly come to blows during the filming of Hail! Hail! Rock & Roll!, Keith's labor of love to commemorate his hero's 60th birthday and to finally capture him “live” for all time with a band worthy of his legendary stature.
“Hey, wait a minute! Chuck's old hits sound great, what are you talking about?”
Well, kid, records are records but performances in the flesh are a whole other thing, and the man who wrote more classic rock & roll songs than any other single human being was notorious for shows whose sonic qualities made my junior high band sound like the Berlin Philharmonic. If I'm lyin' I'm dyin'. Here's how it worked: Chuck would blow into town with his guitar, collect his fee in cash, then walk out before his adoring fans as the backing band supplied by the local musicians' union finished their warm-up number (this was usually a guitar/bass/tenor sax/drums collection whose members he'd never even seen until that moment, let alone rehearsed with). He'd run through the hits, do the duckwalk and the splits, smile, leer, laugh, and then was gone like a cool breeze. But hey: he was Chuck Berry, the original Johnny B. Goode, a living legend, so of course he was great. He had to be, right? How could he not be? He was Chuck Berry.
Which brings us back to dreams and wishes coming true.
Before going any further let me state for the record that the influence of the venerable Keith (and, it follows, his influences) on my musical endeavors has been significant: from picking and strumming techniques through the way I turn around chord changes to removing the low E-string to better facilitate the use of the Open G tuning. There's no way I could or would ever deny that, which is why it pains me to write what comes next:
In the summer of 1972 I saw The Rolling Stones perform in Chicago's International Amphitheater, a huge glorified shed more accustomed to housing rodeos, circuses, and massive cattle auctions. At the time – again, this was 1972 – it was being whispered that this just might be the last tour ever. After all, rock & roll was a young man's game and drummer Charlie Watts was 32, bassist Bill Wyman an ancient 34, and Mick Jagger would celebrate his 29th birthday at the end of the tour.
In 2005 – 33 years later – I was a guest (along with 63,000 of my closest friends) at their show in Chicago's Soldier Field. Mick and Keith were still there, of course, as was Charlie. But Bill Wyman had jumped ship years before, Mick Taylor – the finest guitarist to ever be called a Rolling Stone – had been replaced by Ronnie Wood in 1975, and though faithful Bobby Keys was trotted out to blow his classic solos on “Brown Sugar” and “Live With Me”, the stage was packed with a 5-man horn section, a jazz-based “musical director” on piano & organ, and three backing vocalists.
Keith had finally got his wish: The Rolling Stones – once little more than a gleam in the eye of Brian Jones, now sleeping in his native Cheltenham soil since the summer of '69 - had turned into Chuck Berry, churning out workman-like renditions of decades-old hits amid faceless sidemen.
But hey: they're the original bad boys of rock & roll, living legends, right? So of course they're still great. They have to be, right? How could they not be? They're The Rolling Stones.
Yeah, well. Be careful what you wish for, because your wish just might come true.