Last chance to see the Rolling Stones — a dispatch from the alte-kocker-rocker circuit
The cold orange dawn on Nov. 20 found me and my old poet friend Lee crammed into the back row of a plane from New York to Austin, Texas, bound for the Rolling Stones’ show that night. It would be the first time I’d ever seen them, 56 years after the fuzz-guitar riff of “Satisfaction” grabbed me, blaring out of the radio the summer I was 10.
The closest I’d ever come was their November 1969 show at Madison Square Garden. It was sold out, but that afternoon, I was coming out of a record store when an older guy stopped me — he couldn’t go, so he was selling his ticket at cost. But I’d just spent what I had buying “Let It Bleed.” Other times, either their shows sold out immediately, they didn’t play New York, or I didn’t feel like spending $100 to sit in the oxygen-tank levels of a football stadium.
As their 2021 tour arrived, however, I felt this could be the last time, especially after drummer Charlie Watts died in August. Also, my son, daughter-in-law and granddaughter live in Austin. But I didn’t have anyone to go with, and the venue, an auto-racing track, was miles beyond the city’s outermost bus stop.
I couldn’t complain much. I’ve seen plenty of great music in my life. Patti Smith at CBGB and Janis Joplin at the Fillmore East. Santana at Woodstock and the Mexican corrido band Los Tigres del Norte in the Bronx. James Brown, Jimi Hendrix, Miles Davis, and Muddy Waters. The Clash’s first show in New York and Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers recording a live album at Max’s Kansas City. New Orleans brass bands, gypsy jazz in Paris, and Berber banjo-and-drums groups in Marrakech.
Still, not going nagged at me. The two records I played the most as a teenager were probably “Get Yer Ya-Yas Out” and “Sticky Fingers.” I grew up to play bass in bands that covered “Paint It Black” and “Shine a Light.” (In his autobiography, Keith Richards said the minor-key motif of “Paint It Black,” played by Brian Jones on sitar, was different from anything he’d ever composed — “Maybe it was the Jew in me. It’s more to me like “Hava Nagila” or some Gypsy lick.”)
I’ve jammed on “Shattered” in a Lower East Side after-hours club and “Sympathy for the Devil” with Argentine rockeros in Buenos Aires. When I play by myself, odds are good my repertoire will include “Sister Morphine,” the Stones’ arrangement of the Temptations’ “Just My Imagination,” or, since I got serious about learning slide guitar during quarantine, their version of gospel-blues singer Robert Wilkins’ “Prodigal Son.”
Eight days before the show, I had dinner with Lee. “Why don’t we?” she asked. “We’re 66 years old. When are we going to get another chance?” I found plane tickets cheap enough to make the trip a manageable extravagance.
Getting there was a nightmare. Flight delays got us in eight hours late, and the traffic jam on the country roads that led to the venue meant we didn’t see the stage until the fourth song, “Tumbling Dice.” We got what we came for. The guitar sounds were savagely delicious. Strip away the bad-boy mythology and marketing, and the Stones are a band that brings it live, driving the traintrack Chuck Berry rhythms at the heart of rock’n’roll to the edge of mania without flattening the groove.
Mick Jagger strutted frenetically through a performance more age-defying than the time I saw a 57-year-old Iggy Pop leap onto a five-foot amplifier stack.
“What is he — Dorian Gray?” Lee wondered.
The Texans near us joked that he lubricated his joints with WD-40. You could argue that the soul singers Jagger emulated, like Don Covay and Otis Redding, had more vocal range and depth, but no one can embody the Stones’ songs like him.
Keith Richards, traditionally the band’s rhythmic guts, seemed to show his age; he punctuated the groove more than he drove it. Still, if B.B. King’s gift as a guitarist was making you feel his blues with one bent high note, Richards’ is making one big chord sound like reveling in refined raunch, and Ron Wood filled in the gaps. In any case, it felt like the band was up for this show, their last big one of the tour and maybe ever in the U.S. Jagger led a singalong on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and they stretched out the later songs like an old soul revue, closing with “Satisfaction.”
“This is just what we do,” Richards told the crowd. He seemed moved and thrilled.
Musicians don’t age like athletes. Yes, it’s much harder to sustain raw stamina, maintain an image, or write songs with a finger on the pop zeitgeist, but they gain skills, craft, and emotional depth. I saw pioneering rock guitarist Link Wray (the first to intentionally use distortion on a record) put on a memorable show in his early 70s. A few months before the pandemic, I saw the 90-year-old R&B singer Lavelle White bring down the house at Austin’s Continental Club.
Those who have the obsession keep doing it, even if the money isn’t there. I’ve seen one of James Brown’s old bassists playing pass-the-bucket shows in the back room of a bar in Brooklyn. The semi-pro rock clubs I play at in Lower Manhattan are nicknamed the “geezer-punk” or “alte-kocker-rocker” circuit: people who were playing CBGB and Max’s back in the day, are now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, and never stopped.
I suspect that one of Keith Richards’ greatest musical pleasures now is playing acoustic guitar for his grandchildren. He got his first guitar from his grandfather, and wrote a children’s book about it, “Gus and Me.”
My klezmer band has played in assisted-living homes where people in wheelchairs danced by waving their elbows. Before my granddaughter was old enough to sit up, she did the same thing in her bassinet while I played acoustic bass.
She’s now two and loves to dance, so when we saw her the day after the concert, I brought my acoustic guitar, for a personalized version of “Land of 1000 Dances.”
“Do you know how to pony, like little Naomi?” I sang. “I said na, na-na-na-na, na-na-na-na….”
Steven Wishnia is a New York City journalist and was the last writer published in the original Village Voice. He is the author of the rock ’n’ roll novel “When the Drumming Stops”(Manic D Press), and his crime fiction will appear in the forthcoming “Jewish Noir 2” anthology (PM Press). Bass player in the 1980s band False Prophets, he now plays in Blowdryer Punk Soul and the klezmer band Kvetch.