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Exiles on Easy Street

The decadent career of the Rolling Stones.

When the Beatles and the Rolling Stones began to ravish English south with their music in 1963, there was a difference between the hysteria whipped up by each group. Women shrieked at the Beatles, but they raged at the Stones. Violence and police cordons seemed automatically to accompany the Stones' funky bottleneck chords and harmonica riffs that bust the muttons of the teenage population. The secret was not just the driving sexual aggression of rhythm and blues; it was their gaunt lead singer Mick Jagger, who had learned the values in the cotton fields of Kent. "I knew what I was looking at," said the then-19-year-old Andrew Loog Oldham, a public school boy who had come to an early gig at Richmond's Station Hotel to watch the Stones raise the roof and later became their first manager. "It was sex."

In England the myths of power were dying, to be replaced by myths of liberation. "I saw no reason why childhood shouldn't last forever," Mary Quant said. "So I created clothes that worked and moved and allowed people to run, to jump, to leap, to retain their precious freedom." Philip Larkin registered the shift of mood in "Annus Mirabilis":

Sexual intercourse began
In Nineteen Sixty-Three ...
Between the end of the Chatterley Ban
And the Beatles' first LP.

"There's no way we could have made the impact we did without the Beatles," Keith Richard said in 1983. "The Beatles we got to use as door openers." On the cover of the Beatles' ground-breaking Sgt. Pepper album is a rag doll with a placard that reads: WELCOME THE ROLLING STONES. From the outset the Beatles had always encouraged the Stones and the happy competition of North-South rockers whose obsession with American black music they both shared. It was on a tip from the Beatles that their publicist Andrew Loog Oldham first scouted the Stones. Lennon and McCartney tailored the Stones' first hit to their hard-nosed image: "I Wanna Be Your Man"; and later Lennon and McCartney joined in the backing vocals on "We Love You," the Stones' raspberry to the law after their infamous drug bust in 1967. The Beatles set the standard against which all competition was defined. Brian Jones gave his blond hair a Beatle cut. Jagger, a student at the London School of Economics, began dropping his 'h's and playing the prole. The Beatles were writing their own material and making a fortune; Jagger and Richard were locked in their apartment by Oldham until they, too, began producing original songs.

Though the early Stone records have more shit-kicking rock 'n' roll vitality than the Beatles hits of the period, the Stones seemed to follow where the Beatles led. They followed them not only into songwriting, but into concept albums (the psychedelic disaster Their Satanic Majesties Request in 1967), into TV Christmas spectaculars (The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, featuring John Lennon, but unreleased because Jagger felt he'd been upstaged by The Who), into conspicuous waste, into drugs, into mysticism. Wisdom wasn't the Stones' bag; and where the Beatles took odysseys to the East to find peace with the Maharishi, Richard and Jagger journeyed to South America to study magic. "We're very serious about this trip," Richard told the press in 1968. "We're hoping to see a magician who practices both black and white magic. He has a very long and difficult name which we can't pronounce. We just call him 'Banana' for short."

On stage, dressed like sweet matching dolls and styled by their stage manager into "lovable mopheads," the Beatles were not sexy. Stuck behind their instruments and microphones, they were fun for the whole family. The Stones were not. The Beatles were cute; the Stones were ugly. ("They look like boys who any self-respecting mum would lock in the bathroom," said the Daily Mirror, buying the hooligan package.) While the Beatles sowed dreams of harmony, the Stones sang of rampage. "The Beatles want to hold your hand," wrote Tom Wolfe, correctly interpreting the battle of images. "The Stones want to bum your town."

"We never thought we'd be big," Jagger said, remembering the early club days. "Thought we'd do blues for fanatics. When we heard 'Love Me Do,' we thought we might have rock 'n' roll hits, because it was obviously changing." And the Stones looked like change. Their music and their dress were outside the English pop mold. The affectless posture of the group— guitarists Jones and Richard, vocalist Jagger, drummer Charlie Watts, and bassist Bill Wyman—suggested that, other than their sperm, the group wasn't giving anything away. Their hair was long. They wore no make-up. And in the R & B club tradition, they performed in their street clothes.

It was a potent sexual mix, and the Stones magnified their sexuality by movement on stage. Some of their early repertoire, like "Little Red Rooster" and "I'm A King Bee," was flamboyantly dirty; and the small taunting gestures of Jones with his lead guitar and Jagger's hand-clapping shuffle were sufficiently shocking in the beginning to make the band seem as sexually brazen as their songs. Even before Jagger had learned to dangle his jacket on his forefinger in front of an audience or to insinuate his big lips around the microphone, the public was getting the lewd and clear message. What looks from the '80s like minuscule shifts of style made a seismic disturbance among the English in 1963. "It wasn't pleasant what the music did to people," said Ian Stewart, some- time Stone keyboard player who was dropped from the original band because he looked "too normal." The Stones created riot. The delirium of the '60s—the restless, ruthless pursuit of pleasure—had found a backbeat.

Alright, get up and shake your asses," Jagger routinely shouted from the stage. In its irresistible, sometimes menacing swagger, the Stones' sound caught the thrill of the new momentum seizing English life. When the Stones sang Chuck Berry's paean to the open road—about getting your kicks on Route 66—England had just inaugurated, in 1963, its first highway. When Jagger drawled "I just wanna make love to you," or "Let's spend the night together," the recent arrival of the pill allowed teenagers to consider sex with less view to the consequences. And with a new Labour government after thirteen years of Conservative rule, the society was giddy with change. "Our history, except for minor social scandals, is over now," predicted Noel Coward in his 1963 diary, sensing that the pukka England which his songs and plays had helped to define was a thing of the past. "I despise the young who see no quality in our great past . . . who spit on all that we have contributed to the living world. . . ."

But if England no longer felt it had the power to shape history, it could make style. The fact that the style was now coming from a different class reflected that power had shifted in some way lo that class. The myths of the dominant class no longer held sway over the public imagination. Prosperity had encouraged new dreams and given teenagers the money to live them out. Although John Osborne's Look Back in Auger (1956) hectored the public about lower-middle-class discontent, the theater was primarily a middle-class experience; and the frisson of his rage was felt only by a minority. Similarly, the proletarian heroes in such important early '60s British films as Karel Reisz's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Lindsay Anderson's This Sporting Life were the bulwark of "art" films. The English lower classes were unrepresented in the media, in politics, and, generally, in the arts. But pop music, especially the Stones' aggressive rebellion, got through to the class that the anger was about. The Stones' music identified with an oppressed minority; they were victims who encouraged the image of victimizers. Youth, whose hopes they embodied, wanted above ail to be noticed. The Stones were more to them than music, they were news. "As long as my picture is on the front page," Jagger said, "I don't care what they say about me on page 96."

"Would you let your daughter go out with a Roiling Stone?" asked Melody Maker, in a headline that had obvious race and class echoes. The Stones adopted the "black" truculence of girl: the early blues forms they scrupulously imitated. They gave off none of the familiar signals of the buttoned-down establishment culture; and what's more, these lower-middle-class white boys wanted, even strained, to sound black. And they succeeded. At first the BBC refused the Stones an airing because "the singer sounds too coloured." In time Jagger would absorb James Brown's slide. Bo Diddley's inflection. Little Richard's camping, and Tina Turner's microphone tease into his own ofay act of sexual provocation. The Stones were blues shouters who flayed the bourgeoisie, only to become the new hipoisie. They epitomized the White Negro whose psychopathic style Norman Mailer had defined in the late '50s as a new cool mode, "The only Hip morality," wrote Mailer of the self-indulgence the Stones would turn into a recipe for commerce and private chaos, "is to do what one feels whenever and where it is possible ... to be engaged in one primal battle: to open the limits of the possi- ble for oneself, for oneself alone."

The Stones scared parents to death, and English teenagers loved them for it. "We're not old men," said Keith Richard to the prosecuting attorney in the first of all-too-many Stones drug trials in 1967, refusing to admit there was anything abnormal about Marianne Faithful wearing nothing but a rug and sitting with eight other men in Richard's mansion. "We're not worried about petty morals," And their insolence wasn't reserved just for the older generation, "Under my thumb's a squirming dog who's just had her day," they sang, in an exercise in macho loutishness. "Under my thumb's a girl who has just changed her ways....It's down to me,the change has come, she's under my thumb." The Stones were part of an alternate elite of designers, photographers, artists, hustlers, giving vitality and rogue ideals to the old world. The new decadenti, the Stones flaunted their indifference to convention. In "Stray Cat Blues," they sang of a 15-year-old girl:

Bet your mama don't know
you can scratch like that.
Bet she don't know you can bite like that.

The Stones were not sweet in their songs, their private life, or their public personas. At the London Palladium, they broke with show-biz tradition and refused to wave with the rest of the stars to the audience at the finale. On the popular English TV show "Juke Box Jury," they behaved, as one critic put it, like "chimpanzees at a tea party." In Melbourne in 1965, the Stones picked out girls from the crowd below and had them sent up to their suite, a kind of sexual room service. "Bill [Wyman] on the phone to the hall porter, 'Send me up that one in pink.' Nine in one day he had, no kidding," Keith Richard recalled. "He just sat all day in his bedroom looking out the window, and he's right. In with the hall porter, 'No, not that one, the one with the blonde hair, not that 'orror.' Used to tell him off for sending up uglies." In Copenhagen the Stones threw bottles at fans nineteen floors below. And when the impresario Robert Stigwood refused to give the Stones their money, Keith Richard battered him. Asked why he kept pummeling Stigwood, Richard said: "Because he keeps getting up." When the Stones weren't creating havoc, Oldham did his best to manufacture it. On their first American tour, he got headlines all over America by filing a $5 million suit in New York against fourteen hotels on the bogus claim that the Stones had been refused rooms.

Every act of boorishness could be turned by the Stones into the solid gold image of the outlaw. When the Stones were fined for urinating on a gas station wall (Jagger: "We piss anywhere, man"), the incident became an example of public harassment. Evicted from hotels all over Europe for trashing rooms, orgies, and food fights, the Stones dramatized themselves as outcasts. "They been outcasts all their lives," they sang in "Jigsaw Puzzle." And when Richard was busted in Canada in 1977, charged with intent to sell heroin and carrying enough to earn him a life sentence in prison, Richard transformed his felony into folk legend.

I wasn't lookin' too good
But I was feelin' real well...
After all is said and done
I did all right and had my fun
But I will walk before they make me run

Richard kicked his habit and walked free with only a charity concert as punishment. Far from living above the law (Richard: "I've never done anything legally, or considered whether it's legal or not. I do what I do."), the Stones were allowed to live as they did with the substantial help of the law. They were Exiles on Easy Street. They had access to everybody. As Jagger sang in "Respectable":

We're talking heroin with the President
Yes, it's a problem, sir. but it can be bent.

According to Richard's former common-law wife, Anita Pallenberg, Exile on Main Street (1972) was recorded in the South of France by illicitly diverting power from the French railway system. The U.S. Ambassador to England, Walter Annenberg, got the Stones into America for their 1975 tour after Jagger arranged a million dollar contribution to the Pan American Fund. And Boston's then-Mayor Kevin White bailed Jagger and Richard out of jail to do a concert, after Richard got into a scuffle with a photographer. In the aristocracy of success, there are no strangers. Denied landing permission for their private DC-7 in Vancouver, the Stones called Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau and vainly tried to get him to set things right.

The Stones' momentum sucked everyone, including themselves, into its vortex. "I decided that if Keith and I kept dipping into the same bag, there would be no book and we'd both be dead," writes Stanley Booth, one of the walking wounded of the rock 'n' roll wars, in the coda to his firsthand account of the Stones' infamous 1969 tour, Dance with the Devil. Booth puts a metaphysical shellac on the Stones' greed, while Philip Norman's Symphony for the Devil blandly passes off the Stones' saga of self-destruction as a saga of success. In both books the "devil" is a kind of glib folly, Neither author is prepared to see the moral and intellectual bankruptcy behind so much of their hard-driving rock 'n' rolling. The Stones' songs played at evil; but their lives embodied it. Evil is the inability to acknowledge the suffering of others. The destruction of life that seems to have followed the Stones is a barometer of their indifference. Illegitimate children are bom and forgotten. Their friends get hooked on drugs; some of them die. The Stones' lives were self-fulfilling prophecies of their songs. Their great early hit "I Can't Get No Satisfaction" (1965) announced the dilemma of their new wealth and fame: they were numb. The song was a blues by people who had everything:

When I'm ridin' round the world
And I'm doin' this and I'm singin' that
And I'm trying to make some girl...
I can't get no satisfaction
I can't get no girlie action
And I try and I try and I try

The song, which one critic called "a defeatist attitude toward obsessive promiscuity," marked the end of the band's early (and terrific) blues orientation, and the emergence of Jagger and Richard as the band's guiding lights. Brian Jones, who had founded the group and provided it with much of its innovative energy and tight sound, did not write lyrics. As the Jagger-Richard partnership began to grow, Jones began his long decline into drink, drugs, and paranoia. "He was a nice bunch of guys," Richard joked to Rolling Stone. A feckless, mercurial charmer, Jones was too egotistical and insecure not to be driven crazy by the omnipotence rock 'n' roll fame gave him. After seeing the Beatles mobbed at an early Albert Hall concert, Jones kept saying to a friend: "That's what I want! That's what I want!"

He got it. In the early days, Jones vied with Jagger for the crowd's attention, sometimes lunging at them with his tambourine and winding them up to a frenzy. Jones craved attention, and loved the violence the music inspired around him. "He used to dig being mobbed," Richard said. "He'd be dead scared of it, but he used to really dig it. He used to demand to be surrounded by heavies, and he'd take off his jacket, and then 'Now. Now. Now. Now!' " In 1966 he broke his hand battering his German girlfriend Anita Pallenberg, and suffered the added humiliation of having Pallenberg take up with Richard. (Pallenberg, who encouraged Richard's flirtation with black magic and heroin, also got Jones to pose for the cover of Stern in an SS costume with a doll under his foot. "What the hell," she said, "He looked good in an SS uniform.") Although Jones "quit" the band in 1969, he'd stopped being a fully functioning member years before. He was sometimes so strung out on booze and pills at recording sessions that the band just pulled out the plug to his amplifier and let him play by himself; Jones was too blitzed to notice. On the morning of July 3, 1969, he was found dead in his swimming pool at Cotchford Farm, an estate formerly owned by A. A. Milne, who had written Winnie the Pooh there. The place, so long connected with the '20s myths of childhood tranquility, was now associated with the '60s myths of dementia. Jones was another entrepreneur of ecstasy who lived out its goal: the wreck of consciousness. "It's alright letting yourself go," Jagger said. "As long as you can get yourself back." Jones couldn't. By the end of the '60s the whole of the youth culture, embroiled in political struggle and radical hype, seemed infected by a terrifying disequilibrium, pushing it toward madness or myth. The Stones chose myth 

Hey," sang Jagger. "Said my name is called Disturbance." The Stones swiftly caught on to the game of radical hype. Jagger pushed the songs toward an iconography of anarchy and the band toward spectacle. "Keith thinks that a rock 'n' roll show should just be a few lights and a sound system and a square stage," Jagger told Rolling Stone. "I like to do more than that. ... I want to give people in the back row something to look at." In the tumult of the late '60s, Jagger turned himself into a dandy of delirium. Careening around the stage with the band at full tilt, Jagger became not only Disturbance, but Jumping Jack Flash, The Midnight Rambler, The Prince of Darkness. In these protean postures, Jagger's and Richard's songs were exemplary of their times: the search for imagery to transcend the sense of cultural suffocation. "I see a great deal of danger in the air," Jagger said in 1969. "Teenagers are not screaming over pop music anymore, they're screaming for much deeper reasons. When I'm on stage, I sense the teenagers are trying to communicate to me, like telepathy, a message of some urgency. Not about me or about our music, but about the world and the way we live. And 1 see a lot of trouble coming in the dawn." Youth wanted change; instead of action, however, the Stones offered postures. "Street Fightin' Man," a song which traditionally ended with Jagger throwing rose petals on the audience, was an explosive call to irony, not to action:

Ah but what can a poor boy do
But to sing in a rock 'n' roll band
Cause in sleepy London town
There's just no place for a street fightin' man.

The Stones, who epitomized the New Boy Network of classless attainment, were singing about the predicament of the English lower-middle class, for whom politics was a dead end. French teenagers were on the barricades; English teenagers were in bands. The Stones kept the dream of sponsored mobility alive; and what was more thrilling, their victory, which their songs flaunted, was won without playing by the rules.

But the Stones believed in money, not politics. (Jagger marched once against the war. "I was turned on by the buzz of violence," he said, typically finding meaning not in action but sensation.) In their early years the Stones made a vocation of rebellion; and in the music of their most fecund period, Beggars Banquet (1968) and Let It Bleed (1969), their songs made a vocation of Satanic rebirth. They themselves were proof positive of their music: proletarians who played the devil's advocate to English society and were reborn as plutocrats. In "Sympathy for the Devil," Jagger strutted his pagan power:

Pleased to meet you,
hope You guess my name
But what's puzzling you,
is The nature of my game

The game was rock 'n' role-playing, which gave the culture back its nightmare as fun. The Stones' music was cleverly packaged as radica energy. "Greetings," said a manifesto in Oakland in 1969, hailing the Stones as the vanguard of the new political order. "We will play your music in rock 'n' roll marching bands as we tear down the jails and free the prisoners, as we tear down the State schools and free the students. . . . THE ROLLING STONES ARE THAT WHICH SHALL BE! . . . ROLLING STONES—THE YOUTH OF CALIFORNIA HEARS YOUR MESSAGE! LONG LIVE THE REVOLUTION." But the Stones were not talking revolution, only a revolt into style. They marched under the banner of mockery. The Stones' logo from the '70s onward was Andy Warhol's brilliant Lapping Lips—a tongue that taunted the world with its impudence and sexual promise. It became a badge as familiar as FREE THE WATERGATE 3,000. The Stones had a song that excused even that. As "Let It Bleed" says:

We dll need someone to dream on
And if you want, you can dream on me.

Myth requires mystery, Jagger was much influenced by Fats Domino's dictum: "You should never sing the words out very clearly." On record "the Stones' mix" gives many of their songs a beginning, a mumble, and an end. "You movung boo meb bee-uhtful. bah-bee," wrote Tom Wolfe, teasing jagger's "bull Negro" Bo Diddley voice. "Oh vona breem you honey snurks. . . . " The power of the Stones' myth and the paradox of their romance of the demonic came together at the Stones' free concert at Altamont Raceway near San Francisco in 1969, Typically, Stanley Booth, who was backstage in the bedlam, quotes Nietzche's The Birth of Tragedy to justify the combination of greed, ignorance, megalomania, and carelessness that led to four deaths that night, including one infamous stabbing by the Hell's Angels who "guarded" the stage (a killing recorded in the Maysles Brothers' film of the concert, Ginme Shelter). "Tragedy absorbs the highest orgiastic music and in so doing consummates music. , . . Tragedy interposes a noble parable, myth, between the universality of its music and the Dionysiac disposition of the spectator, . . . Myth shields us from music while at the same time giving music Its maximum freedom."

But there was nothing heroic about the Stones' concert. They kept the Altamont audience waiting for hours until nightfall, so that the light could better show off Jagger's "mythic" costume and makeup. The subsequent mayhem seemed to ring down the curtain on the '60s pipe dream of peace and love—a ghoulish capriccio, with Jagger thanking the bewildered throng: "We gonna kiss you goodbye and we leave you to kiss each other goodbye. . . ," The Stones also left the United Stales without so much as a note of condolence to the stabbed boy's family. To have apologized would have been to acknowledge a responsibility for what they were singing. The Stones never apologized, and never explained. Bill Graham, the rock impresario of the Fillmore West, thundered to the media: "I ask you, what right you had, Mr. Jagger, to walk out on stage every night with your Uncle Sam hat, throw it down with complete disdain, and leave the country with $1.2 million? . . . What right did you have to leave the way you did, thanking everybody for a wonderful time and the Angels for helping out? . . . What did he leave behind in this country? Every fucking gig he made the promoters and the people bleed. What right does this god have to descend on this country in this way You know what is a great tragedy to me? That cunt is a great entertainer" But as both the Booth and Norman biographies of the group illus- trate, everybody, including Graham, tolerated the Stones because they were big business, and they wanted part ol the Stones' huge action.

During the 70s, with dispiriting albums like Goats Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll and Black and Blue, the Stones' musical ideas grew thin, but their stage effects grew increasingly large. "Find me a Diaghilev," Jagger had asked his assistant in the early '70s, sensing the need for some larger astonishment besides the music. The Stones' subsequent tours presented literal spectacles for the mayhem of the music: a giant pop-up phallus for Jagger to pound; a cherry picker to swing Jaffer as Jumping Jack Flash out over the audience; fireworks for the Prince of Darkness in "Sympathy for the Devil." If, in the 70s, the Richard-Jagger songs no longer had the pulse of the culture, the Glimmer Twins still had the headlines. Jagger's marriage to Bianca Macias (she made an early departure from the wedding reception/celebrity circus later telling friends she knew the marriage was over on the wedding day) turned them both into high society's darlings. As social butterflies, the Jaggers made as brilliant an impact as the diamond fitted into Mick's front teeth.

In the '70s it was as a high roller, now as a rock 'n' roller, that Jagger's fame increased. Richard's soap opera—hi; break with Pallenberg, his relationship with model Patti Hansen, his near im prisonment, and his winning battle against heroin—kept him the bad bo) of rock 'n' roll. But the Stones were no Robin Hoods. As tax exiles (only Charlie Watts remained in England), they did the reverse: merrie men who transferred their tax burden on to wage-earners. Their money is sheltered in Promotone B.V., a Holland-based holding company, and their financial adviser is Prince Rupert Loewenstein. Having affected working-class postures, they are now part of a leisured class, Charlie Watts collects silver; Bill Wyman collects art; Jagger collects people In "Shattered," one of the Stones' most interesting songs of the '70s, Jagger shouts in his Lou Reed impersonation "Success, success, success, success Does it matter?"

It always has, to the Stones. Even il their music has few new ideas, they've learned new ways to keep their legend alive. They make their own history to make sure the culture doesn't forget. For the 1972 tour, filmmaker Robert Frank and writers Terry Southern and Truman Capote were invited to belly up to the free bar to immortalize The Act. Capote, who never wrote his piece, was not impressed. "Mick Jagger has as much sex appeal as a pissing toad," he said.

Now, well into middle age, the Stones are not so much a band as a collection of millionaire corporate executives who get together every few years to launch a new product. Actually it's the same old product sold with more technique. "The Stones do go on forever," writes Philip Norman at the end of his biography, which also does. But the Stones don't need to update their vision of hell for the next generation of fans. They're living it: trapped forever in a performance of a deluxe adolescent fantasy.