Once upon a time in Afrolantica, five young white men grew up grooving to the sounds of the African diaspora. Being mid-Atlantic fellows raised in postwar Europa between the crosscurrents of a crumbling empire and an emerging assertive African aesthetic, those young white men shared the cultural ambivalence that plagued most of their creative peers throughout the 20th century. Products of the UK class system, they used stylized primitivism and public provocation to create a new musical aristocracy wherein hip culture was currency. They named themselves after a Muddy Waters song -- "Rollin' Stone Blues" -- and their inability to stay away from the black man's blues has gotten them into deep trouble ever since.
More than 40 years later, the Rolling Stones are set to inaugurate Charlotte's new Bobcats Arena on Friday, Oct. 21, and this critic has got their trouble in mind. Much of the current tour's press coverage has centered on the issue most pressing to the concert industry: with heritage rock stars aging out of the touring business, what will replace them? Of course, the Stones still get butts in seats -- the Charlotte show is sold out -- so their geezerdom is beside the point. The question folks should be asking is: How come, after rock & roll's 50-year mark, this lot is still deemed the "Greatest Rock & Roll Band in the World" whereas the Isley Brothers are not? I cite the Isleys because they've charted during every decade of rock's existence, since the 1950s, and had a pervasive influence on popular music. Hip-hop, the genre that has replaced the Stones' archetypal rock model in prime time, owes the Brothers Isley a great debt. But if it's true that the blues and country had a baby back in the day, his name still ain't Ron Isley (or Sly Stone or Bobby Womack). His name's Keith Richards, who's been crowned the First and Last rock star.
Which just reinforces the idea that, at this point in music history, rock is seen as the tribal preserve of whites; black musicians need not attempt to bum-rush the show. Neither fans nor critics want to discuss Elvis Presley as a Jackie Wilson also-ran or delve into the Stones' love and theft of black music and Afro-Asiatic Mysteries. (Most Stones fans are likely unaware that the band's famed lips logo was ripped from the primordial black goddess Kali-Ma, worshipped by India's repressed Thuggee cult.) The more salient point is that, in 2005, some young rockers don't even seem to realize the debt they owe black music. At the recent 4th annual Mid-Atlantic Music Conference uptown, an organizer mentioned that participating rock bands (read: white) had expressed unwillingness to engage with the urban acts (read: black).
That such attitudes could persist in the 21st century belies the 60s' reputation as a revolutionary era wherein the Stones' music helped spur change. But other than "Street Fighting Man," the Stones were never activists anyway. The albums their diehards enshrine, from Beggar's Banquet through Exile On Main Street, were the yield of a period of great insularity in which the band had moved on up from pubs to landed gentry. Mick Jagger's lyrics of the time, in songs such as the mocking "Salt of the Earth," are proof of the Stones' jaded separation from the masses. Part of the music's ironic tone derives from the Stones' self-consciousness about being "white boys singing the blues," but the other part comes from their amusement at their overwhelmingly white audience's romanticizing of proles and street culture. Ultimately, those canonized Stones albums are sapped of their power precisely because the band trafficked in the blues, already an outmoded black aesthetic, while the dynamic black pop of the 60s and early 70s was a dizzying supernova amidst chaos.
It's not surprising that America is the Stones' most enduring market: The band gives its audiences license to have fun, like Negroes; to be hypersexual and cool and dress in dandyish Zip Coon stylee. But the high ticket price that showgoers pay for the privilege reassures them that they don't have to actually suffer the wages of being African American. No one's saying the Stones (or their fans) are racists; yes, the group has given props to Muddy, and yes, they've brought along a slew of black opening acts, from Ike & Tina Turner to Lenny Kravitz. Yet from the Stones' earliest R&B covers and indebtedness to many great black musicians to their latest album's retreat into timeworn bluesy songcraft, Mick and the boys' appropriation of the black aesthetic is the lifeblood of their career, and the elements of minstrelsy in Jagger-the-Icon are undeniable. If their 80s and 90s discs have been weaker, it's probably due to hip-hop throwing the band for a loop. As Roy Blount Jr. recently opined, ". . .after Bo Diddley, everything is commentary." That truth leaves the 2005 version of the Stones with few aural avenues left to explore.
The trouble that shadows the Jagger-Richards oeuvre results from them being cogs in the relentless wheel of a rockbiz powered by endemic institutional racism. And it's this institution -- misbegotten stepchild of the 19th century network of minstrelsy and fairs which sought to control culture by denying the value of African Art -- that has both trapped the Stones in their hollow cool poses and excluded black stars from equivalent deification and deals. As a soundgal and critic, I'm frustrated by Jagger's mannered mimicry of blues shouters, holy rollers, twang stars -- the whole nine. To this day I maintain that "Gimme Shelter" is the Stones' sole legitimate blues and that the rest was wanking. On that track they had something at stake: Between the meshes of sista Merry Clayton's thrilling rock vocal and Jagger's palpable anxiety lie shadow plays of the band's invisible implosion, the trauma of cumulative 60s upheavals and the damning stain that Golden Stone Brian Jones died for the sins of the band and their consumers. Since then, the Rolling Stones have retreated from vulnerability to just business as usual, eating the Other ("Brown Sugar") and getting low doin' the "Harlem Shuffle."
As my late friend David Sandison, an Englishman who worked for the Stones in their late-60s heyday, once told me: "They were a moderately good band -- on a good night -- who were too aware of themselves to ever be really real. And certainly never capable of being a real blues band as long as Mick Jagger was singing lead. He had a soul bypass at birth."
The Rolling Stones will be at Charlotte Bobcats Arena at 7:30pm Friday, Oct. 21. The show is sold out (but where there's a will, there's a way).