Thursday, September 29, 2011

The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World

"I was born, in a crossfire hurricane ..."

Around 68 years ago, in a galaxy far away, two stars collided. An explosion resulted. The center was a raging flashpoint of burning gasses and matter. The heat was intense; enough to set whole worlds aflame for decades. The sound that the explosion made was something like this. Deep down inside of this great cosmic ball of fire, four souls were born. They blasted out of the galactic chaos in the form of meteors, eventually crashing to Earth in the outskirts of London. Neither human nor demon, they were forged of supernatural matter with a strength far beyond that of pure titanium. There were many of these fires burning in deep space at the same time. Many such stars were born bearing names like "Clapton" or "Plant." These four souls, however, would outshine all of them. They would burn brighter. Longer. They were born with a Mission, a World to conquer. They had a genre to write and paradigms to shatter. Generations would try ever so hard to walk in their giant footsteps, to no avail. The only job they would ever have is to change the Earth with what came out of their mouths and the instruments that were forged into their hands in an eternal bond of flesh and wood. They were given a name that evoked one of the only substances that could survive such an inferno. It was drawn from the wisdom of the masters that came before them and described perfectly what they did once set in motion: The Rolling Stones.

You've heard the term "Rock 'n' Roll" hundreds or thousands of times. But stop for a moment. Setting aside music theory, what does that triplet of words mean? I can speak only for myself. Rock 'n' Roll is about much more than the music. Like jazz, it is an attitude, an approach to life. It's a deep appreciation for the past as it applies to an aggressive, loud, unafraid, and full-bodied present. Respectable? Not in any traditional sense. Moral? Nah. Debauchery? Yes, but with a purpose. It feeds the music. (It's hard to create Rock music while sitting at a dinner party eating on fine china.) Rock 'n' Roll is full speed ahead, for better or worse - carpe diem squared. "I can't get no.... No! No! No!" While looking back is an essential part of the genre, it is the now that is most critical. What happened yesterday matters only as inspiration. What lies ahead? Well, that will come tomorrow. "It's just another Moonlight Mile, on down the road."      

With the genre so defined, one irrefutable Truth emerges . . .

The Rolling Stones are the greatest Rock 'n' Roll band ever. 

My old friend Mike Herrig had a quote that I loved in reference to the Stones. (I do not know where he got it): "Many bands are rock 'n' roll. Only one band is Rock 'n' Roll." Never could a single group of artists so completely typify a genre as The Rolling Stones do Rock 'n' Roll. The unkempt hair. Sunglasses worn inside, at night. Gutter dandy fashion plate dress. Private charter airplanes with band logos on the side. Smoking cigarettes at press conferences. Mysterious dismissal of criminal charges. Luxury party villas. Marrying supermodels. Shows starting two hours late. Sexuality dripping from every action and word. It's all the essence of Rock 'n' Roll. The Stones did it first. Watch a band with one or more electric guitars on any stage anywhere in the world. During the set, someone on the stage will do something that would not have been done if The Rolling Stones never lived. "But I like it, like it, yes I do!" You see, "only one band is Rock 'n' Roll."

So, we know the Stones are the greatest Rock 'n' Roll band ever. But there is a problem. If we started to rank the giants of Rock with the only criteria being their mastery of a particular discipline, would any of the Stones even crack the top 5 on our lists? Probably not. So how are they the Greatest? You can boil it down to a simple formula: 2+2=50. Synergy. The whole is (exponentially) greater than the sum of its parts. The Stones never let their lack of technical prowess get in the way of the Mission. They either borrowed it (Mick Taylor), faked it (Ron Wood), or made it up as they went along. No matter what, they never hesitated or doubted for a fraction of a nanosecond. They were the best. Nobody knew it any better than them. From the moment they first heard the shriek of a girl inspired by the mere sight of their young faces, they were, immediately and forever, The Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World. Playing guitar like Jimi Hendrix? Not a qualification at their School. Singing like Sam Cooke? Forget about it. This stuff is too raw to be sung by angels. As we all know, greatness is about much more than physical attributes. You have to have "It." The Stray Cat Blues all down to your soul. Just as surely as William Shakespeare was born able to write a killer sonnet, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had Rock 'n' Roll coursing through their veins from breath number one.

Further to the point, the Stones stick together. They survive. Once their bond was formed, it became unbreakable. Always, unconditionally, no exceptions, the band stays in front of all else. More than any group of rock artists before or after them, they are a singular, cohesive Unit. We could fill pages with the names of merely great bands that came and went during the period while the Stones were at their peak (roughly from the release of Out of Our Heads in 1965 through Some Girls in 1978). That, of course, says nothing for the fact that they have held themselves together for 35 years after their Golden Era. Squabbles over Women and Whiskey inevitably erupted, but those were set aside like yesterday's beer cans the moment Charlie tucked a drum stick between his fingers (jazz style, of course) and Keith turned on his amplifier. Blood is thicker than water. Here, the Music is stronger than an infinitely large group of egos. One could hardly claim they kept themselves healthy, but unlike so many of their contemporaries, they managed to keep themselves alive. Torn? Sometimes. Frayed? Almost always. But alive. Nobody could die or quit until the Mission was complete. Somebody had to define Rock 'n' Roll once and for all and it had to be them. They knew it. It's like the Three Muskateers with '61 Les Pauls in lieu of cutlasses. All for one. One for all.

Last, and perhaps most important, in defining the Stones's greatness, is a fact almost never mentioned. It's the central reason that they were great in the first place; that so many hundreds and thousands of bands have come and gone while the Stones have endured. They love music. They revel in its history and nuances. Given a whiff of Detla blues and Chuck Berry double stops as teens, they took that raw material and exploded it into a global musical movement now over a half century old. But they never stopped. They did not break the old mold or throw it out the window. (They have far too much respect for those that came Before.) They just created a new one and gave it the shape they wanted it to have. While showing an intense disrespect for the musical status quo, they showed the deepest respect for those that created it. It is not a fad or a passing romance in their minds. It is a deep-seated and undying infatuation that never left them. These men have spent the better part of five decades taking the raw material provided by Elvis, Muddy Waters, and Hank Williams (Yes, Hank Williams; the Stones, more than any other band, are responsible for the fusion of country and mainstream rock. Like "alt country?" It was invented by the Stones.) and turning it into a world-shifting genre. Their intense devotion to the Mission cannot be explained by money or fame alone; they've created libraries of vital music long after both of those were guaranteed beyond measure. No, it's something more. In all the wild tales of debauchery and lust, what is lost is that these men love the Music above all else. It's what propels them. Always forward. No time for regret or contemplation. Kick down the door. Hide the women and children. Cover your ears if you are scared. We are on a Mission. We are the the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band in the World. The Rolling Stones.

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