I attended the Stones' press conference on Julliard's balcony at Lincoln Center this past May. What can I say...I was curious and it was in my neighborhood, required no great effort. A beautiful spring day in New York and the Stones were rumored to be playing a truncated set. If they sucked, I'd duck out and cruise Tower Records across the street. But the crowd seemed to be buying into the big press circus hype of their umpteenth tour announcement, and after running into about 20 excited friends/colleagues, I quickly got swept up in the fervor of the moment. Even for a jaded rocker such as myself, I was surprised.
I wondered aloud if they'd actually attempt any new tunes on stage that afternoon as I looked to the young co-ed next to me. The crowd started getting antsy and pushed up to the front. Some kids managed to sneak past security and now lined the roof of Julliard. It was looking like the Stones might not show. Hey, they're showmen, they know how to milk the moment, work a crowd. But before things got ugly, they hit the stage, mugging for their adoring audience, plugged in and crushed a three-song set. Damn, they pulled it off. I started thinking I might actually want to see them on tour again. (I'd seen the last 20 years of "final" tours and promised I'd seen enough.) They even featured one of the new songs from their upcoming long player A Bigger Bang (Virgin). A rockin' three-and-a-half minute little ditty, "Oh No, Not You Again," it was vintage Stones and quite encouraging -- a song with actual hooks, great drivin' melody and chorus, and plenty of Keef and Ronnie's gritty guitar heat. I loved the silly "once bitten, twice shy" line, too. (Was that their Ian Hunter homage?)
Fast forward to a few weeks ago: A sicko music fiend hit me with an advance of their new CD. I raced home; I couldn't wait to hear if they had any studio legs left. When it came to the Stones, especially after Rolling Stone magazine gave Jagger's last solo disc a five-star review, I was way deservedly skeptical. Plus two unnecessary live albums, Live Licks from last year and No Security from 1998, and their last few slick, bloated, over-produced studio CDs had left me with a gut full of doubt. Could they still write and play killer tunes?
I popped the disc into my CD player, turned it up, and exhaled...
"Rough Justice" kicks things off with Keef's guitar-call for everyone to get ready and bang...the cosmos has been re-created. This is fuckin' rock and roll, you poseurs; step aside and let these grizzled veterans show you they still have ice in their veins and passion in their hearts. Ronnie slices up a side of raw ax beef, Charlie lets the hammer drop, and Mick yelps:"One time you were my favorite chicken, now you've grown into a fox/And once upon a time I was your little rooster, and now I'm just one of your cocks..." It's rough justice indeed. It's geezer rock and roll and I love it. By the time Ronnie's stinging slide solo -- or is it Keith's? -- creases my skull, I'm left paralyzed.
This is a guitar player's wet dream -- two snarling guitars, bass and drums; a sprinkling of Chuck Leavell's keyboards and no horns. In fact, this is what I always loved about the Stones. Keith's git-tar sword fights with first Brian Jones, then Mick Taylor, and finally Ronno have always defined the Stones for me -- who was playing what riff and how tough they could play it.
Gone is the antiseptic modern sheen of the last two decades' previous works; with the snap of a cosmic bolt of creation, we're left with a leaner, meaner, albeit older Rollin' Bones...er, Stones outfit. Four well-seasoned and marinated veterans who show young gunslingers everywhere that they can still muster up some swagger and shit. You can feel the deep craggles of Keef's face on this one. It's taunt and tight and rockin' top to bottom. And I must confess my skepticism given my lukewarm appreciation of Donald Was' production pedigree. (I'd still love to hear Daniel Lanois or Tony Visconti direct a Stones' recording session.) The guitars are loud, just dirty enough, and pushed way, way out front (left and right) while bass (Daryl Jones) and drums sit in the mix just right.
Mick's voice is clear and strong throughout. He sounds revitalized and inspired. Funny how a limo full of rockin' songs can do that to a fella. Shit, he's pushing it to places that he did in his youth, he knows his instrument and knows how to step on it when need be, like the veteran shouter he is.
Ronnie's leads are inspiring for both he and Keith, sobriety be damned for one Stone and not the other. Their interplay is majestic. The simple, stripped-down arrangements sound like they were tracked all together in Mick's home studio in Pocé-sur-Cisse, France and not piece by piece. Gives it that live Exile On Main Street vibe, another record that was recorded in France (but in Keith's mansion) way back when, and a style that suits these true rock and rollers to the core. Remember Elvis, Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters? No overdubs, please, or very few for a band that could finance a loan to a third world country.
But back to the songs...
The mid-tempo "Rain Fall Down" has a tough reggae dub heavy guitar vibe a la Black and Blue, while the raw blues of "Back of My Hand" is pure Delta blues Exile-era territory. This old school number features Mick's slide guitar and blues harp squalls; his slinky slide work mirrors his own vocal melody. Add a simple shaker and a bass drum to thump out the beat... Pinch me, I must be dreaming. In decades past they'd be hailed for such authenticity.
Mick's most heartfelt vocal -- think "Fool to Cry" or "Waitin' on a Friend" -- is the despondently moody ballad "Laugh, I Nearly Died." Again producer Don Was pushes and pans Keith and Ronnie's guitars left and right as they frame Mick's pleading vocals. And his vocal outro is a deliciously stark-naked, multi-tracked, mournful falsetto singing: "Been travelin' far and wide / wonderin' who's gonna be my guide..."
The mid-tempo chugger "Dangerous Beauty" laments a temptatious female, or perhaps Sir Mick's inability to woo some young siren he's so famously consumed in days of yore. This could have worked on Some Girls. Charlie's drumming is the catalyst for this bigger bang. Yeah, I know Keith and Ronnie get most of the music props, but let's get real, is there a better long-term drummer in rock today? Mr. Watts makes it seem so easy that one can easily forget how integral he is to the drive and soul of this juggernaut outfit.
And speaking of keeping the beat, one of my favorite tracks is the drum- and conga-driven "Look What the Cat Dragged In." It could've fit into their Beggars-era canon. This balls-out rocker rumbles and rolls with plenty of hoodoo blues swagger. Two -- that's right, two -- killer guitar hooks tumble off of each other until they reach the outro bridge and you get one more git-hook to sanctify the soul. And two lava-hot solos. Is it a plea for sobriety for one of the boys? An old lover? Probably both.
"Infamy," Keef's bluesy four-on-the-floor outro (and third lead vocal track on the disc) leaves me battered but eases me back down to earth. Some Little Walter harp bends from Mick frame Charlie's always-metronomic backbeat. And the call-and-response double entendre chorus "you go it in-for-me (infamy)" leaves its simple refrain locked in your brain.
There is plenty to mine on this sixteen-track release. And it might seem pretty uncool in some corners of the rock and roll press to even admit that the Stones still got it, but damn it, they do. This is best Stones album since Tattoo You; a keeper, if you will, for young and old. But don't let your folks get hold of it; it may be too dangerous for their old hardened rock and roll hearts. And look for me down front at their first Madison Square Garden show. I'm in again...
Converge is the Word!
Mr. Wright is the former editor-in-chief of Creem and Prince's New Power Generation magazines as well as a writer of films, fiction, and music. He is also a singer/songwriter who has released 3 solo CDs and a member of the folk-rock quartet GIANTfingers. And before all of this he was an agent at the William Morris Agency!