Mick Jagger paused during the Nov. 25 London concert by the Rolling Stones and looked at the throng, nearly 20,000 strong.
"It's amazing that we're still doing this, and it's amazing that you're still buying our records and coming to our shows," he said. "Thank you, thank you, thank you."
An understatement as big as his mouth.
Amazing is certainly one superlative for it, on both counts -- the band's geriatric activity and its sales. While there's a strong case to be made against the money-grubbing and possibly cynical reality of the latter, any grumbling about the band's mere continued existence is pretentious prattle.
Celebrating 50 years since the first Rolling Stones gig, July 1962 at London's Marquee Club, the iconic band -- Jagger (age 69), drummer Charlie Watts (71), guitarists Keith Richards (68) and Ronnie Wood (65) -- is performing five special anniversary concerts. Two took place last month in London, and this week they're booked for three shows around New York City: Dec. 8 at Brooklyn's Barclays Center and Dec. 13 and 15 at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., the last one airing on pay-per-view. The Stones also have joined the lineup for "12-12-12," a Dec. 12 benefit concert for Hurricane Sandy relief efforts.
There are two new songs ("Doom and Gloom," "One More Shot") and three new documentaries about the band's heyday ("Muddy Waters & the Rolling Stones Live" on PBS, "Crossfire Hurricane" on HBO, "Charlie Is My Darling" on DVD).
Go ahead, throw Jagger's words back in his face: What a drag it is watching rock 'n' roll get old. They're at the age where they should be shouting, "Hey! You! Get offa my lawn!" How can we "Miss You" if you won't go away?
But I'm here to defend the haughty hags, to offer sympathy for the old devils. I hope they keep coming back -- a 60th anniversary, a 75th gala, I want them to sing "100 Years Ago" and mean it. Soldiering on as rock 'n' rollers into their unimagined, unnerving age is their last, great rebellious act.
Spinning their 'Wheels'
I've spilled plenty of ink slagging the Stones, the craggy old dinosaurs. I came of age in the early '80s, hardly an ideal moment to cultivate much respect for the band. My first Stones tour was "Steel Wheels" (I accept your pity), and each outing since -- supporting new music or not -- has been little more than a victory lap, exiting through the merch stands. Just more boomer cultural imperialism.
To quote Morrissey, my own generation's anti-Jagger: "Have you seen yourself recently? ... Get off the stage!"
Of course, the persistence of aging rock icons makes for ready criticism. Rock 'n' roll was created specifically as a young man's game. The original architects fashioned it as music by teens, about teens, for teens. Baby boomers, collectively self-righteous and shortsighted, developed the sounds and styles without thinking of retirement.
So when, say, the Who shows up on yet another "Quadrophenia" tour, with each surviving principal pushing 70 years old, singing lines they penned as pimply punks -- "People die ... because they're old" ("Helpless Dancer"), "Thank God I ain't old" ("Sea and Sand") or the title track, in which deflowering a young virgin is celebrated with gusto -- it's hard to hear the show through the cognitive dissonance or the sound of all that crawling skin.
Last week Fleetwood Mac announced a new tour for 2013. No new music, just the same rote run through the nearly 40-year-old hits. I'm a rabid Lindsey Buckingham fan, but even my reaction was, "Really? Good God, why?"
Easy answer in all cases: the moolah. According to Billboard, the Stones will earn more than $30 million from these reunion concerts, with tickets starting at $95 and soaring to $1,500. The band's last full-length tour, for "A Bigger Bang" in 2005, sold 4.6 million tickets and earned $558 million. That's for four guys and a few support staffs in a few months' work.
"You don't start to play your guitar thinking you're going to be running an organization that will maybe generate millions," guitarist Keith Richards told Fortune magazine a decade ago.
Not just money matters
But the money might be too easy an answer. As of April, according to London's Sunday Times, former economics student Sir Michael Philip "Mick" Jagger has a net worth of $300 million. He can pay his bills.
Call me naïve (join the chorus), but I reject the cynicism that rock's elders continue roaming our interstates purely to collect the nostalgia tax. Granted, the Stones, of all bands, have never been ashamed of making money -- they broke the mold at music's mint -- but pop music is not a utopian enterprise, regardless of how many Marxist critiques have been made. (Email me if you want to debate Adorno.) Money and its corrupting influence is inextricable from its production and consumption, but the original motivations that Richards alludes to in that throwaway quotation -- the things that caused him to start playing guitar -- remain somewhere in the mix, however sullied or subsumed. (For the full treatise on ever-changing motives, read Richards' illuminating biography, Life.)
Jagger defended the moderation of age recently in The New York Times: "When you're at the beginning of your career, you're in the band 24 hours a day. But as you get older you don't want to be doing that. I think the band is fine being in the band, and the band rather likes not being in the band, too. That's a good balance."
We tend to assume that the aspiration for wealth is driven by the desire to stop working once that wealth is acquired. But most of us don't truly seek to stop working, we just want to do our own work instead of someone else's. Hand me the Powerball winnings today, I'll still be writing tomorrow. I just won't have to witness the Who again.
Besides, a world in which a gaudy talent like Jagger just chucks it and spends his final 30 years puttering quietly behind a garden wall is not a world for me.
Still creating, irritating
The trick is to keep the creative pilot light lit amid that rarified air. Another stadium-rocking guitarist, Noel Gallagher from Oasis, recently reflected on the danger of obtaining in one's 30s everything dreamed of as a teen.
"You start a rock band and the goal is to play stadiums. You get there, and you're stuck there," he told me in October. "Any movement from that point is considered a failure. You don't get to say, 'We need to f--- this off and go back to playing clubs,' because you just can't. It's a trap -- an enjoyable one, but it puts an unnecessary ceiling on creativity."
The new Stones songs -- meh. Not superb, but not at all horrible. Richards' riffs and Jagger's yawps don't break the well-tilled ground, but they're snaky and fun and show a band at least still engaged enough to enter a studio and think of something newish. That alone puts them miles ahead of the Who, Fleetwood Mac and dozens of peers who keep coming back bearing only remastered reissues.
But more importantly, the Stones are still a bone of cultural contention. They still manage to irritate all the right people. What other boomer act still staggering through the world's concert venues is the focus of any argument that's not purely academic?
Rock 'n' roll started as a divisive means to scare the bejesus out of old folks. Why can't old rockers flip the script? Look at the 21st-century Stones as something to cheer (right on, let's rock right into our graves!) or something to fear (yegods, even retirement won't be free of this racket). Either way, Jagger still has enough panache to inspire the Maroon 5 song "Moves Like Jagger," and frankly I can't imagine a stiffer, stickier middle finger to pop culture's inherent ageism than to watch googly-eyed Keef grind out riffs into his 70s and beyond.
It's 2012, and the Rolling Stones sold out a 20,000-seat arena, twice. Clearly, they still have something people want to see. Anyone on the sidelines kvetching about their sell-by date -- that iconic tongue is sticking out directly at you.