Rock of Ages
A little less than 20 years ago (in 1979), music critic Greil Marcus looked back over the previous decade and, in the opening paragraphs of a Village Voice article titled "Rock Death in the 1970s: A Sweepstakes," zeroed in on what he'd pegged as "the cant word of the seventies." The word was "survivor," as in the Rolling Stones' "Soul Survivor," Barry Mann's Survivor, Eric Burdon's Survivor, Lynyrd Skynyrd's Street Survivors, Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive," and, of course, the band Survivor. Its endemic usage as a semantic badge of honor in the fast and free realm of rock had become, in Marcus's words, "a justification for empty song-protagonists, washed-up careers, third-rate LPs, [and] burnt-out brainpans." The idea that anyone who had chosen the adventurous if sometimes hazardous life of a rock-and-roller would anoint himself or herself with the same word used to describe victims of torture, famine, epidemics, and war both amused and annoyed Marcus. "Survivor," he wrote with equal parts humor and venom, "now applies to anyone who has persevered, or rather continued, any form of activity, including breathing, for almost any amount of time."Survival means more in rock today than it did in 1979, if only because rock music is 18 years further along an arc that began less than 50 years ago. It's still used as an excuse to celebrate mediocrity and, even more often, to add a dose of drama to the tales of underappreciated critics' darlings who have been "toiling in obscurity" for a period of years, sometimes well past their prime. But to the very large extent that rock is founded upon both the illusion and the reality of youthful rebellion -- the "Hope I die before I get old" clause of the rock-and-roll contract -- artistic perseverance past a certain age does represent a triumph of sorts. (Indeed, it brings to mind the '70s sci-fi flick Logan's Run, in which a youthful utopian society is maintained through the extermination of anyone over the age of 30. Living to the age of 40 in such a world would qualify one as a survivor.)This idea doesn't mean that just because someone like Paul McCartney releases an album, it's necessarily a good album, any more than living another year automatically makes someone a better person. But it does add weight to the work of certain rare artists who do more than coast into middle age living up to the diminished expectations of nostalgic fans. Artists whose relevance has survived the passage of time. Artists like the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and Patti Smith, all of whom released new CDs this week.That what's left of the Stones after 34 years -- Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ron Wood -- continues to exist as a functioning band after all these years, several key line-up changes, and the bitter Jagger/Richards feud that kept the group off the road and their future in question during the mid '80s is something of a wonder in itself. (The 1989 Steel Wheels tour was the last to feature founding bassist Bill Wyman, whose sweatsuit fashion statements had started to look a bit too humorously geriatric for his own good; his loss hasn't seemed to affect the Stones much one way or the other.) Chalk it up to the combined force of Keith's stubborn desire to set some kind of unattainable record for band longevity and Mick's interest in generating as much income as humanly possible before he retires.The Stones' persistence in making noteworthy albums is driven, similarly, by what appear to be very different talents, namely Keith's instinctive feel for the music and Mick's studied grasp of the market. If Mick weren't there to orchestrate the occasional image update and inject a mild dose of the contemporary into the group's elemental bad-boy blues-rock aesthetic every now and again (from the disco chic of 1980's Emotional Rescue to the new-wave veneer of '83's Undercover), Keith might have lapsed into playing the same riff over and over again years ago. (Yeah, sometimes it seems he's done that anyway, but it's a pretty good riff.) And if Keith weren't there to keep the Stones grounded in the Chuck Berry -- bred basics of driving rhythm guitar and 1-4-5 progressions, Mick would likely be bouncing from trend to fleeting trend with diminishing returns (feel free to refer to his solo albums for clarification on that point).The funniest thing about the new Stones disc, Bridges to Babylon (Virgin), is that even though Mick got his way this time and persuaded Keith and executive producer Don Was to bring in trendy producers like new-jack soulman Babyface, and electronic loopmeisters the Dust Brothers and Danny Saber (best-known for his slice-and-dice work with Black Grape), the result still mostly sounds like a meat-and-potatoes Stones disc. (Sorry, Mick, but what kind of a moron would rather have a loop than one of Charlie Watts's impeccable rhythm tracks?) Yeah, no strikingly new tricks for these old dogs, except for maybe the Biz Markie sample that pops up at the end of the disc's mid-tempo first single, "Anybody Seen My Baby," and the cheesy synths on the otherwise bluesy "Might As Well Get Juiced." But the sample just sounds like a rap cameo (no big deal), the synths are proof that they're a trick the Stones may never learn, Babyface's tracks didn't make the final cut, and Saber's work on the gangsta-style boast "Gunface" (as in "I stick a gun in your face") just lends an overprocessed veneer to a misguided tune I'm guessing wasn't all that good to begin with.That said, the crucial essence of the Stones -- the blues spark they more or less perfected on the classic Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street -- survives intact on nine of the disc's 13 tracks. "Low Down" is powered by the elemental force of one of Keith's distinctive five-string guitar riffs and the chugga-chugga swing of Watts's backbeat. It's a winning enough combination to excuse tossed-off lyrics like "Gimme the low down/Don't want a showdown." Mick's talent for delivering a tough yet tender ballad comes to the fore on the piano-and-acoustic-guitar-laced "Already Over Me," which has a fragile melody reminiscent of "You Can't Always Get What You Want."Indeed, the most compelling tunes on Bridges to Babylon are the ones that allude to other Stones tunes: "Anybody Seen My Baby," with its "Beast of Burden" -- style guitar hook and Mick quoting from Some Girls' cover of the Temptations' "Just My Imagi nation" on the outro; and the "Sympathy for the Devil" -- inspired beat and lyrics of "Saint of Me" (as in "You'll Never Make a Saint of Me"). Both suggest that what's survived with the Stones is not so much a nostalgic link to the past (though it is that, too) as a code or semi-secret language that will likely send serious Stones fans back to the classics and may intrigue newer listeners enough to inspire them to do the same.As has been the case for the past decade, it's Keith's tunes that speak that language and telegraph that code the best on Bridges to Babylon, on the disc's closing numbers, "Thief in the Night" and "How Can I Stop." It's not the lyrics (sung by Keith), the riffs, or the production that distinguishes these tunes, but simply the dusky feel that harks back to the earthy murk of Exile on Main Street. There's always a temptation with the Stones to look back over the decades and compare their contemporary work to a landmark like Exile, which is as absurd as measuring the latest space shuttle mission against the zeitgeist of the first manned flight to the moon. There's just no way to re-create the historical context of the earlier event, or even to quantify it.But in the hymnlike center of "Thief in the Night" and the messy corners of "How Can I Stop," there are glimpses of the same weary ghosts that haunt Exile and a moodiness that becomes almost tangible when Keith's guitar crashes instinctively into one of Watts's rare drum breaks and connects with Wayne Shorter's wounded soprano sax. It's not so much classic rock as classy rock. Maybe next time around -- assuming there is a next time -- the Stones will be wise enough to pick up where "How Can I Stop" leaves off, stop worrying about being contemporary, and just focus on being timeless.They could do much worse than take their musical cues from Bob Dylan, who returns from a long songwriting hiatus on Time Out of Mind (Columbia), his first disc of new original material since 1989's Oh Mercy (Columbia). Scrappy electric guitars, elemental blues licks, and chugging backbeats, accented with organ, slide guitar, and the occasional blast of harmonica, form the sonic backbone of the album's 11 tracks. Like the Stones, Dylan gets around rock's youth orientation by leaning heavily on the archetype of the old bluesman. Nothing surprising there, but it would be hard to imagine a more appropriate setting for Dylan's knotty-pine voice, or for these songs of love, loss, reflection, and regret. The elegant simplicity of the music and Daniel Lanois's spare production conveys a kind of dignified authority that, say, the awkward synths on the Stones' "Might As Well Get Juiced" miss entirely. This is Dylan doing Dylan straight, no chaser, which means, as opposed to the Stones, you shouldn't expect to hear anything from Time Out of Mind on the radio any time soon.That's nothing new for Dylan, who's never had as successful a radio album as his son Jakob has had with the Wallflowers' Bringing Down the Horse. And there's nothing new in the romantic bitterness and estrangement of songs like "Standing in the Doorway" ("You left me standing in the doorway crying under the midnight moon") and "Ê'Til I Fell in Love with You," which hark back to 1975's Blood on the Tracks, or the ominous hints he drops in lines like "When I am gone you will remember my name" and "I know the mercy of god must be near." In fact, Time Out of Mind abounds with both subtle and obvious allusions to Dylan's past, from the strong hints of "Knocking on Heaven's Door" that surface in the moving "Tryin' To Get to Heaven" to the stirring devotion of "Make You Feel My Love," which echoes the sentiments of "Forever Young."Mostly I hear these allusions in the almost 17 minute-long "Highlands," which juxtaposes images of the wry jokerman of Dylan's youth ("I think what I need might be a full-length leather coat/Somebody just asked me if I've registered to vote") with lighthearted snapshots of him today ("I'm listening to Neil Young/I gotta turn up the sound/Someone's always yelling/Turn it down") and revisits the "Sad-Eyed Lady of the Lowlands," who materializes here in the form of a waitress in a Boston restaurant. Dylan, it seems, doesn't know what to order. She tells him he wants hard-boiled eggs. They don't have any hard-boiled eggs. She asks him to draw a picture of her, but he says he doesn't sketch from memory. She reminds him that she's standing right in front of him, "or haven't you looked." And so on, until you're not sure whether she's a ghost from the future or the past.Time Out of Mind is haunted by both tenses through the torn and frayed voice of a man confronting his own mortality in song. "The party's over/There's less and less to say/I've got new eyes/Everything looks far away," he reveals in "Highlands." And with a voice as dry as his wit, and as urgent as the harmonica solo that precedes it, he sings "I close my eyes and I wonder if everything is as hollow as it seems" on "Tryin' To Get to Heaven." He's King Lear, a self-imposed exile searching for an answer that no longer seems to be blowing in the wind, just trying to get to heaven before they close the door because there's nothing else left to do. At least, that's how I hear it. But like all of Dylan's best material, the songs on Time Out of Mind are riddles of a sort, collections of clues held together by timeless blues-rock progressions that can lead to any number of possible conclusions about the singer, the songs, and, most important, the listener.It was on a tour opening for Dylan that Patti Smith established her relevance as a rock-and-roll artist in the '90s. That was something her '96 "comeback" album, Gone Again (Arista), didn't quite do for me, regardless of the glowing press coverage it received -- which seemed a perfect example of how critics employ the survivor clause to inflate assessments of a less-than-compelling effort. The tour rekindled a rock-and-roll spirit that the CD lacked, a spirit that apparently carried over to the recording sessions for the new Peace and Noise (Arista).Teamed once again with original Patti Smith Group members J.D. Daugherty and Lenny Kaye, as well as bassist Tony Shanahan (from Gone Again) and guitarist/songwriter Oliver Ray, Smith reconnects her lyrical, visceral poetry with the gritty simplicity of three-and-four-chord garage rock. In spirit, at least, the new album picks up where the Patti Smith Group of the '70s left off, minus the keyboards. There are first-person, stream-of-consciousness outpourings like the acoustic "Blue Poles" and third-person stories like the hard-rocking "1959"; there's the light, reggae-inflected pop of "Whirl Away" and the heavy, droning, noise improv set to a Bo Diddley beat of "Memento Mori." And there's a tribute to a poet past, this time to Ginsberg ("Spell") instead of Rimbaud.Gone Again was Smith's survivor tale, with its lyrics that addressed the passing of the singer's husband, Fred "Sonic" Smith. But it's Peace and Love that marks Smith as a rock-and-roll survivor, not because she's endured a particular hardship, but because the bristling spirit of her art, what she once termed "convulsive beauty," has endured. Same goes for the Rolling Stones, even on what amounts to flawed new album. And especially for Dylan, who very nearly embodies convulsive beauty.There wouldn't be much point in trying to argue that any of the above artists has endured the kind of undue physical hardship that would warrant the application of "survivor." Sure, Stones icon Keith Richards looks as if he'd survived some grueling experience -- that's as much a part of his image as the skull ring. His was one of rock's most notorious heroin addictions. Dylan has had two widely publicized close encounters with death: the motorcycle accident of legend and a bout with a near-fatal heart infection earlier this year. And over the course of the last decade Smith has lost a close friend (Robert Mapplethorpe), a bandmate (pianist Richard Sohl from the original Patti Smith Group), a brother (Todd Smith), and her husband.But even Smith, who's the least obviously fortunate of the crew (certainly in terms of records sales), has been lucky enough to live off her art. She maintained a rather bohemian lifestyle ("Fred and I spent a lot of time traveling through America, living in cheap motels by the sea," she told Rolling Stone last year) even when she wasn't actively involved in the music industry. As for Dylan and the Stones, let's just say they probably could have retired years ago and lived comfortably off royalties.So, really, the only physical turmoil Dylan, Smith, and the Stones have survived is the same aging process that confronts us all. But in the much smaller, metaphorical realm of rock music, where Dylan, Smith, and the Stones exist as icons, the rules are different -- precisely because survival is usually a justification for empty song-protagonists, washed-up careers, third-rate LPs, and burnt-out brainpans. Dylan, Smith, and the Stones are the exceptions. And in a business that has always been geared toward a youth market, any artist over the age of 50 might as well be 150 years old. Anyone who lives that long and still matters has earned the right to be called a survivor.