What a Drag It Is Gettin' Old
Few things are more self-evidently embarrassing than the last 25 years of music produced by the world's greatest and most arthritic rock band, the Rolling Stones -- a group whose 2002 world tour will doubtless be the first to be cosponsored by Depends and Viagra and whose audience will largely consist of dead pool bettors hoping to cash in on the precise moment that Keith Richards is officially pronounced as deceased.
Indeed, who can seriously argue that the Stones, for all their past and undeniable glory, have even come close to releasing an album that matters since 1978's Some Girls? Given their output since then, one doubts that even the wine-drinking Puerto Rican girls who figured so scandalously in that LP's best-known track, "Miss You," are still just dyin' to meet them.
Yet if something can be more cringe-inducing than years of sonic bombs such as 1980's Emotional Rescue, 1986's Dirty Work, and 1997's Bridges to Babylon, it's surely the news that Mick Jagger will be knighted by rock's newly unmasked number one groupie, Queen Elizabeth II. (To be fair, the Cavalier-like Jagger, the father of seven children by four different women and a key player in various naughty urban legends featuring candy bars and same-sex couplings, has always acted as if he were a member of the decadent court of King Charles II.)
His receiving an official title from the queen is, like the recent star-studded Golden Jubilee concert in her honor, simply the latest sign that the once potent countercultural force known as "rock" has been every bit as domesticated as satanist cum sitcom-patriarch Ozzy Osbourne. Was it really only a quarter-century ago that the Sex Pistols gloriously, censoriously, questioned the very humanity of that same queen?
Call it the Death of Rock. Or, more precisely, the death of rock's pretensions to Dionysian excess and subversive power, once widely understood to be its very raison d'être. It may never have been particularly true, but since rock's emergence as a self-conscious, if always ill-defined, category in the mid-1950s, fans and foes alike could agree that the form is somehow a challenge to the status quo. As Frank Sinatra memorably put it in 1957, rock "is sung, played, and written for the most part by cretinous goons. By means of its almost imbecilic reiteration it manages to be the martial music of every sideburned delinquent on the face of the earth." Exactly. And therein lies its great and enduring appeal.
Rock -- a loose term that designates at best an inchoate impulse or sensibility in certain popular music -- provides not only a youthful outlet against adults, but a forum where musical genres and traditions mingle promiscuously and often ridiculously; it creates a psychic location in which race, class, and gender lines can be dangerously blurred and overridden with wanton, hedonistic, and adolescent delight for kids of all ages. This potential reached full flower for the first time in the '60s, the first decade in which rock fully dominated the pop landscape. Not coincidentally, the '60s ushered in an age in which rock performers were fetishized and demonized as dangerously liberatory and messianic.
Few major bands played to this perception more so than the Stones, and arguably no individual more successfully than Jagger himself (his main competitor might have been Jim Morrison, who had the good grace, like the athlete dying young, to expire at age 27, thereby saving his fans from inevitable disappointment). Incapable of getting satisfaction, Jagger was nonetheless insatiable, a demonic street-fighting man who presided with some disturbing but undeniable dark delight over the carnage at Altamont. Most interesting, because most disturbing, the twitchy, bitchy Jagger never promised any sort of political or moral uplift; rather, he promised only to debauch himself and whoever he was with, to push the limits of human excess and degradation. He was the type of drinking buddy around whom you never wanted to pass out for fear of what he might do to you. The infamous story about Mick, Marianne Faithfull, and the Mars bar may well be false, but with Jagger, it's not only believable -- you almost want it to be true.
When listening to the Stones' great rival from the '60s, the Beatles, you can rest assured that things would never ultimately get out of control, that the Fab Four's relentless aesthetic judgment and good taste would prevail, that in the end, everything was gonna be alright. At their best, which is to say their most decadent and sinister, the Stones never offered their fans any such safe harbor (it's no surprise that their worst music in the '60s came when they pathetically tried to ape the Beatles). Rather, they served up sheer pleasure so intense that it became unnerving and offered no justification other than to proclaim that it's only rock 'n' roll. That's one of the reasons why, rare for a big '60s act, the Stones segued relatively easily into the decadent, androgynous '70s, releasing as many (or arguably, more) great and outrageous albums in that decade (Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street, Goat's Head Soup, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, and Some Girls) as in the one before. It's no accident that that ultimate square, Allan Bloom, singled out Jagger in The Closing of the American Mind as the sine qua non of everything that was diseased in youth culture.
But however much we used to love them, it's all over now. Or, rather, it has been over for decades for the Stones and for Jagger, who are clearly spent as a creative force and who are far too established to ever again be threats to anyone or anything, other than their own reputation. In a larger sense, the same is true for rock itself, which after more than five decades now boasts not only a joy-killing Hall of Fame but so endlessly gestures toward maturity and responsibility that you almost suspect rockers to be suffering from repetitive-stress injuries. Is there anything more appalling than the sight of dried-out rock stars ranging from Alice Cooper to Steven Tyler extolling the virtues of booze-free living like so many reformed drunks testifying at a 19th-century temperance revival meeting? As if fans had ever looked to rock stars for role models rather than vicarious thrills.
Jagger's generation of rockers, now figuratively and often literally fat and anxious in middle age, are especially appalling in this regard. To wit, Eric Clapton, the guitar god who made his best music while strung out on smack and lusting after his best friend's wife, has remade himself as a bespectacled professor of rockology who plays exquisitely nuanced but indescribably boring music; Sir Elton John, the refreshingly audacious queen who once romped in cemeteries for album-cover photos and scandalized straight America with his sexual confessions, writes dreary Disney tunes; David Bowie, once widely understood to be a completely alien life form, now issues bonds backed against his future royalties. And now Mick Jagger, the squire of the secret sex room at Studio 54 and the rider of giant inflatable penises in concert, will supplicate himself before an actual queen. All that's left is for Johnny Rotten to turn up as a guard at Buckingham Palace.
Surely it was more than coincidence that in the few short days between Queen Elizabeth's Jubilee Concert and the announcement about Jagger's knighthood, Dee Dee Ramone shuffled off his mortal coil. The newspaper accounts of Ramone's death all respectfully noted that the cause was a "possible accidental drug overdose." But such cautious wording was unnecessary. Indeed, given the punk pioneer's history and the abundance of drug paraphernalia near his corpse, the only real mystery is how he could afford enough heroin to kill himself.
Whatever the official coroner's report might state, let's call this what it plainly was, a rock 'n' roll suicide. Dee Dee, the author of "I Don't Want to Live This Life (Anymore)," an epic tune inspired by the sordid lives of Sid Vicious and Nancy Spungen, must have known exactly what he was doing. The Ramones, after all, reinvigorated rock in the '70s, just as the Stones were themselves running out of gas gas gas. If anyone fit Sinatra's description of "cretinous goons" and "sideburned delinquents," it was Joey, Johnny, Tommy, and Dee Dee. With signature tunes like "Beat On the Brat," "Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue," "You're Gonna Kill That Girl," "Gimme Gimme Shock Treatment," and "I Wanna Be Sedated," the Ramones (and the punk movement they spearheaded) sketched a world filled with dumb and often explicitly anti-social fun.
It is irresistible -- indeed, it is nothing less than heartening -- to imagine that Dee Dee, still reeling from the secret shame of being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, had no doubt read accounts of the Queen's Jubilee Concert. Maybe he even heard rumors about the knighting of Sir Mick and realized that there was just no place left in the world for a guy to sing about the wanton joys of sniffing glue and being sedated. He didn't want to live this life anymore. And who in their right minds can blame him?
Nick Gillespie is Reason's editor-in-chief.