David Hoppe

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:: Who’s a rock star?

Mick Jagger, that’s who

by David Hoppe

“You’re a rock star.” People say this as a kind of shorthand describing someone’s status. It doesn’t mean you can play an instrument or carry a tune. It means you’ve got juice, mojo, something extra.

The funny thing about calling somebody a rock star is that they seem to be a dying breed. Take Mick Jagger, for example. If ever there was a guy to call a rock star, it’d have to be Mick. He practically invented the term.

Last week, Mick, along with his mates in the Rolling Stones, announced plans to embark on an abbreviated North American tour. They’ll play arenas in nine cities; the closest the band will come to Indianapolis is Chicago’s United Center, for three dates, beginning May 28. Tickets for that show start at 85 bucks and run as high as $600 — prices like that, I guess, are what being a rock star is really about.

But those prices also suggest the end of a certain line.

The Rolling Stones have been together through 50 summers. Their drummer, Charlie Watts, is 71 years-old. Mick — SIR Mick, now — will turn 70 in July, a month after the band headlines the Glastonbury Festival. His Glimmer Twin, Keith Richards, reaches the big 7-0 in time for this coming Christmas. While some have rightly pointed out that this graying version of the Stones is simply following in the footsteps of their seemingly ageless blues mentors, all of whom played until they dropped, this doesn’t quite get at the whole of what this septugenarian Stones spectacle means.

It’s worth remembering that the Rolling Stones started out as an almost academic project: skinny English white boys fervently studying and then trying their best to perform like the black American blues giants they idolized. Their name was an homage to a Muddy Waters song and they went so far as to record their first Number One hit at the Chess studio in Chicago where Waters and other bluesmen worked.

The Stones arrived in the States in the ‘60s as part of the Beatles-inspired British Invasion. At first, the band tried to set itself apart by being the anti-Beatles, a group that meant to bite your hand, instead of hold it. They made the most of bad publicity, publicly pissing on walls and being caught in titillating situations with drugs and girlfriends.

But it wasn’t until the Beatles’ break-up that the Stones found their immediately identifiable sound, the aural equivalent of a flick knife and a boxing glove. Between their 1969 recording of the darkly prophetic “Gimme Shelter” and the truly murderous shambles of their concert in December of that year at Altamont, California, where tripping hippies were bludgeoned in front of the stage by Hell’s Angels, the Stones almost singlehandedly brought down the curtain on the self-proclaimed decade of peace and love.

It’s hard, at this historical remove, to grasp how important these things felt at the time. Counter culture, although not broadly embraced, was nevertheless gaining traction — not only in teenage bedrooms, but on campuses, creative businesses, and even in some outposts in Vietnam. Rock music was at the heart of this movement; and the people who played it weren’t seen as just musicians, they were treated like shamans, whose influence could seem to transcend that of most politicians or, for that matter, any other class of public figure.

The rock star idea was born — Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones made the most of it. By the 1970s, the Stones had figured out how to infuse the blues’ darkest veins with that decade’s sexual buccaneering and political dissolution. They were one hell of a dance band; at their best they could scare you and turn you on at the same time.

A lot of blood has washed under the bridge since then. Mick and the Stones have soldiered on, sometimes affectingly, oftentimes not. Books have been written about them, and some of them have written books themselves (Keith Richard’s memoir is particularly good).

Meanwhile, rock music itself has changed. Once a force, capable of challenging the dominant culture’s assumptions and mores, rock has, at once, been subsumed into the larger entertainment industry of grazing celebrity, while also being marginalized as yet another form of contemporary art — one that speaks to individuals, instead of generations. Believe it or not, the electric guitar was once a subversive instrument.

What used to be called rock has been broken into countless pieces, just like the culture that spawned it. People who hope that music might once again act as a catalyst for social or cultural change are looking in the wrong place. If there is going to be another semi-transformational moment, like the ‘60s, it is unlikely that music will be its engine. Some other art form or opportunity will provide the spark. These days, chefs are called “rock stars” more often than most musicians.

But this, perhaps, is also why this latest chance to see Mick and the Stones do their thing is priced on the order of a rare and vintage wine. If you want to see a rock star, this could be your last chance to experience the real thing.