At Desert Trip, The Rolling Stones Continue to Cheat Death
At a festival dubbed "Oldchella," there was something life affirming in watching a band scoff at their expiration date.
From their inception, The Rolling Stones understood that sex is the only way to cheat death. It's right there in the name, lifted from a Roman proverb-turned-blues lament. Sate your creativity and curiosity. Gather no moss. Eventually, wind up a 73-year-old immortal—a knighted soon-to-be father, betrothed to a ballerina bride four decades your junior.
There's no precedent for a half-century of inducing people to wake up and wonder: "What the fuck happened last night?" The Rolling Stones built their legend on choosing the dirty over you. In this latest blackout, they headlined the first night of the Desert Trip Festival, colloquially known as OldChella, or as Mick Jagger smirks, "Welcome to the Palm Springs retirement home for genteel English musicians."
The absurdity of the spectacle isn't lost on the one-time London School of Economics dropout. Slightly north of 75,000 people ramble about these lush Polo Fields, a similarly unrepentant feat of defiance against nature, considering the scorched desert climate. Jagger calls it Oldchella, thanks Bob Dylan for doing a "great opening set for us," and introduces a "Come Together" cover as being by some "Beat group." When Keith Richards addresses the crowd, cigarette dangling, he rasps, "it's great to be here… it's great to be anywhere."
Twitter jokes mocked the festival's premise as Woodstock held at an Elephant Graveyard where they serve $29 glasses of Silver Oak Alexander Valley Cabernet. That's only partially accurate. Yes, there are padded seats, there are the tie-died septuagenarian "Weekend at Jerry's" cadavers with extinguished eyes, there are soused 63-year-old Hollywood producers cavorting in VIP tents, there is David Spade. Yes, you can buy a thimble of red wine for the amount that it would take to feed an East Timorese family of seven until one of their daughters is old enough to marry Mick Jagger.
But by a wide majority, the crowd is simply music devotees of all-ages. There are babies in strollers, 20-something norm-core couples from Burbank, and barely sentient grandfathers in wheelchairs. Some here for one more Saturday night, some to experience and reconcile these autumnal myths, and for some, it's not that complicated: they are here to see The Rolling Stones. At least if you're judging by the preponderance of people lumbering through the Indio desert still wearing Mick Jagger's lips and tongue in t-shirt form.
Every superlative has long been exhausted on The Rolling Stones. We probably should've started making up new words a long time ago. Last night, they were brilliterful, swaggerine, and marvelificentissimo. Or to paraphrase great American music critic, Inspectah Deck: they left the mic in body bags.
I probably should issue the caveat that while I've always liked The Rolling Stones, I'd have consistently selected The Beatles in the Pepsi Vs. Coke taste challenge. While Keith Richards needs a bronze statue erected to him outside of every public space where people congregate illicitly to do drugs, I've always found Mick to come off like a bit of a ponce. Ron Wood is a sterling guitar player but my perception of him is basically an aggregation of Mike Myers alcoholically mumbling. Charlie Watts may or may not be a live-action version of Yertle the Tertle with clockwork timing.
There's no glory in writing that the Rolling Stones put on one of the best shows that I've ever seen. It's the sort of trite but bold claim that induces reflexive skepticism. Something that you'd expect from a zealot satisfied to hear "Satisfaction" one more time. I am here to tell you that it is all true. Every last preposterous strain of hyperbole. All the times you rolled your eyes at your parents or grandparents telling you about the 60s and The Stones and how you were conceived to the B-Side of Some Girls. All true. Offer them an apology and ask them to fork over the mortgage payment required to attend a Rolling Stones show in 2016. Even their facelifts look good.
The underlying theme is that by all practical logic, there should not be a Rolling Stones show in 2016. Brian Jones has been dead so long that Nehru jackets went in and out of style at least three separate times—to say nothing of skinny jeans. No conventional weapon, crossfire hurricane of opiates and amphetamines, or toxic alchemy of coconut trees and gravity can kill Keith Richards. Mick Jagger remains as limber and sinewy as a yogi who moonlights at Cirque De Soleil. Dance moves included the sizzling chicken strut, the funky rooster, and the carnal turkey. No poultry was safe and none have ever clucked that gracefully.
They came out to "Start Me Up." Obviously. Mick rocked orange and black Knicks-colored jacket and a Rolling Stones t-shirt. He did more wardrobe changes than Beyonce did on the Formation tour, each time coming out with a silk shirt more flamboyantly bright and fresh-pressed. He's currently teaching a fifth generation how to stunt, flex, and swagger. This is why Adam Levine would risk being turned into a pile of sulfur to have moves like Jagger. Frank Ocean told us to watch his Jagger, but he might need to log heavy time in a Pilates lab to get that agile. By the time, Jagger hit the harmonica lick on "Some Girls," there were at least 31,000 women in the audience who wanted him to take them behind a Cathedral City middle school and get them pregnant.
Keith wore a headband and electric Robin Hood green sport coat that proved that it's never too late to get the Dirty Work color scheme right. A few months shy of his 73rd birthday, Richards has become the leathery ancient hellhound bluesman he always aspired towards. Like only a handful left alive, he taps into that ancestral vanished weird America that the Stones caught the tail end of on their first jaunts overseas.
They play the greatest hits because they know what these people need. "You Can't Always Get What You Want" might be a beautiful slogan, but playing mostly new material is would've surely sparked the world's most slow-moving riot. Check 'em off in order: "Start Me Up," "Wild Horses," "Tumbling Dice," "Honky Tonk Woman," "Midnight Rambler," "Miss You," Gimme Shelter," "Sympathy for the Devil," Brown Sugar," "Jumpin' Jack Flash," "Miss You," "Sympathy for the Devil," and "You Can't Always Get What You Want," and ("Can't Get No) Satisfaction."
Outside of The Beatles, there is no group with a greater array of hits. All of which have been bludgeoned to death via licensing and parody, whether intentional or otherwise. I first heard "Start Me Up" through a Windows 95 commercial. "Satisfaction" was a Snickers commercial. "Jumpin' Jack Flash" came to me via a modestly successful Whoopi Goldberg and Jim Belushi vehicle set in the waning days of the Cold War.
My first time hearing The Rolling Stones at length was in an episode of Beverly Hills 90210: The College Years, where the gang sees the Stones at the Rose Bowl. Steve Sanders gets his wallet heisted by a shifty hippie. Donna learns about the magic of Mick via her salt-of-the-earth crooner boyfriend, Ray Pruitt, who sneaks them in as concessionaires. This was 1994, and even then, it seemed like a lame cross-promotional idea concocted by marketing executives, network TV walking neckties, and geezers thirsty to seem to cool to kids who would rather listen to "C.R.E.A.M."
But inevitably, Steve Sanders was right. Mick and Keith still have that Aquemini chemistry that I only saw in Outkast. The alluvial rock grounding the levitating balloon, that balance of dirt and gloss, the knight versus the pirate. What's so stunning is that these spavined songs somehow seemed fresh. With roughly a dozen virtuosic musicians behind them, it furnished played out anthems with both added muscle and looseness. They reified the oft-forgotten first rule of rock n' roll: you need to make girls dance.
At one point, a 60-year-old stranger turned to me and asked if I'd ever seen anything like this. I told him that I hadn't. I expected something weaker, a debased legend or diluted version of the uncut dope. Something closer to the "Fare Thee Well" Grateful Dead shows that I saw last summer—excellent but nonetheless an approximation.
He told me that he first saw the Stones in DC. when he was 17. They were on the "It's Only Rock & Roll tour" and Jagger was swinging across the stage on a 40-foot inflatable penis. Sounds about right. He said that he saw them last November and they were as good as they'd ever been.
"This might even be better," he claimed. "You know they're off drugs, and they have in-ear monitors so they can really hear what they're playing." I offered him a hit of my joint and we kept talking until the music took over once again. We nodded at each other and kept watching.
In 2016, we know too well that all heroes eventually die. Bowie and Prince and Phife and Lemmy shuffled off to Valhalla. Someone on this stage on this weekend is certain to be next. If there is a point to all this, it's about how you approach aging and eventually death: whether you go gently into the night or set off fireworks as The Stones literally did at the end of their set. There was something life affirming in watching a band scoff at their expiration date. As though if we somehow manage to keep ahold of Mick Jagger's fountain of youth serum made from the blood of Burmese virgins, the nectar of a rare 1,200 year old Galapagos tortoise, and kale smoothies covered in organic fat-free emeralds, we can all continue to beat back against the current—or at least refuse to stay stagnant.
Rolling Stones set list:
"Start Me Up"
"You Got Me Rocking"
"Out of Control"
"Ride 'Em on Down" (Jimmy Reed cover)
"It's Only Rock 'n' Roll (but I Like It)"
"Come Together" (Beatles cover)
"Honky Tonk Women"
"Sympathy for the Devil"
"Jumpin' Jack Flash"
"You Can't Always Get What You Want"
"(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction"
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