To me, the great thing about the Stones is that they were for the connoisseurs. They were popular, sure. But never as big as the Beatles. Never as big as Led Zeppelin. Aside from the 1978 LP Some Girls and the compilation Hot Rocks, their albums never sold a ton — not when compared to the likes of Pink Floyd or Elton John or Fleetwood Mac or Michael Jackson. Or, for that matter, Boston, Alanis Morissette, or Hootie and the Blowfish.
They were the punk-rock alternative avant la lettre.
The hardest thing to accept about Late Stones — the rebranded entity that opened for business in 1989, after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards reached a professional detente, grossing a gazillion dollars through 2007 — is that it was premised on the idea that the band is the not only the greatest, but the biggest thing in the world.
Since virtually everything the Stones do is done from ironic distance, they managed to carry off the conceit — “mass bohemianism,” as the critic Robert Christgau called it — quite well. But it took a steely sort of apologist to tolerate all the “ruthless branding, the shameless corporate tie-ins, the private shows for Pepsi executives, Texas billionaires and German bankers” (said I in a recent article for the Washington Times).
Something clicked a couple years ago, however. More accurately, something banged: namely Keith Richards’s head. Given the principals’ advancing age, something like this transition was bound to occur sooner rather than later. But Richards’s head injury and its aftermath seems to have at least partly inspired a stock-taking within the Stones camp. Richards himself hunkered down and wrote an astonishingly well-received memoir. And Jagger set down to the task of clerking through the band’s recording archives — which he gave every indication of refusing to do while he was alive.
With help from Grammy-winning producer Don Was, Jagger spearheaded revivals of the classic albums Exile on Main Street and Some Girls, dusting off old outtakes and recording new vocal tracks for them. Through Google Music, the band also has begun releasing a series of live performances previously available only as bootlegs. (And given that they’re so available, their asking price is bargain-basement.)
This is a posture that suits the soon-to-be-70 Jagger and Richards well (and, lest we forget, 71-year-old drummer Charlie Watts). Instead of trying to update their legacy with ever-more-extravagant tours of the world’s stadiums, they are tending to — in a word, conserving — their legacy. Which isn’t to say they’ve become a “burnt-out institution” — a state that, Jagger recently joked, they’re assiduously hoping to avoid. They still can craft a tune (no, they haven’t had a “hit,” in a long time, but who cares about hits?). And Jagger can still cut an electric figure onstage.
To borrow the famous G.K. Chesterton phrase, the Stones are keeping the fencepost freshly painted.
Here’s hoping we get to see what’s left of them perform soon, for one last hurrah.