Ages of Rock

The music born in youthful rebellion in the 1950s endures - and so do the Rolling Stones, still among its foremost practitioners, attempting to prove that rock really is here to stay

January 29, 2006|By MICHAEL HILL | MICHAEL HILL,SUN REPORTER

When the Rolling Stones last appeared in what was then the Baltimore Civic Center, in 1969, it is a safe bet that everyone in the audience was certain rock 'n' roll was here to stay. What probably didn't occur to anyone was that one day the music might face the challenges of growing old.

The rock of that era was emerging from its youth, full of the brashness of adolescence, sure of its growing importance and its immortality with the certainty that only youth can possess.

It will be different Wednesday night at what is now the Baltimore Arena, when the Stones return to this city for first time in more than 35 years. The brashness of youth has been replaced by the stability of middle age. The question is, can something that old still be rock 'n' roll, a music that built its identity on the foundation of youthfulness?

"The idea of a rock star on Social Security, that was totally alien to us," says William McKeen, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Florida, who has written about rock music and taught its history. "I never thought that would happen. But, in fact, this year Bob Dylan turns 65."

For the record, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are 62; Charlie Watts is 64.

"In a way, it's interesting," McKeen says. "Yes, you can be a rock star and age gracefully, but by the standards we grew up with it is impossible to age gracefully and be a rock star.

"It's a weird contradiction."

And it is one the Rolling Stones face every time they take the stage. There's no easy resolution. A Stones concert might be a high-priced oldies show, nothing more than a nostalgia wallow for well-off baby boomers. Or it might be a trip to an incredible museum, displaying some of the works of rock's golden age, the years 1965 to 1975, when the Stones were at their best.

Or it may be that the Stones, with the journey they have taken through rock history, helping the music to find the balance between instrumental virtuosity and raw power, prove with every performance that rock 'n' roll is indeed here to stay.

The Stones first appeared as the scruffy, rebellious alternative to the fresh-faced Beatles. Now their tours are huge money-making machines, complete with a corporate sponsor - Ameriquest Mortgage, just in the news for agreeing to pay a $325 million fine to states that accused it of predatory lending practices.

Back in the 1960s, it seemed funny that Jagger had a degree from the London School of Economics. Now that more is written about how much the Stones' tours gross than how the band sounds, it seems a salient factor of his development.

In part that's because you know how the band is going to sound. That wasn't the case in 1969. When you went to a rock concert then, you didn't know what was going to happen - onstage or in the crowd. In 2006, you have a pretty good idea that the sound will be as rehearsed as a Broadway show out on tour, and good behavior will be enforced by a plethora of burly bouncers.

The year the Stones last appeared in Baltimore was a crucial one in rock history that in some ways laid out the path the music has taken in the decades since.

A few weeks after their concert at the Civic Center, the Stones played their ill-fated free show at Altamont in California. Hells Angels hired to provide security beat on fans and performers alike, killing one man who pulled a gun. Some saw Altamont, documented in the Maysle brothers' 1970 film Gimme Shelter, as the end of the peace-and-love 1960s.

That came only a few months after what is remembered as the peak experience of that counterculture, when hundreds of thousands of people had gathered at Woodstock for a weekend of peace, music and mud. While it seemed like the celebration of all things hippie, many point to that August 1969 weekend as the days when the business moguls realized that rock 'n' roll was indeed here to stay. And that there was serious money to be made off of it.

Consider what had come before. Elvis Presley had certainly been a phenomenon, but he had soon gone the standard entertainment route, heading to Hollywood and the movies. The Beatles also hit it big, but there was no indication that their screaming fans represented more than a one-shot thing, as ephemeral as the tastes of the young.

But Woodstock showed that something was happening here. Soon the shows and the checks and the record deals got bigger. What many regarded as an outlandish art - a youthful expression of freedom, doing for its followers what Jackson Pollock had done with paint a generation before - was about to become a big business.

Perhaps because of that, after 1969 rock underwent what has been a periodic swinging of the pendulum between power and virtuosity. It had happened before, when the gut-wrenching kick of those 1950s rockers - the ones onstage with Johnny Cash in his early touring days shown in the movie Walk the Line - was lost in the overproduced pablum that came out later in that decade.

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