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Growing up with the stones
A diehard fan, whose Stones' journey started with 'Route 66' and climaxed in Bangalore, on why the band keep rolling 50 years later.
The first Rolling Stones song that I ever heard was a Bobby Troup song. I was 12 and during school holidays in sleepy Calcutta, I pulled out a dusty old Decca EP from a friend's collection and played Route 66 on a Grundig player. The easy bounce and the verve of one of the best road songs ever written blew me away. The next Stone song I heard was a Slim Harpo swamp blues classic, on the B-side of the same record, and an early one from their struggling Crawdaddy days. "Well I'm a king bee/Can buzz all night long/Yeah I can buzz better baby/When your man is gone", snarled an insouciant Mick Jagger, loud and clear, out of the cracking speakers. I remember I froze on a hot summer afternoon. And then there were no Stones.
In my parched Hindu-rate-of-growth childhood at home when the Stones were at their peak, it was difficult to get their - or any other band's - records in our cobwebbed record stores. EMI or Polydor India would press a few copies of the odd Led Zeppelin, Rod Stewart and Stones on vinyl for sale from time to time. Lunchtime Variety and Musical Bandbox, the weekend noon pop music fare on All India Radio, Calcutta, was all about heavy rotation play of songs like Rhinestone Cowboy (God, I've hated Glen Campbell ever since), Country Road (never listened to John Denver again in my life) or Top of the World (the Carpenters wrote good melodies, but how many times can you listen to such tripe?). Outside, Manu Dibango's disco-soul mish mash Soul Makosa made the subaltern leap from an All India Radio staple to regular play over atrocious tiny speakers at neighbourhood puja festivals. Benign local bullies would go around singing, Mama-se, Mammasa, Mamma-ma-ko-ssa, because it simply sounded like a Bengali thug ditty. And then there was the faux funk sleeper hit Kung Fu Fighting (Everybody was kung fu fighting - hunh/Those kids were fast as lighting -ha ), which was playing everywhere and anywhere and then totally disappeared till Fatboy Slim resurrected it some years ago.
I had had my injection of regulation Beatles, but it was the Stones I had secretly loved after Route 66. But they were elusive and hard to get, almost lurking in the shadows. Then suddenly, again on a summer afternoon few years later in high school, they returned. A friend's brother had shipped him a recorded TDK tape of Out of Our Heads from Australia, and he asked whether I wanted a listen. I took it home immediately and returned to Stonesland. There was Don Covay's Mercy Mercy with an added swing, the bluesy tearjerker That's How Strong My Love Is bringing down Jagger to his knees, Sam Cooke's brooding Good Times, and the fledgling Jagger-Richards' own 12-bar blues The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man.
I didn't return the tape.
A few months later, another friend proudly showed off his copy of Some Girls that his mum had got from a foreign trip. We gathered around his impressive stereo deck and listened to it, stunned by its deliciously misogynist underpinnings and twisted guitar work. Some girls give me children, sang Jagger, lasciviously, I never asked them for. And then there was no looking back - we collected and swapped the records. Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Exile On Main Street, the best works triptych, arrived a while later on Rs 65-pirated tapes from a firm called 'Peacock' in Bangkok. Mick's white-blues vocals and Keith's rough licks, to begin with, had won me for life. And then there was the sound. As Truman Capote told Andy Warhol in a surreal Rolling Stone interview during the 1973 Exile tour, "There's no Stone song which makes absolutely logical sense from beginning to end. It's all in the sound. " Ramshackle, ragged and primal. One which snared me into the big, bad world of blues.
Suddenly, life was so much better.
Bangalore, some 30 summers later, April 2003. I'm standing in the sun at the dusty Palace Ground in front of a huge stage waiting for my baptism in Stones live, gearing up for my rock and roll bar mitzvah, surrounded by fans from Israel, Hong Kong, Singapore, England. I had taken a day's leave from my employers in Delhi, and come to Bangalore to see and listen to my gods in person, a few decades late. So much had changed - the Stones were in their sixties and thoroughly establishment even though they were still singing Street Fighting Man;Bill Wyman had dropped out because of ennui and air fright;ravaged by time, Mick, Keef and Ronnie were living clean despite Ron's frequent rehab outings;their last truly good song had been Start Me Up from more than two decades ago;and Stones tours were no longer drug-and drink-addled headline grabbing orgies of music, sex and hype. Brian Jones was dead. The incredible Mick Taylor (listen to him play live on You Can't Always Get What You Want on the bootleg Brussels Affair and you realise how much the Stones were diminished when he quit the band) and Nicky Hopkins were distant memories. Now rock's grizzled old men travelled with their big family broods. They provoked spiteful headlines like 'Would you let your grandmother marry a Rolling Stone?' When they went on a tour in the mid- '80s and called it Steel Wheels, some papers mocked it as the Steel Wheelchair tour. "It's the press that seems to care about age, not audiences, " an annoyed Jagger had responded.
I stood in the Rs 1, 500 standing enclosure after taking my place three hours before the gig, my heart beating in anticipation and these thoughts in my head. Roadies peered out of the stage scaffolding. Blues and soul blared out of the giant hung speakers. This was the Licks tour, part of another seemingly never-ending series of concerts around the world on the back of yet another compilation called Forty Licks to mark the band's 40th anniversary. The SARS outbreak in the Far East and China had made them turn to India. A 40-something lady stood beside me, hands clasped and silent. The Palace Ground was filling up fast.
The evening before, I had called the public relations company handling the concert to find out what the Stones were up to. "God they looked so old...these Rolling Stones. Yes, I can see Mr Wood, and there is Mr Richards behind him, " a PR girl screeched down the phone line as the weathered Stones readied themselves for a tour press conference. Not surprisingly, the pow-wow was a washout. Somebody asked what was their most memorable moment, and Mick quipped that it was the first time they had sex. Only Charlie Watts looked sheepish. A Stoneshead friend whacked Keith's empty Marlboro Red and White pack off the table, and got him to sign his Let It Bleed copy. This was the only truly meaningful thing that happened at the presser. Meanwhile, the papers reported that the backup diva Lisa Fischer and bassist Daryll Jones had been packed off to the local Iskcon temple to distribute bisibelebath and kesaribath to students. The papers had diligently reported that the two had relished puris and vegetable saagu. That's how dull the Stones touring party had become. But the sound remained the same, though the songs had frayed a bit and lost their menace with time. The Stones no longer made their audiences wait for hours. So when Keith Richards walked onto the stage in an emerald green silk shirt, prising out the opening chords of Brown Sugar, a mere 40 minutes late at Palace Ground, I went numb in awe. The Human Riff in person, ladies and gentlemen of a starved generation. He's not out of Clockwork Orange as he looked in his best days, but not quite your average granddaddy yet. Slouching out of a corner is his spiky haired soulmate Ronnie Wood whom Groucho Marx once called a "chicken". The lights now reveal Charlie Watt, taciturn as ever, working up the rhythm. Gold coast slave ship bound for cotton fields/Sold in the market down in New Orleans, sings Mick Jagger (wowwwwww, roars the crowd) making an entry in a shocking pink shirt, swinging his snaky waist, coming up right in front of me. Keith tries to nail the guitar line, Ronnie's lost in the mix, Charlie 'the Wembley whammer' is thumping up the rhythm oh so loud. The menace is stripped down, but they are sounding decent. It's another evening at work for the Rolling Stones.
For the next two hours they run through the Essential Abridged Jagger-Richards songbook. The digital plasma screen fires up when they launch into the pulsating chords of Start Me Up, my fraying gods now king size, and the music now moving into my bloodstream. It feels good and giddy, brings back all the memories, makes me feel younger. The sound is muddy and Keith is still struggling to nail the chords, but, for poor folks like us, it is the best time we've had in a long, long time. You Can't Always Get What You Want, can you?
When they launch into Bitch, the sound mix is reaching its nadir, and you can barely hear Jagger through the yellow laser haze. A befuddled young reporter from a local paper shouts out to me, "Do you know what the name of this song is?" And then the rain begins. For the next half hour, the Stones demonstrate how they have mutated into possibly the world's most professional band. The show goes on in the torrential shower as if nothing happened, the crew mopping up big puddles of water on stage to let Jagger and Richards step out into the wetness. Water from the stage roof gushes down on us and begins to hurt. Keith renames Slipping Away as Dripping Away in the mood of the occasion. Micks utters a few Hindi words which only one reporter manages to catch and report next day - 'Yeah amara shwabhagya haaaii', the scribe quotes Mick as saying. Through my misty glasses, I am trying to catch my gods and listen to the music, along with the drenched, delirious fans. It's not easy. Gimme Shelter is performed very competently though good weather still isn't a shot away. Jumping Jack Flash comes fast and apt, I was born in a cross-fire hurricane/And I howled at my ma in the driving rain.
And then the rain stops and suddenly it's all over.
Twenty one songs later - pumped out at 24, 000 watts in a fog of lasers and sky tracers - they are gone.
It's close to midnight, and I manage to catch an auto back to the hotel. I try to collect my thoughts on the night. Oh, it's not a patch on, say, Get Your Ya Ya's Out or even the indifferent Still Life or the many live tapes from the 1970s I have in my collection. They have run through the classic songbook mostly perfunctorily, sounding more like a corporation resting on their laurels. Next day, The Times of India puts Jagger's picture on front page from the concert and says "Rolling Stones gather huge mass". Another paper chimes weakly, "Rain or Shine, It is Still Stoned".
Then I remembered how prescient Capote was when he told Warhol in 1973: "Jagger has a certain mystery to him, but simply because he's bit of a doppelganger. I mean he's a high trained performer, and on the other hand, he's a businessman par excellence. " That's why the Stones keep rolling despite Keith falling off from a tree and writing in his wicked biography that Mick has a small penis. There's talk of a 50th anniversary tour, even a new album. Well, This could be the last time/This could be the last time/Maybe the last time/I don't know. Oh no. Oh no.
(The writer is India editor of BBC News Online)
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