Taking responsibility for your life is something you hear a lot about these days, but I have to pretty much blame the Rolling Stones for how mine turned out. If Mick Jagger and Keith Richards hadn’t run into each other at that train station in Dartford in 1961, I’d probably be making a ton of money selling real estate. One wife, two cars, three kids and a 16 handicap.
That’s how I was heading until the Stones came into my life with their songs about hookers and slave ships, serial killers and cross-dressing, delivered with big lips, big guitars and a scary-looking drummer who played “just enough” fabulously. The Stones showed me that there was another life out there, one where freedom’s just another word for drugs and sex and rock ’n’ roll. Before the Stones, when I saw a red door, I didn’t want to paint it black; I wanted to put a Christmas wreath on it.
The choice the Stones presented was simple: You could be a square or you could be cool. You could follow this well-paved route or take off into the flowers and brush where a woman calls out in the purple darkness and a mighty rumble echoes. Well, you know which one I took and look how it turned out: I spent last weekend in my RV re-watching Season Two of “The Wire” on DVD and eating delivery pizza.
It’s the Stones’ fault that I don’t have the idyllic family life. They made me bag every relationship at the first trace of monotony. Through their music and mystique, the Stones inspired me to quit jobs, drop out of school, distrust authority and get tattoos back before they were trendy. Once, they even made me try heroin.
I look at my current drug supply — Vytorin for high cholesterol, Lisinopril for high blood pressure, Aciphex for acid reflux and Xanax for flashbacks and staff meetings — and I blame the Stones. By the time they were singing “Start Me Up” in the ’80s, they had used me up. Wanting to be like Keith Richards is a full-time job from which you’ll eventually become laid off. Or laid to rest.
I’m 56 years old, so I have to go back 42 years to remember when the Stones rolled over me. I was 14 when I heard ’em talk about the “Midnight Rambler,” felt that driving guitar riff sweep away the carnage. Fourteen when my head almost exploded on the chorus of “Go, Go, Go Little Queen-ay!” Fourteen when “Stray Cat Blues” sounded like corny hopes and dreams falling down stairs. I stopped collecting baseball cards and instead turned my idle time to making collages of Mick and Keith, peppered with pictures of Satan and nude girls and hypodermic needles and the Coca-Cola logo that spelled “Cocaine.”
At age 14 I wondered where the Stones had been all my life.
Actually, I’d had an early crack at them, but passed. The first time I ever bought an album by the Rolling Stones, I took it back and exchanged it for a Hollies record. “Aftermath” is considered one of the Stones’ best albums, the first one composed entirely of original material, but it sounded awful to me. The singer had a whiny mumble and songs like “Stupid Girl” and “Lady Jane” were just too weird. Then there was a song called “Goin’ Home,” which was longer than the bus ride to Catholic school. At age 11, I wasn’t ready for the Stones. Given a choice between them and the Beatles, I took the Monkees, my first musical infatuation.
The record that turned me on to the Stones was the 1970 live album “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out,” which I’d go to the library to hear on reel-to-reel. Between those headphones the imagination turned from ninth-inning home runs to thoughts of being black. The 1972 greatest hits collection “Hot Rocks” turned me into a raving Stones fanatic; I played that album five times a day for several months. Then came “Exile On Main Street,” which made me start listening to albums differently, grooving on textures as well as hooks.
At age 17, I had only been to one concert — the Jackson 5, with the Commodores opening. So imagine how hard euphoria hit when I opened the paper one day to read that the Rolling Stones would be coming to the Honolulu International Center in January 1973. Tickets went on sale Dec. 26, so I spent Christmas night camped out in line. There was a guy there who had seen four shows on the 1972 tour, and I just couldn’t imagine anyone having a better life. Soon it would be my time. I was going to see the Rolling Stones!
During the next month I didn’t leave my house unless it was absolutely necessary, like for school. I wasn’t going to take any chances that a car would jump the sidewalk and kill me before I had the chance to see the Stones. About 648 hours later, the big day came.
The opening act was this clean-shaven trio from Texas called ZZ Top. The crowd loved ’em, but I just wanted them to go away.
There was a long, torturous set break — I recall it being about six or seven hours, but it might have been 45 minutes — before the Stones came out and I had, like, a mental meltdown that prevents me from remembering much of the show. The whole experience kind of had me on edge, like I didn’t trust unconditional joy. This rock concert, this group playing music for people who’d paid money to see and hear it, had just become too big in my mind. It was my first experience with the rock-star mythology that would take over my life for a while.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are the two greatest rock stars to ever live. Who’s even close? Dylan’s No. 3; Hendrix No. 4. Then Iggy. None of the Beatles were true rock stars, which made them the Beatles.
At a time when I was looking for Apollo and Hermes in glitter and scarves, I found the Rolling Stones and they changed me. And I’m not alone. Without the Stones, Patti Smith wouldn’t have known what to do with herself. The New York Dolls would’ve worked on their harmonies. Jim Morrison would’ve stuck to bad Indian poetry. Punk rock wouldn’t have its foundation (or its established icons to spit at).
I often look back on this time I’ve had on Planet E and I think about all the things that didn’t turn out the way I thought they would. I think about being lost in music and lost in life. I think of listening to “Wild Horses” at 4 in the morning and getting all gushy because at that moment it was the most beautiful song I’d ever heard and I knew I’d never hear it that way again.
I could’ve had the good life, the straight life, but the Stones offered chaos and I took it. Now I’m left with memories and Season Three of “The Wire.” Where did it all go? I think back, way back, to all the nights I woke up in strange places, all the frantic adventures I’ve put my mind through, all the times I’ve gone with my guts instead of my brain because I was listening to “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and the bass line told me to. I think about all the times I’ve come home just as more responsible members of society are heading off to work in the morning.
If not for the Rolling Stones, I might be one of them.
Having thrown it all away to join the rock ’n’ roll circus, I’ve got two words for my de-mentors, the ageless wonders who’ve been playing together for 50 years.