The Rolling Stones come to town this week to prove, contrary to the lyric from their 1966 hit "Mother's Little Helper," that it's not a drag getting old.
For many a boomer, seeing the Stones at $150 to $600 a pop (and up to $7,000 from Internet scalpers) at Staples Center on Friday and May 20, and at Honda Center on May 15 and 18, will be worth it. What they don't get from a nostalgic rush will be compensated for in active senior role modeling. We can expect Mick Jagger, 69, to jump and dance around like a hyperactive monkey, 71-year-old Charlie Watts to bang the skins for hours without missing a beat, and Keith Richards, also 69, to inspire simply by continuing to breathe.
Fine and dandy, and I hope everyone enjoys their expensive good time. Can't help but think, though, that this half-century anniversary tour will rarely evoke how much the world's greatest rock 'n' roll band meant when it really mattered.
There's never been anything quite like the Stones in their heyday, and that includes the group itself for most of the past 40 years. Sure, in the 1960s, the Beatles were bigger and Bob Dylan always had top artistic cred. It was the Stones who epitomized that turbulent era, however, and provided its most accurate emotional soundtrack. For me, anyway, and I surely wasn't alone.
They grabbed me as a child, too young to understand what lacking satisfaction or getting some blockhead off of my cloud actually meant, but communicating something rougher, wilder and more darkly intriguing than anything else I was hearing on pop radio. Many speak of how the Stones brought a thrilling sense of danger to rock 'n' roll, but I wasn't ready for that at the time. They just seemed tough and, whether it satisfied them or not, they were doing exactly what they wanted.
It wasn't so much that they were unapologetic bad boys - although rumors of public urinating did make a certain impression on the immature mind - but that their utter lack of showbizzy sweetness was bracing and refreshingly real. They didn't smile for the cameras, and whenever Mick cracked a joke, it had a nasty edge. Considering how crazy some of the Beatles acted once fame went to their heads, we don't always remember how ingratiating and media savvy they initially were. The Stones, on the other hand, didn't ask to be liked. They dared us to dig them.
The fact that they were as musically inventive as the Beatles, just not as flashy about it, was also a plus to some of us. The sitar in "Paint It Black," the trippiness and pre-Bowie sci-fi themes on "Their Satanic Majesties Request," the longform experimentation of "Goin' Home" and, later, "You Can't Always Get What You Want" and the live "Midnight Rambler," incorporating madrigal, chorale and country sounds without ever compromising their core blues signature.
Sure, it's a personal taste thing, but the Glimmer Twins, Brian Jones and Bill Wyman, opened some of our ears wider than John, Paul, George and Ringo did.
That doubtless had something to do with how the neediness and anger the Stones' hits expressed toward women, parents and society stirred adolescent attitudes in honest, if not particularly healthy, ways. No group, not even the Doors, was better at touching our lizard subconscious.
Once real teenhood hit me, though, harder acts - Hendrix, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, various Clapton iterations, a still inexplicable interest in Grand Funk Railroad - muscled in for a while. Still listened to the Stones, but not as much or as enthusiastically.
A few years of growing up too fast corrected that. Sometime in high school, the Stones became more important than ever. This coincided with their greatest run of albums: "Beggars Banquet," "Let It Bleed," "Get Yer Ya-Yas Out," "Sticky Fingers" and "Exile on Main St." Not only was the band providing theme songs for the times like never before - "Street Fighting Man" for the age of protest, "Gimme Shelter" for their own, Altamont hand in destroying the dream of the Woodstock Nation - they addressed their audience's maturing sophistication and accompanying sense of world-weariness.
Yeah, we were self-dramatizing, but when have teenagers not been? "Sympathy for the Devil" seemed - and still does seem - an epic take on the follies of history ("Brown Sugar" was the dirty satire version).
And consider that at the height of the whole sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll thing, burning out at a young age was not an unusual occurrence. The Stones' ballads of the time - "No Expectations," "Wild Horses," "Sister Morphine," pretty much all the last three sides of "Exile" - were masterpieces of personal devastation, matched only by the works of Leonard Cohen among the Stones' contemporaries.
As Jones had been the first big rock star to prove, you couldn't go on like that forever. So in 1973, the Stones, like most of us would, began treating the hangover. As if mirroring a sentiment from their closest British Invasion soulmate Eric Burdon, pain had to become less painful, laughter less loud. Yeah.
"Goats Head Soup" wasn't a bad album, but except on a few cuts like "Coming Down Again," it was missing something we'd come to expect, something vital. Even a tune as heartbreaking as "Angie" bore a calculated tinge compared to what, a few years earlier, would have been dredged up raw from some deep, throbbing place.
From then on, each new Stones album became a dreary exercise in locating the one or two great or "classic "-sounding songs among the forgettable ones. They still experimented occasionally, but the times were against them (disco, really?). And as their faces grew more lines, the naughty posturing looked sillier and sillier. The misogyny of "Some Girls" may have been understandable coming from younger men, but not so much from guys with growing daughters.
There was an inevitability to the loss of urgency, of course. The surviving original and new band members were rich and living in that growing, all-consuming media celebrity bubble where popularity was the goal instead of art. And, though they didn't always act like it, they became middle-aged, their youthful confusion, anger and passions things of the past.
Mainly, they were finally satisfied, as were many of us who had been their fiercest fans. Nothing could have broken our special bond with the band more effectively.
Through all of it and to this day, the Rolling Stones continued to put on great live shows, although they become as consciously crowd-pleasing as anything the early Beatles did.
That's what fans are paying through the nose for now. But maybe, just maybe on those sold-out nights at Staples and elsewhere, there will occasionally be moments that do more than just demonstrate how spry us geezers can be. Moments that touch on something genuinely defiant, about outlasting, about a part of us that, rightly or wrongly, never did and never will grow up. Yeah!
I know, at least, that the Stones will always have that in them.