1989 was a pivotal year for me: I had been DJing for a living for about six years and the lifestyle was killing my marriage, spirit and body – at 31 I felt and looked very old and worn out.
I had come to question whether rock ‘n’ roll – the music of youth – could sustain me into my 30s. My alcohol usage had benumbed me to the point I couldn’t separate my own diminished passion for life, love and art from the sources that I looked to for inspiration. It hadn’t occurred to me that the problem might be mine rather than the rest of the world’s.
The more alcohol I swilled, the more youth and energy I peed away, while I congratulated myself on avoiding adulthood. All I really avoided was responsibility – avoidance of responsibility does not lead to youthfulness, it ages one most quickly of all.
I kept telling myself that I was a better DJ when I drank: I got into it more, I relaxed, I got wild. I also got sloppy, ruined equipment and said stupid things, but these were easy to ignore in the face of the bounteous benefits to be gleaned from the glass.
Finally, late in the summer of 1989, a confluence of marital and automotive/legal disasters grabbed me by the scrotum and squeezed hard. I was forced to reexamine my world view and the role of alcohol therein. Essentially I had two choices: dry or die. It really wasn’t much of a choice, I didn’t want to die.
Not that there aren’t plenty who make the other choice, or who refuse to choose, which is the same thing. There are entire schools of gloomy romantics who see nobility in the latter decision: a consistency of action, a purity of purpose, an enaction of the nihilist credo, etc., but it all reeks of suicide. To the addict, the bottle in the mouth, the needle in the arm and the razor on the wrist are all the same thing.
To paraphrase John Donne: death be not proud, and suicide is the least prideful death of all. Suicide is taking your ball and going home before the game is over. Suicide is whiny and asymmetrical. Suicide is age reaching prematurely into youth.
I always felt in my cockles that I am here for a purpose, and that purpose is not to drive into a telephone pole, nor to eradicate a family of five in their minivan, nor to poison my liver until it poisons me. A basic value system with life at the center of it is necessary to a life fruitfully led, be it Christian or otherwise. We rightfully mistrust those who do not put the sanctity of human life at the center of their value system – like suicide bombers.
A few weeks after I stopped drinking (for about ten years), the Rolling Stones’ “Steel Wheels Tour” hit Los Angeles. I felt compelled to go. This was strange because I had only gone to a few concerts since the dawn of my full-time DJ career in 1984, which was also the year my oldest daughter was born. Running a business, trying to maintain a family and DJing four nights a week left little room for discretionary nights out, especially to events as elaborate as concerts.
I relented to the impulse the Saturday afternoon of the Saturday evening show. I called around to the ticket dealers, who function as legalized scalpers in Los Angeles. If I was going to go I wanted a good seat. The best deal I found was $200 for field-level seating, 35th row center.
Living Colour began thrashing in the LA Memorial Colisseum a few miles away – I negotiated with the ticket flunky. As the clock struck 7:30 and the door was locked, we compromised on $75.00, “any less and I would go myself,” he spat as the door slammed behind me.
Shortly thereafter I bounced through the field level entrance of the Colisseum and realized why I had come: I had to know if rock ‘n’ roll really afforded redemption. Was Bob Seger right? His lyrics were too appropriate to ignore less than a month after my 31st birthday,
“Now sweet 16 has turned 31
You feel a little tired
When the workday is done
…But you can come back baby
Rock and Roll never forgets.”
I had never really decided whether rock ‘n’ roll was an adjunct to the chemicals or vice versa. I desperately HOPED it was the latter, but I had known many people who had given up the chemicals and given up on the music at the same time, declaring that they had “grown out” of them both. Was it normal to grow out of the music? Had I been using chemicals to retard that growth?
The mid-to-late-’80s were very difficult for the Rolling Stones, especially lead singer Mick Jagger. After the commercial and critical success of Emotional Rescue (’80) and Tattoo You (’81), they drifted. Still Life (’82) was yet another pointless live album.
Undercover (’83) was drab, uninspired and irrelevant. As rock stars push the envelope into their 40s and beyond, similar questions and doubts arise as do for athletes: Can he come back? Are they washed up? A slump can be career-threatening for an older player because he isn’t granted the same leeway as a player in his prime – the law of dimishing returns is invoked rather the law of cycles.
Mick Jagger’s first solo album, She’s the Boss (’85), was received with ambivalence: it had some good songs but it was slick and totally devoid of the grit and fiber that has characterized all of the best Stones work. The world reserved judgment.
The next Stones album, Dirty Work (’86) continued the slide. “One Hit (To The Body)” featured a strong riff but little else. “The Harlem Shuffle” was a pointless novelty remake. Nothing else stood out at all. One had only to glance at the program for the ages of the players to wonder if the slump was permanent. At what point does a band become an oldies act? The Stones were threatening to become just that.
Having gone 0-and-2 on the Stones albums, with a no-decision on the first Jagger solo album, the balance hung on Jagger #2 and Keith Richards solo #1.
Jagger #2, Primitive Cool, was a total bomb; so much so that Jagger was spooked out of touring the U.S. and was relegated to performing in the pop cultural ghetto of Japan. Primitive Cool was so evanescent that it just drifted away, leaving no impression whatsoever. It confirmed the suspicions raised by Jagger #1: without the Stones’ toughness, Jagger was just another rich, middle-aged English fop. The world only needs one Rod Stewart.
Keith’s solo album, Talk Is Cheap, completed the other half of the equation: it left no doubt where the soul of the Stones resides, but it also reminded us why Mick Jagger is the lead singer and chief lyricist for the band. Keith is an endless supply of killer riffs and rock ‘n’ roll heart, but his melodies are anemic, his lyrics merely functional and he sings like a tracheotomy victim in a sandstorm.
Jagger may have wandering internal organs but he has co-written the greatest body of songs in rock ‘n’ roll history, and he is a great rock singer and performer. A professional matchmaker is not required to figure out that these two belong together. Fortunately, and remarkably, both parties were able to swallow their pride and see the light, or swallow the light and see their pride, or whatever: the Stones reconvened and put out the reinvigorated Steel Wheels in 1989.
Steel Wheels wasn’t a home run but it was a triple, and a triple is very reassuring from guys who have been striking out on balls in the dirt. Steel Wheels proved there was still pop left in the Stones’ bats. However, a recording is like a simulated game: the environment is controlled and manipulated for the benefit of the featured players. The real competition, the real risks come out on the live playing field in front of breathing, judgmental paying customers.
As long as the Stones put out excellent albums – as they generally had through the early-’80s – they could afford to put on haphazard, half-hearted, even casual shows. Think of the abysmal Saturday Night Live debut in the mid-’70s; think of Jagger’s flippant dismissal of articulation, phrasing and melody on Love You Live (’77). Would the insouciant arrogance persist? How much did the Stones care?
I had as much at stake as the Stones did: could I enjoy the show sober? Could I even properly evaluate the Stones’ performance in an unaltered state, or would I mistake my own personality shortcomings for that of the Stones? I was only a few weeks sober and separated from my wife, and I didn’t even know who I was. Did the Stones know who they were? I hoped so and I hoped they could somehow help me make some decisions.
The electricity in the air indicated that several-dozen-thousand other people had similar expectations. To heighten the age angle, the show had been billed as a competition between “Special Guest Stars” Guns N’ Roses – the kid challengers – and the Stones – old-fart champions.
Guns N’ Roses played a sloppy, arrogant and rambling set that reminded me of the Stones at their worst. Guns N’ Roses didn’t have the material to pull off the arrogance.
The Stones came on with an air – not of cool assurance – but of eager assurance. All of the elements clicked: the guitars cut and slashed, the rhythm section locked in and rode it out, the songs were a perfect blending of old and new, the band was abundantly enthusiastic. Jagger didn’t exhibit a drop of Cool Star attitude: he worked, talked, sang with energy and attention to detail.
He was obviously happy to be liked again. The collective joyous relief of the stadium buoyed Jagger to childlike vulnerability:
“Do ya like the new songs?” He almost pleaded of the throng.
“We love them, Mick!”
“We love you!”
“Fuckin’ A!” came the equally open and heartfelt response. Maybe Mick was reminded of his quote from the ’70s, “Sometimes I prefer being on stage, sometimes I prefer orgasm.”
When Mick sang the climactic lines of “Mixed Emotions,”
“Let’s grab the world
By the scruff of the neck
And drink it down deeply
Let’s love it to death
So button your lip
And button your coat
Let’s go out dancing
Let’s rock n’ roll”
There was a frenzy of jubilation, unity, and relief. The show would have been a bargain at ten times the price: I knew that I could live without alcohol, I knew that at the bottom of the hype, the sleeze, the greed, the corruption and the narciscism, that rock ‘n’ roll was good. Life is good. People can change. People can remain young and joyous and fresh throughout their lives and never grow old until they die.