Ev’rywhere I hear the sound—Richards/Jagger
Of marching, charging feet, boy
‘Cause summer’s here and the time is right
For fighting in the street, boy
Well now, what can a poor boy do
Except to sing for a rock n’ roll band?
‘Cause in sleepy London town
There’s just no place for a street fighting man
I said, “Hey think the time is right
For a palace revolution”
But where I live the game
To play is compromise solution
I hate crowds. I’ve never been to the famous Sturgis motorcycle rally, which is just up the road, and I rarely get out. But, as of last night, I have been to a Rolling Stones concert. And it put me in mind of rock n’ roll, it sure did, of rebellious energy, and of aging America.
Richelle and I got there early. All of us middle-aged folk like to get to things early. There might be a climb up stairs, after all (and there was!). Getting there was easy enough. We just followed the stream of gray-haired men and women in shirts proclaiming their Rolling Stones bona fides: “Voodoo Lounge,” “Madison Sq. Garden”, and my favorite: “I may be old, but I got to see all the cool bands.”
Nathaniel Rateliff & The Night Sweats opened for the Stones. The set didn’t bode well. The sound and video weren’t dialed in for Mr. Rateliff and his friends, so they appeared distant yet still piercing. I took the opportunity to get some expensive Stones merch and felt good about myself for bringing cash when the credit card machine went down.
Back in my seat, the lights dimmed and the action started: John Pasche’s giant Tongue and Lips melts away on the four enormous screens, and we are engulfed in darkness. A video begins—flickering stripes across the screen. Is that the chords of the “Star Spangled Banner” playing in the background? Why yes it is! The abstract stripes give way to portraits of our heroes, and suddenly the Rolling Stones are on stage singing “Street Fighting Man.”
“Oh my!,” says Richelle, and I look over to see her smile as broad Keith’s on the big screen.
A feeling of joy washes over us: Here they are, and they’ve been doing this for eternity, and they aren’t old at all, and Mick is prancing down the catwalk as sexy as can be, and Keith is going bald but he’s so very happy, and Charlie’s sitting as straight-backed as an Anglican school boy, and Ronnie can play that guitar just like anything, and we’re all young and happy, and it’s all going to be all right.
Masters of their art, they took us through “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Tumbling Dice,” and then to Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.” They set a drum kit up at the end of the catwalk, picked up acoustic guitars, dimmed the lights, and created a little club where they sang us “Sweet Virginia” and “Dead Flowers.” Mick apologized for postponing the tour. Tireless, they drove through songs to a string of power hits: “Start Me Up,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Brown Sugar.” They gave us not one, but two encores. More than anything they pulled us together, the thousands and thousands in that stadium, pulled us together in a celebration of their ability to keep singing in a rock n’ roll band, a celebration of themselves that turned out to be a celebration of us.
Maybe I don’t hate crowds so much. Maybe I ought to ride up to Sturgis and see what it’s all about before judging it? After all, like the Stones’ concert, it’s easy enough to follow the trail of gray hair and t-shirts up to the Black Hills.
My motorcycle friend, Bob, sent me an article from the Wall Street Journal, “On Two Wheels, the Trump Train Rolls Into the Black Hills,” by Faith Bottum. Ms. Bottum reports that at this year’s rally,
They’re selling Trump T-shirts and shot glasses, Trump squishy dolls and teddy bears. They’ve got bobblehead Trumps and bumper stickers for sale alongside Trump coasters and coffee cups, Trump flags and flasks. Everywhere you look it’s Trump, Trump, Trump—Donald Trump’s face on merchandise at the dozens of pop-up stores serving the hundreds of thousands of bikers who have come to the Black Hills this week for the annual Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.
There’s Mr. Corvette in Twin Falls, from Day #1 of my West Coast Tour, slipping the talk of politics into the talk of motorcycling. But I guess motorcycling, with all its anti-social black leather, lane splitting, and loud pipes, always tends towards politics, at least towards cultural politics, which is the politics of today. Again, Ms. Bottum in the Wall Street Journal:
In the 1953 biker movie “The Wild One,” a waitress asks Marlon Brando’s character what he is rebelling against. “What do you got?” he answers. Bikers are still rebels, only now they are rebelling against a dominant liberal culture that seems dull and prissy, and never liked them anyway.
Throughout my rides this summer, I’ve found the country green and beautiful, even as the sun was so overwhelming that it sidelined me and my Harley both. People have also been amazingly friendly. But underwriting that experience like the shimmering heat on the highway, is the background sound of marching, charging feet, of revving engines, of a divisive election that’s just a shot away.
So what does it does it mean that the Stones opened with the Star Spangled Banner followed by “Street Fighting Man”?
“But where I live the game to play is compromise solution.” Consummate showmen that they are, Mick and Keith certainly know the game of compromised solutions. After all, they just launched a Rolling Stones line of t-shirts with Harley. I kid you not: “Harley Davidson: Start Me Up”!
Billboard reports that the “No Filter” tour is scheduled to turn almost $240 million. So maybe the Stones are just pandering to an aging demographic that is both nostalgic and anxious, that wants its reveries of youthful rebellion draped in the flag. “Personal freedom meets rock n’ roll,” promises the Harley Davidson ad copy for the Harley/Stones t-shirts, and there you have it, one more t-shirt for the line of gray-haired pilgrims.
But maybe Mick and Keith opened the concert with the “Star Spangled Banner” as a way of recalling the rebellious energy of rock n’ roll in the service of a collective celebration, as a way to remind us all that rock n’ roll has always been political, but that the sound of patriotism is not the sound of the hob-nailed nationalist boot and could well be the sound of “Street Fighting Man.”
My experience of the Stones was powerful, not parodic. That’s true for riding motorcycles as well, which pushes individualism to a mutually-recognized identity beyond articulation, even if the Harley copy makes a mockery of it.
I’m not going up to Sturgis any time soon, but if the narcissism of rock n’ roll can create a shared joy that spans thousands, and if the individual experience of riding can create a collective sense of identity that lasts beyond the ride, then there is a power in the shared sense of community to create a genuine celebration of ourselves and drive us into a better future.
It’s just a kiss away.