At the risk of losing friends and making enemies, let me just unequivocally state my position on one of life's most enduringly essential questions: the Beatles are better than the Rolling Stones. Take a moment, if you like, to scroll down and leave an angry comment or two.
Now let me make another thing equally clear: the Rolling Stones are one of the greatest bands of all time. The fact that we are so consistently called to choose between these two groups says something about the rarity of the air they occupy. Our choice never multiplies to include the Kinks or the Who. Keith Richards has argued that the Beatles and the Stones traded steps when it was clear that where the Beatles walked the Rolling Stones followed. The first original song the Stones charted with in the UK was "I Wanna Be Your Man," a Lennon/McCartney cast-off. The Beatles' first trip to America is remembered as a triumphant fairytale filled with screaming crowds and a legendary television performance. The Stones' first US tour saw half-filled arenas. Sergeant Pepper taught the Stones to play Their Satanic Majesties Request.
When the Beatles split to find themselves as individuals, the Rolling Stones finally found their identity as a band. They didn't fill a void so much as they created, defined, and occupied a completely new space. The era that birthed the Beatles' decline saw the seed of what Rich Cohen calls "the four greatest records in history" -- the Stones' "golden run" of Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. These albums gave us songs like "Street Fighting Man," "You Can't Always Get What You Want," "Brown Sugar," and "Wild Horses" among many others. The fact that these songs were written and recorded during times just as turbulent for the band as anything the Beatles faced says something about how great an accomplishment they actually are.
What was golden for the Rolling Stones in the studio was rusty and jagged outside of it. There were arrests and infighting. There was the decline, departure, and death of founding member Brian Jones. Keith Richards began his own spectacular struggle with heroin addiction. There was Allen Klein, the "manager" who helped speed the dissolution of the Beatles and who left the Rolling Stones nearly broke. They headlined what they hoped would be the "West Coast Woodstock," only to see the Altamont Speedway Free Festival descend into violence and murder; the Sixties ethos of peace and love beaten with pool cues by the Hells Angels as "Sympathy for the Devil" blasted from the stage. Through all of this, the band did what their name implies: they rolled with and through it, which is why a track from Exile on Main Street is up next on my soundtrack.
"TUMBLING DICE" - THE ROLLING STONES
"There's fever in the funk house now" - Keith Richards & Mick Jagger
The band was far from destitute when they decamped to Nellcôte, a mansion Richards rented in the south coast of France to set about recording Exile on Main Street. But that summer, the Rolling Stones was a troubled, tax exiled group of lost boys looking for Wonderland. Lester Bangs said the album was about casualties and partying in the face of them, but critic Ben Ratliff called it "an audio diary of rock stars finally facing the rigors of marriage, children and addiction." Aside from that, he argues, it is difficult to pin down Exile's singular essence. It's a concept album in search of a concept.
It may have found one nearly 50 years after its release.
Lines like "the sunshine bores the daylights out of me" from "Rocks Off" describe the growing ennui I'm feeling after forty-some-odd days of staying at home, while "Rip This Joint" could easily be co-opted by the covidiots protesting their stay at home orders. The lyrics to "Casino Boogie" were put together like a puzzle (a favorite quarantine pastime), with Richards and Jagger tearing up newspapers and magazines and then fitting phrases together to make the song. "Ventilator Blues" was inspired by the stifling Nellcôte basement where much of the recording took place, but the song's literal and figural relevance to today is evident in "everybody's gonna need some kind of ventilator." Who isn't feeling a bit "Torn and Frayed" right now? Still, it's "Tumbling Dice" that does it for me, and it's not just because "women think I'm tasty."
Jagger cribbed the lyrics together after talking to a housekeeper about gambling, only the song's not a tutorial. It could stand as a warning to anyone looking for something more from a one night stand than just that one night, with the singer cautioning, "you got to roll me, and call me the tumbling dice." Sure, you might get lucky, but... you very well might not. That's how gambling works.
I can't make a case for the song being wholly appropriate for this situation, or for me at all, even in the best of times, and I think that's why it appeals to me right now. I'm a pretty level-headed person settled comfortably in a loving and monogamous relationship. I (still) have a job and the people I love are healthy. I'm not one who is ever looking to gamble with that sort of security, but I can understand why leaving things to chance might be appealing, especially since the certainty and control we are never really guaranteed has been challenged even further by the coronavirus.
We've had to give up a lot of certainty in the face of a virus that may or may not effect us. It is a threat that has reshaped everything we do. Taking my sick pup to the vet gave new meaning to being a "rank outsider." It meant staying in the car while a tech took her inside, then waiting for the vet to call so we could discuss her symptoms, and then waiting again for the vet to call back with a diagnosis and plan for treatment. I can't imagine having to do something similar with my wife should she fall ill, yet that sort of distance worrying is real for far too many right now. Too much waiting and empty waiting rooms, so we send our goodbyes through the air and hope they travel farther and faster than the virus.
COVID-19 has us all at "sixes, sevens, and nines." Like it or not, what used to be normal is not a safe bet, and there is no new normal for us to lay odds on just yet. Still, through all of this, the Stones seem to be having yet another revival. Their performance of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" for Global Citizen's One World: Together at Home "concert" stood out. A year ago, they just happened to record an eerily prescient single, "Ghost Town" -- their first new original music in eight years -- which they rolled out a few weeks ago.
The Beatles will always be shiny and new. They are forever standing around a psychedelic drumhead wearing day-glo band uniforms. One of their many gifts is to be discovered again and again by generation after generation, their story a perfect pyramid of exposition, then climax, then denouement we listen to on repeat. The Rolling Stones have always moved too quickly for such consumption, and yet for many they are just as eternal.
People joke that if the coronavirus ever came in contact with Keith, it would have to go into isolation. They wonder why scientists aren't trying to derive a vaccine from his blood. What they don't understand is that it wouldn't work without Mick. It never has. Andrew Loog Oldham knew this when he locked them in the kitchen of their dingy London flat and told them not to come out until they wrote a song (they did -- "As Tears Go By" -- which became a hit for Marianne Faithfull). They've had trouble staying in the same room together without fighting ever since. Even now, they have to be kept far apart backstage, as Keith can't stand to hear Mick go through his vocal exercises before a show. And yet, when they take the stage, it all works. Keef brings the riffs, Mick brings the words, and we all keep tumbling.