The endless news is of shows locked down as every form of life is locked down in a nation struggling to conquer the virus by inoculation. There really is little prospect of entertainment in a public place until we reach the eighty percent vaccination at Christmas or whenever. Was it in Gideon Haigh’s impressive book The Brilliant Boy: Doc Evatt and the Great Australian Dissent that I read one of those early judicial eminences of our blood and state – Sir Isaac Isaacs or whoever – talking about the conflict between the Westminster system and the American style of federalism we yoked it to? Certainly the premiers whether their style is Leninist like Daniel Andrews or wary and dilatory like Gladys Berejiklian are looking like the masters of fiefdoms that are straining the Commonwealth. All of which may prove a pleasing fantasy when looked back on from the vantage point of some haven of health. In the meantime there seems an all but endless prospect of house arrest with books and TV streamers and music.
Music is, of course, a true balm as Shakespeare realised when he had Caesar say to Antony of the lean and hungry Cassius, ‘He hears no music’. The death the other day of Charlie Watts, the drummer of The Rolling Stones, was a reminder of the greatness of the rock music which got going in the early Sixties and had achieved in the Stones’ case its greatest glories within a decade. Charlie Watts with his singular rhythmic drumbeat so inexorable and commanding was integral to the great rock and roll band – though the fine tailoring and the natural mildness of the man were in contrast to Mick Jagger’s bravura stage act and vocals. Watts complemented that absolute sureness of touch that Keith Richards gave not only to his guitar but to his melodic invention that supreme coolness of will behind the piratical exterior that allowed him to sustain both his habit and the high professionalism of his career.
Clearly in some part of his imaginative conception Richards is a storyteller but it’s fascinating to see how he tried to rise to the challenge of the horror at Altamont where Jagger couldn’t seem to fathom it. And Charlie Watts seems to have been a notably cool and kindly man in this team of stars.
Death, from early on, was part of the story, as it was bound to be. Remember the funeral concert for Brian Jones in 1969 and Jagger in white, his voice breaking, reading the lines from Shelley’s ‘Adonais’ in remembrance of Keats, ‘Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep, / He hath awaken’d from the dream of life’. And then Keith Richards surging all but expressionlessly into the guitar riff and Charlie Watts’ drums a recollection of life, an honouring of death.
When I edited a magazine at Melbourne University’s Ormond College in the Nineties, the kids, who would now be in their early fifties, and who were born around the time of the Stones’ LP Let It Bleed would have smokos – barely restrained celebratory orgies which followed hard on the dinners in hall where they wore long dresses and black tie – celebrated that part of the evening, the boring part, by leaping on the tables and singing ‘Land of Hope and Glory.’
You knew, though, that their sympathy was for the devil. They would rapidly divest themselves of their formal clobber and rush out into the dimly lit quad in 501s and lumberjack shirts and start to dance to ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’. (‘I was schooled with a strap across my back.’) And soon, quite soon, they would be chorusing into the satisfaction they claimed not to be able to get while going at it like bulls at a gate. Their anthem was music that had rushed into life like a new dispensation in the handful of years before they were born.
It’s a bit of a recollected miracle how good the early-vintage Rolling Stones were. How effortlessly and how zestfully they paraded a new vision of life. How a version of blues became the drop-dead stylish way in which a new sensibility that was captivated by its own sense of sex as freedom and death-defying was also a radical revamp of the known world.
Think of songs like ‘Mother’s Little Helper’ which is the rampant voice of a generation that defies and decries the makeshift panaceas of its elders but succeeds somehow in turning its derision inside out so that it becomes a form of compassion. Think too of a 1967 song like ‘Backstreet Girl’ with its winding poignant melody and the way the song confesses to – in the very act of denying – the depth of emotion it’s trying to push aside. What could be more English than ‘Please don’t you bother my wife / Your manners were never quite right.’ But the sense of sympathy in honour of the girl who’s never allowed to be a wife – but isn’t she a bit better or different anyway – has a beautiful pitch and power that makes it a wholly fresh take on an age old question: the Doctor Zhivago quandary or whatever you want to call it.
The Rolling Stones of whom Charlie Watts was the most understated and urbane member with his swish tailoring – the way he’d ask someone he’d just met at a party if he could get him a drink – was in one way the raging voice of youth yet they captured it with such artistry and such intensity that you can see why those ancient songs have lasted so long.
And how they became the hymns for the world we live in: From ‘As Tears Go By’ to ‘Paint It Black’, ‘Ruby Tuesday’ to ‘19th Nervous Breakdown’. If Beggars Banquet is arguably the Stones’ greatest record because of the baroque splendour of ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and the pure bluesy desolation of ‘No Expectations’ with its looming erotic disconsolation it’s hard to imagine a world without ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ or so many other songs.
Does it matter that ‘As Tears Go By’ is better than anything they’ve done for decades? No, because rock music is a young person’s game. Happy are they who can recapitulate in performance what they created in the hectic inspired springtime of their youth.
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