Keith Richards, guitarist for The Rolling Stones, gently glares at his audience from the height of the stage, his face filled with more wrinkles than an unmade bed. A mop of hair is propped up by a broad bandanna and adorned with hanging beads and pieces of metal—as if the guitar legend had half-heartedly attempted to turn himself into a muted Christmas tree. He's 64 but looks older—as haggard as a Joshua tree (speaking of woody perennials), as weathered as the sphinx.
"It's good to see you all," he says. "It's good to see anybody."
The fact that Richards is still around to take part in Martin Scorsese's concert film Shine a Light is a sign of God's boundless but sometimes mysterious sense of grace. The rock legend has survived heroin addiction, at least 40 years of illicit drug use and, most recently, a tumble out of a coconut tree (which required an overnight stay at a Fiji hospital). Why Richards was loitering in a coconut tree in the first place is anybody's guess. Many might doubt whether Richards even knows that answer himself.
"I can't even remember yesterday," Richards told the New York Daily News in March.
Richards and his Rolling Stones cohorts are rock music's elder statesmen. They predate iPods, CDs, cassette tapes and even 8-tracks. The youngest full-fledged member, Ronnie Wood, is 60. Drummer Charlie Watts is almost 67. Why, you might ask, am I making such a big deal out of age? Because Shine a Light wildly wallows in it, interspersing songs from two 2006 concerts with clips of wrinkle-free lead singer Mick Jagger answering questions about the band's possible longevity way back in the '60s and '70s. One of his answers? We should be able to play "for at least another year."
But if Shine a Light documents rock's most popular geriatric act, it also showcases why they're still in the biz: These guys bring it.
Shine a Light is a down-your-throat concert film set in New York's 2,800-seat Beacon Theatre that, fairly effectively, captures much of The Stones' ageless swagger. There are no house-sized plasma screens, no elaborate pyrotechnics. The personalities on display are oversized enough. Richards and fellow guitarist Ronnie Wood prowl the stage like leather-faced wolves. As he preens like a withered adolescent, Jagger's strutting charisma takes full flight. Director Martin Scorsese (who rarely makes a film without a Stones song) pounds the screen with all the grinding energy The Stones themselves embody.
This is old-fashioned rock 'n' roll, Scorsese tells us, crafted by rock's original bad boys. And being bad's good, right?
Well, that's what Scorsese and The Stones would like us to believe.
Bring the Kids—and the President!
Musically, The Rolling Stones are the real deal: Anyone who likes rock music at all must have at least a passing appreciation for the shadow the group has cast over the last five decades. Shine a Light allows us to see these bandmates swim in their natural element—the stage and their music—and that in itself is a little inspirational.
"When we get up there, we're in our own little zone," Richards tells the camera. "Because we love what we do."
But here's the thing: Because the these guys been around so long and are so familiar, some folks make the mistake of embracing them not only as musicians, but as cheeky-but-respectable figureheads. We hear "Satisfaction" on the radio and we're tempted to think of The Stones as a fun, almost innocent act—particularly compared to, say, 50 Cent or Kid Rock. The fact that The Stones now peddle "mortgage companies and luxury sedans" in television commercials, according to the Los Angeles Times, further tames them. They're so embraced by mainstream culture that this show is introduced by an ex-president of the United States of America (Bill Clinton). He tells the band that he's brought several young kiddos to watch with him. Apparently for Clinton, The Stones aren't too far removed from The Wiggles.
But the Stones themselves might be horrified by the thought of respectability—that a former prez thought their music was safe enough to bring along a cadre of preteens.
"I thought rock and roll was an unassailable outlet for some pure and natural expression of rebellion," Richards once told the magazine Rolling Stone. "It used to be one channel you could take without ever havin' to kiss a--, you know?"
Those aren't idle words. President and party notwithstanding, The Rolling Stones still aren't safe. Shine a Light wants to stress that these bad boys are still all about sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. And a few other problematic elements besides.
"Music From the Neck Downwards"
Shine a Light is practically a greatest-hits compilation of Stones classics, and we sometimes forget how ill-tempered some of these chart-toppers are. "Start Me Up" contains a one-liner that references necrophilia, for instance. And on "Loving Cup" (which The Stones perform with Jack White of The White Stripes), Jagger and White dive into a range of double entendres, topped with, "Push and pull with me all night." "Brown Sugar" is, of course, overtly sexual. And Christina Aguilera trots onstage in mile-high stilettos to sing and dirty-dance with Jagger for the lesser-known "Live With Me."
(Richards once described rock 'n' roll as "music for the neck downwards." Uh, Keith, in your case, since the heart doesn't have much to do with it, it's more like from the waist downwards.)
Stopping up their ears to sex's siren song for a few moments, the band pokes fun at Christianity on the country tune "Far Away Eyes." Jagger spikes The Temptations classic "Just My Imagination" with an f-word—one of two such straightforward obscenities. (Several others are censored.)
But the real show-stopper might be a rendition of Muddy Waters' "Champagne and Reefer." With an assist from blues master Buddy Guy, The Stones salute illicit drug use (Richards admits he still smokes "weed all the d--n time") with such lines as, "Give me champagne when I'm thirsty/Give me reefer when I want to get high."
Rock Is What Rock Does
The whole show, really, is intended to fuel The Rolling Stones' sagging bad-boy mystique: Both Wood and Richards smoke onstage (presumably cigarettes). A backup singer flashes cleavage. The archival film clips of eccentric, slouching interviews make a big deal of Jagger's and Richards' longtime drug use and occasional run-ins with the law. Scorsese even lampoons himself as an uptight director who practically begs the band to tell him what the first song will be so he can effectively film it. They do—a heartbeat before the performance begins.
Oooh, those rascally scalawags.
For The Rolling Stones, then, the best plaudits a review outlet like Plugged In Online can give are that their musical ability is impressive and their ageless energy is astounding, intimidating and sometimes even a little frightening. That probably suits Jagger, Richards et al just fine. They most likely would prefer we gave Shine a Light a hearty thumbs down. They'd like us to say things like "shocking," "appalling" and "this stuff isn't for children."
Well, it's not exactly shocking or appalling—it takes a lot to earn that type of verbiage from us these days. But I did wonder about the 11- and 12-year-old guests Mr. Clinton brought along with him, and what they learned from "Champagne and Reefer," "Start Me Up" and "Loving Cup."