Friday, May 4, 2012

(18th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Staying the Course"

Song: Laugh, I Nearly Died
Album: A Bigger Bang
Released: September, 2005

Not Fade Away:  If there is a Rock n’ Roll mantra, this is it.  Neil Young went as far to say that it is better to burn out if it comes to that as being the only alternative; a bit extreme, though to his credit he did also emphasize that “once your gone, you can’t come back”.  In other words, don’t burn out.  Too bad Kurt Cobain did not take in that part of the lyrics.  As they say, always read the fine print.

In general, “Not Fade Away” is a great adage to live by.  It can get tricky, though.  Stick with something long enough and you just might fade away.  When does the “Peter Principle” kick in; that “rise to your level of incompetence”?  When do you know that it is time to quit, to move on, to leave on a high note?   

Turns out the band R.E.M. had it figured it out.  It could easily be argued that they were still at the top of their game when they disbanded recently after a 30-year run.  Same could be said for Led Zeppelin, though their hand was forced somewhat with the loss of their drummer. Barry Sanders nailed it.  So did “Seinfeld”.  On the flip side there’s The Eagles, Stan Musial and M*A*S*H to symbolize the risk of dragging things out beyond the expiration date. They are not alone though: More often, that is the path taken.  It can be awfully difficult to know when to fold ‘em.  You never know if another burst of whatever it is you had before is just around the bend.

So, we have burn out. We have fade (rust).  We have leaving on a high note. 

And then we have the Rolling Stones.

Ten years ago, during a 60 Minutes interview, Ed Bradley made the astute observation while interviewing Keith Richards that Keith appeared to place a very high value on continuity.  Richards’ eyes lit up.  Bradley had nailed it.  He had gotten to the core of what drives Keith Richards, and in the process explained, at the very least, a major driving force behind the longevity of the Rolling Stones.  But longevity is only one side effect of continuity, as the two terms are not exactly synonymous.  Longevity is synonymous with durability, a noble trait, yet a bit close for comfort to the potential for rust.  Continuity is more than that.  It’s the state of stability.  It’s the absence of disruption.  You can be durable without being stable, but not the other way around.

At a glance, the Stones don’t come across as all that stable through the years.  Their history is a bit of a roller coaster ride:  Even keeled in the early to mid-60s, biding their time while the Beatles were soaring; climbing high during a four album stretch from ’68 to ’72, when they were the biggest game in town; sweeping back down in the mid ‘70s, burn out rearing its ugly head; a second climb in the late 70s to early 80s, while brilliantly connecting the dots with all the trends of the time; another drop in the mid to late 80s, infighting almost ending it all; and finally another leveling off (much like their beginnings) playing out through the 90s and 00s, a surprising rejuvenation capped by the emergence of mega tours.

No other band has been able to pull such a lengthy ride off to near the level of excitement, and this is where the whole of the Rolling Stones continuity can begin to be envisioned.  Everything with continuity has its ups and downs, including a good marriage, a good friendship, or a good partnership.  But it takes work and endless passion.  Keith Richards has that.  I see this pretty clearly now, because if there is anything I can relate to with Mr. Richards it’s my own high value of continuity and what it takes to make things work.  I know what it’s like to be the last one standing behind an ideal; to be the persuader; to be the dreamer.  It does not always play out the way you would hope, but persistence pays off in a good way more often than not.

Back to R.E.M. for a moment; the consummate “end it on top” band.  These guys were an incredible live act in spite of the fact that they would typically refuse to play any songs on their tours that were older than the 3 studio albums prior.  In fact, I would be willing to bet that if there was enough material on their at-the-time most-recent album for a 3 hour show, they would have played music from it and nothing else.  This stance was a curious one, seeing as by the 90s R.E.M. had a deep and rich catalog to choose from, and I’m sure the old nuggets would have been refreshing for them to play on occasion.  But the three-album-window approach worked for them:  The sound was always dead on; the band’s performance consistently sublime. 

But the questions remain:  Why such a stance and how was it that the sound was always so good?  I believe at least some of the reasoning was that R.E.M. did not want to rest on their laurels.  Was there a fear of stagnation?  If so, it never happened.  On the contrary, the band remained sharp, creative and ambitious to the end, which again, came across in the live shows.  The crowd sensed this, and cut them a lot of slack.  No chestnuts?  Ok, than the newest stuff better sound damn good.  And man did it ever, each and every time.  R.E.M. lived up to that old Rock n’ Roll mantra:  Not Fade Away.  Not many bands can make that claim.  And their approach appears to have been intentional, particularly now that they’ve hung up the cleats on that proverbial high note.

If the Rolling Stones had to rely on their last 3 albums to tour on now, ‘Voodoo Lounge’ (1994), ‘Bridges to Babylon’ (1997) and ‘A Bigger Bang’ (2006), I think they would be in pretty good shape music wise.  Though their own studio career has had its ups and downs, these 3 albums have held up rather well.  The crowd may not appreciate it if they did this:  Too many expectations on what constitutes a great Stones show.  The bar has been raised awfully high over the decades, so while the most recent releases are solid, they are somewhat lost in the already crowded vault.  The Stones are in many ways victims of their own success.  But they can also stake claim to the Not Fade Away mantra: It’ rare when a band (or anything for that matter) sees itself to its natural conclusion.  If the Stones were to call it quits today, they could make this claim.  There’s no rust on them.  They’ve simply come full circle.

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I have to admit to a bit of a comedown this week after the ‘Exile on Main Street’ experience last week.  Why I chose the other Stones double studio album, ‘A Bigger Bang’ immediately after, I have no idea.  I must say, burn out, or at least rust, slipped in here and there.  Not fair to this album, a very good one.  I will have to come back to it again later.  This time around, I latched on to the song Laugh, I Nearly Died ( ) for this week’s Stepping Stone. As with any great song, this one hits you from many angles:  In this case the lyrics, the backing vocals during the bridge, and the ominous sounding guitar.  The Stones still had it in them with their last release.  Hopefully there is another one left in the tank.  If not, however, that natural conclusion has already been reached.  Anything more is gravy.

-          Pete

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