Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Gather No Moss

Don’t you just hate the Rolling Stones?  They just won’t die and continue to tour constantly.  They sell tickets for seats onstage at exorbitant millionaire prices and they make irrelevant documentaries with now irrelevant filmmakers like Martin Scorsese.  They’re like all the rest of the Baby Boomers – they can’t step out of the spot light for even a second.  Cue the Tom Brokaw narration, please.

In 2005, I was in a friend’s apartment in Saratoga Springs. It was one of those dry, bitter upstate winter nights and the dim light, stale carpeting and exposed, painted pipes of the building kept its nineteenth century aura alive and well. My friend and I were walking down the creaking steps of the building in order to enter the freezing night and eventually find ourselves at a bar.  This friend was older than I was so he was hoping that my fake I.D. would serve me well and he wouldn’t have to ditch me.  We were both equally large Rolling Stones fans and the Stones were just about to embark on yet another one of their world tours.  This friend asked me if I was going to try to get tickets because even though they were damn expensive he, “had to try and see the Stones” just once.  I told him flatly right then that I would never try to see the Rolling Stones alive; because that was not the band I cared about.  The band I cared about lived in the albums I owned and listened to.  They weren’t the ones rolling into the Fleet Center or the Pepsi Arena in Albany. My friend tisked my dismissiveness and we walked out into the cold, orange streets to drink beer with our classmates.

Now, the remarks in the first paragraph are true and they are not true.  Just like my sentiment towards the Rolling Stones is both true and not true as an inclination and idea that people have about anything that was once real to them. “It’s better to burn out than to fade away” is not one of Neil Young’s better lines.  It is a simple sentiment that is as old as anything and as much as I love the son of a bitch, he was prone to spreading hippyisms such as that from time to time. For the Neil Young on Tonight’s the Night singing about Bruce Berry sticking a needle in his arm would not have shared that same sentiment, which makes it both true and not true.  The idea of explosive youth and talent is one of the most appealing ideas in the realm of the human imagination and ability to project desire.  We love our Keatsian and Shellyesque figures: Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain, Len Bias, James Dean – those talents whose hearts and ability burn too brightly and too rapidly for their bodies to sustain their universal energy.  We all want a figure in our lives to look at in that same way so that we can say, “that we were there with him (or her). I was in that damn room.”  However, we are all not meant to explode (sometimes implode) like that. So, we admire those who are able to age and find grace and maturity.  Because this life is made of many days and for many of us, the real heroes and idols are those that show us how to grow up and accept our changing roles in the world.  We all die at sometime, but most of us die past twenty-seven years old and most of us die with spouses and children and hopefully a mortgage we have paid off as well as a frozen and paid off home equity line of credit.

Now, the Rolling Stones have never understood this concept.  As much as they have admired bluesmen and the image of finding that one dilapidated bar in Mississippi or Alabama where are the strange ghosts and oddities of America rise up (sort of like a 1967 era Dylan), they have never understood that aging like a bluesman means retreating to those remote spaces of culture and not thrusting yourselves and your hips continually in the limelight. 

But the Stones are survivors. That’s their image.

The Stones are certainly survivors. If a nuclear bomb went off, those boys would still be
crawling around in the post-apocalypse. They have weathered the changing cultures and business models of four decades and soon to be five. This piece isn’t meant to be a diatribe against aging musicians.  I am not an ageist and I will not go quoting “I hope I die before I get old,” because I don’t believe in that kind of propaganda either.  What frustrates me about the Stones so much is that they can’t kick the habit.  They have to perform. They have to be out there grinding on the road. And the fact is that their music, more than any star that was extinguished much too soon, epitomizes the energy of youth, the explosiveness, danger and never-ending nights and cases of beer.  When one listens to Nirvana, there is a certain sentiment contained in the music and in the postures of Kurt Cobain – the misplaced aggression, the melody amid the noise – that retains the image of youth, but if you truly let that image sit in repose, it is because he died young.  And the art of one who died young, can’t be influenced by the fact that he or she died young.  In Jimi Hendrix, there was almost that wondering element, that vision to some extraordinary blue twilight, that maturity and nuance in his voice that elevated him to a certain level that I still have trouble explaining.  His talent was obviously immense and so was his taste.  However even with that abundance of gifts, his music does not capture that restlessness of youth and that confusion that the Stones encompass.

The Stones are survivors because they are always there. It’s not just because they have stuck around together as a band for so long. It’s because they are always there in the background of your life, always waiting to spring into action. That is not only at the multiple levels that they have achieved as cultural touchstones from movies, it is also on the extremely personal. And perhaps that is a moot point, because any music should affect you on a personal level more than on a cultural level. However, the Stones have achieved the rare quality of owning relevance on both the widespread cultural level and widespread personal level.  No matter where you are, the Stones infect you and they make you feel young. Even when you are young, they make that youth feel even more real than you know at the time.  An eccentric timeline:

Spring 2002 – I’m driving my Nissan Pathfinder back from my SAT test with two of my closest friends at the time: Erik and Buzzy.  We have the sunroof open and all the windows open and Exile on Main Street on the stereo.  “Let it Loose” is blaring out of my speakers and those soul singers are wailing away as Mick goes, “You’re just a stranger of which I never see no more.” Then the horns pipe up in the back and that twanging reverb guitar puts its two cents in too.  The day was sunny, we went down to the sound where it was low tide, and we walked around in the water and the sand.  We had a car, cigarettes (Buzzy didn’t smoke) and we had just finished a test.  The flashes of the classroom were still in my eyes then as they are now.  And who ever knew that soon one of those friends would be a stranger in many ways to me sooner rather than later and who I never see no more. But that didn’t matter then because we were all with each other and it was spring and summer was almost there and we were all friends.

Fall 2009 – I’m staying at my college roommate’s family’s condo in Stratton.  It’s a core group of us who have gotten closer after college.  We’re up in Vermont because when you are in your early to mid-20’s living in New York, you just have to get out to get a break and to pretend that you just aren’t drawn to going back to the city with all of its challenges and enticing opportunities. We all get drunk one night and decide to play a game of the best goodnight song. So, we all take turns picking songs. My friend Kat picks “You Got the Silver” and of course she had to win what with a thin voiced Keith singing his heart out when the song picks up at the end and the drums go a little crazy and he bursts out, “You got my soul, you got the silver you got the gold, if that’s your love that leaves me blind, I don’t care, no, is that a big surprise?”  The next morning we were impervious to hangovers, made eggs and sandwiches, hiked 15 miles to a lake and then came home and all ate dinner together.

Fall 2006 – Lovesick, feeling dangerous but confident with my progress in life “You Got the Silver” plays on my Nissan Pathfinder car stereo every morning on the way to class.  Driving the same route through Saratoga Springs from my apartment to campus and admiring the tight old neighborhoods that surrounded the school with their homes so full of promise and mystery of the simple or complicated or quite simply the lives that lay there within, I screamed out my window, “You got my soul, you got the silver you got the gold, if that’s your love that leaves me blind, I don’t care, no, is that a big surprise?” The leaves slowly fell, dried and collected against the sedimentary sidewalks and the days grew shorter and shorter.

Fall 2005 – Living in Ireland, I have taken it upon myself to not go to class and to teach myself the intricacies of Ulysses, to remain constantly drunk and to write melancholy poems about people I meet for only seconds.  However, amid all of this immaturity, the moon would sometimes shine extremely bright and full when I would be riding in the window seat of a bus and I’d listen to “Moonlight Mile” and think about traveling under “strange strange skies” and dying to be  “lying by your side” not ever knowing who that  “your” was supposed to be directed towards.

Summer 2002 – Drunk in the screened in porch of a friend who has since moved away from his cozy home right by the water, I confront an old sworn enemy of my youth when he tries to stare me down after a pointless disagreement.  I rage out at him verbally in an even more immature showing.  Once the noise dies down, one of my friends takes me home where I lie in bed listening to “Monkey Man” on my Discman over and over again.  This puts the fighting spirit in me so I start walking all the way back across town towards the water to settle the score. My arms and shoulders are twitching the whole way as I picture myself as some kind of boxer with nothing to lose.  This is all remedied when a friend passes me in his car as I am walking along the road and talks me into going back home.

Summer 2008 – Confused and exhausted throughout most of the heat, the only solace I can find is in the nervous joy, glee and high Keith harmonies of “Connection.”  Well that is the only place aside from the parties in my new apartment where the only thing that seems warm enough to meet the joy and energy is playing Exile on Main Street over and over and letting my friends pick up acoustic guitars and start singing while the beer runs out over and over again.

Late Winter 2010 – At a crossroads in contempt with my job.  Feeling like my creativity is reaching some kind of peak, I ride the subways after eleven and twelve-hour workdays never feeling tired and listening to “Monkey Man” on repeat.  I don’t want to fight anyone anymore, I just want to keep working and keep making things so that I can find what it is I really care about.

We’ll break from that extremely biased look at how the Stones effected my life back to the main point, which is that despite their short comings and the fact that they do continue to move on in the world as if there were no such thing as time, the music of the Rolling Stones continues to defy time and perpetuate that amalgam of feeling that is youth.  You don’t know what that thing you are chasing after is, and neither did the Rolling Stones.  They warbled and snared their way through it and after it just like we all do.  Even when we wake up at forty and are reminded of something lost to us, perhaps in the way that fifty degree weather in March feels like swimming in a pool during the high heat of summer, we don’t know what we are chasing after. Although we may have children then, love our wives, and make all the mortgage payments, electric and insurance payments we need to, we are never closer to identifying that energy that we once called youth, which always lives in us unless we allow ourselves to lose it completely.

“A rolling stone gathers no moss,” is the proverb that the Rolling Stones’ name comes from. This proverb simultaneously entices us with its suggestion of restlessness and rootlessness as well with its flip side of never staying in one place long enough to learn anything or love anyone.  There is some part of us that will forever long to be clean and indestructible. We want to be young with no responsibilities.  The only ability we want to have is to be on the road, watching things as they pass and never having to consider the lives that spring out of every object that passes our eye.  We “got tee move” and when we move we have to have that swagger of “Tumbling Dice” or the electricity of “Jumping Jack Flash.”  However, we are all looking to take something with us in our lives.  We want to collect memories, love, children and accomplishments. We want to have a home and have someone who we can lay beside.  There is no “road” without the vision of the form of the person that you imagine you will at some point be sleeping next to.  No one ever really wants to “burn out” because we’ve all grown up watching as people “fade away” – and this is not a bad thing. Even though I take my contempt out for the Rolling Stones as they fade away, they are doing what normal people do: forgetting their youth or trying to relive it in some misguided way.  However, we all have a way out of that fate.  We do not have to forget our youth, because we will always have the musics that conjure it up so well for us and as we grow older and our burdens weigh heavier, we can keep our identities separate from our jobs and from our growing responsibilities and remember where we came from, while we acknowledge where we are.  We do not have to lose any of our laughter or liberalism, even as we grow more fiscally conservative for the sake of our children.

So, in the end, whether you like the Stones or not, we are all rolling stones.  At the same moment we are incapable of growing up or embracing responsibility; we lack the patience to learn anything new; we can never sit in one place to settle down; we can’t let ourselves grow stagnant with contentment and are always searching for a new idea, for the creative way that we are going to turn around this economy or revolutionize an industry or foolishly try to write that Great American Novel – foolishly chase what doesn’t exist.  However, at the same turn we long to collect those fragments from our storied lives and place them in a restored home somewhere in south Brooklyn or maybe along the Hudson River.  A home where we can usher the kids or grandkids into, tell them stories, and explain how you must appreciate the spaces in the world and the chances to walk in the woods on a misty morning in April.  We all want to have things. However, it is how we understand in the end that we can’t take any of these things with us that unites that nomadic energy of youth and that poise of age: we are simultaneously clean and invincible, while remaining wise and patient.

But right now, we are young just like the Stones always make me feel.  The Stones on record.  And maybe if I heed their story and pay attention to what I am capable of at any moment, I will learn how to grow older with grace and still be able to keep that feeling the records give me.  I’ll keep it, but I won’t need to show any of you.

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