Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Love, Death and Rock & Roll: Rich Cohen's The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones

"Menace is most effective when its limits are not known. [Mick] Jagger's 'demonic' persona was not enhanced by the death at Altamont, as some people have supposed; it was destroyed. In the face of one man's real death, Jagger's 'demonic' posture was shown to be merely perverse."

- George Trow, "Eclectic, Reminiscent, Amused, Fickle, Perverse." The New Yorker, May 29 and June 5, 1978.

In his 2012 documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, filmmaker Brett Morgen (Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck) showed how the impudent rebellion of The Rolling Stones' music and their volatile stage performances in the Sixties, which inspired riots everywhere, came from the adolescent impulse to run the table. Unlike The Beatles, who were a still center in a swirling hurricane of love, The Rolling Stones sought out the high winds. They gleefully fanned the flames of discontent until the sweet kick of revolt became a turbulent act of mutiny. But once death greeted them with the passing of co-founder Brian Jones in 1969, and violence and murder answered them at the Altamont Speedway later that same year, the chickens finally came home to roost. From there, it was childhood's end. Their bad boy behavior quickly became a corporate brand of sanctified naughtiness. That branding not only insulated them from the tumult their concerts had created, but it would also rob their music in time of its pulsing vitality. Crossfire Hurricane, taken from the lyrics of their scorching masterpiece, "Jumpin' Jack Flash," is in many ways a coming of age story about the taming of artistic danger.

There's also an urgent quest to peel open the riddle behind that artistic danger (and its taming) throughout author and journalist Rich Cohen's (Tough Jews, The Avengers) captivating new book, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones (Spiegel & Grau, 2016), and it coils through the narrative like an electrical current seeking ground. Having been drawn to their music at ten, by an older brother who was exiled to the attic of their parents' home with his music, Cohen would ultimately become a writer and journalist covering The Stones as they toured in the Nineties (right at a time where their music was long passed the potency that once stirred him as an adolescent). Using the subject of time as a key metaphor to parse brilliance from longevity, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones (a gift title from Keith Richards who realizes that The Stones have been a constant in this young writer's life) is made up of fan notes that are cured in a quick critical eye. Cohen fully understands how the distance his generation has had from The Stones' greatest moments is both a handicap and a blessing. "Time would always separate me from these guys, from this generation," he writes without a trace of bitterness for being born at the wrong time. "Above us, the baby boomers., who consumed every resource and every kind of fun. Below us, the millennials, the children of the baby boomers, who've remade the world into something virtual and cold. The boomers consumed their childhood, then, in a sense, consumed our childhoods, too. They overimbibed, lived to such excess there's nothing left for us but to tell the story." Cohen's story has the power to shrink time so that each song he invokes quickly regains its ability to shock and surprise.

Even though he arrives late to the party so that he's removed from the linearity of The Stones' history and the impact their albums had as they arrived, Cohen chronicles their story as a flashback, from their beginnings as a blues band started by Brian Jones to their eventual flame out in the Seventies. But his distance from the Sixties is an advantage. It gives him both an ephemeral grasp of The Stones' artistic growth ("Art is not linear; it's circular. An artist does not improve, nor progress. He simply rides the wheel, waiting for the clouds to break and the sun to appear.") and an ambivalent relationship to that era ("This is where my generation, Generation X, parts company with the baby boomers. They ruined drugs, as they ruined Frye boots and bell-bottoms. We never shared their dream of opening the doors of perception, or touching the face of God. Because of them, enlightenment seemed like bullshit. All that remained was the high. With their embarrassing enthusiasm, they turned everything into a joke. They ate the fruit and left the peel, smoked the pot and left the resin, swallowed the epiphanies and left the reality.").

The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones is a refreshing read because we've already had far too many books that mythologize and sentimentalize the Sixties. To some degree they always end up deliberately, or inadvertently, condescending to those who weren't there. This gaudy display of self-importance wasn't something present in the World War Two generation. It could have only bloomed afterwards with Boomers in an era of prosperous entitlement that removed them from the pains of sacrifice. (Perhaps this is why, as Greil Marcus pointed out in an essay contained in his book on The Doors, there were never Benny Goodmanheads in the age of his parents just like there were Deadheads for his own generation.) But the later jaded attitude of Generation X and many millennials also resulted in a flaw where there was little trust for sentiment – even in its purest form. They preferred the emotional distance provided by sarcastic skepticism, a detachment that offered more control and emotional protection."My generation is hard-boiled in comparison [to Boomers]," Cohen writes. "Too much sentiment makes us uncomfortable, as we heard so much of it from the big brothers and big sisters who smoked pot under the bridge." The fading of ideals and deliberate rebellious stands can get old when it amounts to nothing more than success and prosperity, but the tale of The Rolling Stones (who embodied that arc) hasn't thankfully turned Cohen into a betrayed fan. Instead it has pushed him deeper into why being a fan creates a thirst for art.

Unlike rock biographies that turn their heroes into objects of fetishism, or others that seek to trash the cultural impact of their subject, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones neither lionizes nor spares its subject. What perspective has given Rich Cohen on The Stones is a means for him to see in his heroes the parts that make up the whole. "The Stones are a train rolling across a valley. I can see every car, the first and the last, the engine and the caboose, which gets smaller as it goes away." He says that you need to understand the end so that you can comprehend what was there in the beginning. That's why he claims the band as his life study whereby their story becomes his Hemingway, Dickens and Homer. Calling The Rolling Stones "a machine that runs on bodies," Cohen sees how they also chew them up. If the drug busts and the trial of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in the late Sixties was a blow to the body of the band, he also claims that it closed them off and separated them from their fans. (The Beatles had already retreated from their admirers after the violent 1966 tour forced them to quit the road and take refuge in the studio.) From there, the drug addiction and collapse of Brian Jones, which would ultimately lead to his firing and death, demonstrated to Cohen a single-minded survivalism that emerged in the band where no one dared get out this band alive. He calls Keith Richards "a trance-ridden melody"while Charlie Watts is the mercenary, "having chosen success over jazz." Bill Wyman is simply described as "the back line"(who would get out alive, but not unscathed in the wrath of Keith Richards). Yet it's in Mick Jagger that Cohen perceives the eternal Stone. In him, he sees the "cruel edge that bleeds into the music." Rather than the Lucifer image that has always fit him like a cloak, Cohen defines Jagger more clearly as pure show business, "a pop version of the classic Hollywood diva, for whom the show must go on, for who obscurity is even more terrifying than death." Beyond the narcissist who craves his own reflection, for Cohen, Jagger seeks to generate "tremendous light, but little heat. People crave that light but get no sustenance from it. It destroys them." 

There's such a gliding intelligence in Cohen's writing in The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones that however familiar their story is to us, it still remains fresh and vital. Cohen's perceptions into their songs might not always open up the underlying impact of their appeal (in the way that Devin McKinney's superb Magic Circles did for The Beatles), but you can still hear the raw notes buzzing in his prose. When he tackles the violence at the free concert at Altamont the writing is sure and sound, even when he is missing a number of facts. (For that, you need to read music journalist Joel Selvin's recent unsparing account, Altamont: The Rolling Stones, The Hells Angels, And The Inside Story of Rock's Darkest Day (William Morrow, 2016), which parses fearlessly through the hubris, the ugliness and the naivete of that horrible event.) But he senses, as Morgen did in Crossfire Hurricane, that Altamont was a crucible that unleashed a cruelty that always hummed menacingly in their tunes. "At Altamont, the spectators were beaten by the Stones' own security – the band had loosed the furies on its own fans." Not only that, but the violence this time didn't enhance the Stones and their image, it instead left Jagger "overmatched" and "powerless." Far from being destroyed, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones shows what happens when a vibrant rock band becomes an institution that can survive tests even when they don't pass them. Rich Cohen, who also helped develop HBO's moribund Vinyl with Mick Jagger and Martin Scorsese, reveals with much more satisfaction and clarity the seductive power that lies under the hunger for freedom that rock always promised. But given the cost of that promise for The Rolling Stones, however, it's more clear than ever why you can't always get what you want even when you sometimes get what you need.
 Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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