Rock Stars Telling Jokes
When it happens, it happens fast.
I was sitting on the stoop of my West Village apartment, waiting without knowing it. In the summer, the city smells like trash. The streets are desiccated, empty. It seems as if everyone has gone off to the mountains or the sea, leaving the ne’er-do-wells to haunt the redbrick alleys. Then, just like that, I was carried away by the Rolling Stones. It was akin to my childhood dream of running off with the circus. The midway. The strong man. The Ferris wheel revolving against the flat Kansas sky. In 1994, I was twenty-six years old and the Stones were crossing America. I’d been assigned to report on the tour for Rolling Stone magazine. I’d been bored, but I was not bored anymore.
In the next two weeks, I crossed half the continent. I stood in the corners of a dive bar as the Stones played their warm-up gig, got drunk in arenas open to the sky, dozed in hotel lobbies and dressing rooms, leaned against a speaker at the edge of the stage as the band played its encore, saw my country through rock star eyes, airports and towns becoming an insubstantial blur—only the next show was real. I sat beside Keith Richards on the Stones plane, goofed with Mick Jagger, who made fun of my hair when it was long and more fun of my hair when it was short, talked to Charlie Watts about New Orleans and the Civil War, then sat in his hotel room listening to jazz. I drank whiskey with Ron Wood and Bobby Keys when they got word that their friend and colleague, the pianist Nicky Hopkins, had died in Nashville. Keys grimaced, then tossed back four fingers of Jack Daniel’s, eyes filled with tears.
In New York, we stayed fifty blocks from my apartment but a hundred miles from my old life. It had been summer. Now it was fall, glittery Manhattan, the endless avenues. I spent one long day at Radio City, watching the Stones rehearse for the MTV Video Music Awards. The appearance was to goose sales of their new album, Voodoo Lounge, but for the musicians it was just a quick hit between somewhere and somewhere else just like it. I didn’t even go by my apartment, nor see friends. The circus had stopped in my town, but I was different, having been remade by proximity to the greatest sword swallowers, high-wire artists, and sideshow freaks in the world.
I hung out with the band instead, lingering backstage as Keith Richards and Ron Wood traded acoustic licks on Hank Williams tunes, sat in the empty theater as Mick Jagger snaked down the aisle, playing the sinewy harmonica intro to the single “Love Is Strong.” On the way back to the dressing rooms, I had an encounter greater even than my childhood encounter with Joe DiMaggio before an old-timers game—the Yankee Clipper shouted at reporters, “Can’t you sons-of-bitches see I’m naked?” Behind the curtain, Jagger and I bumped into Bruce Springsteen, who regarded us warily. It was a look I’d seen in high school on the faces of rival linebackers. There was a mumbled exchange, a comparing of notes. Mick introduced me as his “good friend.” As we went away, Jagger shrugged, playground-style, whispering something like, “Well, you know, Bruce, he gives a very long concert.”
That night, after the show, Virgin Records threw a party for the Stones at the Four Seasons hotel on Fifty-seventh Street. Empty at midnight, it was packed by two, crowded with rock stars who’d once filled posters on my bedroom wall. There was music, leather, eye shadow, Spanish heels, gin. Mick’s publicist told Mick that Steven Tyler wanted to have a picture taken—“just the two of you.”
“What do you think?” asked Jagger.
“Give it a miss,” said the publicist. “Tyler wants people to think Aerosmith is up with the Stones, whereas, in fact, I mean, come on, Mick!”
The publicist talked about a New York Post article on the band’s recourse to body waxing. It had been written by a reporter who’d covered the Stones for years. “She’s enjoyed life on the inside,” said the publicist. “Let’s see how she likes life on the outside.”
One of the Stones’ people pushed me against a wall and asked me to “come upstairs and blow a joint.”
Slipping away, I found myself in a circle of rock-’n’-roll masters: Steve Winwood of Traffic; Jim Capaldi, the band’s drummer; Ron Wood; and Keith Richards. Though each had his own identity, they seemed to share a single face. Creased and beaten, aged like leather, pounded by abuse into a kind of beauty. An old guy getting a close look at Jagger once said, “You have more wrinkles than I do!” “They’re laugh lines,” said Mick. The guy guffawed: “Nothing’s ever been that funny.” But the guy was wrong—there has been something that funny, mainly, the joke that this generation of rock stars played on fate, which had them marked for lives of quiet desperation in factories and insurance firms but instead set them up like medieval princes in frock coats and buckles—a life that for centuries had been the sole entitlement of the debauched nobility.
Each man in that circle had electric energy and strung-out glory—drank too much, stayed out too late, brain fried and fingers gnarled, but my God, could they play. These were the last of the great rock stars, a species that’s going the way of the snow leopard. Those who survive are precious and strange, relics of an ancient dispensation, that era when the music mattered above all else—when you believed the next album would clarify everything. The men in that circle were human expressions of that belief, heroes who established the revolution, then followed it to the end. They stood laughing and drinking, telling dirty jokes. “Did you guys hear the one about the pianist who was playing songs for his producer?” Capaldi asked. “He plays two beautiful songs, saying, ‘The first is called “My Dick Is Long” and the next is called “My Penis Is Huge.” ’ Then he goes to the bathroom. When he returns, the producer says, ‘Do you know your fly is open and your dick’s hanging out?’
“ ‘Know it?’ says the pianist. ‘I wrote it!’ ”
Richards leaned back and roared. “ ‘Know it? I wrote it!’ ”
As the men laughed, it hit me. I’d always sensed there were people somewhere having more fun than me. I’d always believed there was a better party. And there was! And I’d found it! No need to check my messages, look over someone’s shoulder, wonder where to go next. I was at the center of the best party in the world. For the first time in my life, I was exactly where I wanted to be.
“What about you?” Capaldi said. “Do you have a joke?”
I told him I did not, that I was, in many ways, humorless.
Steve Winwood looked at me, really looked at me, for the first time. A legend of British rock, author of “Back in the High Life Again” and “Higher Love,” and before that a driving force behind the Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith, and Traffic, Winwood was forty-six with tousled hair and a needle-sharp face. When I told him I worked for Rolling Stone, his sharp eyes became accusatory. “You know, you’re a bastard,” he said, suddenly. “A nasty bastard. I’ve been waiting years to tell you that, and there it is! You nasty bastard!”
“Hey, Stevie, do you know this kid?” asked Ron Wood, surprised.
“Hell, yes, this bastard has trashed every solo album I’ve ever released. You think there’s no life after Traffic?” Winwood went on. “What was I supposed to do, lay down and die when the band broke up? Well, I won’t die for you. No, I won’t die for you.”
There was an awkward silence, then everyone cracked up. It got an even bigger laugh than “Know it? I wrote it!” Taking my arm, Keith said, “You’re crazy, Stevie. You’re talking about fucking nineteen seventy-four. This kid was six years old! What does he know about Traffic?”
“You do know Rolling Stone is a magazine, not a person,” Wood added.
Just then, I had my second epiphany. Time would always separate me from these guys, from this generation. I’d missed everything: 1964, 1969, 1972—those were the years that mattered. I’d been born too late. Whatever happened had happened already. I’d spent my entire life trying to reach this party. By the time I got there, everyone was old. Belatedness: it’s the condition of little brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of old parents, third children who showed up just in time to see a cigarette floating in the last cocktail of the night. It defines my generation. We’re pinched. 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.
Time distanced me from the Stones, but it gave me something, too. Perspective. Coming at the end means being able to comprehend the entire story. Rock ’n’ roll was more than just a million garage bands; more than just Top Forty radio; more than just A&R men and record companies. It was an attitude and an age. The Stones were the greatest band of that age, and in a way the only band that mattered, because, in them, you had both the ultimate and the ur, a group that can stand for all the others. If you tell their story, you tell the story. But you need perspective to do it. You have to know the end to understand the beginning. Evening light. Venus in the east. The story of the boomers told by Generation X. 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.
I would travel with the band on various tours, first as a writer for Rolling Stone, then as the screenwriting partner of Mick Jagger. We were working with Martin Scorsese on a script about a fictional record executive, whose rise and fall would encapsulate the era. I got stories firsthand and was able to test ideas with the world’s greatest front man, though Jagger tends to diminish his own role. He abhors the temptation to turn singers into gods, the fate of John Lennon seemingly never far from his mind. Yet it’s clear the Stones were, for a time, the avant-garde, which is one reason Jagger keeps his mouth shut. If you live audaciously, don’t brag. Over time, it became obvious to me that what began with a magazine story was turning into something more—an epic and an obsession, a saga in which a handful of musicians stand for the longings of a society.
I began to seek out witnesses who could fill in the gaps, explain puzzles, add color. I tracked down colleagues and friends of the band; competitors; pioneers; precursors; producers and engineers; drug buddies and assistants; record men; girlfriends of the one-night variety and those more akin to common-law wives. I read memoirs, biographies. There’ve been dozens, perhaps hundreds of books. For people involved with the Stones, no matter how briefly, the experience tends to be the most vivid of their lives. I watched documentaries and listened to the records again and again. I looked at pictures. The Stones were among the most photographed people of the twentieth century. I went to places that loom large in their story: houses where Mick and Keith grew up in Dartford, England; the pub where they first performed; the apartment where they lived in squalor one cold winter; the club in Richmond where they became a sensation; the swank flats and estates they purchased when they’d made it; Olympic Studios in Barnes; Chess Records in Chicago; the Altamont Speedway; Joshua Tree National Park; the mansion in France where they recorded their greatest album; the clinic in Switzerland where Keith Richards kicked heroin. I kept a handful of questions in mind: Why was this music important? Why do the soap-opera adventures of the Stones still fascinate? Can rock save your soul? Is it a religion? If so, why did it go the way of Zoroastrianism? Should we worship the life or the message? Is there a graceful way to get old?
That night at the party in 1994, the Stones struck me as decadent. They were an oldies act, which is less about biological age than about spirit. The Stones had become predictable. Invention had given way to repetition. They were doing what they did because it’s what they’d always done. At the beginning, they imitated black blues musicians. At the end, they imitated themselves. And yet, even at the most tired shows, before the most jaded crowds, you could still, now and then, just for a moment, catch a glimpse of what they had been: a revolution with ten hands, four chords, and a groove.
The Cowbell and the Poster
When I was ten years old, my brother ascended to heaven. He did it by moving from the second floor of our house to the attic, which, with its shag carpet and cedar walls, was the frontier. No curfew. No law. Though not allowed up, I now and then stood at the bottom step, listening to the music that cascaded down from the speakers, woofers and tweeters, amp and subamp, turntable. Once, tagging after my father, who’d gone up to let my brother know he was not in fact beyond all authority, I was able to get a good look at the stereo.
When did that bastard get a Nakamichi tape deck?
The other time I saw the equipment, and it hardly counts, was at the stereo store in the mall. There was an outer room filled with downmarket brands and Mickey Mouse doodads; then, behind glass, an inner sanctum with the sort of intricate equipment favored by people who had understanding as well as knowledge. Inside that room, inside the inside, was still another room, an oblong enclosure known as “the listening egg,” where, squeezed between walls of speakers, a customer could have a dramatic last listen before making the purchase. One afternoon, just before the deal was done, I got to recline in the egg as my brother’s soon-to-be speakers blasted a song the salesman considered perfectly suited to “demo the gear”: “Life’s Been Good” by Joe Walsh, cranked to the max, the druggy guitar solo wandering through me like the flu.