Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Rolling in Place

Any U.S. tour by the Rolling Stones is an artistic exploration because, like so many European artists, the Stones are continually in search of America. Their search is always presumptuous and difficult. The more they're turned on by the fresh and energetic promise of its music and its youth, the more they realize that the new-found land is as rooted in oppression and violence as the old. And yet the temptation to try the thrilling American game, the painless perfection of humanity, is irresistible. They tried at Altamont, and everybody lost.

Two and a half years have passed since that festival of disaster and the Stones are back again, but this time they're playing it safe. The tour has been predictably spectacular, but its sole display of arrogance came Tuesday night, when the Stones filled the home-plate half of the Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in Washington on the Fourth of July. Except for the firecrackers some boobs in the upper deck loosed on their sisters and brothers below, the situation's explosive potential was well controlled. The truly festive crowd, which had been gathering all day, began its orderly entrance at around 4:30. Because the 47,500 places were unreserved, the counterfeit tickets that have occasioned violence elsewhere on the tour could not be a problem and even the police cheered a crasher who scaled a two-tier cyclone fence. The excitement was unexacerbated by any teasing build-up. The music began at seven o'clock with an unadvertised gospel group, and Stevie Wonder began his set shortly before the announced starting time of eight o'clock.

Shortly after nine, eight Rolling Stones--all the original members except the late Brian Jones, plus replacement guitarist Mick Taylor, session pianist Nicky Hopkins, and hornmen Bobby Keys and Jim Price--popped out of a luxurious camper truck and onto the stage. They were flanked by an American flag on their right and a Union Jack on their left. A second American flag was also displayed. Mick Jagger was dressed in white--last time it was black--and wearing a big brown cowboy hat, which he quickly threw off. The second American flag mysteriously disappeared. A red Yippie flag which had been waving in the crowd was passed up front, and a stagehand set it up on an amp. All the Stones want to prove this time is that they're the greatest rock and roll band in the world--right now. They are wary of their own legend. Four of the first five songs, all rockers "Brown Sugar," "Bitch," "Gimme Shelter," "Happy" and "Tumblin' Dice"--postdated their last tour.

Then, after congratulating us on our independence, Mick launched into the dense, bitter Robert Johnson blues, "Love in Vain," and a version of "You Can't Always Get What You Want" arranged around a brand new Mick Taylor riff. Taylor also contributed a brilliant solo.

Conceptually, though, the key was a perverse, ironic rapist's song, "Midnight Rambler." Done up all slow and nasty, with plenty of room for Mick to whip the stage with his sash, it was a highlight of the last tour, but this time it had been speeded up into a good-time rock-and-roller. During the whipping segment, Mick donned a sleazy, satanic top hat, overplaying his sexism into an obvious parody, and as soon as it was over the band launched into their obligatory Chuck Berry number--not "Johnny B. Goode," Berry's standard tribute to the American rock and roll dream, but its sequel, "Bye Bye Johnny," a song about the separation from one's roots that automatically accompanies stardom.

Then "Rip This Joint," a song about the last tour from the current album, Mick's signature song, "Jumping Jack Flash," and "Street Fighting Man." To climax with the two oldest songs in the set may indicate waning vitality, but "Street Fighting Man" seems to sum up where they and their audience are--right now.

"What can a poor boy do except sing in a rock and roll band?" On the strength of their Washington performance, that would seem to suffice--right now.

N'day, July 6, 1972