As a new video depicts the 75-year-old Rolling Stones frontman dancing away after heart surgery, Tim Sommer wonders if its just another cheap trick from rock’s greatest stunt queen
It was the autumn of 1984. Televisions flickered, as they did in those days. Chinese food and Blimpies were consumed. The Smiths were discussed. Cheap vodka was inhaled at The Holiday and other childish saloons.
On November 21 of ’84, the TV news trumpeted a story about legendary fitness guru Jack LaLanne, who celebrated his 70th birthday in this manner: “Handcuffed, shackled and fighting strong winds and currents, (he) towed 70 boats with 70 people from the Queen’s Way Bridge in the Long Beach Harbor to the Queen Mary, 1 ½ miles.”
I recall LaLanne as being an amiable fellow who looked a bit like a Stretch Armstrong toy, and who would show up on Mike Douglas preaching the values of keeping fit while doing an age-inappropriate stunt or two.
And I thought of Jack LaLanne and that boat-towing trick while watching that recent, much-shared video of Mick Jagger dancing after heart surgery. In fact, that’s instantly what came to mind. “Ol’ Mick is towing a flotilla through Long Beach Harbor! Isn’t that, well, just wonderful!”
Mick Jagger is a stunt queen. Whatever it is that the Stones once stood for, it’s been nearly entirely reduced to us clapping our fat little fingers in glee as we delight in watching everything Mick Jagger can do despite being, what, like 105 (or whatever age this liver-lipped slinky-hipped White Walker is).
It was perfectly summed up in this post-surgery video.
As he stares at himself in the mirror, it is clear that he is no longer the frontman of a band of almost feral power, a group who could once summon the tombs of New Orleans and the sunbaked dirt crossroads of Mississippi. Today, Mick Jagger is just the sole member and leader of the Cirque De So-Old-Guy, performing remarkable stunts that defy time and logic.
“Oooooh, look at that! I have trouble just standing on a chair to change a light bulb, I can barely keep my diet coke from dribbling out from between my cracked and aging lips, and Mick Jagger can do that?!?”
No one goes to see the Stones play in 2019 to hear a musical performance. They go to see Mick Jagger, Stunt Queen. They go to see him for the same goddamn reason that Ernie Anastos (or Rose Ann Scamradella or Bill Mazer or whoever it was) knew we would be excited to see footage of Jack LaLanne towing those boats in Long Beach Harbor (and now back to Sue Simmons, who spoke to Ed Koch about the renovation of the South Street Seaport).
These are stunts divorced from purpose. See, when Mr. LaLanne – a damned admirable character who urged Americans to eat and live healthy, long before it was a common idea – towed these boats, it’s not like those people were actually commuters or anything; it’s not like they really needed to get somewhere and they were thinking, “Why, we missed the ferry! Maybe that nice old man will grip our tow rope with his teeth and get us to across the harbor!” And it’s exactly the same with Mick: He offers no musical revelations, no moments of transcendence. He is just towing boats with his teeth.
Mick Jagger has reduced the music of your life, the music that gave your days meaning and your nights motion, the music that you used to find yourself and find your tribe, to a series of “Wow, look what he can do at his age!” acrobatics.
It does not have to be this way. Aging rock stars can be far, far more than stunt queens. They can still release powerful music that reflects experience and observation. They can still perform old – and new – material in a manner that reflects everything they have learned, experienced, and felt. Their music and performances can mourn and celebrate the passing of time, instead of denying it. In the past few years, artists like the late Scott Walker, Dave Davies, Chris Butler, Kinky Friedman, Colin Newman, and many others proved this, constantly. These are artists doing literally the best work of their career in their 60s and 70s. Their intention is to find new magic in old hands, to learn something about their long life through their songs.
Every single night of his never-ending tour, Bob Dylan (who is two years older than Jagger) climbs onstage with the intention of pleasing himself by infusing the greatest catalog in pop rock history with the same kind of growl and spontaneity he felt when he was a teenager playing Little Richard and Bobby Vee covers in the VA halls of Minnesota. He does this for himself, so he can find a new connection to his songs, his history, and his love of rock ‘n’ roll.
See, the key word here is intent, and Mick Jagger has only one intention: For you to go, my god, look at what he can do at that age. That is Jagger’s intention, in its entirety. Jagger is not honoring his catalog, he is not honoring the pioneering work of his legendary band, and he is certainly not honoring the intent with which his band started: to play remarkable American music with a raw, primitive joy. Instead, Jagger goes on stage with the same intent Jack LaLanne had when he waded into the cold, oily, oyster-gray waters of Long Beach: Look what I can do at this age!
Mick Jagger once stood for something. He was a symbol of your rebellion, a totem for your desires, and a monument to the admiration he and his mates had for the inexorably powerful music of America’s disenfranchised sages. But that intention has dissolved into dust. Whatever it was Mick Jagger once wanted to be or intended to stand for, I am quite goddamn sure he wasn’t supposed to end his life as Jack LaLanne towing 70 boats across Long Beach Harbor.