The Rolling Stones

It took me a long time to fully appreciate the Rolling Stones, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it was the Stones’ fault.

I had a weird musical childhood. My first love was the Beatles, because that’s what my parents played for me (somewhere I still have some much-battered 45s of “Penny Lane” and the like), but that was as far as they took my musical education. So when the Osmonds got their own Saturday morning cartoon show — and trading card set, just like the Beatles — I adopted them as well to make one very weird two-band favorites list.

I didn’t start listening seriously to Top 40 or rock radio until I was a teenager, and by then the Stones … well, kind of sucked. I had heard most of their hits, over and over, given it was hard to avoid them, and enjoyed them well enough as yet another of those raunchy, sex-obsessed guitar-wielding bands that suffused all of ’70s rock radio (and ’80s rock radio, which was largely backward-looking to the ’70s). But If you’d asked me at the time to name a Stones song, based on what I heard the most on WPLJ or WNEW, I likely would have come up with, say, “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up” — not the worst songs in the world, but nothing to make me understand why they were considered by many to be in the same league as the Beatles as rock gods. I therefore pretty much wrote the Stones off as there being no accounting for some people’s tastes, and even as I explored the back catalog of other ’60s-spawned rock legends — the Who, the Kinks, the Doors — I never bothered to pick up any Stones albums, not counting the vinyl copy of Undercover that a friend of my parents gifted me after her young child got too interested in peeling off the stickers to see what was under them.

Thus did it come to pass that I became possibly the only person on earth to discover the Stones via the Deadstring Brothers.

This was one of those bands that I stumbled upon totally by happenstance. I was in the habit of attending Bloodshot Records’ day-long barbecue on the Saturday of CMJ’s annual music festival in New York (back when CMJ still undeniably existed), and one year, there they were on the stage at Union Pool: a crew of young folks with slide guitars and a Hammond organ and other ’70s rock staple accoutrements, led by a long-haired guy and gal who made a roomful of jaws drop with their blues-rock duets. And word came down that they were inspired not just by the Stones, not just by mid-era Stones, but by a single Stones album: Exile on Main Street.

This was a new way for me to parse the Stones: They were not a single band, but rather a series of bands, all sharing the same name, with a slightly shifting membership. (Brian Jones begetting Mick Taylor begetting Ron Wood.) As it turned out when I actually went and listened, I was at least a moderate fan of mid-era Stones (though if I had to choose, I’d take Sticky Fingers over Exile by a nose), and grew to have a greater appreciation for their Jones-era experimentation (it helped as I read more about the friendly rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones, and how each band was inspired by the other). I finally picked up a copy of Hot Rocks, the best-of-through-1971 package that I’d likewise always known about but never felt the need to own, and realized that I actually loved many of those songs that had always flitted by on the radio.

None of this will be any surprise to anyone who listened to the Stones before the age of 40 or so, which is to say most everyone. Still, it strikes me that the Stones’ late decline into relative mediocrity — something that can happen to the best of bands, mind you, especially those that don’t break up after less than a decade — coupled with a certain weird ahistoricism of rock radio that flattened an entire career into an amorphous collection of hits, stood in the way of my appreciating their particular kind of genius for far too long. I still skew way to the Beatles side of the Beatles-Stones divide (though most of the other bands I listen to are on the opposite side, if you hold to that dichotomy), but I can now better enjoy the Stones for what they were at their creative peak.

On second thought, maybe it’s the Beatles’ fault that I didn’t fully appreciate the Stones. I might’ve been better off if my first love had been the Osmonds.

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