We had already gone through security before finding out we were at the wrong gate. The representative of AEG Live, which was managing the Rolling Stones’ tour through Asia, had told me to go to the VIP booth at Gate 25, but there was none. Another couple was waiting just outside the barrier, trying to get in touch with the same rep and not having any luck. The young security guard was helpful. He took down our names, called someone on his cell phone, and then personally accompanied us to the VIP entrance, which was all the way on the other side of Tokyo Dome and nowhere near Gate 25. I tried to imagine a security guard in the U.S. doing the same thing, and though it’s been a long time since I’ve lived there the thought didn’t coalesce into something positive.
Being the Asia correspondent for Pollstar, the California-based concert industry magazine, I was invited by AEG to attend one of the Stones’ Dome shows. Though it sounds like a big title, most of my work for the magazine consists of combing the web for stories that might be interesting to Pollstar subscribers, translating press releases, and reporting who’s coming to Asia and when. There’s almost no journalism involved, and I definitely don’t take full advantage of whatever perks the position might offer, but I’d never seen the Stones before and with the understanding that it would be my last chance I eagerly accepted the invitation. Though I have never been a big Stones fan they were so integral to my music-listening life in adolescence that there was never a need to seek them out. Their music was just always there, and as with the Beatles I knew their entire catalogue up to a certain temporal point. I also never felt a piercing desire to “see” them in concert, which has always been impossible anyway considering that their superstardom preceded the aforesaid music-listening life. And while I can appreciate the band’s longevity, which I credit to a rare combination of phenomenally good genetic material on Keith Richards’ part and superhuman self-discipline on Mick Jagger’s, the idea of seeing men their age plow through the kind of salacious material that has always been the band’s hallmark filled me with a twinge of repugnance. But in any case, they’re still older than me, and there aren’t too many rock bands I want to see that could actually make me feel younger just by looking at them.
We were ushered into the basement and up the stairs by an employee of the local promoter, whom I knew through my other various music-reporting capacities. He seated us in the press box, meaning the Dome press box, the place where sportwriters sit during baseball games, behind home plate but higher up. Though the stage was on the opposite side of the stadium and thus anyone standing there was too small to make much of an impression on us, we had a clear view of the entire venue and it was impressive: 53,000 Japanese Stones fans buzzing with anticipation. Three jumbo screens hovered above the stage, so we could at least see what was going on there. I wasn’t complaining. Being in the press box meant I could remain seated for the whole show without having to strain to look over the shoulder of the person in front of me. I can still remain standing for entire concerts, but why should I if I don’t have to? I know stamina is the subtext here. The current tour is called “On Fire,” a clear attempt to leap-frog the obvious, that the Stones and the majority of their fans—the ones that can afford ¥18,000 for a ticket—are way past that incendiary period of their youth, but for two hours let’s pretend that we can still get it up without pharmaceutical or mechanical aids and boogie without laying ourselves up for the rest of the week. In that regard, Jagger, with his long, lean body and dance moves that have lost none of their dorky litheness over the decades, is not just a model of physical fitness but proof that “youth” really does have more to with attitude than with age. And if you believe that, then there’s a bridge I want you to see.
As for professionalism, the Stones have even transcended that hoary cliche. There are two reasons they can lay claim to the Greatest Rock’n Roll Band in the World title: the cast-iron strength of Richards’ riffs and the way the band defined rock in the 60s and early 70s with the most fundamental prerogatives. The Jumbotrons were obviously necessary for a place like the Dome, but the pyrotechnics and video background business were merely distracting. With a catalogue that deep and familiar, the band hardly needs to prove itself, and the pleasures of the show sprang from how easy it all seemed. Mick Taylor, the blues guitar prodigy who stepped in after the death of Brian Jones and was on board during the Stones’ most fruitful period, played on four songs and the contrast with his replacement, Ronnie Wood, was striking. Wood, the co-leader of the Faces, a band that epitomized the drunken abandon of early 70s British rock, was always a better fit for the Stones’ creative spirit. The difference was as much visual as aural. Ronnie Wood is still impossibly skinny while the slightly younger Taylor displays the girth more commonly seen among his cohort. When you quit the Stones, you’re likely to get fat. Complacency is the ally of professionalism, the enemy of “man, just play/sing the shit out of that song.”
And that was the pleasant surprise. Not so much that the band could still derive pleasure from songs they should be sick of by now, but that they could still find fresh things to do with them on a minute-to-minute basis. I could have done without “Sympathy for the Devil” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” two chestnuts whose overextended metaphors belabor their slight musical pleasures, but the jam on “Midnight Rambler” was as scary and thrilling as it’s ever been and the Faces-like collapsible vibe of “Tumbling Dice” is such that it could never sound the same way twice, anyway. Even “Gimme Shelter,” a song whose iconography, thanks to the documentary of the same name, has always outstripped its creepy appeal, lost nothing of its transgressive power, even as backing vocalist Lisa Fischer came out front-and-center to milk Merry Clayton’s original idea mercilessly as Jagger egged her on in close proximity. Coincidentally, Clayton and Fischer were prominently featured in “20 Feet From Stardom,” the film about backup singers that won the Oscar for best documentary last Sunday and which goes into detail about the recording of “Gimme Shelter.” (Clayton, it should be noted, didn’t like the line “rape, murder, it’s just a shot away,” and that explains what she did to them) The context was ironic, but the performance were no less affecting.
On the local tip, Jagger’s Japanese was game but incomprehensible, the use of a Japanese youth chorus on “You Can’t Always Get…” less inspiring than it was meant to be, and Richards’ attempts to connect directly with the audience oddly touching despite the blazing artificial whiteness of his choppers (or maybe because of them). The idea of taking requests via the internet is one of those gimmicks that usually result in nothing special, but the Japanese fans wisely took advantage and chose “Silver Train,” which seemed to shock even Jagger, and pleasantly so. “We haven’t played that since the 70s,” he admitted, and they played it really well. You have to hand it to an institution that can still be surprised, and surprising, after 50 years of doing the same damn thing.