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It’s Only Rock and Roll (But I Like It): Rolling Stones Essay

February 2, 2008

 

It’s only rock ’n’ roll (but I like it)

By ELIZABETH WILLSE

FOR THE STAR-LEDGER

Date: Saturday 9/28/2002 Section: TODAY Size: 675 words

I have been going to the music store with my Dad since I was too small to see over the tops of the bins that, back then, contained records, not CDs. Some fathers bond with their daughters with softballs tossed back and forth in backyards. My father threw music into my life. My father tossed the Rolling Stones at me.

I remember the joyous, meaty chords of “Start Me Up” in a Sunday morning fanfare through the house. I remember dancing until I fell over, a heap of laughing 3-year-old. I remember reflecting on the very words “Rolling Stones” — the name made them sound mythical, not quite human, like characters in the books I read as a child.

When I was little, I didn’t have a mental picture of a transcendant, skinny man with big, big lips, or a guitarist who’d been scraped to gristle by drugs and time. I didn’t know that the drummer who kept the heartbeat of the band raised prize-winning sheepdogs in his spare time.

I only knew the music. I could sing along with “Miss You” and “Start Me Up” and “Brown Sugar” before I could write my name in crayon. I remember listening to “Sticky Fingers” and “Flashpoint” on the drive to school. I appropriated Dad’s T-shirt from the 1989 Steel Wheels tour. It came down to my knees. The exuberant, red tongue was wider than I was.

By the time the Rolling Stones entered my life, they had long been established as the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.They had already conquered Britain, invaded America, and were worth more than a small European nation. I never knew them as rock pioneers, but as sort of benevolently raunchy uncles, smirking in corners at all the young guitar-struck kids. When I heard them on the radio, I heard them on the classic rock station.

Dad used the Stones to lead me back to early bluesmen like Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed. In their voices, I could hear the outlines of the swaggering growl Mick would later make his own. One song alone, “Little Red Rooster,” introduced me to Willie Dixon and Howling Wolf.

As much as I loved their music, the Stones weren’t the band I wallpapered my room with in fits of teenage idol worship (that was the Beatles), nor were they my first concert experience (Deee Lite). The Rolling Stones did not serve as theme music for my first kiss, my first big love or my first heartbreak. But when I learned to walk in high heels, I went straight from wobbling to strutting — I had the Stones in my stereo for guidance while I practiced in my room.

I’m in my 20s now, and Dad and I still listen to the Stones together. We like some of the same albums, and have some of the same favorite songs. But we’re not hearing the same band.

Dad first heard the Rolling Stones when rock and roll had just begun to define itself. He knew the Stones as scruffy young boys, the darker side of the squeaky-clean Beatles (he was a bit of a scruffy young boy himself, or so I’m told). He remembers listening to “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” in the summer of 1965, in San Francisco, where a whole new world of rock was shaking itself into being.

The Stones I know aren’t new and fresh, the way they were back then. The Stones I know have dabbled with blues, psychedelia, reggae and techno, along with nearly every drug known to chemistry. Some of them have faced down death and won. One of them has faced down death and lost. The Stones I know are older than my father, and have children older than I am.

But here they are again, still ready to rock, and Dad and I are off to see them one more time. I’m planning to stand and soak up every note at the Meadowlands, singing along with the songs that have always been part of my life.

The Stones, I know, will take their final bows with their arms flung around each other’s shoulders, just as they always do.

And Dad will put his arm around me as we’re leaving the show, just as he always does.

Elizabeth Willse is a freelance writer living in New York. Her father is editor of The Star-Ledger.

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