Ed#453 Midnight Ramblers

7 March 2014 Alan Attwood

Ed#453 Midnight Ramblers

The Rolling Stones have been around, performing and recording, for more than 50 years – longer than many (but not all) readers of The Big Issue have been alive. But career longevity alone is not enough to get you onto our cover – Cliff Richard’s career overlaps with the Stones but, well, sorry Cliff… Now long past retirement age, three of the four original Stones who first got together in the early 1960s – plus Ronnie Wood, who still feels like a blow-in despite being in the band since the mid-1970s (some of us still remember him in Rod Stewart’s band, Faces) – will soon be touring Australia. Again.

To borrow lyrics from one of their own songs, this could be the last time. Though, really, who can say with the Stones? They remain a band in demand: not even absurdly steep prices slowed ticket sales for their coming concerts. Recent album sales? Not so impressive. As Music Editor Doug Wallen makes clear in his cover story, their finest recordings were released between 1969 and ’72. In a way, they’ve become their own tribute band, aware that those who come to see them will tolerate the airing of a recent song or two but, really, are waiting for ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Midnight Rambler’.

I’d love to claim that I heard the Stones belting out the latter song at an outdoor concert in Melbourne in 1973. I happened to be nearby on the day; I could hear music swirling on the breeze but, to be honest, that was about it. Thirty years on, in 2003, I did see them perform – at a stadium better suited to tennis matches. I brought a little pair of binoculars, which meant I could choose whom to watch: Mick Jagger, preening and pouting; Keith Richards, the louche pirate king; drummer Charlie Watts, never missing a beat, a half smile on his face as if he couldn’t believe he got paid to do this; Ronnie, wondering where Rod had got to. More than anything else, the impression I got was they were enjoying themselves. They could have got away with a 90-minute set, but played for longer. They could have played album tracks note for note, but didn’t (without venturing into Bob Dylan what-song-is-this? territory). For many of us, I suspect, it was something else crossed off the bucket list – though I can’t recall that term being used 11 years ago. See the Rolling Stones… Tick.

Most of us have our favourite Stone. ‘Keef’ is mine, though I do like Charlie’s style – and the fact that he once popped Mick for referring to him as “my drummer”. That story is told in Life, Richards’ very readable memoir from 2010. The thing that impressed me most in that book was the Stones’ shared love of music. An unfashionable interest in the blues first brought Mick and Keith together, while Charlie is a jazz buff. Life is replete with stories about Keith playing with other musicians: they might have been impressed by having a Rolling Stone on stage with them but he, meanwhile, was a bit awestruck about playing with, say, Elvis’s backing band or Roy Orbison or Muddy Waters. He respects those guys, and their history. He also tells a lovely (and very English) story about inviting some young groupies in from the rain outside his house in the Stones’ early days. No, not for some sordid rock-star orgy. Rather, so they could dry off and have a cup of tea.

Betty Birskys and her sister, Margaret Fortune, would have approved. These two go back even further than the Stones. Check out page 22 for what I suspect is another Big Issue first. Not one but two octogenarian contributors. Who happen to be sisters. Time is indeed on their side.

» Alan Attwood is Editor of The Big Issue.

This article appeared in Ed#453 of The Big Issue magazine.