The Passion of the Rolling Stones

I swore I would never write one of those “Lessons I Learned from the Rolling Stones” blog posts.

And yet, here I am doing just that.

Why?

Well, a few nights ago, I came upon a YouTube video of them performing “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” onstage September 30 in Charlotte, North Carolina. I decided to watch it even though I already know the song well, and I’ve seen them perform it live. Frankly, I was curious to know how they sounded. After all, they’d just lost an essential member of the band, drummer Charlie Watts, who died August 24 after being their backbone for 60 years. On the other hand, they’d been holed up for months, grounded by the pandemic. The Charlotte concert was only the second show of their No Filter Tour. Would they sound energized by the road after all this time? Would they perform in sync with their replacement drummer, Steve Jordan?

Within seconds, I had my answer. These guys were on fire. Mick Jagger sliced through the air and skipped across the stage like a kid on a playground. Ron Wood and Keith Richards traded guitar licks like a garage band with something to prove. Richards crouched, twirled around, glanced at the heavens, and laughed. Wood swiveled his hips, tilted his guitar, and spat out lick after lick.

This was a moment of passion.

Then I came across them performing “Satisfaction” a few nights later in Pittsburgh. Here was an eight-minute version of a three-minute song we’ve heard countless times — and yet, every second felt fresh and exciting, with the band building up to an explosion of energy.

I have reflected on these moments. These guys are pushing 80 — Mick Jagger is 78, Keith Richards, 77, and Ron Wood, 74. Now, I don’t point out their age in a “Wow, they can still play into their 70s!” way. Their age matters because when you see someone several years older than you exuding that kind of joy and passion, well, you cannot help but feel encouraged that you can keep your inner flame alive, too, year after year.

I mean, it’s one thing to find your passion. But how do you keep it? Make it stronger? It’s easy when you’re just starting out in your career, whatever that is for you. You’re flush with the excitement of learning your craft. Of figuring out how to collaborate with a team. But then, the responsibilities of life start to compete for your energy. Professionally, you encounter hassles. Maybe you have a run of bad bosses or deal with a toxic co-worker. Maybe your job gets cut, and you need to learn a new gig with someone else. And then, there are the personal distractions that creep up on you, like monthly rents, student loans, and the endless minutiae of adulting. At some point, more serious personal setbacks that can crush your spirit enter the picture: like losing loved ones or handling a health issue of your own. All those things happen, and if you’ve somehow been spared and cannot relate to what I’m writing, well, just give it some time.

The Rolling Stones have endured all those setbacks. The loss of Charlie Watts is the latest. They’ve also lost other band members before Charlie, sometimes tragically. They’ve endured the same pressures that less-famous people like you and me face, including serious financial issues (they were broke in the early 1970s), legal scrapes, self-inflicted problems such as drug addiction and health scares (including heart surgery for Mick Jagger in 2019). Any of those obstacles could have sapped their spirit.

But not the Stones. They’ve released dozens of albums. Their work includes some of the greatest rock music ever recorded, and some not-so-great albums, too. But all of their music matters. Their most recent single, “Living in a Ghost Town,” was powerfully relevant to pandemic life.

And they keep touring.

On the surface, they don’t need to tour. They have all the money they need. Touring means travel. Being away from families. Enduring the rigors of road life. But I believe those video clips on YouTube say something else: touring is what fuels their passion. Touring means performing, and performing onstage ignites an inner spark. If you’ve ever performed onstage — whether acting, singing, or presenting at a conference in front of an audience — you know how that live dynamic feels. The energy. The nervousness. The “What if I suck?” doubts. Well, all that energy — both the nervousness and the excitement — creates a spark. And that spark keeps them vital.

Mick Jagger recently commented on performance when he was asked how and why he keeps touring into his 70s:

I’m very passionate about touring. Every time you go onstage it’s a very exciting moment, because you never know what’s going to happen. It’s always different. A lot of unexpected things happen. Each show is a new event. You’re in a different place with a different audience. It’s a very exciting couple of hours and it’s a very intense relationship with the audience.

Keith Richards was more succinct in a Rolling Stone interview: “It’s what I do, man. Give me 50,000 people and I feel right at home. The whole band does.”

It’s what they do. What do you do to keep your passion alive?

The Problem with Mick Jagger

America doesn’t know what to do with Mick Jagger.

Jagger famously captured the essence of rebellion and raw sexuality decades ago. At the height of his creative powers and cultural relevance in the 1960s, he was a threat to the established order and a voice for a younger generation. He was also aware of the limitations of that role. He once said, “I’d rather be dead than sing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45.”

Now he’s singing “Satisfaction” well into his 70s. Why? Because performing is what he loves. Being a musician is his passion. And so he continues to tour and record music, as the Rolling Stones have been doing since 1962. But we don’t know how to handle a 75-year-old Mick Jagger prancing onstage, shaking his butt, and singing “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Start Me Up,” and, indeed “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” all of them staples of the Stones’s No Filter tour in 2018. 

Seventy-five-year-olds are not supposed to sing about sex and drugs. They’re supposed to move over and let a younger generation have the stage. It’s OK for older generations to occasionally entertain us so long as they do cute things such as escape nursing homes to attend heavy metal concerts. But Mick Jagger refuses to step aside and age quietly.

Our discomfort with Mick Jagger became clear when news broke that the Rolling Stones were going to postpone their 2019 tour because Jagger was suffering from an undisclosed medical condition. In due course, we would learn that he required a heart valve replacement, which was performed successfully April 4. Although the news triggered plenty of supportive comments, jokes about his age surfaced on social media, and The New York Times ran an ageist article that noted, “Jagger is not the first 1960s-era music icon to show signs of slowing down in old age” and chalked up his (then undisclosed) health problem as a result of the demands of touring.

I thought it was interesting and disappointing that The New York Times assumed Mick Jagger was suffering an age-related problem before anyone knew what was wrong with him. And citing the ravages of touring seemed odd given that Jagger has prided himself on how well he takes care of his body through a strict diet and rigorous exercise. If anything, touring energizes him. 

To be sure, the odds of requiring a heart valve replacement increase as you get older. But why is it necessary for publications such as CNN to point out repeatedly that Jagger is a 75-year-old grandfather and great grandfather when reporting the results of the surgery?  

We don’t know what to do about Mick Jagger because we don’t know what to do about the reality of growing old. We want to keep the elderly in the background because seeing them reminds us of our older selves. Perhaps this very personal fear of growing old helps explain rampant ageism in the workplace, as discussed in a recent Fast Company article, “Ageism is thriving, so what are companies going to do about it?” Ageism is not about rejection of The Other. Ageism is about negating our older selves. 

In fact, Mick Jagger is a reminder that our stereotypical notions about aging can be proven wrong. He’s a vibrant rock star dancing and singing about whatever he wants, even if the notion of a 75-year-old man singing about sex makes some people uncomfortable. Well, deal with it. And hope that your future is as bright as Mick Jagger’s.

Don Henley’s “Cass County”: The Sweet Ache of Loss and Reflection

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I knew I was going to like Don Henley’s recently released country album, Cass County, the moment I heard Miranda Lambert’s graceful vocal and the sweet harmonica on the opening song, Tift Merritt’s “Bramble Rose.” The melodic harmonica evoked “Sweet Virginia” from the Rolling Stones’s Exile on Main St., and Lambert reminded me of how country can appeal through and understated melody without the bombast. And then, to my surprise, Mick Jagger sang a verse, nailing his contribution with a sensitivity lacking in some of his faux country fumblings with the Rolling Stones. As it turns out, Jagger had already gently worked his way into the song with his harmonica playing. No wonder “Sweet Virginia” came to mind.

Cass County is a rare album in which guest performances from superstar vocalists enrich an artistic statement instead of sounding like a soulless collection of voices competing for your attention. And there are many guest performances, ranging from Dolly Parton on Charlie and Ira Louvin’s “When I Stop Dreaming” to Merle Haggard on “The Cost of Living,” written by Henley and Stan Lynch. How many albums can you name in which Mick Jagger contributes a vocal lick and is never heard from again? In an interview with Taste of Country, Henley offers some clues as to how he pulled off the collaborations. It’s clear that he had a strong vision for the role he wanted each artist to play. He co-wrote the songs “The Cost of Living” and “No, Thank You” with Merle Haggard and Vince Gill in mind, like a screenwriter crafting a script for an actor. Here is how he describes collaborating with Merle Haggard:

[W]hen we sat down to write “The Cost of Living,” I had Merle Haggard in mind. I could hear his voice in my head, and I wrote accordingly. My great hope was that he would come and sing it with me, and sure enough, he did, and it’s the perfect song for him. He even said, when he heard the guitar solo he said, “You know, that sounds like something I’d do.” I just looked at [co-producer] Stan [Lynch] and grinned, and went, “Yup. That’s ’cause we wrote it with you in mind.”

Cass County is Don Henley’s album, with each artist contributing to his vision, which is why the duets feel graceful and natural, not forced (the bane of hip-hop collaborations). Through his production with Stan Lynch, the multiple voices mesh with the layered instrumentals and Henley’s own distinctive vocal style, which still sounds honey-smooth yet with a whiskey edge (a voice that helped define the country rock sound in the 1970s). Henley has a reputation for being an exacting artist with a strong sense of purpose, attributes which serve him well on Cass County.

The songs on Cass County reflect compelling themes: the decay of small-town life (“Waiting Tables,” whose musical structure and narrative evoke the great “Lyin’ Eyes” from his glory days with the Eagles), the fading of childhood memories (“Train in the Distance”), and the onslaught of age (“The Cost of Living”). In his interview with Taste of Country and also with Ultimate Classic Rock, he reflects on the inevitable loss that comes with growing older. People around you start dying, including the ones who defined your growing-up experiences. At age 68, Henley takes stock of the area where he lived as a child in Cass County, and he senses loss, as he mentions to Taste of Country:

[A] lot of the old folks — the ones that were referred to as “the greatest generation,” the ones who came home from World War II and really made that town tick — are all gone now.

Growing older also means gaining perspective on how your past has influenced you. “I’ve come to learn in my age that perspective is probably the most important — besides your health, perspective is the most important thing you can have, and it’s hard to get, and it’s even harder to keep,” he says to Ultimate Classic Rock.

The landscape and people of Cass County, Texas, have had a profound influence on Henley. Cass County is a muse. Exploring the lakes and creeks of the area created images that stuck with him. The simple honesty and caring of the people loom large in his memories. He speaks of Cass County, where he maintains a 200-acre farm, as a creative refuge.

Cass County is for people who have done some living and don’t mind looking back at where they’ve been and how they feel about getting older. In “The Cost of Living,” he sings:

I look in the mirror now

I see that time can be unkind

But I know every wrinkle

And I earned every line

So, wear it like a royal crown

When you get old and gray

It’s the cost of living

And everyone pays

This is not an album for bearded millennial hipsters from Brooklyn. This is an album for me.

“Sticky Fingers”: How an Album Cover Defined the Stones

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Some album covers are memorable because they perfectly express an artist’s image (or brand, if you will) as well as music. Such is the case with Sticky Fingers, the 11th American studio album of the Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers, newly re-issued to celebrate its 44th anniversary, created controversy in 1971 for its Andy Warhol designed close-up of a man’s crotch, featuring with a functional zipper that dared the listener, “Go ahead, unzip me.” More than four decades later, the cover for Sticky Fingers expresses the Stones at its best: salacious, impossible to ignore, and rough around the edges.

The album’s history and legacy are well documented. Sticky Fingers was partly recorded in the fabled Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in the United States during the band’s 1969 U.S. tour (you can catch a glimpse of the recording in Gimme Shelter, the historic movie about the tour), as well as the Stones mobile studio unit in Stargroves (where Led Zeppelin would later record Houses of the Holy).

Sticky Fingers featured familiar Stones terrain: sex (“Brown Sugar”), drugs (“Sister Morphine,” “Dead Flowers”), the blues (“I Got the Blues”), and dirty rock and roll all over. The album also displayed the improvisational talents of guitarist Mick Taylor, especially on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking,” and some surprisingly tender, if weary moments, most notably “Moonlight Mile” and “Wild Horses.” The violence and menace of 1969’s Let It Bleed gave way to a more decadent, yet more introspective feel, resulting in an artistic breakthrough.

No other Stones album cover would express the band’s decadence so well. According to 100 Best Album Covers: The Stories Behind the Sleeves, by Storm Thorgerson and Aubrey Powell (themselves legends of album cover design), Warhol suggested the idea of using a real trouser zipper to Mick Jagger at a party in 1969. Jagger, intrigued, asked Warhol to do the design.

According to Warhol’s former manager Paul Morrissey (quoted in 100 Best Album Covers), “Andy was sensible enough to know not to be pretentious when doing album covers. This was a realistic attempt at selling sex and naughtiness. It was done simply and cheaply, without the pretensions of that seem to go with other covers.”

The stark black-and-white close-up of a man’s crotch captured the cheap, simple approach. “It was a cheap camera and cheap film,” said Morrissey. “I have no idea what brand.”

The red rubber stamp design of the album title and band’s name added to the gritty look.

Artist Craig Braun was responsible for translating Warhol’s design into a functional album cover. As told in a recent New York Times article, Mick Jagger insisted that the zipper needed to work, and it had to reveal something when you pulled it down.

“[The Rolling Stones] knew if they put jeans and a working zipper that people were going to want to see what was back there,” Braun said.

Braun obtained a photo of the Andy Warhol model in his white underwear to slip behind the zipper. (Contrary to popular belief, it’s not a close-up of Mick Jagger’s crotch you see when you pull down the zipper.)

Realizing Warhol’s vision was a chore. The zipper damaged some of the initial pressings when the albums were stacked and shipped to record stores. The zipper literally dented the vinyl inside the sleeves pressed against it. Removing the zipper would ruin its effect. The solution was for each zipper to be manually pulled down just far enough that the tip of the zipper would no longer rub against the vinyl of any other albums in shipment. As Braun told Joe Coscarelli of The New York Times:

“I got this idea that maybe, if the glue was dry enough, we could have the little old ladies at the end of the assembly line pull the zipper down far enough so that the round part would hit the center disc label,” he said. “It worked, and it was even better to see the zipper pulled halfway down.”

As famous as the cover is, the artwork inside is also notable for the debut of the Rolling Stones’s iconic tongue logo, designed by John Pasche. The tongue logo would become as famous and recognizable as the Nike Swoosh logo, which also appeared for the first time in 1971.

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If the album cover reminded us of the Stones’s dirtiness, then the rolling tongue recast the band in a new light: a rock and roll brand, and eventually a lucrative one, gaining revenue streams from touring and merchandising, and corporate deals that few, if anyone, envisioned in 1971. And that tongue retains its power. Lucky Brand recently signed a merchandising deal with the Stones in which the tongue eclipses the clothing.

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The album became a Number One seller, reaching triple platinum status, and achieved several critical accolades. Rolling Stone would rank Sticky Fingers Number 64 on its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time. In 2003, VH1 would rank Sticky Fingers as the greatest album cover of all time. Ultimate Classic Rock would rank Sticky Fingers as one of the most shocking covers ever, although the album really looks more raunchy than shocking.

According to rock critic Richard Harrington, “This album heralded an age of really imaginative and provocative packaging. It also introduced the greatest band logo of all time.”

Here are other albums I’ve profiled in my series on memorable album covers:

Ray Charles: Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music

Peter Gabriel: Peter Gabriel

Al Green: Greatest Hits

Led Zeppelin: Houses of the Holy

Led Zeppelin: Untitled

Willie Nelson: Red Headed Stranger

Pink Floyd: The Dark Side of the Moon

Bruce Springsteen: Born to Run

 

Visual Storytelling in Today’s “All Access” Era

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Access. It’s the most valuable currency of celebrity journalism. Photojournalists Bob Gruen and Ken Regan built celebrated careers by getting access to coveted rock stars such as Madonna, whom Ken Regan photographed as she was about to become a star. Regan, who passed away in 2012, was welcomed into the homes of rock stars not only because he had undeniable talent, but he handled access with discretion. But in today’s era of stars granting “all access” to everyone through social media, what’s the role of the great professionals like Gruen, Regan and Annie Leibovitz? At a time when anyone with an iPhone can become a photojournalist, what sets apart great visual storytelling from pedestrian photography?

I asked that question and a few others as I re-acquainted myself with retrospectives on the careers of Gruen and Regan: Rock Seen, which covers some of the landmark moments of Gruen’s work, and All Access: The Rock & Roll Photography of Ken Regan.

Both of the books are vivid reminders that rock and roll is as much a visual medium as it is a musical one. Sometimes the rock stars just explode off the page, as in this photo of Jimi Hendrix taken by Ken Regan:

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My Cold-Weather Rock and Roll

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Winter has tightened its grip on Chicago. On a Friday afternoon in early December, the temperatures feel like they are dropping by the minute. The sun escapes the chill of the day early, leaving behind long shadows and an occasional gust of cold wind. This is the time for staying inside and listening to cold-weather rock and roll. Cold-weather music feels heavy like a wool blanket. Cold-weather rock songs can sound as dark and foreboding as a January night or as quiet as a snowfall, but in either case, they make you want to retreat from the outside world. “Gimme Shelter” is cold-weather rock. “Miss You” is not. Led Zeppelin’s fourth (untitled) album is cold-weather music, but Houses of the Holy by and large belongs to summer. Here are some of my favorite cold-weather albums — the music of my world now:

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All Things Must Pass. In my mind’s eye, George Harrison writes somber, majestic songs like “Beware of Darkness” on a cold November afternoon while cloistered in the shadows of his Friar Park estate. Never mind Continue reading

5 Marketing Lessons from the 121212 Concert for Sandy Relief

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Rock concerts for causes have come a long way since George Harrison and Ravi Shankar organized the Concert for Bangladesh in 1971 and raised $250,000 to help refugees in war-torn Bangladesh. The Concert for Bangladesh was an untelevised rock show (actually two of them) witnessed by 40,000 people in Madison Square Garden. By contrast, last week’s 121212 Concert for Sandy Relief was a multimedia experience accessible to 2 billion people globally, earning $35 million in one night (with millions more to come). Here are five marketing lessons from the 121212 Concert:

1. Extend Your Reach

The 121212 Concert, which supported Robin Hood Relief (a highly regarded organization assisting Hurricane Sandy victims), made it virtually impossible for you to miss the show.  The concert was broadcast on 39 television stations, streamed to 25 websites, and aired on 50 radio stations, creating “the most widely distributed live musical event in history,” according to Nielsen. By contrast, even the highly successful 2001 Concert for New York City (which also benefited Robin Hood Relief) was broadcast on VH1 exclusively. If you wanted to watch the concert, they gave you no reason to miss it.

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It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll and Technology for the Rolling Stones

How do rock and roll bad boys stay relevant when they grow older and less dangerous?

The Rolling Stones no longer symbolize youthful rebellion and decadence as they did 50 years ago. So like a smart business that refines its brand, the Stones now focus on one core asset: their rock legacy. As the Rolling Stones celebrate their 50th anniversary with a limited-run tour that came to the United States December 8, the four principal band members (average age: 68) have assumed the role of the blues greats who inspired them to become the Rolling Stones in the first place:  playing their music onstage until they drop. And the Stones are innovating with digital technology to share that legacy. In doing so, the Rolling Stones provide a lesson for marketers on how to update your brand and find new ways to create a valuable audience experience.

The recent 50 and Counting Tour concerts in London and New York, drawing upon a catalog of songs such as “Gimme Shelter” and “Paint It, Black,” have reminded fans and critics of the band’s musical legacy. And you simply cannot overstate what the Stones have accomplished in their storied career. Especially in their first 10 years, the group created music that was by turns brutal, beautiful, threatening, and galvanizing. Their most well known songs and albums routinely rank near or at the top of critics’ lists of the greatest and most influential works in rock history.

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From Eminem to Warhol: creating art out of vinyl

Daniel Edlen makes art out of vinyl LPs. Yup, I’m talking about the shiny black LPs that defined how we experienced music in the pre-digital era, which have become in vogue again more than 60 years after vinyl was introduced. Daniel’s business, Vinyl Art, offers stunning images of iconic musicians via portraits hand painted with white acrylic on vinyl.

His website offers a compelling challenge: “Gone digital? Get back to what you lost” by exploring the tactile world of vinyl as experienced through Daniel’s portraits of musicians ranging from Eminem to Elvis. For $350, you can bring Johnny Cash’s brooding face or Aretha Franklin’s soulful gaze to your home — or have a piece of your own commissioned.

By celebrating the joy of the physical musical experience in a digital world, Vinyl Art is succeeding. His work has been exhibited in locations such as the VH1 Corporate Gallery, commissioned by the David Lynch Foundation, and owned by the likes of Lou Reed.

According to Electric Moustache, “Vinyl Art is badass,” and I agree. I recently interviewed Daniel to find out more about Vinyl Art — what inspires him to do what he does and how he uses digital to build his business. He also discusses a brand new Andy Warhol triptych he created to celebrate Warhol’s iconic album designs for The Velvet Underground & Nico, Sticky Fingers, and John Lennon’s Menlove Ave. In the interview, Daniel shares not only a passion for music and art but for giving, as well. To view more Vinyl Art, check out a free eBook of his work here.

Why vinyl art? What inspires you to do what you do?

Giving inspires me. Not giving to get but giving to contribute. I like the question “Are you a miner or a farmer?” Miners take and don’t give back. Farmers take but then replenish, remix, restore. Throughout my earlier years I took from culture, incorporating sights and sounds into who I am today. The opportunity to create my Vinyl Art is an opportunity to give back to our culture in my way. Continue reading

How Facebook perverts the English language

I certainly do not “Like” how Facebook perverts the English language by forcing us to us words inaccurately.

Case in point: recently, I heard about the launch of a Facebook page for a forthcoming (at the time) biography of Mick Jagger. I wanted to learn more about the book, get access to additional content about its subject, and better understand how the author was using Facebook to build a community.

To get content from the book’s Facebook page, I had to “Like”  page – something we do routinely now as a necessary step to perform consumer research for products and services that provide information through Facebook pages.

Of course, “Liking” the page for a book I had not even read was intellectually dishonest. But because of the way Facebook presents branded content, I could not click a “Learn More” button that implies no endorsement on my part.

Because of Facebook’s failure to comprehend the nuances of English language, I was put in a position of hoping that my Facebook friends, experiencing the same dilemma, understand what my “Like” really means. (And I think they do understand as evidenced by the way so many of us designate a Facebook “Like” with quotation marks as if to collectively roll our eyes at the vagaries of living in Facebook’s world.)

Since “Liking” the page for the Mick Jagger biography, I’ve discovered that Facebook automatically lists the book on my profile as one of my personal favorites. Could the situation become even more absurd? I still have not read the book, and my act of basic consumer research has resulted in my Facebook profile publishing less-than-honest information about me.

And, the incident has created a built-in resentment I’m going to need to put aside so that I can assess the book fairly when I read it.

Ironically the world’s leading social network is notorious for its insensitivity toward the way human beings behave, as we’ve seen when Facebook randomly introduces new services like Facebook Beacon that violate our privacy.  Facebook’s oafish command of English and reliance on an intrusive technology feature to post information on my profile without my permission is but another illustration of how human beings take a backseat to technology at Facebook.

Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg is committed to keeping Facebook’s personnel count small.  But Facebook would do well to invest into something that the company does not seem to understand: human beings. Human beings who value communication. People who understand and respect the words we use to create social networks with each other.