Junkyard Dragon: The Rolling Stones at SoFi Stadium

December 26, 2021   •   By Gina Arnold

THE ROLLING STONES’S concert at SoFi stadium on October 17, 2021, began with a dreamy montage of drummer Charlie Watts, who passed away on August 24 at the age of 80. Sly, louche, and uncompromising, Watts epitomized all that is attractive about the Rolling Stones, so the undeniably moving tribute could only stamp love for the Stones even deeper into the already-primed minds of 70,000 rabid fans awaiting the concert. And yet, even as I watched it with a tear in my eye, I couldn’t help but remember a time, back in the 20th century, when I saw the Rolling Stones’s Bridges to Babylon Tour. It took place on a set that included giant inflatable girls on their hands and knees, as if positioned to give blowjobs, and a giant mechanical dragon that moved turgidly around on stage behind them; and in the midst of the spectacle, I had this apocalyptic vision of what would was going to happen to that dragon in the future: it would sit, I thought, in some junkyard, somewhere, and start up feebly one day when everything else on the planet was dead.

Well, that day may still come, but it is not nigh. A quarter of a century after that thought, and with several of the band’s original members either dead or in disgrace, the Stones were back out there doing some makeup dates for their No Filter Tour of 2019, and when a friend offered me tickets to see them, I jumped at the chance. In many ways, the Stones are dead to me, but I hoped that, by seeing them again, I might reach the fifth stage of grieving: acceptance.

Alas for my good intentions, though. As I watched Mick, Keith, and Ronnie bounce around onstage and the audience go nuts, I thought as I have thought so many times before: Good God, the Stones are terrible.

Honestly, what is wrong with me? Why can’t I be like everyone else and just enjoy the sight of an elderly man imitating a mountain goat, rushing up and down a catwalk, shaking his little hips and singing the easier bits of songs that I do, for the most part, truly like? But I just can’t. Instead, when I watch people watching the Rolling Stones, I feel as if they are all under some kind of mass enchantment. Rationally speaking, I know that it’s me who is delusional, not them, but sometimes I hate the Rolling Stones so much that I think I must secretly love them.

After all, many antipathies are forged in the cauldron of love, and like so many great hatreds, this relationship began as an affair of the heart. Once upon a time, I was enthralled by everything the Stones seemed to represent. Their dangerous personas, their glamorous auras, their satin scarves, their low-class diphthongs, their androgyny, their vices … Even the logo, that giant, menses-stained tongue and lips, gave me a tiny sexual thrill. In my teen years, I’d go see Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, the 1974 film that documents their 1972 American tour, at midnight at my local cinema. I’d stare at the cover of High Tide and Green Grass (1966), the only record I owned at the time. I am that rare person who can defend Goats Head Soup (1973), and there’s a special place in my heart for the songs “Gimme Shelter,” “Tumbling Dice,” and “You Got the Silver.” I can still play a mean version of “Dead Flowers” on guitar.

But then, one night when I was in college, I attended a screening of Robert Frank’s unreleased film, Cocksucker Blues, which also documents that 1972 tour, and my love was curdled by the scene in which a bunch of gross-looking roadies take turns having sex with a teenage groupie while the Stones stand around beating bongos. The scene is simultaneously vicious and tedious in the same way that old-man porn is, and I realized immediately that I was not in fact their lover, I was their victim. Sure, their songs, their music, and their vibe are attractive, but they are also kind of like Confederate statuary — ripe for reassessment. What is it we should be honoring here? What should we be excoriating?

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Nina Simone once said, “How can you be an artist and not reflect the times?” The Rolling Stones were never an exception to this adage, and “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Gimme Shelter” must have sounded amazing when heard during the days of the Paris protests, Charles Manson, and Vietnam. Unfortunately, when I saw Cocksucker Blues, I realized that the things this band were now reflecting were my least favorite aspects of the zeitgeist.

Forty years on, the Rolling Stones still reflect our times, but the aspect they’ve chosen to beam into our brains now is global capitalism and an unrestrained free market. The list of their product endorsements is endless, and judging by the brisk sales of T-shirts at SoFi stadium last month, most people at Rolling Stones concerts do not mind this in the least. If anything, the huge sums involved in going to their shows only adds to the enjoyment, in the same way that buying a Porsche or carrying a Prada bag or seeing the original cast in Hamilton on Broadway does. And the sums involved in attending the current tour are especially enormous. Each of the 70,000 tickets available to attend the show, which was sold out, cost upward of $300. T-shirts were $90. Beer was $15, wine was $17, a double Tanqueray and tonic at the upstairs cocktail bar was $24, and everyone we saw was tanked. My parking space, whose purchase was enforced by the City of Inglewood, was $77, meaning my own party of three spent over $1,000 that night just to be there, and we didn’t even think about it, we just did it.

So, Mick Jagger has his finger on that pulse, for sure, but there’s an older one he recalls as well, and that is the timeless and irresistible call of the wild, the dark and magical, mythological past. Surely his astonishing sprightliness, at the age of 77, is hardly human: the man dances along the lip of the stage like a faun in the wild herds in Lucretius’s De rerum natura, “kindling the lure of love in every breast.” His goatliness is apparent even across the quarter-mile stretch between the lip of the stage at SoFi and the not-so-cheap yet relatively good seats; he prowls atop the steep ledge of a mountain, as sure-footed as the mythic beast he takes after.

Judging by the speed at which he can run from the front of the catwalk to the back in the middle of the song “Miss You,” he won’t slip, not tonight or any night; he may well live forever. But alas, the same is not true for his colleagues, Keith Richards and Ron Wood, who now look like animatronic versions of themselves, or possibly plastic ones blown up by a hand pump. No running here. At strategic moments during the proceedings, they draped themselves upon one another, or propped themselves over their guitars, in the same specious poses that have riddled the rock world since they first began doing it, but which now look necessary rather than graceful, staged rather than cool. They are dressed — as are some members of the audience — like pirates, with silver earrings and weird headgear, but pirates enact a different myth than satyrs: they get marooned on islands where they fester and turn into skeletons surrounded by useless treasure.

The band’s other original member, Watts, was not scheduled to be on stage: he’d bowed out even prior to his death, at the start of this tour. There were those who claimed that seeing the Stones perform without Charlie Watts was just going to see a cover band — echoing the now vaunted accusation, made by Paul McCartney in a recent issue of The New Yorker, that the Stones are just a “blues cover band.” But I have seen many blues cover bands in my time as a rock critic, and I beg to differ. The Stones are nothing like a cover band — though the words did cross my mind during the song “Midnight Rambler,” which argues otherwise — nor is their live act akin to seeing whoever happens to be left in the Temptations at a bingo parlor, which is a far closer analogy. They’re not a cover band because stadium performances are a thing unto themselves, and also because, “Midnight Rambler” aside, the songs from their salad days have so much terroir. They may not have written a banger since 1981 (and that’s being generous), but much of what came before that is rock canon.

Mick Jagger took the “blues cover band” remark graciously. A few days after that New Yorker issue came out, he responded on Apple Music’s The Zane Lowe Show by saying, “The Stones started doing stadium gigs in the ’70s and [are] still doing them now. That’s the real big difference between these two bands. One band is unbelievably luckily still playing in stadiums, and then the other band doesn’t exist.”

This seems like a fair comment. Even if the Beatles did still exist, it’s unlikely they’d be at SoFi, since it was performing in stadiums that drove them to give up live performance entirely. Today’s stadium performances rely exclusively on the video visuals — giant images cast up behind the band so that everyone in stadium city can “see” them — but while doubtless the Fab Four could have mustered this up, there are other rock clichés and gestures that are not in the Beatles’s repertoire, and it is unimaginable that any band could play a stage this size without these enhancements.

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The last time I saw the Rolling Stone before this past October was at the Sharks Arena in San Jose on April 20, 1999. It was the same day as the Columbine shooting, and I was seated in one of those sports boxes high above the crowd, surrounded by many chubby-cheeked scions of Silicon Valley, one of whom turned to me, his eyes all shining, and said, “I can’t believe I’m in the same room as Mick Jagger!”

The same room? The sheer fantasy of it! Given our distance in mileage from the stage, he may as well have said the same city. Or country. Or planet. But it was edifying, because apparently that is what people are paying for: actual proximity to Mick Jagger. When I was young and idealistic and all into punk rock, that kind of response infuriated me, but now that I’m older, I see it as a harmless quirk of the human psyche. Nonetheless, there’s a part of me that feels betrayed by the Rolling Stones, but it’s not because they’re making so much money off human weakness, and not because they’ve marketed themselves into meaninglessness, and not even because their live shows consist of boring retreads of their hits, like any other oldies act at the County Fairgrounds. No, the reason I feel cheated is because, way, way down underneath their cocky, sexist, toxic white masculinity, there lies some incredibly great music — some of the most estimable works of 20th-century art.

This music, these songs, this frangible, soul-shaking experience that describes all the best rock ’n’ roll, doesn’t deserve to be buried now beneath layers and layers of sonic duvets. Inevitably, that’s what happens at these ginormous stadium shows: the music becomes mushy and mechanistic, beaten into submission by a host of workmanlike backup musicians and singers who plow through it like the troopers they are. And then, to add insult to injury, it is blown apart by the pillowy cold air that makes all sound go “phtttt” in a quasi-outdoor stadium.

But here’s the thing. At shows like this, you will surely see music sink to its lowest strata. But it’s not only buried in visual accoutrements, a wall of extra players, and horrid acoustics. It is buried as well in our collective memory, 70,000 strong, so that when Jagger leaves his range (as on “Tumbling Dice”), the audience fills in the words with both their imagination and their voices, and it is as vivid as if he sang it right the first time. Time and again at SoFi he stopped, and we had to start him up: “You’ve got to,” he sang, and our voices rose as one: “Roll me!” we yelled, exactly like a gospel choir, or perhaps a better analogy would be a cover of a gospel choir. Clearly, Mick Jagger cannot fix or even amend the sins of the past, but the one thing he can do is show up, and for many people that is enough. Somewhere in a junkyard, a mechanical dragon is stirring, but it may have a while to wait.

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Gina Arnold is a former music writer and critic. She currently teaches writing and critical race studies at the University of San Francisco and creative nonfiction at San Jose State.

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Featured image: “Rolling Stones No Filter Tour Stage – Concert Right About To Start” by Bjoemu is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.