One of my favorite rock-‘n’-roll concert reviews of all time was penned by Joseph Sobran — and in the conservative journal National Review, of all places — back in 1989, well before the late erudite writer’s worldview slid definitively into the realm of libertarianism, philosophical anarchism, and anti-Semitism. It seems Sobran had taken his daughter to see the Rolling Stones in concert at RFK Stadium in Washington, part of a tour to promote their then-new “Steel Wheels” album, and the glorious occasion provided him not only with a unique cultural experience, but also an irresistible opportunity for cynical observation.
I was reminded of Sobran’s review earlier this month when the Stones announced they would embark on yet another world tour, this one titled “50 and Counting” to celebrate the band’s five decades of recording and performing.
The groups’ announcement also occasioned for me some thoughts on mortality. Not that mortality isn’t already on my mind: I’m well into the “50 and Counting” phase of my own life, and reason tells me I’ve got a lot more years behind me than ahead of me, given even the most generous statistical averages. And yet death can meet us at any age, as headlines and obituary pages often remind us, a reality that mitigates any comfort we might take in our relative youth or good health.
As people of faith, our mortality is always in the back of our minds precisely because we are immortal. Death for us represents not just the end of a career or even of life, but the end of our opportunity to prepare ourselves for the next life. We do well not to presume that death is off in the distance somewhere, that we have plenty of time to get our lives in order. Our days are too precious and the stakes too high to be anything but vigilant with regard to the condition of our soul and our relationship with God.
At “50 and Counting,” the Rolling Stones haven’t released a new album since 2005 nor a truly great one since before Sobran saw them perform. Nevertheless, they make millions on the road playing standards like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” and “Miss You.” As frontman Mick Jagger quipped in reading the Top Ten List on “The Late Show with David Letterman” last December, “Nobody wants to hear anything from your new album.” Call it nostalgia, or call it catering to your (albeit huge) niche fan base, but the Stones do it well and profitably.
In 2004, the magazine Rolling Stone (no relation) placed the Rolling Stones at No. 4 on its list of “Immortals of Rock ‘n’ Roll.” That kind of immortality applies to the performers’ enduring popularity and influence rather than to their life expectancy. When you’ve been performing for 50 years, however, it is possible to get the two concepts confused. We don’t have a lot of experience yet with septuagenarian rock ‘n’ roll bands.
Sobran’s take on that ’89 show was a gem. Never a Stones fan himself, he noted with bemused detachment the “bone-shuddering volume” of the band’s amplifiers (“Your basic rock concert wouldn’t be entirely lost on Helen Keller”), the hype surrounding “Steel Wheels” (“It’s said to be their best album in several years, by those who can make distinctions I can’t“), and even Mick Jagger’s relative prudence and business acumen (“he’s avoided the usual pitfalls of drug overdoses, crooked managers, marriage to Yoko Ono”).
My favorite line came when Sobran, pointing out how Jagger’s trademark stage moves and “bad-boy antics” had already become rather conventional, commented that the 46-year-old lead singer had become something of a self-caricature of what he had been in his heyday: “By now Jagger is simulating himself, as if Elvis had lived on to make a second career as an Elvis impersonator.”
Like Sobran, I’m not a Stones fan, but I do have to marvel at their tenacity. Three of the four core band members — Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards, and drummer Charlie Watts — have been Stones since the group was founded in 1962; even Ronnie Wood, the relative newcomer of the four, has been with the band since 1975. That kind of durability is impressive, particularly when you consider the Beatles, contemporaries and rivals to the Stones during the 1960s British Invasion, lasted just a decade before their acrimonious and well-publicized breakup in 1970. And while none of the Stones, with the possible exception of drummer Charlie Watts, have aged particularly gracefully, Jagger has kept himself physically fit, all the better for prancing and strutting about the stage while assuming those bad-boy poses to his fans’ satisfaction.
Yet to contradict a Stones’ classic, time is not on their side. Sobran obviously was premature in expecting a farewell tour in 1989. Given the inevitable advance of age and the physical demands of touring and performing, however, it is fair to wonder whether this 2013 “50 and Counting” tour will indeed be the swan song for Mick and the gang. As much as fans and music critics like to describe immensely popular acts like the Stones as “immortal,” they most assuredly are not — at least in the earthly sense — even if their music lives on. Just ask John Lennon, Janis Joplin, Michael Jackson, or Kurt Cobain.
Two years ago already, a rumor of Jagger’s death went viral on Twitter, as periodically happens to celebrities in the social media these days. He likely laughed it off. But to see “R.I.P. Mick Jagger” tweeted and reported so widely may have given him pause — as well it ought. Sooner or later, a message like that will tweet the truth. The tour is “50 and Counting,” but the counting one day will stop.
I have no clue whether Sobran’s judgment of Jagger’s performance back in 1989 was valid then or if it is valid now. Perhaps Sobran thought it unseemly for a 46-year old to be carrying on like a rebellious 20-year-old; I wonder what he would say if he were to take in the Stones on this summer’s tour.
An actor recreating his own iconic stage character might be said to be “simulating himself,” as when Yul Brynner reprised his role in several revivals of “The King and I.” As a performer, Jagger is doing likewise, giving his fans what they want, and raking in money and adulation in the process. If it works, then why change? If Brynner were to have grown a head of hair with a moustache and radically reinterpreted his King Mongkut, would his revivals been as well received? Jagger has no need to reinvent his stage persona.
But to “simulate oneself” can also denote a knowing pretension, behaving in a way that perhaps was once genuine but which now is a conscious recreation, or even self-parody, of how one used to behave. It can be a way of living in the past, in one’s “glory days,” as Bruce Springsteen famously screams about. In this sense, self-simulation represents a flight from present realities, perhaps as an escape from personal responsibilities. Simulating one’s former self for the sake of entertainment is one thing; reliving past glories as a way of denying the march of time and circumstance is quite another.
Inevitably, with each tick of the clock, we draw nearer to the moment of our death. It is natural, then, that we might think of our eventual death more and more as we pass middle age and beyond — 50 and counting. We don’t need a diagnosed terminal illness to make this point; by that age, surely we all have mourned friends and relatives younger than ourselves, and pondered the ultimate questions in response. By the time we’re Mick’s age, neither time nor statistics are on our side.
How do we respond to this awareness of death? Our examination of conscience increasingly takes in not just the past day or week, but our entire life. How well have I lived the life God gave me? Where could I have done better? What are my life’s regrets? What happened to my dreams, or to the dreams God had for me? Most critically, what am I to do with the time I have left?
There can be a certain “fake it till you make it” character to self-simulation. In essence, that’s how we begin to build virtues in which we are deficient: We willfully perform good acts on a repeating basis, forcing ourselves if we must, until they become good and natural habits, which once engrained within us become moral virtues. As we age, we might look back to find we have become lax or drifted in the practice of our faith, or in our moral character. We might once have lived more pious and virtuous lives, closer to the ideals to which our faith calls us, at a time when for whatever reason we found those ideals easier to live. If so, how do we get back? Can we rewind our lives to a time when we were more faithful and kind of pick it up from there?
It’s not easy to do, but perhaps that endeavor begins by simulating the practices we’ve abandoned, whatever they may be — daily prayer, weekly spiritual reading, monthly confession, a return to volunteer service, a commitment to treating showing others more love and compassion — until they become habitual once again. In this context, to simulate one’s former self can be a pathway to sanctity.
This isn’t reliving the past as much as looking to the future. As people of faith, our “glory days” are not behind us, but ahead of us. That is our sacred hope, the glory we seek to capture.
As for Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, it’s only rock ‘n’ roll. For all we or they know, this milestone tour may be their final tour; for them and for us, earthly life itself is our one and only grand tour that will come to a close at a time not of our choosing. May we all focus our eyes on the glory days ahead.
— Gerald Korson