Welcome to ‘The Stone Age,’ chronicling the Rolling Stones’ epic career of rock, scandal and excess
Lesley-Ann Jones’ “The Stone Age: 60 Years of the Rolling Stones” is a strange, sometimes seductive read. On the one hand, Jones – a veteran music journalist and rock biographer of artists such as David Bowie, Freddie Mercury and Marc Bolan – offers a no-holds-barred study of the private, drug- and sex-fueled life of the Rolling Stones. Yet on the other hand, the author makes vital gestures towards the band’s blues roots, as well as the tragedies that marked the course of their career, including the untimely death of Brian Jones and the murder and mayhem of Altamont.
The result is a sometimes awkward account of the life and times of the Stones. When it comes to whipping up a celebrity feast, Jones is the real master. “The Stone Age” is a deep play-by-play of the band’s legendary excesses.
Rock ‘n’ roll biography tends to favor over-study, and the Rolling Stones characterized the genre’s outrageous appetites, placing them close to Led Zeppelin and the Who, who turned debauchery and destruction into a form of art. In “The Stone Age”, Jones even goes so far as to present an appendix detailing Mick Jagger’s most famous alliances, both female and male, among the 4,000 alleged sexual conquests.
What’s missing – and badly needed when it comes to Rolling Stones books – is the book that contextualizes their music in the chaos that Jones catalogs. At times, the author gestures toward the issues at the heart of the Stones’ creative accomplishments. In his analysis of the band’s roots, for example, Jones lists the bluesmen, credited and uncredited, who influenced the sound of the Stones. The British invasion and subsequent British blues boom owe a considerable and unpaid debt to their African-American ancestors, as Jones points out.
But the history of the Rolling Stones – one that will see their wares play out a century from now in formats we can only begin to imagine – would be best served by a narrative that reaches into the unruly, beating heart of their music and helps us to understand how it was first inspired, interpreted and recorded on tape in the studio.
Thanks to the band’s quaternion of masterpieces during the Jimmy Miller era, a period that produced “Beggars Banquet”, “Let It Bleed”, “Sticky Fingers” and “Exile on Main Street”, new listeners will flock to the incredible music of the Rolling Stones. music for decades if not centuries to come. And it won’t have anything to do with how many people fell in bed with old Mick.
In the best moments of the book, “The Stone Age” dispenses with scandal and gossip, capturing the essence of what makes a working rock ‘n’ roll band tick. As Jones closes “The Stone Age,” she conjures up a primitive image of the band, “captured in mono and preserved forever,” reminding us that the ground zero of all musical fusion is groove. “From such innocence and such hope are born legends,” writes Jones. And she’s damn right.
Want a daily recap of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.
rock book reviews by Kenneth Womack: