The Rolling Stones, Live at the Max (UK, 1991)

Name: Live at the Max
Release Date: 1991
Directors: Noel Archambault, David Douglas,
Roman Kroitor, Julien Temple and Christine Strand.

Run-Time: 90 mins.
Studio: Promotour USA

When I was a freshman in college, an amazingly cool girl who lived up the hall from me lent me her copy of the Stones’ immortal greatest hits collection “Hot Rocks.”

The two-cassette set marked my first real exposure to the recorded oeuvre of Messrs. Jagger, Richard and company.

To put it bluntly, these first detailed listens of “Paint it Black,” “As Tears Go By,” “Can’t Always Get You Want,” and “Under My Thumb,” were a revelation. Sure, the songs were already classic rock radio staples. But in my heretofore sheltered existence, they had mostly passed me by. I made a copy in my old Radio Shack boombox and set about playing it into the ground.

At that point, in 1988, my only real, previous exposure to The Rolling Stones had been their 1981 LP “Tattoo You,” and the utterly overplayed “Start Me Up.”

These early singles, though, to my young ears, were dark, mysterious, and more than a little debauched. It sounds trite, but you felt like you were getting away with something when you listened to them.

Which brings me to the question that plagued me as I watched this document of the 1989 tour behind what was probably the last Stones record with any hint of creative spark, “Steel Wheels:.”

Namely, why do we need The Stones now? And what purpose do they serve in the artistic firmament.

By 1989, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts were already millionaires many times over, profiting as they were from the Stones’ status as permanent nostalgia act with a patina of creativity.

And in those days, original bassist Bill Wyman was still in the fold — though in this film he’s standing so far from his bandmates that it’s clear he was already on the way out the door. Indeed, he would exit the band after the tour and go on to an artistic resurgence of his own.

Watching this movie now, it’s amazing how the Stones seemed less like the dangerous band of old than employees of a corporate behemoth called The Rolling Stones.

Recorded in London’s Hyde Park, each Stone occupies his own segment of the stage, faithfully and efficiently reproducing the guitar licks, drum fills and bass lines that have made the Stones’ tunes an indelible part of pop music. But if there is any joy in the doing of it together, it’s carefully concealed.

The revelatory moments come in the wry grins exchanged between Richards and Wood, who seem to be sharing some private joke of their own. Watts, serene behind his drum-kit, seems content to keep his own counsel.
Credit the intimate, but never intrusive cinematorgraphy, which puts the viewer on stage, close enough to see the ruffles in Jagger's increasingly ridiculous stagewear or the crinkles at the corner of Keef’s eyes.

Which is not to say that the songs do not have a vitality of their own. So practiced are The Stones in their art, and so deeply ingrained are these tunes in the minds of audiences, that we’ve heard them all before — even if, in the case of my 18-year-old self, you’re hearing them for the first time.

Whose heart doesn’t race a little at the cow bell clinks at the opening of “Honky Tonk Woman,” or feel the odd sense of melancholy brought on by the French horn line at the beginning of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want?”

And while there are those who would argue that The Stones’ last credible artistic statement was made with 1978’s “Some Girls” LP, let me take a second to argue the case for “Steel Wheels,” represented here with “Rock and a Hard Place.”

Listened to now, the record suffers from the same high-gloss production sheen that seemed to plague all late-1980s records. But with tunes like “Hard Place,” and “Mixed Emotions,” The Stones still sounded like a band that had something to prove, that was still trying to, if not match, than approximate their artistic highs.

True, the band produced new material after “Steel Wheels,” but I defy you to name any of the tunes or hum back a melody line. Mostly, they were pieces of cod-rock attached to greatest hit collections released in coincidence with tours aimed at getting the maximum number of asses in the seats.

I read the other week that the band are planning one, last massive tour to coincide with their 50th anniversary in 2011. Such an enterprise sort of beggars the imagination.

But wwith most of the combo cruising 70, or in the case of Watts, already on the other side of it, they must surely know that they have one hurrah remaining to them before “Paint it Black,” takes on an all-too-real meaning.

Which brings me back to the question I posed at the beginning: Why do we still need The Stones?

In their current form, I’m not sure we do. But in artifacts like this one, there’s a reminder that rock can still be dangerous, can still awaken the spirit and even shock an 18-year-old out his complacency.

And when the alternative is radio lite like Maroon Five or Katy Perry, let me be the first to encourage science to find a way to make Keith Richards live forever.

About jlmicek

I'm an award-winning journalist in Harrisburg, Pa. I also run and cook all the things.
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