Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones by Stephen Davis

“Until the undertaker pulls up to the door.”
— Keith Richards’ response to the question: How long can the Rolling Stones keep playing?

The undertaker isn’t lurking anywhere near the door. The mighty Rolling Stones, great granddaddies of rock ‘n’ roll, seem to have scared off the inevitable doom which generally arrives a few years after a band has ridden the waves of glory and fame. Sorry, think again. These fellas are here to stay. This thing is bigger than the both of us, baby. Thank God.

Alright, so they’re in their 60’s, proud husbands or ex-husbands and fathers and grandfathers, and let’s face it, not as –- how shall we say? –- sprightly as they use to be. Yes, they have milked us for every penny, and can never equal the greatness they achieved in the 1960s when they established themselves as the voice of a generation, but they can still bring the house down, and they’re important cultural icons. Listen to the radio, on any given day, and I guarantee that “Satisfaction” or “Ruby Tuesday” or “Sympathy for the Devil” will soon blare through your speakers. Most of us grew up against a backdrop of Stones music (and I’m not just referring to the Baby Boomers). Punk, new wave, and grunge may have come and gone, but the Stones were always there. As the writer Tom Wolfe once said: “The Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Rolling Stones want to burn your town.” Burn, baby, burn.

And if that isn’t enough, get a load of this: Mick Jagger — that’s Sir Mick to you — was recently knighted, earning him a respectable place alongside other “Sirs” of the music world: Paul McCartney and Elton John.

Stephen Davis’ Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones arrives just in time for the Stones’ 2002/2003 world tour. A hefty book (almost 600 pages), it’s chockfull of fascinating Stones history and gossip. From how they got their start, to the Mick/Keith songwriting process, to quibbling with managers and record labels, to their turbulent love lives, to the drugs, to the gradual accumulation of millions of dollars and world recognition, it’s all here.

Davis begins in 1962 with the enigmatic and ill-fated Brian Jones (who along with Ian Stewart) founded the group. The troubled and promiscuous Jones who, as Davis describes, “could get a girl pregnant with the toss of his head,” was playing in a blues band when three guys (who had their own band) turned up to watch the show. They were Mick Jagger (who was still “Mike” back then), Keith Richards, and fellow band member Dick Taylor. The rest, as they, is history. From there, the group began to merge, and soon enlisted the talents of Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts who needed tremendous coaxing to give up his day job, and finally acquiesced by quipping: “Yeah, all right then, but I don’t know what my dad’s gonna say.” Brian dubbed them the “Rollin’ Stones” (in honor of the Muddy Waters’ song), and they were on their way.

The Stones’ arrival couldn’t have happened at a more appropriate time. London was swingin’ and the Beatles had led what would become the British Invasion, paving the way for other acts to follow on the blazing trail of success. However, the Stones’ manager, Andrew Oldham, decided to market the Stones as the “anti-Beatles.” Forget the neat, squeaky-clean image. According to Keith Richards: “To the extent that they looked all clean-cut and good, we would look scruffy and evil.” As Davis elaborates:

If the Beatles were a blast of oxygen into a wheezing England, the Rolling Stones would be a dopey whiff of nitrous oxide. . . . Andrew Oldham’s rethink of the Stones’ image built a successful model of pouting, rudeness, and contempt since used by hundreds of bands through four decades of rock, punk, and Brit-pop.

Davis deftly outlines the Stones’ music chronology; how songs were conceived, written, and eventually compiled into various albums. Their first album topped the charts in 1964, and soon thereafter, the dour boys of rock n’ roll took their show States-side, where they made their TV debut on Dean Martin’s Hollywood Palace, after being rejected by Ed Sullivan who had feared that the Stones’ rough-and-tumble image wouldn’t fare well with his viewers. (Sullivan, bowing to pressure, eventually invited the Stones to appear on his show.)

Now that they were on a roll (pardon the pun), the Stones began to adhere to the sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, particularly Keith, and Brian who, whenever he resurfaced from his drug-induced haze, would resent Mick’s popularity as the Stones’ front-man. Drug use (often resulting in raids and arrests), glamorous parties, and a stream of girlfriends –- including Mick’s relationship with singer/actress Marianne Faithfull, and later Bianca Perez, and Jerry Hall, and Brian’s (and eventually Keith’s) long-term dalliance with groupie/model Anita Pallenberg — became front-page news. Brian’s drug-related antics in particular were so notorious that even Keith (no choir boy himself) remarked: “You’ll never make thirty, man.” Brian’s response: “I know.” (According to Davis, Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” was written for Brian.)

The author acknowledges that Let It Bleed reigns not only as the Stones’ most important album, but an all-time rock and roll legend. Tracks such as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Gemme Shelter,” and “Love in Vain,” assured its success, although as Davis explains: “No rock record, before or since, has ever so completely captured the sense of palpable dread that hung over its era.” Doom and gloom had also visited the Stones as they sacked Brian Jones from the band and later coped with his mysterious death. Jones drowned in his pool, apparently affected by a large intake of drugs. A 1969 concert in Altamont, California, where a young African American was killed by a Hell’s Angel, cast another dark shadow, inspiring many to declare that this was “the end of an era.” According to Davis, the Hell’s Angels, angered by the Stones blaming them, had a contract out to kill Mick for years to come. In addition, Wyman had already started thinking about leaving the band, and would later face a media circus when he started dating 13-year-old Mandy Smith. (Wyman eventually quit, married the no-longer-jailbait Smith, and opened a restaurant.)

Davis’ talents as a writer are not only based on his respectful and arduous research of one of the world’s most important bands, but his rare ability to tell a splendid tale. What’s most fascinating is the individual picture of each Stone that emerges as the story progresses. In a recent 60 Minutes interview, Keith Richards said that that the Stones could be equaled to a mom and pop shop, with he and Mick as mom and pop. Only thing is, they haven’t decided yet as to who is mom and who is pop. Davis quotes a source who further elaborates: “There’s an old saying among those who have known the Stones for a long time. It’s that Mick wants to be Keith, and they all want to be Charlie.” Charlie, the cool, collected drummer is depicted as the voice of reason and, along with the happy-go-lucky Ronnie Wood, the go-between for Mick and Keith. Mick comes across as a nice guy with a bit of an ego, and Keith is, without doubt, the resident wit.

Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, the Stones successfully morphed themselves to fit the mood of the times, occasionally overshadowed by the arrival of fresh young punk, new wave, and grunge superstars who made the old-timers seem what they really were, old-timers. The Stones, however, kept rolling; offering funk, or ballad-type alternatives, though their core — rooted in R&B — remained firmly intact. Collaborating with greats such as Zigaboo Modliste and David Sanborn, and sharing the concert spotlight with the likes of Sheryl Crow and Prince, further ingrained the band in rock mythology.

There are three acts I’ve always wanted to see live. I missed my chance to see the late Frank Sinatra, and I’m still waiting on James Brown. But on a hot, muggy night in the summer of ’94, I got to see the Stones (sans Wyman) at RFK stadium in Washington DC. They looked old (they’re old enough to be my father, and Bill Wyman is actually older than my father), but the place was hopping. Jagger still ranks as one of rock’s sexiest men, and he brought down the house. The theatrics of the Voodoo Lounge tour were a tad over the top, but so what? They belted our favorites, and the crowd cried out for more. Recently, I was pleasantly surprised to see that my two-year-old nephew started dancing as soon as his father put on a Stones CD, so it’s safe to say that future generations will also keep the Stones’ legend alive.

Old Gods Almost Dead deserves a spot on every bookshelf (Stones fan, or no Stones fan). And to the gentlemen of the Rolling Stones we have this to say: Thanks, and for our sake, please keep rockin’.