An ambitious dream lay in the heart of rock ‘n’ roll at its outset, in the late 1950s. The dream was to unify — not the whole world or country but one generation. Unity was in the air.

The United Nations had been formed a few years earlier. The unity of rock ‘n’ roll would not be political or even verbal; it would be visceral, cultural and, thus, potent.

This may account for the way rock ‘n’ roll has engendered anthems to itself: We built this city on rock ‘n’ roll; Gimme that rock ‘n’ roll music; I believe in rock ‘n’ roll; Bye, Bye, Miss American Pie. Other genres don’t do that. The Birth of the Blues is a sentimental pop song, not a blues. Even reggae, with its political bent, does not eulogize itself.

For a moment near the start, that unity seemed to exist. In his book Mystery Train, rock critic Greil Marcus quotes someone saying, roughly (I don’t have the source, I’m at the lake): “We will never again be united the way Elvis united us.”

But that unity fractured fast. Even then, there were blacks who resented Elvis — the white man who learned what his first producer, Sam Phillips, who died this week, called, “the Negro sound.” Pre- versus post-electric Dylan. Beatles versus Stones. The subdivision of rock: hard, acid, soft. The Punk attack. The demotion of rock ‘n’ roll into just one form of popular music, where once it reigned above the rest.

One achievement of the Rolling Stones is that they alone, largely through their longevity, have managed to sustain and validate this dream of unity through rock ‘n’ roll. Merely by being there near the start and never stopping, and continuing to do essentially the same music and same show, without it becoming a museum piece. They are not on some revival tour: a paunchy, jowly band holding their umpteenth reunion. The stuff still breathes life in the present moment. They have kept it vibrant through their own avid interest in its roots-like blues or rhythm and blues — and by staying loyal to the adolescent core of rock ‘n’ roll: sex, fun, drugs, etc.

They do this without incurring resentment from the young because they don’t pretend to be young; they just maintain contact with their youthful impulses, while not denying their age. As a result, their own generation has been able to maintain a certain unity through the Stones’ music and — quite a surprise — later generations have been able to join in unity, too, through the same music. It seems to me that’s one reason people honour the Stones rather than mocking them, which could easily happen, as geriatric rockers, corporate rock etc.

Might they continue this feat beyond the later stages of middle age they are now in? Can you picture Mick Jagger at 70? I don’t see why not. Who would have expected them to come this far together, accompanied by fans?

Ageless means ageless, not deathless. It means combining different elements. It was an odd, happy feeling to hear the call of the loon slide into the phrases of Honky Tonk Woman, and vice versa.


Rick Salutin

Rick Salutin is a Canadian novelist, playwright and critic. He is a strong advocate of left wing causes and writes a regular column in the Toronto Star.