Why life without The Rolling Stones is unimaginable...
With The Rolling Stones, those seemingly indestructible gods of rock, there’s a delicious irony to the fact that their first UK number one 57 years ago was a song called It's All Over Now.
It’s never been All Over Now. Not remotely. Not even during the tiffs and the tragedies which have occasionally dogged their reign at the very top of the musical tree.
All Over Now? Far from it. No, they’ve been truer to their first-ever top ten hit Not Fade Away.
But with the news that drummer Charlie Watts is likely to miss the band's forthcoming US tour, it’s difficult not to ponder that other great hit from their very early days, The Last Time.
Could this actually be The Last Time? Heaven help us if it is. Fortunately the signs are promising.
Watts is recovering from an unspecified medical procedure. “For once my timing has been a little off,” the 80-year-old quipped. And Mick Jagger has been quick to say the band was looking forward to welcoming Watts back “as soon as he is fully recovered.”
Thank goodness for that. Time Is On My Side, they used to sing and probably will still, and astonishingly, incredibly, it looks like that might yet be the case.
Time’s nibbling away at them, and already they have withstood far more than any band has got any right to withstand, but for the moment, let’s try to breathe easy.
The simple fact remains. Life without The Stones is unimaginable. Or my life at least, plus that of countless of millions of others, of course.
It’s pretty much impossible to put into words what The Rolling Stones mean to me, but maybe one gruesome moment gets closer than any other to summing up just how much they inhabit my heart and soul and always have done.
Weird things go through your mind when you think your number’s up – things that sum you up completely.
I was stabbed and kicked in a vicious mugging in South Africa a few years ago. You can read about it in my book Outrunning The Demons (Bloomsbury, 2019).
As I lay on a Cape Town pavement, watching the blood pool around me, fighting the urge to shut my eyes, I found myself thinking “So that’s that, then.”
And with that thought came the consolation: “At least I am wearing my favourite Rolling Stones T-shirt.”
It mattered in that moment – just as the Stones have mattered all my life and mattered hugely.
The T-shirt, a present from my daughter Laura, has been my protection ever since. I mean, you’d have to be seriously unlucky to get stabbed twice while wearing exactly the same T-shirt, wouldn’t you?
And three years ago, two years after the stabbing, I was thrilled to wear that self-same T-shirt in their presence. Possibly they didn’t notice.
But the occasion was the most recent time I have seen the Stones live, Southampton, May 2018, two years after the knifing and a remarkable 36 years after I saw them for the first time.
I still hold out the hope that it won’t be The Last Time.
I have seen them nine times now, and it feels like – in a mind that remembers less and less – I can still remember virtually every moment.
The first time was Friday, June 25 1982, one of those days that, even as I lived it, I knew I would remember in glowing, radiant detail for the rest of my life. It was the last day of my A-levels, and my brother, then a medical student in London, had managed to get us tickets to see The Stones at the old Wembley stadium.
Barely had I added the final Punkt to my German translation than I was on the train to London, ready to be enveloped by the weirdest, most heart-warming experience. This was 1982, remember. The Stones weren’t the national treasures they are today, our country’s favourite grandfathers. Back then, you were met with scorn and sympathy (For The Devil?) if you dared confess to liking them.
But as my brother and I hared it towards Wembley, the crowds grew thicker with every step, Jagger look-alikes and wannabe-Keefs everywhere around us. Ensconced in the stadium, Mick, Keith, Ronnie, Bill and Charlie were like the world’s most powerful magnet drawing their people, Stones people, towards them.
A magnet indeed. And it was sheer magnetism we got. Even when he’s a tiny dot on the stage horizon, Jagger is an astonishing performer, electrifying, dazzling, intoxicating, capable of thrilling to the bone 80,000 people while making each and every one of us think that this is for me and me alone.
It was over in a flash. A Jumping Jack Flash. Two hours whizzed by. And slowly, reluctantly the crowds started to fade away. Standing roughly where the centre circle on the pitch would be, we pulled at the tarpaulin and grabbed handfuls of Wembley grass. I stuck mine to a piece of cardboard and wrapped it in sellotape, a treasure forever.
And that was the point. After adoring them for four or five years by then, I was utterly convinced that I was seeing them for both the first time and the last time. These were men in their late 30s. No band had been going for 20 years by then. I had got there under the wire. Just in time. It was a chance I would never get again.
Except that I have. Again and again. Maine Road, Manchester, 1990, stands out, as does Cardiff 2007. So too does Glasgow 2003. So does the phenomenal Hyde Park return in 2013. Eight subsequent concerts. Eight more times, completely blown away.
Of all the arts, it is music – above theatre, above cinema, above everything – that gives us the biggest, the most visceral oomph, and the Stones, mesmerising, lavish, extravagant, brilliant, give us an oomph that absolutely no one else can.
The soundtrack to my life, as the old cliché goes.
All the marathons I have run map themselves onto Stones songs. 40 marathons. 40 different songs.
A soggy slog in Amsterdam is Plundered My Soul; New York is Harlem Shuffle; torrential rain in Dublin is Gimme Shelter; a double figure-of-eight course in La Rochelle is Around and Around; an (unwise) marathon with a fever in Berlin is Paint It Back; a personal best in London is Satisfaction; my very first London is Streets of Love.
And so it goes on. Just as The Stones themselves go on. Just as I go on and on about The Stones.
You Can’t Always Get What You Want, Mick sings. But don’t forget the next line in the lyric. “But if you try sometime you find/You get what you need.”
Wishing you well, Charlie!