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|Journeying the Sixties: A Counterculture Tarot
KING OF PENTACLES
"I stuck around St. Petersburg when I saw it was the time for a change.
--Rolling Stones, "Sympathy for the Devil" 1969
"He's walking like a dead man. If he had lived he would have crucified us all. Now he's standing on the last step. He thought oblivion, well, it beckons us all. Children of the Damned. Now it burns his hand, he's turning to laugh. Smiles as the flame sears his flesh, melting his face, screaming in pain, peeling the skin from his eyes. Watch him according to plan. He's dust on the ground, what did we learn?"
--Iron Maiden, "Children of the Damned" 1981
In June 2007 the Rolling Stones returned to England at the end of a record-setting worldwide tour. Forty-five years after playing their first gig at the Crawdaddy Club in London, the group counted tour earnings of $437 million. They were the featured performers at the 2006 Superbowl in Detroit. They had played before an estimated 1.5 million fans at a free concert on Rio de Janerio's Copacabana beach. Once the leading bad boys of the Sixties rock scene, the Stones may seem now like a brittle, if iconic, leftover. Three original performers, including lead singer Mick Jagger, are all in their mid-to-late sixties, sparking unconfirmed reports that the band plays with a defibrillator backstage in case one of them suffers a heart attack while performing. The eroticism may seem flaccid now and violent teases not very credible. But the Stones are linked indelibly with the King of Pentacles and his material tenacity. Jagger was a student at the London School of Economics when in 1962 he met up with Keith Richards to join a rock band started by Brian Jones. No doubt he brought the group some money sense along with his skills as a performer. But the Stones' story is not just one of survival. The Stones are the corporate monarchs of the Counterculture, a product of the Sixties revolution that can still be authentically branded and widely and successfully sold. They are a time-traveling money machine and incomparable managers of stamina and spectacle.
The group's longevity may seem an unlikely outcome for a group widely credited with single handedly ending the Sixties, both figuratively and chronologically. The Stones' free concert at the Altamont Speedway near San Francisco on Dec. 6, 1969, is considered by many to be the closing bookend of the decade's embodiment of peace and love. Violence at the free concert ended with four deaths and the beating of numerous fans by a group of Hell's Angels allegedly retained by the Stones to manage the concert's security. The ill-fated concert, filmed as the 1970 documentary Gimme Shelter, followed by four months the joyously peaceful Woodstock Festival in upstate New York.
The Rolling Stones didn't end the Sixties. They started the Eighties by passing their bad boy mantle to a new generation of rockers: heavy metal musicians and, eventually, rap performers who marketed violence with much more serious-and engaging-commitment. Heavy Metal's etymology derives from beat writer William S. Burroughs' novel The Soft Machine in which "heavy metal" is a euphemism for addictive drugs. By the late Sixties rock groups like the Kinks, the Yardbirds, Cream and performers like Jimi Hendrix were incorporating a "metal" sound punctuated by on-stage violence that included the destruction of musical instruments. In 1967 Hendrix set his guitar on fire at the end of his set at the Monterey International Pops Festival. His hit "Purple Haze" is considered by many to be the first metal hit. In July of 1969, as the Stones were holding a free London concert to grieve the death of Brian Jones, Led Zeppelin's first album was holding steady at number 10 on the Billboard album chart. Throughout the 70s, while disco, Motown, and pop held sway on the airwaves, underground metal bands were pushing boundaries with dissonant harmonies, thunderous power chords and rich modal progressions as well as on-stage simulations of animal cruelty, self-mutilation, and murder.
By the early 1980s Heavy Metal had found its target audience, mostly white adolescent boys tenuously balanced between a struggle for personal identity and group affiliation. Performers, who were sometimes teenagers themselves, played out fantasies of power and dominance in notably violent and misogynistic lyrics. Themes of death-symbolic of adolescent fears of diffusion-were amplified in songs that focused on killing, Satanism, and suicide. Iron Maiden's "Children of the Damned," based on a science fiction novel by John Wyndham, dwells in detail on the putrefying realities of death and is a giant leap from the Rolling Stones' subtle intonations of mortality in their 1966 hit "Paint It Black."
As Metal reached its zenith in the mid-80s another form of "bad boy" rock began to appear. Called "rap" or "hip hop," it originated in the late 70s among African-Americans and Latinos living in the Bronx. The music was started by disc jockeys that would rhyme lyrics to the backbeats of other songs. By the late 1980s it had evolved into "gangsta rap," a form of hip-hop noted for lyrics that promoted violence, drug use, and-of course-misogyny. Dancing on the dark side, Metal and Rap have found large international audiences and generated enormous profits for their leading artists. The King of Pentacles may appear dark and remote, but he is a reliable producer. And he knows his demographic.