by Leslie Tucker
He is mournful and scornful, bellowing about love in vain, alternating a velvet baritone with a nasal whine. Thick, damp hair flops at his shoulders. His ivory-colored sequined jumpsuit, open to the waist, reveals a gleaming chest as he struts and gyrates. He has been living in my head for fifty years and this particular 1972 performance, now re-mastered for DVD, lights me up like a used car lot. I manipulate the remote control with my good hand, thinking that even at sixty-five, my bones have healed fast with titanium plates and screws. The nerve damage, well…
My first glimpse of him on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 still flashes neon bright, how he pouted those pillowy lips and bulldozed J.S. Bach out of my brain for a decade. I was a coltish sixteen and he was a sinewy twenty. He belted “Around and Around,” prancing and slithering like James Brown, whom I would learn decades later, had told him to loosen up his knees. He wailed that time was on his side and I thought I knew what he meant.
From the night I first laid eyes on his wiry body and rubbery face I have longed to be him, to be Mick Jagger. And sure, I know, thousands of guys all over the world have reverberated with the same longing for decades, but I was a goony, star-student girl training as a classical pianist.
I was primed for Mick by my nighttime radio habits.
Dad had given me a transistor radio on my thirteenth birthday for listening to live broadcasts of classical recitals from the Detroit Institute of Art. And I listened dutifully, but I also tucked the black plastic box under my covers and tuned in to The Big 8, CKLW, a Windsor, Ontario station. Marvin Gaye’s fluid tenor and Ray Charles’ raspy one crackled under my aqua chenille bedspread, and a decade of meticulously memorized Bach Minuets and Preludes splintered like kindling. The Kinks’ power-chord guitar riffs ignited my emotional tinderbox and when Ray Davies yowled, “Girl, you’ve really got me goin’, you’ve got me so I don’t know what I’m doin,’” I surrendered the precision of polyphony.
As an ambitious piano student, I had been fascinated by the intricate fingerings and dotted rhythms of Bach Inventionen and Sinfonien. The mahogany metronome was compelling as I developed rhythm and small muscle memory to its ticking, that is, until adolescence. Suddenly, I needed release from rigid classical structures, and from honors courses at school too. I was crouched over quadratic equations that Sunday evening, on the verge of tears, when Dad’s voice sliced the silence. “C’mon, Les, take a break. British rock band on Ed Sullivan.”
Ed looked like an old vampire to me. Hair slicked down on a receding widow’s peak, starched collar pinching his jowls, he clapped as velvet stage curtains swept apart revealing five guys with hair that moved when they did. Three of them held electric guitars and one sat behind a drum kit, but my attention stuck on the long lean guy with wide nervous eyes. He sidled up to the floor stand microphone, snapped his fingers and tapped one heel. Muscular emotional vitality beamed from his uncertain eyes, zapping me through the curved TV screen. I leapt across the room, cranked up the volume and tumbled into a lifelong fascination with a front man.
I came by fascination with music honestly and early. According to my mother, I’d been enthralled by the Grinnell spinet in our living room and had begged for lessons from age three, stretching my hand up and pounding out bass notes.
I was five on the day my first piano teacher showed up. Mother seated her in the velvet wing chair near the piano and I hopped up on the bench, trembling. I smacked Middle C, babbled that the eighty-eight keys repeated themselves and that hammers hit strings to produce sound. My five-year-old brain was exploding, somehow knowing that the person who would unlock the keyboard mystery had arrived. We began.
The piano pieces I learned played themselves in my brain when I was away from the instrument. Clementi rippled between my ears as I skipped across sidewalk cracks and Hanon exercises haunted me as our family chomped popcorn during Ozzie and Harriet.
I easily identify two moments that formed my character. The first, when my piano teacher cracked the code, revealing that lines and spaces on a musical staff matched the keys on a piano, that white keys were naturals and black keys were accidentals, representing how pitches were altered. The treble staff was for my right hand, the bass for my left. Tumblers in my curious Kindergarten brain clicked into place.
The second moment occurred eleven later when I was sixteen, the night Mick’s sultry baritone leaked through the nubby tweed speaker on our big fat TV. The stovepipe pants, those uneasy eyes, all that shaggy hair tossed at a girl who’d only known boys with brush cuts and creases in their khakis. I felt radiant and unstable. I loved it.
I believed I understood Mick’s feral message because I harbored the same rebellious inclinations he displayed on stage. I knew I wanted to be just like him.
Yet somehow, I became a piano teacher.
Not that I was always proper. I gave birth to my first daughter as an unmarried teenager. I raised her alone, with some help from my parents, while hauling myself through a low-level business degree. After college, I held a fast track administrative position at GM for seven years, a lucrative career opportunity during the golden days of the Detroit auto industry and Affirmative Action. I forced myself to fit the professional profile, cut off my long braids and slept on brush rollers to make my hair flip up on the ends. I posed, dignified in Butte knit dresses and tailored jackets, tilting my chin and chatting with flannel-suited men. It went well until one frigid morning in 1970.
The night before, I’d sprawled on the sofa far too late for a woman with a day job, repeatedly dropping the needle on my new copy of Let It Bleed. Hours boiled away in the liquid of Merry Clayton’s “Oooh-oooo’s on “Gimme Shelter,” and the following day at work I blathered about Keith’s innovative tunings, the balls-out-brave lyrics on “Shelter,” the cowbell intro on Honky Tonk Woman. No one spoke. They averted their eyes. I needed my job and controlled myself after that.
I met my first husband, a turtleneck-and-smock-wearing-Design Sculptor, at GM Design Staff and five years later, my second daughter was born. Life was good. Falling in line seemed to be working.
While on GM maternity leave, I attended a chamber music conference. My instructor, a brilliant concert pianist, was sympathetic to my conflict: an unwillingness to give up earning serious money, juxtaposed with the dread of returning to a gray metal desk. Why not teach piano lessons, lucrative in my city, while considering other career options? Sure, good temporary solution.
But who would take lessons from me, I wondered, squashing myself into a cap-sleeved peach knit, believing it to be proper teacher’s attire. Yow! Then five students a week became ten, became thirty, became forty-five — all levels of proficiency, first through twelfth grade. Adults too. I developed a waiting list of students and donated the Butte knits to the Salvation Army, got comfortable in jeans and boots, ignoring raised eyebrows from student’s mothers.
I settled into the grueling, detail-oriented work of classical piano, returned to college for music degrees and publically performed limited repertoire, all while teaching thirty-five or forty hours a week. I survived on four or five hours sleep a night for a decade, discovering that performing by memory with so little rest was brutal. I had memory lapses during public performances, felt humiliated. There would be time later, I told myself, to refresh and improve my technique, to sleep well, to perform the Beethoven sonatas I would put aside temporarily.
I became a full-time teacher and took on even more students.
I dissected ornamentation on Bach Preludes and explained lyricism on Beethoven Bagatelles, but after dark, when the last student left and my daughters were in their bedrooms, my husband dozing in front of the History Channel, I sped around town. Windows down, a bedraggled ghost of a woman, my hair flying ragged, Beggar’s Banquet blasting in the wind.
Something bucked inside my brain but I never missed a lesson. No one suspected that “Sympathy for the Devil” pounded between my ears as I counted Clementi Sonatinas out loud. Students sweated over harmonic minor scales without a clue that Bobby Keys’ raunchy sax solo on “Brown Sugar” thundered in my chest.
Although I abandoned practicing music to teach it, I always assumed I’d play the piano in retirement. I would refine, maybe even get those Goldberg Variations up to tempo, and above all, learn the Beethoven Opus 81a sonata.
But I didn’t practice when I retired.
My second husband and I left the Detroit area in 2004 and moved to the Carolina mountains and I couldn’t resist the fresh air and lush topography. Knowing that vigorous physical strength dissipates with age, I went outdoors to hike, to raft and kayak, to explore zip lines and rope courses. I believed there would be time to polish my keyboard skills later, when I had to sit down, indoors. Since the accident, however, it’s doubtful I’ll ever extend my left hand enough to reach, much less strike the octaves necessary to nail the baseline on the 81a, ironically titled Les Adieux.
So what? I raised two daughters, formed strong bonds with thirty years of students, earned a fine living and most important, passed the music forward. I’m proud of that. But emotional retrospect is slippery, and sometimes my mind slinks back through those years, how I felt ensnared in the barbed wire of propriety necessary for a teacher, even one in jeans and boots.
Again, so what? Many of us in my age group have plowed through our lives on autopilot, accomplishing complex tasks with accuracy. That I could teach classical piano repertoire with rock music blaring in my head, while deciphering the individual parts of both may be strange, but it’s not what strikes me as most salient. No, far more important yet not often recognized, is what we know about ourselves when we are young and how easily we ignore the information. How we squander time, energy, and the laser beam focus of youth in the name of a hard day’s work.
I knew as a teenager in flannel pajamas during that Ed Sullivan Show, and was drop dead certain for seven years as a GM Administrator in pumps and pantyhose. Under the worn jeans of an over-booked piano teacher, it was clear to me every day: Although I never had the ability to front a band or be a guitar wizard, I wanted to be a rock star, specifically Mick, who let music and uncut human emotion rip. I wanted the high-octane life force I saw in him. And I want it now, more than ever because I’ve watched him grow old before my eyes and I like what I see. A man who has done the opposite of what we are all told to do.
The rain was steady that July morning in 2013 as I trotted down our steep driveway with my two Springer Spaniels. One of them bounded in front of me, as she does most days and I hopped backward to avoid a full face plant on the concrete. But this time, both feet slipped from under me and I broke my fall, instinctively experts say, with my outstretched hand.
The double distal radius fracture of my left wrist was diagnosed severe, with scattered bone fragments. The scapholunate ligament on the top of my hand was severed. The good-natured ER nurses called it “the full dangle” and the doc said I was fortunate to be healthy, to have such strong bones at my age, that I could have easily shattered my arm, shoulder and hip too. In the ER, through the fog of IV painkillers, I thought of Mick, yes, really, who is four years older than I am and has never shattered anything that I know of.
Bones heal well with titanium plates and screws anchoring them, but ligament surgery is tricky, and scar tissue compressing my radial nerve caused unpredictable, electrifying pain for months, then years. Icy Hots and Thermal Wraps comprised an unwelcome new vocabulary for a physically vigorous woman, one who took pride in planks and pushups and had made it sixty-five years without an injury. At my home I have an “Adventure Wall” of photographs of my outdoor exploits – bungee jumping, skydiving, rock climbing, hiking all over the world. Yet looking back wrenches my gut sometimes. I recognize myself as a woman who postponed practicing Beethoven to ramble around outdoors until she could no longer extend her left hand far enough to strike a simple triad on her piano.
In the mid-sixties, The Rolling Stones played Olympia Stadium and my boyfriend scalped fourth row seats. Olympia, then home of the Detroit Red Wings, was a small venue compared to today’s arenas, and for concerts, the plexi-glass walls surrounding the rink were removed and a floor constructed over the ice. We chugged a couple of Stroh’s in the parking lot and found our seats, anxious for the first glimpse of the band we’d seen only on black and white TV.
Keith slithered out in high-heeled boots and lacerated the screaming horde with the opening fuzz box chords on “Satisfaction.” Mick materialized in the blur of sound, pranced over and kissed Keith, full on the lips. The room roared. So did I.
Nine months later, my labor room screams were even louder. Soaked with sweat and grinning like the fool I’d been, I felt the distortion infused opening licks of “Satisfaction” throbbing between my ears and legs as they wheeled me into the delivery room. It all seems ridiculous now, excruciating and obvious, but I didn’t get it then. There is nothing coherent about rock and roll – it’s shameless and unconstrained, slapping the demons in our bones, awakening and exploiting all our sensual desires.
I have experienced the hallucinatory intensity of music pouring effortlessly from my body twice in my life. I’ve felt the simultaneous rush of giving and craving, the ethereal magic in a hushed room when connection with the audience is complete, when listeners slip into breathless silence before bursting into applause.
I’ve pulled my own psychic plug and floated inside the sound I first imagined, and then produced. I have given in to and exploited my emotional vulnerability. One performance of the Schumann Piano Concerto, and one of the Op. 31 Piano Sonata by Beethoven, two prolonged incidents of purest ease after years of physical training and intellectual rigor. I’m betting Mick can’t count the times he’s let it all spill out, has entered that zone of euphoric mental and emotional release.
Hammers hitting strings on a soundboard produce the pitches that emanate from a piano and the instant a hammer strikes a string, the sound begins to decay. The only way to maintain the sound is to keep striking more keys, combining more pitches, to keep playing the instrument. Mick knows this and continues to produce the sound that has swelled his body and brain for over fifty years. He absorbs the risk of public performance, with supreme courage, preening across the world stage.
No more chugging beer in parking lots for me and I haven’t seen the Stones perform live in twenty years. After swearing I’d never whine about traffic jams, concert mobs and unreliable acoustics at stadium shows, I’ve become someone who does. So I’m seduced by the intimacy of the big screen in my living room. I savor and internalize the interaction between the well-worn Stones – up close and personal. Camera angles on Mick’s savage face are tight and I quiver, detecting each nod of a head or tip of a guitar neck as band members toss riffs back and forth.
In December 2012, friends arrived at our home to watch the Direct TV Pay Per View event, “Last Stop, The Rolling Stones Live at The Prudential Center.” It was, at the time, the last scheduled concert on their 50th Anniversary Reunion Tour and I had over-hyped it to our guests. World media crowded the New Jersey arena and the advance press blitz had been scathing: Could the old men survive the pressure and live up to their reputation? Was the greatest rock and roll band in the world worth the exorbitant price of admission?
Hell yes. Three generations of fans were ecstatic as seamless vocals, tight ensemble and the flaming guitar solos that had awakened my mind and body fifty years before seared through the screen. And Mick, once a scrawny but sensuous young icon, radiating tensile energy, had morphed by force of his own will (and a Norwegian physical trainer,) into a muscular and magnetic old man, ever charismatic and feral. My emotional inferno raged. I was young and wild again. For three hours. And so was he.
It all made sense as I focused on the sweat-drenched, furrowed face. After ten or twelve miles of vigorous stage travel, a common distance for Mick, I finally got it. In the privacy of my living room, by the grace of high definition technology, I saw something I’d never seen before: euphoria in his eyes.
I also saw that his rapture doesn’t last. Wrapped in a thick robe post concert, body guards supported Mick, escorting him to the limo. His staggering exhaustion was evident, his face crumpled into a grimace.
So here’s what I wonder: with thumping electronics and lights swirling beneath his cushioned Nikes, how does he prevail with full voice and all the moves, seemingly unfazed by the hysterical crowd? Or does he, like many performers, derive energy from them? Sure, I’m aware he’s deaf and wired for relevant sound, but is that easier?
How does he maintain the chronic intensity, the feline runway prowl to navigate a three-hour performance at seventy? Does he just keep molting, renewing himself with music and movement, shedding the husk of age each time he steps on stage? Can those of us who make music, or hear it in our heads, break free of our time worn physical and emotional exoskeletons? Or has he found the quiet at the center of the storm? Is he immutable now, inside the eye of the crossfire hurricane he and The Stones churned up half a century ago?
Fifty years after switching to CKLW under my blankets, my brain is auto-tuned to the same musical frequency. Loud. Rock. Music. I float from my leather chair during TV concerts as consonance and dissonance erupt from ceiling speakers. Indelible images of youth, vitality and excess come into focus with mind-bending clarity. My emotional swagger is gaudy yet private, a secret standing ovation for the woman I never became.
Perhaps it’s just that my angle of perspective has shifted. When I was young, I would have cringed at Mick’s wrinkled face blatantly displaying the atrocities of age. Now, the physical evidence, his triumph and anguish, the distillation of age and endurance he displays, enthralls me.
And lately, the silence is fascinating too. My mind’s eye is imprinted with two photos of the front man that appeared repeatedly as press buzz of the Stones 50th Reunion Tour swamped media outlets. In the Rolling Stone Magazine photo, taken during the Stones London concert in the fall of 2012, Mick is muscular and vibrant, slinky in a black tee shirt, sleeves pushed up on muscular forearms. He struts on a runway, guitar in one hand, mic in the other, chin tilting upward. His gaze is Zen-like, yet I see the snarl of the crowd, the flailing arms, and can imagine the cacophony of the mob. He is exposed and vulnerable, yet fully in control of the elation and terror that defines public performance. And that’s exactly what I want to be: exposed and vulnerable, yet able to control, or at least manage, the elation and terror that defines aging.
The other photo, from the London Daily Mail Online, was taken immediately after an unpublicized warm-up concert in LA. It exposes a sweat drenched, haggard old man with unfocused eyes under bushy eyebrows, hearing aids dangling from his ears. One photo is emblematic of all that is lost, the other, of all that is left. It is hard to determine which is which. After a fall in the rain, four surgeries and years of unpredictable, electrical nerve pain, I do wonder what is left.
Here’s what I know: the sparkling magnetism that tugs me toward the front man remains strong, stronger than the calculated electronics of high production values, stronger than the thwanging of Stratocasters and the thundering of Gretsch vibrating through my body. Is he just an oracle, an intermediary between my everyday existence and my most primal cravings? No, it’s more than that.
The secret is written all over Michael Philip Jagger’s face, he’s modeled it across the world stage for half a century: the lurid freedom of living his one life uncensored. He got away with it. He proved it could be done.
The night of the TV concert I scrutinize Mick’s performance, cringing, imagining his exhaustion near the end. I want to wallow in the Technicolor mythology of the screen and yearn for a triumphant finish of his hero’s quest. And holy shit, it happens, I see it: the unbridled joy stretching across the rutted face. Applause explodes and lights flash, yet there it is: tranquility in his eyes, profound satisfaction I think, after burning it so hard, so near the end.
After Spinning class the other day, I swung my leg over the bike seat and was stunned that it felt rubbery, not wiry and ready to run, as usual. The rock music fuel of our workout had clicked off and the silence was deafening. I thought of Mick, wondering how his life will change when those skinny legs of his give out. And even now, what must the post concert silence be like for him? What is the sound of exhaustion and exhilaration after his state-of-the-art hearing system is unplugged?
I’m betting that the music keeps roaring in his head, just like it does in mine, and that it will continue when he has to sit down. He has internalized the ecstasy of his most intimate gesture: of splitting himself wide open on stage, of resolutely splattering his audiences with joy and pain. The Schumann Piano concerto in a black silk skirt, or Sympathy for the Devil in a whirling red cape, maybe it’s the same.
The ivory sequined jumpsuit from the Stones 1972 world tour is protected behind glass in Cleveland’s Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame. But the man who wore it is still out there. He defies the transience of youth, strength, and desire, a vibrant personification of the myth I embrace: that musical energy is endless, that we can rock on forever.
About the Author:
Leslie Tucker, a Detroit escapee, lives on a Carolina mountainside and refuses to divulge its exact location. She is an avid hiker and zip liner, a dedicated yogi, an ACBL Life Master in Sanctioned Bridge, and enjoys anything that requires a helmet. She holds degrees in business and music. Her work has appeared in the 2010 and 2012 Press 53 Awards Anthologies, where her essay, “Lies That Bind” won first place for nonfiction. Her work has also appeared in Fiction Fix, The Baltimore Review, Hippocampus Magazine, So to Speak, Prime Number Magazine, and TINGE Magazine among others.