When the blitzkrieg raged and the bodies stank
Staged before a live studio audience costumed in capes and hats recalling the wardrobe of Jacques Demy’s Pied Piper, Mick Jagger appears with his hair dyed black for Donald Cammell & Nicolas Roeg’s Performance. He and Keith Richards (donning an eye patch and puffing on a stogie) introduce a handful of attractions: fire eaters, high-wire acrobats, and an eclectic assortment of musical acts, including Taj Mahal, Jethro Tull, The Who, Marianne Faithfull, and John Lennon’s Dirty Mac, complete with Yoko Ono caterwauling her way into some private apocalypse.
Set on a tiny stage just barely sufficient to accommodate the bands, the songs are a varied bunch, ranging from Taj Mahal’s R&B rendition of “Ain’t That a Lot of Love” to Faithfull’s short but eloquent “Something Better.” Flanked by Richards and Eric Clapton, Lennon does “Yer Blues” in a version fairly faithful to the Beatles original. Never one for Jethro Tull (their appeal eluded me back in the day), I was pleasantly surprised by “Song for Jeffrey,” both for the tune and Ian Anderson’s schizzy charisma, as well as its extended close-ups of an obviously trashed Jesse Ed Davis. (Once a renowned session guitarist, Davis died at the age of forty-four of a “suspected” drug overdose).
Jeff Stein’s film on The Who, The Kids Are Alright (1979), featured their unedited performance of “A Quick One While He’s Away” from Rock and Roll Circus, and it was always a highpoint of that excellent documentary. The song’s power and raw vitality hasn’t diminished at all. Fans and critics have expressed their lack of enthusiasm for Roger Daltry as the band’s front man, but here he’s mostly in the shadow of guitarist Pete Townshend and drummer Keith Moon. Moon is an especially compelling presence, tossing drums over his shoulder once they’ve outlived their usefulness, or drilling away in a heavy mist of sweat, his merry dark eyes forever embroiled in mischief.
For years there were rumors that the Stones shelved Rock and Roll Circus because of The Who’s domineering tour-de-force, but this seems like a fannish exaggeration. The five Stones numbers are good (“Jumpin’ Jack Flash”) or better (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”), with “Sympathy for the Devil” affording a chance to savor the potent lyrics, and “No Expectations” a glimpse of a beautiful moment shared between Keith Richards and Brian Jones. The latter overdosed shortly after filming, one of the first larger-than-life casualties of the so-called counterculture.
Despite the wonderful set by The Who, John Lennon’s comical bits between numbers, and the overall spirit of collectivism, Rock and Roll Circus is clearly Mick Jagger’s show. His small but commanding frame takes charge of the evening, especially when he’s singing directly to the camera. The grin and the penetrating stare are alarming, inviting, threatening, seductive and all-knowing—qualities befitting a truly great performer. If anyone under the age of thirty-five gets it, however, I’d be stunned.