Listening To My Life: “Are You There, Mick? It’s Me, Bonnie”

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How The Rolling Stones Got Me Through Puberty

Mick Jagger doesn’t know it, but he changed my life.

That’s not hyperbole, just a fact: If it wasn’t for a man four decades and an ocean away that I’ve never met, you wouldn’t be reading this article right now. I’m not the only one; after nearly half a century as the frontman of one of the most iconic—and yes, profitable—bands of all time, he’s surely altered the courses of more than a handful of existences. In fact, if I had been born 30 years earlier, my story probably wouldn’t be anything out of the ordinary. It might even be a bit of a cliché. But my love affair with The Rolling Stones begins in 1999, long after the group had become a corporation and Baby Boomers across the nation had begun to notice gray hairs.

Sixth grade was a rough year for me. My grandfather had passed away the previous spring, I was beginning to feel the first twinges of pre-teen angst and, to make matters worse, everyone around me was listening to Limp Bizkit. My elementary school friends, convinced I was some sort of social liability, told me (via an early version of AOL Instant Messager!) that I was “kind of a nerd” one day and stopped talking to me.

Basically, the writing was on the wall for me to give the world the ol’ metaphorical middle finger, buy a bunch of black nail polish and stock up on Marilyn Manson albums. Maybe if I had been a few years older, I would have, but 11-year-old me was far too meek to even consider doing so.

Enter the Glimmer Twins.

But first, a quick disclaimer: I have a great set of parents. They saw me through good times and bad, I love them dearly, and they of course have left a much more substantial mark on my life than any rock band. But, as anyone who’s ever been in junior high knows, there’s some weird chemical-y stuff that goes on in your brain during those years. It makes you want to sleep for 14 hours at a time. It makes you act like you’re one giant, raw nerve. And most importantly, it makes liking the same music as your mom and dad seem like the worst thing in the world.

I’m not sure exactly when—it was sometime near the end of that sixth grade hell-year—but at some point, I decided that I hated the Beatles. I’ve since come to my senses, but at the time, I got it into my hormone-flooded head that since they were my mom’s all-time favorite band, it was my duty to loathe them. While most of my friends were taking sides in the great “Backstreet Boys or ‘N Sync” debate, the age-old “Beatles or Stones” question was being rehashed in my household, and I was quickly finding myself on the side of Mick and Keith.

If I could stick a knife in my heart, suicide right on stage
Would it be enough for your teenaged lust, would it help to ease the pain?

—“It’s Only Rock N’ Roll”

By the time I’d wrapped up seventh grade and was gearing up for my final year before high school, what started as a means of thumbing my nose at my parents had turned into a bona fide obsession. I studied The Rolling Stones the same way a scientist might poke and prod an extraterrestrial. Jagger in particular seemed otherworldly to me: the confidence—nay, swagger—he oozed was appealing and scary at the same time. It would be a few years before I’d pull a Richard Dreyfus-in-Close-Encounters and hop aboard their weird, alien ship.

Ultimately, what I loved most about the Stones was the fact that, like me, they were outcasts. But unlike me, they didn’t give a shit. They had legions of young, screaming fans, but their eclectic influences and bad-boy images distanced them from other shinier, sleeker pop groups of the day. They never quite fit in with the American bluesmen they tried to emulate because, well, they were goofy-looking, white English guys. The haircuts and outfits, combined with Jagger’s fey stage presence, made touring the country honky-tonks and dive bars you picture when you hear “Dead Flowers” or “Far Away Eyes” problematic.

And yet that didn’t stop them. In fact, Jagger’s camp delivery on the latter track beats critics to the punch; it’s almost as if he knows he doesn’t belong, and rather than try to mask that fact, he flaunts it, daring non-believers to call him inauthentic. They can’t laugh at you if you’re in on the joke.

I envied how comfortable Mick and company were with themselves. Their apparent ability to ignore detractors coupled with the slight air of danger that surrounded them—the Altamont tragedy, Brian Jones’ death, the look in Mick’s eyes when he sings “Don’t you people ever want to go to bed?” on “Get Off of My Cloud”—cemented the aging rock stars’ positions as my teen idols.

I tell ya love, sister, it’s just a kiss away
—“Gimme Shelter”

The first Rolling Stones record I bought with my own money was Let it Bleed, and it was one of those rare, magical instances where an album hits you at the exact moment in your life that you need it to, where you’re convinced that—even though they were penned decades before you were born—surely the words blaring through your speakers are meant only for you.

I remember popping it in and sitting frozen on my bed, absolutely transfixed by the eeriness of “Gimme Shelter.” It’s an unsettling song, and there’s certainly a sense of impending doom that echoes throughout it, but as I sat listening to Mary Clayton absolutely wailing, “Rape, murder, it’s just a shot away,” I felt a strange, resigned calm wash over me as I mentally prepared myself to wait out the coming storm.

Things were changing, and I knew it. During that painfully awkward year where all the girls were about a foot taller than the boys and acne medication was as precious as gold, it was obvious our bodies were changing. Bands like The Strokes and The White Stripes infiltrated the mainstream and showed me that the musical landscape was changing. And when we were excused from our eighth grade algebra lesson on a sunny September afternoon to huddle around a TV in the library and watch the Twin Towers fall, it was clear the world was changing. War, as it turns out, was just a shot away.

It’s heavy stuff for a 13-year-old, but I found the song to be oddly encouraging. The prospect of change appealed to me. I knew the final months of junior high—the final, dying breath of my childhood—had the possibility to be rough and confusing, but there was a gleaming, high-school shaped light at the end of the tunnel.

Don’t question why she needs to be so free
She’ll tell you it’s the only way to be

—“Ruby Tuesday”

As I got older, that Jaggerlike confidence that once seemed so elusive all of a sudden felt slightly more attainable. I was no longer terrified to talk to boys. (In fact, as sports editor of my school paper, I sometimes had to talk to the popular guys, something Junior High Bonnie would have rather died than do.) I started dressing a little weirder: I had a pair of electric blue gym shoes that I wore essentially every day, and—although it’d still be a few years before my friends and I would start teasing each other by half-jokingly uttering, “You’re such a hipster”—I stopped wishing I was invisible and started dressing to be seen.

My senior year of high school, a few friends and I shelled out some serious cash to see The Rolling Stones at the United Center. They were, of course, already in the twilight of their career, a bunch of silly old men in leather pants. And yet, of the hundreds of shows I’ve been to since, only a handful have come close to topping it. It was the culmination of almost a decade of fandom, of looking to larger-than-life rock stars for a little help with learning to like myself. There was something about seeing my heroes in the flesh for the first time that gave me goosebumps and made me decide right then and there that I’d one day be a music journalist.

The rest of the story, as I mentioned earlier, starts to sound like a cliché. Inspired by aging musicians who are now in the squabbling-over-penis-sizes-inside-the-pages-of-their-memoirs stage of their career, I discover an innate desire to be heard and realize my dreams—blah blah blah. And yet, I can’t help but wonder about how today’s tweens who have grown up on a steady diet of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber will turn out. I’m not exactly sure if adopting a hip-shaking, raisin-faced legend as your guardian angel is the answer to adolescence, but in my case, those days listening to “Brown Sugar” on repeat got me feeling pretty okay about myself—just like a young girl should.