5 Years After the Rolling Stones Saved My Life, I Finally Saw Them Live

In 2019, Some Girls became my soundtrack after a life-altering intersex diagnosis. This past Saturday, I stood 20 feet from the men whose music helped me tell the world about it for the first time.

Music Features The Rolling Stones
5 Years After the Rolling Stones Saved My Life, I Finally Saw Them Live

I don’t remember when the Rolling Stones entered my life. Like everyone else my age, I was born into a present-day the Stones had already existed in for 34 years. They’d already sold millions of albums, had that incomparable run of six records from Their Satanic Majesties Request in 1967 through Goats Head Soup in 1973, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame just an hour north of the house I was brought to from the hospital. Even by the time my mom was born in 1970, the Stones had already etched their legacy in stone with Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed back-to-back. My dad was just a year old when “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” hit #1 here in the States. For as long as I’ve been dust, a thought, a wrinkle in time, the Rolling Stones have been here. And I imagine even after Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, Brian Jones, Ian Stewart and Charlie Watts are all long gone, they will still be here, forever embedded into the bones, the blood, the atoms, the cells and the breaths of rock ‘n’ roll.

And thus, I’ve known the Rolling Stones because I have no concept of what it means to be a stranger to their work. The commercial crossover of “Start Me Up” and the generational riff of “Satisfaction” came already fortified within the zeitgeist that was handed to me like a birthright, and then I had encounters with more of their catalog in the films and TV shows I later fawned over, like “Monkey Man” in Goodfellas, “Paint It Black” in Full Metal Jacket, “Street Fighting Man” in Fantastic Mr. Fox, “Tops” in Adventureland, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” in Ozark, “I Am Waiting” in Rushmore, “Out of Time” in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and “Wild Horses” in BoJack Horseman. The New Directions covered “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” in season one of Glee; “Ruby Tuesday” inspired the name of a restaurant my parents used to take me to. The Stones are an epigraph to life as we know it. But, considering all of that, I do know that the first song I ever bought on iTunes was “Beast of Burden,” because I’d heard that metallic guitar riff on Bates Motel and was so transfixed that I searched for its name in the credits and remembered to buy it a week later when I was given a gift card for my 15th birthday.

The band’s anarchist, leftist pedigree soon began to coalesce with my own anti-authoritarian, communist values (“Just as every cop is a criminal / And all the sinners, saints” was a tome). And then, when I was 16 and newly licensed and newly dating, I stole my dad’s copy of Forty Licks CD and discovered “Under My Thumb” and “Tumbling Dice” and “Brown Sugar,” the former of which became my go-to car song. I listened to the Stones at full blast on homecoming night, as I sped 20 MPH over the limit as I raced to O’Charley’s (to have a meal with the girl I didn’t go to the dance with but certainly left in the company of) and got clocked by a cop who let me off. I then listened to the Stones on my way home from a volleyball game where that girl broke up with me. True story: A few days earlier I’d sent her “Tumbling Dice” with the caption “I think this is the greatest song ever made.” “It’s fine,” she replied. Years later, I still thought we were endgame, that our futures were written in the stars and interwoven together.

But my true relationship with the Rolling Stones didn’t really begin until I was in college. At a tiny bookstore in an Ohio town known for a particular Stephen King adaptation being filmed there, I watched my friend Hanif Abdurraqib read a poem about the rock ‘n’ roll mythology of Merry Clayton’s voice crack in “Gimme Shelter,” Mick Jagger saying “Wow” on the final cut of the song and Merry’s miscarriage that came soon after. Predating that, I’d been entranced by the lore of counterculture California and the underbellies of the West Coast, from the Zodiac to Haight-Ashbury to the Manson Family and the New Hollywood renaissance that transformed cinema. That night when Merry came to Elektra Studios on Sunset Boulevard feels like a fable because Los Angeles demands as much.

Hanif would later write of “Gimme Shelter” in his book A Little Devil in America: “I want to know if Mick saw every wretched tooth in the mouth of the world’s most wretched beasts trembling and falling to the ground. There is some awful reckoning to be had in a song like that. Some awful things to be lived with.” The Stones—Mick and Keith, especially—had a knack for making brutalism a lexicon worth becoming a vanguard for. Their music was beautiful and violent, juxtapositions of cherry red flavors and young people dying in alleyways, dreams going up in smoke and genderless love-making for miles and miles. Keith’s guitar riff on “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is one of the most menacing of its kind, while Mick lasers in the “You got plastic boots, y’all got cocaine eyes” lines like his teeth are jewels hanging from a chandelier. I think, when your life exists only during the days that come between doses of medication, the Rolling Stones are the only rock band with a discography as misanthropic. To have sex with someone while your stomach is covered in red welts and scarring from intramuscular injections, the bruising of “Rocks Off” and “Bitch” sound messianic, satanic and Pavlovian. Plug in, flush out, fire the fucking feed, etc.

A few weeks before my 21st birthday, my roommate drove me to an endocrinologist appointment. I’d grown out of seeing my pediatric specialist, per the Cleveland Clinic’s rules. My new guy, “the adult specialist,” was far more blunt. Because I had been only 15 years old when I was prescribed hormone replacement therapy for the first time—and my parents never thought to educate themselves about it in a meaningful way—I had a lot of questions. My hairline was receding slowly, my teeth growing brittler by the month. After a few years of lathering gel across my stomach and then, after a few years of inoculating my arms, thighs and stomach (and enduring a lot of syringes breaking beneath my skin when the testosterone was too thick for the needle), I’d been put back on a gel (this time on my shoulders) but I could never get the dosage consistent enough to be effective—leading to some seriously acute micro-doses of withdrawal, which I would never wish on anyone.

“I can’t understand how this medicine is helping,” I told my doctor. “You have a sex chromosome disorder,” he responded. “You’re intersex, you need this medicine to survive.” Six years and three doctors later, someone had finally told me the truth I was too scared to embrace on my own. He walked me through what that meant, using the “limited amount of research and findings” about the 46XX male phenotype as ammunition for the lifetime I will spend plumping my body up with synthetic androstane steroids. “This can give your life renewal,” the doctor said, before sending CVS a new prescription for syringes and vials of testosterone. I was to go back to sticking a needle into my muscles immediately. “Put it in your stomach this time,” he added. A pinch and a push, as they say.

My relationship with gender has been a long, complicated one, but nothing can really prepare you for having manhood forced into you. I don’t feel like a woman, though, despite my chromosomes doing their damnedest to put a pussy inside of me. I eventually came out as non-binary because I have felt like a human-sized grey area before my endocrinologist broke the news to me of that fate’s not-so-distant reality. Everyone can refer to you as they/them but, under the weight of hormones you’re forbidden from abandoning, you’ll always be living like a ghost. I’d always thought it would be my choice. More than once I have wanted to quit HRT, and every time my desires have been met with the reiteration that, without it, I am at a higher risk of strokes—a recycled speech about a “general improvement for my wellness,” or something of that accord.

By the time I made it to college, I think my heart had finally just run out of steam. The wall my parents had asked me to put up by hiding my HRT in high school had started to crumble. Suddenly, I was open and upfront about my dosings—unafraid of sticking myself in the company of others, as long as they were cool with it, of course. After that endocrinologist appointment, my roommate began taking testosterone, too, and we would do “injection nights” together. For a brief while, being on HRT felt beautiful and communal. Being a boy and being a girl, and being neither of those things, felt divine somehow. I wasn’t out of the closet as non-binary, nor was I out of the closet as intersex. I was simply existing, writing a lot about HRT and pairing it with my history of chronic illness and autoimmune troubles. My gender dysphoria then felt a lot like the persistent tiredness I’d been touched with years prior, but it’s all just ego death colored differently.

I began working on an untitled poem about my gender dysphoria soon after that endocrinologist appointment, editing and re-shaping it while traveling from Seattle to Los Angeles across 20 days. I had written “In Genesis 3:23, I am the body banished from Eden, sent to dig my boyness out of the ground. In the Myth of Sisyphus I am both the boulder and the pushing” in my notes app on the flight from Cleveland to Tacoma, and I began constructing the couplets around it in fragments as soon as I was experiencing them: buying Sticky Fingers on vinyl in a Crescent City record store, carrying a Coke bottle full of syringes in my backpack, trying on dresses at a Buffalo Exchange in San Francisco, watching a sunrise from an LAX terminal. That summer, I titled it “The Rolling Stones Soundtrack My Gender Dysphoria” and tucked it into the middle of a manuscript I’d been accumulating bits and pieces of throughout college. Suddenly I was writing a bunch of poems about California and about being intersex, more than I could count.

In the fall of 2019, as I was knee-deep in finishing my poetry chapbook capstone for my degree, I was combing through old rock ‘n’ roll advertising for aesthetic inspiration. The behind-blue-denim bulge on the cover of Sticky Fingers had sent me down a Rolling Stones-hued rabbit hole, and that’s when I found a companion book that was included in the Some Girls remastered boxed set. On one of the pages, in bold text, it said: “SOME BOYS CAN VERY EASILY BECOME SOME GIRLS.” My life cracked open in an instant. I wrote a poem called “Some Boys Become Some Girls” in less than an hour. It was a sentence I didn’t know I needed, a language I couldn’t possibly have come up with on my own. Like Mick sings in “When the Whip Comes Down”: “I was gay in New York, just a fag in LA.” I was just a clueless kid on HRT before falling in love with the Rolling Stones; I was intersex after. Maybe there was a doctor’s visit somewhere in-between.

Some Girls has been my favorite Stones album since I first heard it in full while driving along the snaking mountainside of Northwestern Washington. Subconsciously, the Rolling Stones were all I could listen to immediately after my intersex diagnosis. My obsession detonated like a short fuse, and I went through various intervals of fandom that have long stuck with me—like my belief that Black and Blue is a top five Stones album, or that “Biggest Mistake” is one of their strongest post-Tattoo You tracks. When I dove head-first into Some Girls, I was enraptured in the disco-rock of “Miss You,” the country twang of “Far Away Eyes” and the strung-out, high-speed chase of “Shattered.” And of course, the “pretty, pretty, pretty girl” of “Beast of Burden” remained close and elegant. There was Mick and Keith and Ronnie and Charlie and Bill on the cover, done up like Andy Warhol characters in drag. It was raunchy and hedonistic; rock ‘n’ roll’s most fabulous pin-up show; the sex in their voices was sophisticated and measured in androgyny. Some Girls is by no means a perfect album. But five years ago, it was all mine.

I began submitting my intersex poems everywhere. I called myself an “intersex writer” in my bio. That winter, a literary magazine picked up a piece I’d written my belly turning cardinal red from testosterone getting stuck in subcutaneous fat. A $50 honorarium for a lifetime of consequences. During the first wave of the COVID pandemic, I signed a book deal with a good royalty breakdown. My publisher asked me to assemble a mood-board for the rollout aesthetic, so I put “SOME BOYS CAN VERY EASILY BECOME SOME GIRLS” at the top. I axed all of the love poems from the manuscript, opting for a 70-page of thrashing, embarrassingly personal work. I never come out as intersex with some grand call-to-arms on my Facebook wall or an Instagram story. Instead, I say it all in a book the whole world can buy. “Let’s say we deserve to live, before we watch all of it fall away,” I wrote at the end of it. On National Intersex Day 2023, I took my own advice and decided that, before 2023 ends, I would come out as non-binary. I did. “Some girls get the shirt off my back and leave me with a lethal dose,” I sang in an apartment by myself.

The Rolling Stones have been considered a palatable entry point into androgyny for cisgendered people. Sure, I think that is true. But, as someone who was forced into retaining a cisgender identity for 25 years, few celebrities have been as consequential in shaping my embrace of gender fluidity and non-binaryness more than Mick Jagger, who was a chameleon in his prime—a leathered, laced and scarved Madonna—and, unlike other rock stars of his era, has not attempted to revise his own flamboyance through a later-in-life conservatism. He was everything I wanted to be, the high-watermark of male sex appeal and campy femininity. On stage, he sang through puffed, pursed blowjob lips and twisted a coke-thin body that screamed high-society lesbian. Even at 80 years old, he manifests an uncategorical sexuality people older than my own parents still espouse. In 1975, the Stones alienated Midwesterners when they performed with a giant, inflatable penis onstage behind them. At a show in Cleveland last weekend, 50,000 people were singing along to a song about Mick getting head from a drag queen in Memphis and bedding a divorcée in New York City. They were singing “You make a dead man cum!” with glee.

The last time the Stones played a show in Cleveland, Ohio was at the Gund Arena in 2002, when I was still a son and not yet imbued by the band’s hard-nosed blues-rock and sybaritic behavior. “Some boys can very easily become some girls” meant nothing to me then. The Stones were scheduled to play the North Coast in 2020, but COVID-19 spoiled our party. Catching a gig at Cleveland Browns Stadium is never at the top of my list. The last time anyone in my family did that (my mom went to a Kenny Chesney show there sometime in the late-aughts), it was a catastrophe (there was a pipe break and all bathrooms were closed for the entire show). Being the Factory of Sadness that it is—the home to one of the most unsuccessful football franchises of the last 25 years—I have long been convinced that it’s a cursed venue (though the Browns are 4-1 when I am in the building).

And perhaps it still is, what with the catheter wrappers on the ground in a stall, the section entrances backed up 30, 40 people deep and the wafts of ungodliness crowding the aisles. I imagine the smell of sweat and beer at a concert at Browns Stadium is not unlike that of a football game on any given Sunday, except the former has a soundtrack to make it feel even more like you’re trapped in an elevator so pungent you might not make it to the encore. Still, I’ve never been much attracted to any type of setup that causes the performer to look hilariously small. Mick Jagger is 5’10”—or he once was, 40 years ago—and the skyscraping, 70-foot jumbotrons are quite a potent catalyst for shrinkage. But it’s the Rolling Stones, three men born in a crossfire hurricane and now in Cleveland, Ohio for a few days. For Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, we all should’ve run 20 red lights in their honor.

Before the concert, while we waited in traffic, my mom and I discussed my non-binaryness. She asked me what I would be called if I ever had a kid. “I can’t even have children,” I told her. “Yeah, but if you adopted or did IVF,” she responded. “I don’t think I would want to be called anything,” I said. “Plus, I don’t even want to be here half the time, how could I parent someone who might feel the same?” Life just began for me. The thought of creating it for someone else is terrifying. We quipped about what age demographic would dominate the crowd, before settling on there being a healthy mix of Gen-Xers and Boomers. I joked that the band’s inclusion of Lady Gaga on Hackney Diamonds might cater to my fellow Zoomers and, indeed, quite a number of younger folks and their elders packed every corner of Browns Stadium.

Two rows behind us, a boy with a VIP sticker on his shirt and a pair of Stones lips painted on his cheek jumped up and down when Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” played over the speakers. A litany of women pushing 75 cheered for “Start Me Up,” sat down while Keith sang and pointed their phone cameras at Mick while he inched down the stage’s catwalk not more than 10 feet from our seats. Men in polo shirts kept their devil horns tucked away and, instead, held their $12 beers in the air. Drunk women in cowboy boots hit vape pens in a wristband only cubby behind the pit, while Mick dulled his razor and waxed poetic onstage about voting in the election in November because, for some of the people in the crowd, it “might be their last.”

The Stones ripped through 19 songs in Cleveland, only one of which was from Some Girls. When you have a discography as extensive as theirs, some albums are bound to get left behind (Sticky Fingers, one of the greatest rock records ever made, was absent from the setlist). “Beast of Burden” being left out didn’t bother me much; it’s probably better that the mystique of that track exists only in perfection in my mind. The band played the classics you pay money to hear at least once in your lifetime, and they played some new joints from Hackney Diamonds (though my personal favorite, “Mess It Up,” wasn’t included) that many folks in my section used as an opportunity to check their notifications. When Mick walked out in a bright, lime green jacket, I texted my friend (who was also at the show) that he was “in his BRAT era.” He later picked up an acoustic guitar to play “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and it sounded timeless and energized even without the London Bach Choir, the arsenic in Mick’s voice when he sings “I saw her today at the reception, in her glass was a bleeding man” still as pronounced as ever.

In 2024, you’re not going to get a sequence of “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Memory Motel,” “Shine a Light” and “Waiting On a Friend” in a random American city. The setlist is formulaic and allergic to risk, built to cater to the Stones’ strengths as a unit in 2024 and nothing more—which means packing the night with songs that Mick can groove out to while Ronnie shoulders some of the weight of Keith’s guitar parts (simple picking saw him look almost catatonic onstage, making his sporadic bursts of solos feel all the more fleeting and marvelous), until Keith comes out and does a great medley of “Tell Me Straight,” “Little T&A” and “Happy” (maybe one day he’ll break out “You Got the Silver,” for old time’s sake). You watch Mick do what he’s done ever since his fans began growing old alongside him: stick the microphone in the crotch of his pants and throw hand gestures at a rather lifeless, flat-footed crowd. “Maybe that’s too much,” you think to yourself when Mick gyrates his hips briefly, until you remember that him doing “too much” at all is still a gift to behold.

The Stones keep their shows interesting by having a “fan-vote” song every night, which has often been “Sweet Virginia” or “Wild Horses” on this tour, though “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” won out over “Emotional Rescue” in Cleveland. The one-two punch of it and “Monkey Man” was unsurprisingly perfect (my mom had hoped “She’s a Rainbow” would win the fan-vote, but I was more than thrilled to hear a rendition of the undisputed champ of Goats Head Soup), as was “Tumbling Dice” and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” back-to-back, though they’ve firmly abandoned any remnants of the latter’s euphoric choral intro (that reminds me—Doris Troy deserves more flowers). The last four tracks of the night (“Gimme Shelter,” “Paint It Black,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Satisfaction”) are as bulletproof a finale as any rock fan could ask for, preceded by a near-10-minute rendition of “Miss You” that feels like it never ends (not that anyone wanted it to). The crowd all yelled “Who killed the Kennedys?” in unison; sang the “You get what you need!” refrain when Mick pointed his microphone at us. “I bet I’m the only one with a lips tattoo in this building,” I said to my mom, pointing at the cartoon of Mick’s mouth and the words “SOME GIRL” written beneath it.

Recently, R.E.M. admitted in an interview with CBS that they don’t plan to reunite because the music and the performances “would never be as good.” It got me thinking about the artists who came long before R.E.M., like Bob Dylan and the Stones, who continue to tour well into their 80s. The question of “When is a good time to hang it up?” lingers. If we’re comparing the Stones now to the Stones who packed 50,000 people into the Rubber Bowl in Akron and had Stevie Wonder open for them in 1972, you’re not going to like the conclusions you’ll inevitably draw. Mick and Keith and Ronnie are showing their age, because it’s impossible for any octogenarian to not, but I think I’m far too romantic about the whole thing—and selfishly so. I had to see the Rolling Stones play at Cleveland Browns Stadium last Saturday, even if they left the North Coast without playing “Beast of Burden” or “Hot Stuff” or “Moonlight Mile” or “Tops” or “Soul Survivor” or, or, or, or. The 21-year-old version of myself, who came out of the closet after hearing rock ‘n’ roll get its teeth on Sticky Fingers, deserved that closure at least once. The 25-year-old version of myself who came out of the closet after their gender dysphoria became far too maddening to endure any longer deserved it, too.

Maybe the Rolling Stones have only a few tours left in them before they hang up their scarves and sequined jackets. But on those tours, there might still be thousands of me’s waiting to see their still-new gender euphoria personified onstage by beautiful boys who lived long enough to become beautiful men and make such transformative healing accessible on a 70-foot jumbotron—a tableau you can see from the nosebleeds and hear in the next town over. I don’t really care about how the Stones sounded last weekend. They’re 80 years old and still kicking up a fuss onstage, a gesture of joy in its own right, even through imperfections. Sure, the songs aren’t as bulletproof or as rowdy now as they once were, existing in the 21st century as far more choreographed and corporate than when they were charting hits embodying the planet’s restless desires and red-hot urges. But when a doctor tells you you’re intersex, you suddenly see the world a bit more harshly. The clocks speed up, you age quicker. Sometimes HRT fixes that fatalism. Sometimes it makes all of it worse. Sometimes you see three bandmates put their arms around each other and you well with emotion, even if it’s the kind of spectacular that’ll get repurposed five days later in Denver. You were there. You can say tell everyone you lived to see it.

When I got home after the show, my dad—whom I’ve never come out to and never will—said that the “Eagles still run circles around” the Rolling Stones live. But hearing Mick Jagger stand on stage and sing “I wanna tear that world apart”—with a bravado that is maybe not as hungry now as it once was, but remains punctured by the same kiss-off attitude that’s been lit from within him for six decades—is holistic, perhaps even rehabilitating. You can’t see his ribcage anymore when he dances, but you can still feel that genderless chaos stirring in each motion. For a long time, I found it unbelievable that I was even living at the same time as the Stones, let alone standing in the same space as them. Then, they saved me just as much as the HRT did. I’ve come around, slowly, to my prescribed life. Maybe you’re on your way, too. Some Girls found me five years ago, giving me the vocabulary to put agency back into my own identity for the first time in my life. Because, in the company of the Rolling Stones, there is still time for us. “You’re here,” a voice beckons. “Begin again.”

Matt Mitchell is Paste’s music editor, reporting from their home in Northeast Ohio.

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