How the band endured drugs, booze, tragedy and each other to bring back the greatest show on earth Perhaps these men, the Rolling Stones, should not be here, at this time in their lives, doing this – doing it so well and so scarily. It is a Friday afternoon, late April, in a rehearsal space
How the band endured drugs, booze, tragedy and each other to bring back the greatest show on earth
Perhaps these men, the Rolling Stones, should not be here, at this time in their lives, doing this – doing it so well and so scarily. It is a Friday afternoon, late April, in a rehearsal space the size of a large garage, on the outskirts of Burbank, California. Keith Richards, the band’s rhythm guitarist, stands just a few feet in front of white-haired drummer Charlie Watts, who is following intently as Richards plays the intricate and foreboding opening pattern of “Gimme Shelter” with the delicacy of a man edging through hell. When Richards begins the pattern again, Watts joins on drums, just a shadow behind the guitar’s beat, and lead singer Mick Jagger moans a high-pitched spooky howl, sounding like the ghost of a future you never want to see arrive yet can’t wait for. Then the whole band – Richards, Watts, guitarist Ronnie Wood, bassist Darryl Jones, backup singer Bernard Fowler and keyboardist Chuck Leavell (who is playing with one hand, as his other tries to staunch a steady nosebleed) – bears down on the song with a menacing roar. Jagger paces back and forth in front of the others, in cat-feet movements, making eye contact with nobody, looking at some space beyond the room’s walls – that the band sounds capable of battering through – as he sings his mortal plea: “Oh, a storm is threatening/My very life today/If I don’t get some shelter/Oh, yeah, I’m gonna fade away.” This song is Jagger and Richards’ best collaboration in dread – a vision of ruination and a benediction of mercy. In this room, on this afternoon, it also works as a reminder that, in the moments of creating something so frightening and liberating, these men cannot afford to escape their fellowship. In this space, they have to work together and help one another. “The individual components of the band,” says producer Don Was, “merge into this one thing that is the Rolling Stones, and when it merges, man, it’s really powerful. When you stop hearing the parts and you see the forest from the trees, it’s a huge, powerful entity.”
The occasion is a rehearsal for the Stones’ first major tour in six years, following a handful of concerts in Paris, London, Brooklyn and Newark, New Jersey, in the fall of 2012, commemorating the band’s 50th anniversary as a performing unit. Last year’s shows and the present tour both amount to an extraordinary milestone, for various reasons. Few musical units of any sort survive, much less prosper, with its core membership (Jagger, Richards and Watts) intact. As Watts pointed out to me, the only other major band of the past century to enjoy such longevity was Duke Ellington’s, which the jazz pianist led from 1924 to 1974 – 50 years – though there was no lasting core membership during those decades.
The math in all this means that the musicians in the room are in their fifties to seventies and are playing a volatile sort of music that’s commonly regarded as the province of the young and defiant. In the early and mid-1960s, the Rolling Stones represented attitudes, looks, desires and resentments – and in turn were reviled, condemned, targeted for legal persecution and even, at times, banned. (“Not usually the ingredients for longevity,” Richards says.) Though the Stones have aged, and though much has changed in the past 50 years, they remain the most definitional band that rock & roll has produced. They continue to play music with tenacity and a sense of risk, as if it’s still possible to upset the world around them with sound and rhythm. They have made that collective determination into an ongoing defiance, despite the dismay of some critics and even peers. “You know, they’re congratulating the Stones on being together 112 years,” John Lennon said in 1980, not long before his death. “Whoopee!” Yet here the Rolling Stones are, in 2013, playing with an uncanny unity as they embark on what will possibly be their most anticipated series of musical performances since the epochal treks of America in 1969 and 1972.
They will, of course, be well rewarded for their efforts. Ticket prices for these appearances range from around $150 to more than $2,000. In April, Kid Rock told Rolling Stone, “We’re all over-paid. It’s ridiculous. People stopped going to concerts because they can’t afford them! The Rolling Stones are charging $600. That just makes me speechless. I love the Stones, but I won’t be attending.”
At one point, I ask Jagger if he worries that there’s an incongruity between the band’s lucrative success and its early renegade image. “Well, I don’t know,” he says. “I don’t really want to go . . . that’s like an endless, sort of commerce versus art, rebelliousness and, um. . . .” Richards doesn’t dismiss the subject out of hand, but it also doesn’t seem to nag at him very much, either. “From my point of view,” he says, “it’s like this: We say we want to put a Stones tour together and people come to us with proposals. And these proposals are all basically the same. We actually did push down the prices a little bit. We took the lower offer, in other words. But, um, it’s the price of the market. I don’t really know. I don’t have much to do with it other than I would like people to get in, to be able to afford to get in, without sort of starving their babies and all. And that’s about it.”
Despite the tour’s commercial prospects, Jagger – who approves every detail on any tour – had doubts about this venture as recently as early 2012. “Basically,” he told Rolling Stone, “we’re just not ready.” When we talk in L.A., shortly before the tour is about to open, Jagger says, “Well, I said that because we were being offered so many things, the Olympics and stuff, and it was a really good way. . . .” He pauses, then doubles back. “It was true, they weren’t in shape to do it. That was a good excuse for me to turn down all these things.” But the problem wasn’t just preparedness.
The band is notorious for occasional discord and intrigue, stretching back to the group’s early years, when guitarist Brian Jones floundered in his attempt to take the band’s leadership as Jagger and Richards emerged as the Rolling Stones’ creative force. In later years, it became evident that Jagger and Richards no longer always saw eye to eye about the band’s purposes, and Richards’ legendary keenness for heroin and alcohol threatened to rout the band’s chances.
In 2010, Jagger and Richards’ relationship was strained to the brink when Richards published his acclaimed autobiography, Life. He said some brutal things about his friendship with Jagger, and about the singer’s personality, in Life‘s pages, and Jagger was hurt and angered. Richards, anticipating the arrival of the Stones’ 50th anniversary, later contacted the band’s members and said, “Hey, boys, I’m getting itchy. Anybody feel like it?” But Jagger wasn’t willing to shrug off Life‘s insults so easily.
The only prior times I’ve talked with Jagger and Richrds were in the late 1980s. This was more or less during the troubled halfway point in the band’s history, in between 1986’s truculent Dirty Work and 1989’s Steel Wheels. It was the period that Richards has described as “World War III” – a stretch when the band’s future was in question. When I met Richards in Manhattan in February 1986 to talk about Dirty Work, there were already reports that Jagger had decided the band would not support the album with a tour. Richards showed up at his publicist’s office with a half-gallon of Jack Daniel’s and drank tall glasses from it, one after another. (He didn’t seem any worse for the wear nearly two hours later.) He was trying to put the best face on matters and voiced praise for Jagger’s rendition of Bob and Earl’s 1963 R&B classic “Harlem Shuffle,” which was the current single. The guitarist also said that it was his hope to see how far the Rolling Stones could take their music, to see if they could age gracefully as a rock & roll fraternity. No other band had yet done it. It was as if he was uttering a prayer for the future.
Jagger wasn’t so sure. When I met him in London in the summer of 1987, he had already released his first solo album, She’s the Boss (1985), and was about to release another, Primitive Cool. By this time, the possibility of Jagger casting aside the Rolling Stones, or trying to exceed the band’s prominence with a solo career (as Michael Jackson had done, after leaving the Jacksons), openly infuriated Richards. There was also talk that Jagger was about to tour without the Rolling Stones, which Richards took as an insufferable affront, since he’d been hoping to put the band back on the road before much longer. “I really believed Mick wouldn’t dare tour without the Stones,” Richards later said. “It was too hard a slap in the face to deliver us. It was a death sentence.” (Jagger did tour briefly in Japan and Australia in the late 1980s, but not in the U.S. or U.K.)
Over lunch at an Indian restaurant, I asked Jagger if he was willing to elaborate on what was happening with the Rolling Stones. “No, not really,” he said. “It only goes to fuel more troubles, and Keith gets real upset every time I say anything that’s even nice or understanding.” Then he went on to elaborate on what was happening with the Rolling Stones: “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the Rolling Stones, and this is one of them. I, for one, hope we will regroup. Having said that, I think that one ought to be allowed to have one’s artistic side apart from just being in the Rolling Stones. I love the Rolling Stones – I think it’s wonderful, I think it’s done a lot of wonderful things for music. But, you know, it cannot be, at my age and after spending all these years, the only thing in my life. . . . And if I want to step outside of it, in any way I want, I feel I have the right to do so.”
The Rolling Stones, of course, did regroup, in 1989, to record Steel Wheels, and to mount a spectacularly successful worldwide tour – the first of several. Something about them, however, seemed necessarily changed – in ways both good and bad. Beneath the towering stage sets and the breathtaking light arrays, the Stones remained first and foremost a band, a live band and a living band, examining hard truths of pleasure and dread in much the same way that their blues idols, such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, had done until death. The band also made new albums – Steel Wheels (1989), Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997) and A Bigger Bang (2005) – in which Jagger asserted an ambitious sonic palette and Richards recast his vision of blues into something even more anguished and lonely sounding. But Jagger and Richards never resumed a true partnership. The two bandmates, who had faced down the wrath of British authorities who viewed them as social threats, who went to trial and faced prison together in 1967, and who faced disillusion and risked danger at the notorious 1969 Altamont free concert – now these men no longer appeared to share an essential fraternity after all. Over time, Jagger seemed to win the big argument: His scrupulous professionalism gained a control that Richards – between his bouts with drugs and drinking, and his world-weary cool – couldn’t hold on to. More often than not, now, both men lived in different towns, even different countries, and might not speak for months unless the discussion entailed necessary business. They seemed to regard each other with mutual incomprehension. Said Richards of life on the road with Jagger, “I haven’t gone to his dressing room in, I don’t think, 20 years. Sometimes I miss my friend.”
It turned out, though, that Richards had been keeping notes over the years – rather literally at times – in notebooks and in a diary. Following the 2007 tour, Richards and his co-author, James Fox, began to combine those recollections with numerous other interviews to construct Richards’ Life. Richards recounted every triumph and challenge, every loss and heartbreak, as well as breakthroughs in the formations of his guitar style. (“To me, the surprising thing about the book,” he says, “was the number of people that came up to me interested in the esoteric guitar tunings. I didn’t know that there were so many in the closet.”) In some passages, though, perhaps Richards said too much (he described Jagger’s 2001 album, Goddess in the Doorway, as “irresistible not to rechristen Dogshit in the Doorway“). Richards portrayed Jagger as a man who had changed too much – from beguiling and attentive to cold, ambitious and controlling – to be known or even liked. “It was the beginning of the Eighties,” Richards wrote, “when Mick started to become unbearable. That’s when he became Brenda, or Her Majesty. . . . We’d be talking about ‘that bitch Brenda’ with him in the room, and he wouldn’t know.” Richards also wrote, “Mick doesn’t like to trust anybody. . . . And maybe that’s the major difference between us. I can’t really think of any other way to put it. I think it’s something to do with just being Mick Jagger and the way he’s had to deal with being Mick Jagger. He can’t stop being Mick Jagger all the time.”
Some of Richards’ comments could hardly have come as a surprise – both men had taken jabs at each other in the press over the years, only to overcome and smooth over the resulting agitation. This time, however, proved different. Richards had always claimed to put the band’s cohesion and imperishability foremost, but Life imperiled that by portraying the band’s most famous figure as having turned hollow and self-absorbed. The risk, as a result, wasn’t merely another strain between Richards and Jagger, but was also a threat to the band’s very survival.
When Jagger took the stage at the 2011 Grammys and, in a tribute to late R&B singer Solomon Burke, stole the evening with a remarkably soulful and quick-witted performance that had a dumbstruck audience on its feet, he may as well have been sending a signal to Richards. Jagger could still do something this startling without either Richards or the Rolling Stones. Could Richards do as much? It had been Jagger, after all, who at times took care of Richards, nursing him through health problems and tolerating the hazards caused by the guitarist’s drug habits. “Mick was the one person who never stopped believing in Keith,” Richards’ manager, Jane Rose, told author Victor Bockris. Jagger had held the Rolling Stones’ organization together and negotiated their business deals. Through it all, Jagger found himself strapped to Richards, the folkloric hero, for life, though Richards portrayed his partner as a man obsessed with self and success.
This time, before there could be any serious preparations for a 50th anniversary tour – something Richards wanted to see happen – Jagger made it plain that there would have to be some sort of reckoning. The details of whatever transpired between the two men remain private, but as Wood commented, things were “tense and awkward.” There was even a rumor that Richards’ position as the Rolling Stones’ rhythm guitarist might be in peril. Some thought he was having trouble playing – that perhaps his hands were growing afflicted with arthritis or that his steady intake of alcohol affected his musical agility. Following a critical review of his performance at a 2007 Rolling Stones concert in Gothenburg, Sweden, in which it was suggested that the guitarist was “super-drunk,” Richards demanded an apology from the reviewer, Markus Larrson, who replied that he wasn’t going to apologise to “a rock star who can hardly handle the riff to ‘Brown Sugar’ anymore.” According to a source close to the band, when the Rolling Stones convened in London in December 2011, it wasn’t merely for rehearsals but, as far as Jagger was concerned, to see if Richards could still get the job done.