Artist of the Year: The Rolling Stones

After resolving their difficulties, Mick, Keith and the gang recorded 'Steel Wheels' and hit the road to prove the Stones are still one of rock's greatest bands

March 8, 1990
Artist of the Year: The Rolling Stones

As they relax backstage at the Pontiac Silverdome, outside Detroit, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards burst into giddy laughter at the very idea that the North American leg of the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour — sixty shows in three and a half months — is within two weeks of closing. The prospect of life at home for the Christmas holidays seems welcome — and strange — after the rigorously structured life of the road.

"It's got that end-of-term feeling," Jagger says.

"We were just talking about that," Richards says. "Having to go to the kitchen from the bedroom without a police escort."

"Should I really go to the restaurant without my bodyguard?" Jagger asks, with feigned superciliousness. "It's so stupid. My old lady says, 'You're going to be impossible for the first week and for the holiday. I know you are. I'm going to be as patient as . . . ' " He catches himself careening into the genre of domestic comedy and brings himself up short, with a smile. "No, I'm sorry," he says, ready to resume the interview. "Carry on."

Jagger is draped along a comfortable gray chair, his back against one arm of the chair, his legs, crossed at the ankles, dangling over the other. Wearing black trousers and a green sweater and shirt, his hair cut short, he looks like a mischievous English schoolboy surprised by middle age. Richards, in a black leather jacket over a white T-shirt, sits opposite him a few feet away in the small room, smoking, nursing a drink.

If they aren't the inseparable Glimmer Twins of old, Jagger and Richards are easy and familiar around each other. The differences that have developed between them over the years are obvious and, neither man being a fool, they are both aware of them. Their bond at this point seems to rest more on mutual respect than affection; they are partners, no longer soul mates.

But their partnership, which had looked to be on the point of a permanent severing, has instead proven to be the driving force behind one of the most successful years in the Stones' tumultuous history. Steel Wheels won positive reviews and achieved double-platinum sales; The Rolling Stones Singles Collection: The London Years, assembled by the band's former manager Allen Klein, was a mainstay on the charts, and the Steel Wheels tour, marred, though it was, by a shameless marketing campaign, was an unparalleled musical and commercial triumph. Both the critics and the readers of Rolling Stone voted the Stones Artist of the Year; both groups also cited the Stones for the year's Best Tour, and the readers named the Stones Best Band. All the honors are well deserved.

Jagger and Richards say that writing and recording the album Steel Wheels was the crucial first step in making 1989 such a stellar year. "We had to prove to ourselves — as well as proving to other people — that we wanted to do new songs," Jagger says. "People will like them or not, depending on their own personal tastes. . . . People said, 'Oh, they only did three numbers from the new album.' Bullshit. In reality, you don't want to do a hell of a lot more than that at the beginning. You know they like 'Start Me Up' and 'Angie,' but how are they going to like 'Mixed Emotions'? That's the thing that you want to know. In the beginning, they don't."

"That little bit of fright on a new number, breaking it in the first night, you're really going out there on the tightrope," Richards says. "It saves the show from becoming stale to the band. If you've got one or two things that keep everybody on their toes, playing new stuff, then they'll play the old stuff with a fresher aspect as well. It winds them up just that little bit extra, that little bit of chance."

Along with the challenge of making an album and presenting some new songs onstage, the Stones were determined to perform material from every phase of their career. That meant going so far as to include a touchstone from the band's largely discredited psychedelic period: "2000 Light Years From Home," from the 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request.

"I knew that one was going to come up," Richards says, when asked about the song.

"We made that album, for better or worse," Jagger says about Satanic Majesties. "I didn't know if '2000 Light Years' would work, but I wanted to give it a shot, just so that period was in there, and we didn't, as we'd done before, gloss over it" — he begins laughing — "because it was an embarrassing moment we rather wanted to forget. Maybe it was, but, fuck it. People actually do like it."

"Trying to remember making it was the hard part," Richards says, laughing.

Partly because they tend always to perceive the Stones as embattled — a holdover from the long period in which that was the case — Jagger and Richards are almost humorously disinclined to give outsiders the benefit of the doubt. Media coverage of the tour was "overly reverential," Jagger says, while Richards quickly adds, "And the criticism we did get wasn't really valid. It was obviously some guy, like, the only way he could get the review in was by panning us." Asked if, given the enormous scale of the venues the band chose to play, he and Jagger attended many stadium shows themselves, Richards says, "I've done, once or twice. I'll go and see some band, if somebody says, "Oh, they'd like to see you,' or if I'd like to see them. I just hope they don't do a four-hour show."

Jagger agrees. "I don't have that long an attention span," he says. "I've seen Bruce Springsteen's show in two parts."

Richards breaks up, saying, "Come back tomorrow for the other half."

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