"We have been supremely blessed,” says Keith Richards before the Rolling Stones hit the stage at San Francisco's Pacific Bell Park. In their fortieth year as a band, Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and eternal new boy Ron Wood have issued a million-selling anthology, Forty Licks, and won rave reviews for their current tour of arenas, theaters and stadiums, a world trek that in 2003 will include the Stones' first dates in China. “We've been well served by weather, too,” Richards says of the stadium gigs, except tonight in San Francisco, where it's raining. “I've got to do something about this guy God joining the band again.”
What have you discovered about yourselves, as a live band, in the theater shows this year?
Jagger: I become more intense as a singer than as a performer, where the accent is more on gestures. And there are songs I can't do in bigger places. “Stray Cat Blues” is not a number I'm particularly mad about, but it worked really well at the Wiltern Theatre in L.A. And you get an intensity from a soul tune like “That's How Strong My Love Is” that you can't get in a stadium.
Mick, on the B stage in the big shows, you lose a lot of running room. How do you keep from tripping over Keith or Ron?
Jagger: I keep my hands in front of me. If I bang into them, it's just my hands.
Richards: He's never fallen in his life. I've fallen over. Everybody else has fallen over, except Mick. You always watch your feet. But if he ever fell over, I'd pick him up. I'm a nice guy [laughs].
Are you disappointed that the four new songs on Forty Licks don't get as much airplay as the thirty-six hits? Radio programmers have locked the Stones into a particular era: classic rock.
Jagger: I would like all of the songs to get lots more attention [laughs]. But radio in America is so stratified. There was an interesting article in Billboard where one of the Neptunes was talking about how, in his car, he listens to a mixture of stuff, whereas commercial radio never reflects how eclectic people's tastes really are. I play college radio in different cities, to get the feel of the town — and because I don't like a lot of ads.
Richards: Slowly, those new songs will become part of the whole pattern of the band. At the moment, four new ones in the middle of all these old ones seems kind of radical. But play the record in a few years, and it will just be part of the fabric.
What are you listening to — other than Stones songs onstage?
Jagger: The new Beck album — and the Coldplay album. They're both introspective. I like the way the Beck record is all one mood. I like that, where the mood is sustained through a whole record.
Richards: I thought the Strokes were interesting when they opened for us. I like the fact that there are five guys with guitars up there, not with synthesizers swinging through the air on armchairs. And I really liked the White Stripes. They really brassed it out. Charlie and I were watching the chick drummer: “She's pretty good, man.”
Have there been any lows this year? During tour rehearsals, you lost longtime crew member Chuch Magee to a heart attack.
Richards: That's the only low — turning around after a number and not seeing him. Then you start to imagine he's there. So we've kept him alive — we blame him for everything that goes wrong.
This story is from the December 12th, 2002 issue of Rolling Stone.