Ron Wood: Rolling Stones Are Born, Not Made

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When Wood emerged from his meeting with the accountants, we decided to meet again later that night at Atlantic Studios, where the mix sessions were in progress. They'd be there after midnight, he said. I figured that meant 1:30, but when I arrived at two Keith and Ronnie still weren't there. Dave Jordan, the young engineer who's worked with the group since Keith Harwood's death, was already at work, listening to playbacks of the "If You Can't Rock Me"/"Get Off of My Cloud" medley at maximum volume. Over and over again, fragment by fragment, the songs pounded through the walls. "It's 3 a.m., there's too much noise, don't you people ever want to go to bed?"

At three, Keith and Ron burst in with a small entourage: a bodyguard, a couple of waitresses from Trax, some unidentifiable others. Keith's wife, Anita Pallenberg, who'd gone to the Garden to see Led Zeppelin, came in a few moments later; she was hysterical about the concert, laughing madly as she described it. Keith and Ron said hello to one and all, had a word with Jordan in the control room, and headed for the studio.

The Rolling Stones Live, 1964-2007

There was equipment already set up – it belonged to Bruce Springsteen's band whose crew was not entirely ecstatic about having it tinkered with. Keith and Ron had guitars, of course, and Richard simply sat down on a small Fender amp, tapped his foot and picked out chords, a cigarette dangling from his mouth. Woody bounced about, crashed a few beats on the drums, played a bit of choppy reggae piano against Keith's choppy guitar lines. When Ron shifted to guitar, the serious jamming began. A few chords, some desultory conversation, some rearrangement, a little more playing. Not songs, but sketches, ideas for riffs that might become songs. They'd run through a song like "Don't Lie to Me," first in the Chuck Berry version (as in the outtake included on the Metamorphosis album), later with a bit of a Caribbean accent, finally attempting to figure out Clifton Chenier's Zydeco interpretation.

It could have been a galvanizing scene, and from instant to instant, it was. But more than anything it was numbing, at least as observed by a nonmusician. The jamming went on and on for hours. As I would discover it went like that night after night. It is one of the reasons the Rolling Stones take so long to make albums. For Richard and Wood, at least, playing together is sufficient unto itself. (Though Ronnie would later explain that part of what they were doing was testing ideas for songs for the group's next studio LP.) It would have been easy to call it a waste of time, but it depended on a state of mind: together, in a recording studio in the dead of night, playing guitars, Keith Richard and Ron Wood come as close as any humans to a state of pure being. Music isn't what they do. It's what they are.

Around 6:30, Jordan called into the studio. "I think I've got a mix." Richard and Wood straggled into the control room. Keith huddled over the board; with only one light in the room, he was a vision of the professional. Talking in undertones, moving this dial and that ever so slightly. Getting it right. Focusing on subtleties only he could hear. Once more, a playback. Then, back to the studio to jam some more. Things finally broke up at noon.

For the next few nights in the studio, not much changed. John Phillips showed up to talk with Keith about the album Jagger and Richard were producing with him. Stephen Stills showed up after a CSN date. It just added more to the jams. Still, the songs lacked that focused, direct drive one associates, before anything else, with the Stones' music. "I wish Charlie hadn't left," Keith said mournfully at one point.

Later, Woody explained: "Charlie never says anything. He just stands there with his arms folded, holding his cup of coffee. If you ask him what he thinks of something, he'll just say, 'I dunno.' But he listens. And When the time comes, he's right there. Having a drummer like that, who can play rock & roll and make it swing and so many other things – he plays reggae great, which not many non-Jamaicans can – that's all the difference."

Still, it wasn't musical excitement or its lack that seemed odd about the mix sessions. It was their interminableness, the way they dragged on without regard to the outside world. Spend the deep heart of the night in a studio a few times – enter around midnight, leave past midday – and you'll know why studios don't have windows. With Richard and Wood, it was stranger than usual because neither of them paid much attention to Jordan in the control room.

All of that changed when Mick Jagger arrived. He did his share of preliminary fooling around, but within a few minutes of his arrival, he was in the control room. Things began to move along. Mixing is an arduous process, so he wasn't exactly whipping through the songs, but he got through four or five, adjusting this level and tinkering with that element. At last, progress was perceptible.

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