Jagger admits that the burden of proof will be on the Stones to show that they can still earn respect and inspire awe onstage, not just command the big money. "It won't do to say, 'Oh, well, I'm forty-six years old. I'm tired. I'm going to stand here and sing "Satisfaction" as best I can, it's a bit off tune. You have to take into account my declining years' – they don't fucking want that," he says with an acidic laugh. "They're going to want kick-ass rock & roll."
They're getting a quality Stones album, Steel Wheels, to boot. In this, the year of forty-something rock, when middle-aged acts are returning to the road like a plague of iron-poor locusts, the Stones are eager to demonstrate that they are anything but old and in the way. The Who hit the stadium trail this summer looking over its shoulder, obsessed with its legacy and an irresistible payday. The Stones are looking straight ahead, well paid to be sure but obsessed with building on their legacy and showing, in Richards's words, "that we can still make a better record than we've ever made. Whether you do or not doesn't really matter. It's just going for it and thinking the possibility is there and not just trying to make time. Or, God forbid, go backwards."
It was, in Jagger's words, "hardly a psychiatrist's convention down there."
Last January, he and Richards set up camp at Eddy Grant's studio in Barbados to test their writing mettle and the limit of their patience with each other. Before leaving New York, Richards told his wife, Patti, he'd be back in either two weeks or two days. " 'Cause I'd know in forty-eight hours whether this thing was going to work or not," Richards says, "or if we were going to just start cattin' and doggin'." In fact, except for a short break to attend the Stones' induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in New York, Jagger and Richards were still at it – writing, that is – well into February.
"I just ignored all that crap," Jagger says brusquely of the feuding. "I didn't see any point in rehashing it. I thought we should just get on with it. You know, English people are like that. They carry on, stiff upper lip."
To Richards, there wasn't all that much to apologize for or agonize over anyway. "I never thought I was slagging Mick off," he says. "I could never do that to a friend. But I don't mind telling a few home truths. And anyway, there's nothing new in those phrases. I'd been saying them with far more venom in the early Eighties than I did last year." Richards laughs. "I was merely repeating myself.
"It all sounds very boring," says Richards of the Barbados summit, "sitting around with a couple of chairs and a tape recorder and a couple of guitars. Mick had a keyboard with him, and we flung out a few ideas.
"There were a couple that I'd started working on during my own album," Richards says. "They were embryonic at the time, and since I didn't use them, I said to him, 'Well, I think there's something here you might like.' It was a slight recall on 'Beast of Burden,' and I know Mick likes singing that sort of thing. It suits him better than it does me. So we just started in. And within two days, we realized we had five or six songs happening."
With almost stoical efficiency, Jagger and Richards rediscovered the best parts of being a team. It was not as if the past two years had never happened, only that they managed to renegotiate the intuitive, creative balance that was such a crucial factor in the band's late-Sixties-early-Seventies grand slam – Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street. Jagger claims that the Barbados writing sessions yielded not only the twelve new tunes on Steel Wheels but another forty or so songs, rifs and lyric ideas that ended up on the cutting-room floor.
"We didn't bother with anything else," Richards says. "I did have to take Mick to a few discos – which are not my favorite places in the world – because Mick likes to go out and dance at night. So I did that. That was my sacrifice. I humored him. And that's when I knew we could work together."
The next step was convincing the other Stones. Wyman, Watts and Wood had not enjoyed being caught in the Mick and Keith cross-fire during the Dirty Work sessions. And they hadn't exactly been sitting around watching paint dry in the interim. Wyman had opened a restaurant in London called Sticky Fingers, a Hard Rock Cafe-style beanery decorated with Stones memorabilia from his personal collection. Watts, who has a large home in the English countryside to tend to, indulged his love of big-band jazz by forming the Charlie Watts Orchestra, a mammoth, swinging ensemble that released a live album in 1986 and performed in the United States to good critical response. Wood had toured and recorded with Bo Diddley and, for a time, operated his own club in Florida.
Wood insists he never doubted that a Stones reunion was somewhere in the cards. "I never lost any sleep over it," he says, "because I know how these guys work. They operate on a whim, a feel. 'Yeah, it's time to go to work."'
He admits that Wyman and Watts weren't quite as confident. "They wanted to make sure that Mick and Keith themselves were serious about it," Wood says, "not just going through the motions. But with Charlie and Bill, once they were convinced, it made all the difference. Because it wasn't going to work if they weren't behind it."
"They might have come anyway," Richards says, "but they would have come reluctantly, if the feeling was that me and Mick were just barely getting on. Just doing it for the bread."
As it turned out, Watts made Richards work hard for the money. At AIR Studio, in Montserrat, where the band cut the basic tracks for Steel Wheels, the Stones would play for up to fifteen hours at a stretch. "I'd get up the next morning and I'd feel like I'd just done fifteen rounds with Mike Tyson," says Richards. "Get out of bed and my knees would buckle. I'd be lying there on the floor, and Mick would go, 'What's the matter with you?' 'It's Charlie, man, I know it.' Charlie was not going to let me off the hook. I think he was a little pissed, too, that I'd gone off and played with Steve Jordan. Like he was telling me, 'I'll show you how it's done."'
Indeed, the Stones tackled their recording chores with the energy and concentration of an outfit half their age. It took only five weeks for them to record the basic tracks, and that included three outtakes that were left in the can (among them a cover of Jerry Butler's "For Your Precious Love"). Remember, this is a band that used to routinely take from twelve to eighteen months to crank out an album.
In the midst of the sessions, word of Bill Wyman's impending nuptials with Mandy Smith was leaked to the press, much to the chagrin of the other Stones. "I'm afraid people are going to start thinking we forced him to get married for the publicity," Richards says jokingly. "But we never got down to forcing members of the band to get married. Divorced" – he winks – "yeah." Eager to keep the Montserrat sessions safe from nosy pen pushers, the other Stones swiftly dispatched Wyman off to nearby Antigua to hold a press conference. In his brief absence, the Stones cut no less than four tracks, with Ron Wood playing bass.
"Things were happening so fast," says Wood. "And there was really nothing else to do. Two hotels, two restaurants. So we did a year and a half's work in five weeks."
Ian Stewart would have been pleased. The Stones' founding pianist, loyal roadie and resident voice of musical reason, Stu died of a heart attack in late 1985, just as the band was putting the troublesome Dirty Work to bed. "He'd encouraged me to carry on," says Richards, "get the record finished. He wasn't too happy with it either. Making Stones records had always been a breeze, a laugh. It had never been a hassle. But he was still there every night, never giving up." His passing was, says Richards, "the final nail in the coffin. We all felt the glue had come undone."
Yet Richards still feels Stu's "correcting influence." Says Richards, "I talk to Stu as much now, since he died, as I did, maybe even more, than when he was alive. I put a song together, put it down and say, 'How's that, all right?' You can almost hear the answer. 'Chinese chords, bloody shit.' Or 'Hmmm, not bad.'"
And what does Stu make of Steel Wheels?
"Well, when I spoke to him yesterday," Richards says with a smile, lifting his eyes heavenward, "he was very happy to see everybody playing together again, and everybody playing together so well."
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