The Rolling Stones: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards' Uneasy Truce

As the band hits the road to support its finest album in a decade, Mick and Keith work to maintain peace

Mick Jagger Keith Richards Rolling Stones
Photo by Albert Watson
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the cover of Rolling Stone
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This seems almost like old times. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are huddled together over the recording console at Olympic Studios, in London, digging the music blasting out of the speakers overhead and listening hard to make sure each riff, beat and syllable is honed to classic Rolling Stones perfection. The control room is alive with the sound of "Sad Sad Sad," one of twelve tracks on the new Stones album, Steel Wheels. It's a trademark Stones blitzkrieg in the tradition of "Bitch" and "All Down the Line," and both Jagger and Richards concur that the song is a smoker, until . . .

"It's great until it comes to the E-flat bit," Richards says in his subterranean growl between drags on a Marlboro. "My part should really lay out after that."

Jagger nods his head in agreement while the rest of his body bounces nervously in time to Charlie Watts's clockwork drumming. "Yeah, I don't think it really belongs there."

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Producer Chris Kimsey, a veteran of Stones sessions going back to the 1971 album Sticky Fingers, rewinds the track, and they listen to it again – Richards drawing contentedly on his cigarette, Jagger gyrating in place to the beat, until it comes to that annoying guitar part. They hunch over the board, shoulder to shoulder, and discuss whether to riff or not to riff when the song gets to E-flat.

It's the Mick and Keith Show, in full swing. This is the way they made Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street – joined at the hip and bonded by the thrill of writing and recording definitive, historic rock & roll. This is also the way they're making Steel Wheels, the first Rolling Stones album in three years and certainly the best Rolling Stones album in at least a decade. Written in Barbados, recorded in Montserrat and mixed at Olympic in a dizzying six months, Steel Wheels is the first Stones record since the 1978 album Some Girls to be made with the unity of purpose that characterized the band's consummate turn-of-the-Seventies work. For one track, "Continental Drift," the band went to Morocco and recorded with the Master Musicians of JouJouka, the legendary tribal group first introduced to Western pop fans by the late Rolling Stone, Brian Jones.

But there are some new tensions, not all creative, at work this time around. Jagger and Richards haven't been shoulder to shoulder, much less face to face, since the fractious sessions for Dirty Work nearly four years ago. They were too busy making solo albums (Jagger's She's the Boss and Primitive Cool, Richards's Talk Is Cheap), doing solo tours and roasting each other in interviews and song (Richards's needling "You Don't Move Me"). They argued about the legacy and the future of the Rolling Stones, about the business of the Stones and who controlled it, about Jagger's wisdom in trying to keep pace with the rap 'n' funk young bloods and whether Richards was just spinning his wheels in a refried Chuck Berry boogie rut.

To make Steel Wheels, Jagger and Richards have made a kind of peace. They've set aside, if not entirely settled, their differences. There are no visible traces of residual acrimony at Olympic, where the Stones have commandeered Studio 2, in the basement, in order to wrap up the album in time for a late-August release and the band's fall North American tour. With Ron Wood away in Ireland, sprightly Bill Wyman off honeymooning with his nineteen-year-old bride, Mandy Smith, and Charlie Watts popping in to tend to a drum part, Jagger and Richards are pretty much on their own, wrapped up in – and apparently enjoying – the work at hand. But for two guys who once dubbed themselves the Glimmer Twins, they couldn't be more dissimilar.

Mick Jagger literally bounces between extremes, a bundle of nervous energy packaged in an enviably taut physique and topped with a quick, incisive intellect. One minute, he is intently studying the recording console over Chris Kimsey's shoulder, making remarks and suggestions. The next, he's breaking out in snakehips fever, dancing around the room with that familiar reptilian grace. At the same time, he is expertly juggling phone calls from assorted Stones business associates – lawyer John Branca in Los Angeles or television producer Lorne Michaels in New York, who's working on a Stones documentary to be broadcast in tandem with the release of Steel Wheels. At one point, Jagger grooves across the room while checking figures on a portable calculator.

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Keith Richards, wearing his standard uniform of well-worn gray jeans, boots and a T-shirt with rolled-up sleeves, is no less involved but much quieter than his reputation as rock's archetypal party pirate would suggest. He wanders around the control room with a drink in one hand, a cigarette in the other and a deceptively sleepy look on his face. You can tell how hard he's really listening to a track by the way he grins when a song or riff strikes his fancy, or the way he winces when he hears something go awry, like that guitar bit in "Sad Sad Sad."

If opposites attract, then Mick Jagger and Keith Richards should be the ideal marriage. One is the organization man with a rock & roll heart; the other is the Stones' stubborn musical conscience, a purist who analyzes the feel until it's right, to his satisfaction. "Because we've been doing it for so long," Jagger says during a session break, "we don't really have to discuss it. When we come up with a lick or a riff or a chorus, we already know if it's right or if it's wrong."

But then there's the eerie resonance of "Mixed Emotions," the first single from Steel Wheels. A pulverizing rocker powered by slash 'n' trash guitars, it has vintage Sticky Fingers moxie dosed with some hard Eighties pop reality – a kind of refined primitivism. Jagger, however, sings the chorus – "You're not the only one/With mixed emotions/You're not the only ship/Adrift on this ocean" – with a distinctive bittersweet yowl that suggests he's brought a lot of emotional baggage to this reunion and that he and Richards still have some unfinished business between them. Jagger claims he did not write the lyrics with their feud in mind. Richards, though, takes the double meaning a bit more seriously.

"I thought about that afterwards," Richards says. "I was coming back from a session, my old lady, Patts, and just arrived, and I drove over to see her. And I told her how strange it felt, because it suddenly occurred to me that there was infinite room there for subliminal subjection. I realized what we'd laid down there had all the ingredients of an interesting autobiography."

The subject was business, not insults. When Jagger and Richards sat down for their first tentative peace talks in May 1988, they didn't discuss who said what about whom or who was going to apologize first. Instead, Jagger and Richards talked, quite seriously, about the possibility of a 1989 Rolling Stones tour.

Their subsequent truce begat Steel Wheels, but it is the current tour that actually set the truce in motion. And it is the tour that will yield the biggest instant dividends – the $65 million to $70 million that the Stones have been guaranteed by Toronto promoter Michael Cohl for an estimated fifty to sixty dates in the United States and Canada, mostly in huge open-air stadiums.

It was Jagger's refusal to tour behind Dirty Work in 1986 that predicated his split with Richards, and he still stands by that decision. "I was completely, 100 percent right about not doing that tour," Jagger says firmly while swigging on a large bottle of Evian water in a lounge adjacent to Olympic's Studio 2.

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"The band was in no condition to tour," says Jagger. "It's as simple as that. The album wasn't that good. It was okay. It certainly wasn't a great Rolling Stones album. The feeling inside the band was very bad, too. The relationships were terrible. The health was diabolical. I wasn't in particularly good shape. The rest of the band, they couldn't walk across the Champs Elysées, much less go on the road.

"So we had this long bad experience of making that record," Jagger continues, "and the last thing I wanted to do was spend another year with the same people. I just wanted to be out."

"I was really pissed that he wasn't really into the album," Richards counters. "I wanted to go on the road after we finished it. And I didn't get a clear answer until the record was finished. Which was basically 'Screw off.'"

Yet touring was the first thing they agreed on when it came time to make amends. "When Keith and I sat down originally and talked about going on the road, playing together," says Jagger, "I never thought that it would be problematic. I think Keith thought making an album and going on the road with it was a huge deal, that we could never really do it. Historically, he was quite correct. We'd never made an album in less than a year.

"I thought, 'Let's get it all done in a year,'" Jagger says. "Then we've done it. We've proved we can make a record, we've proved we can tour. We can do it and still be up for it, not be bored with it all. A year's only a year. So we just have to put up with each other for a year."

The tour itself has been a year in the making. Michael Cohl, a veteran promoter who runs Concert Productions International and also controls Brockum, one of the world's biggest rock-merchandising companies, was aggressively chasing the Stones about promoting a tour as early as last fall. He offered to handle the entire tour and give the band a fat guarantee, taking 100 percent of the financial risk in return for potentially big net profits along the tour route. (The average ticket price for the shows is $28.50.) The Stones finally agreed to the deal last March, after passing on a counteroffer by longtime Stones promoter Bill Graham to operate as a salaried tour director working in conjunction with local promoters in each city.

Along the way, the Stones retained the services of Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch of the highly successful management firm Q Prime (Def Leppard, Metallica) as tour and recording consultants. Burnstein and Mensch offer the Stones their extensive experience working with platinum rock acts on the road and promoting those acts at radio stations and in retail. (Burnstein and Mensch were forbidden to be interviewed about the tour.) Cohl, in turn, struck a deal with Labatt's Brewery for sponsorship of the Canadian dates, while MTV climbed aboard as a media sponsor for the American shows, contributing a reported $1.5 million in television exposure. As Rolling Stone went to press, an official American sponsor for the tour had not yet been announced, though offers from a number of major. American been companies were being evaluated.

"Really, the deal came to us," Jagger says of Cohl's mega-dough package. "Then it had to be refined. You have to give things in return, and you don't want to give too much in return." Jagger, a wily negotiator who was actively involved in shaping the Cohl deal every step of the way, neatly evades discussing any of its financial particulars. But he vigorously defends the staggering pay-back the Stones are getting for the tour, which averages more than $1 million per show, including profits from merchandising sales and a prospective pay-per-view cable-television special that's planned for December.

"Of course, we're doing it for the money, as well," Jagger says flatly. "We've always done it for the money. People get highly paid in rock & roll. That's why it's so attractive. It's like boxing. People don't do boxing for nothing. They start off doing it because they hope to get to the top, because when they get to the top, they'll make lots of money. I mean, that's America.

"But also, to my mind," continues Jagger, "it has to be done in a good way where it doesn't rip people off. It's got to be good value for money. You shouldn't charge less than everyone else. You can charge more than everyone else, but you also have to give them more than everyone else."

Jagger takes the business of the Stones very seriously; he's been assuming de facto management responsibilities ever since the 1969 tour. One of Keith Richards's principal gripes, in fact, was that Jagger had become more concerned with the business of the Stones in recent years than the business of actually being a Stone. "I don't really think Keith's interested in anything but music," Jagger says. "But he realizes there's things to be done, decisions to be made. It's a huge fucking business. And that's the money everyone will take home."

"Mick needs to do that," Richards says with a wry grin. "He's a workaholic. Me, I like to know what's going on. But I don't need to wake up in the morning and make phone calls and say, 'Okay, what's been happening since yesterday?' Mick does enjoy that, checking the telexes and fax machines. And more power to him. He's good at it.

"One of my points before was that he had his hands on everything," says Richards. "Mick, nobody can do everything. And also, you're wasting the big gun. If you're dealing with these people all the time, they get to know you too well. One of the Stones' greatest strengths in doing business was that we never said a word. I remember when Allen Klein renegotiated our record contract, we sat there in front of this board of directors and did not say a word. That's one of the greatest weapons the Stones have, this fear we inspire."

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."

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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."

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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."

Under a hazy june sky in tangier, Morocco, Mick Jagger stands frozen with rapt concentration in the open-air courtyard of the Palace Ben Abbou, a handsome sixteenth-century villa tucked away in a discreet courtyard of the legendary casbah. Wearing a long white caftan and pointed Moroccan slippers, like some elegant pop pasha, Jagger is listening intently to the music – performed by seventeen men from the Moroccan mountain village of Joujouka – that first bewitched Brian Jones twenty years ago and dates back quite a bit further than that – about 4000 years. Pre-Islam, pre-Christianity and most definitely pre-rock & roll.

The Master Musicians of Joujouka, as they are commonly and reverently known, are lined up in the courtyard in an L formation flanked by several boom mikes. They pound out a fierce heartbeat rhythm on the rhaita (drum) and blow up a complex storm of shrill drones on the rhaita, a high-pitched pipe that sounds like a psychotic oboe. The result is a joyous, untamed noise that defies and transcends the stiff Western tenets of harmony and structure. It's the sound of 1989, all right – BC.

In fact, the Master Musicians, formally attired in yellow turbans and hooded brown robes, are trying to play along with the prerecorded track to "Continental Drift," the most unusual number from Steel Wheels. The song has a familiar Eastern bent, like a sleek update of "Paint It Black," with Jagger's voice periodically trailing off into Islamic-prayer-call flourishes. There is also a manic middle section tailor-made for the primal surge of the Joujouka players, if their sprawling ensemble wail can somehow be shoehorned into five minutes of tightly arranged ethno-rock. By day's end, Jagger – who is principally running the session while Keith Richards and Ron Wood sip mint tea and drink in the music from the sidelines – will have enough takes of the group to ensure success when "Continental Drift" goes into the mixing stage back at Olympic.

The essence, though, of what Jagger and the Stones have come here to sample and savor isn't so easy to digitize. At first, the Master Musicians gamely try to keep in step with "Continental Drift." But they soon roar into hypergroove, the drummers creating a vicious rhythmic undertow as the pipers unleash a riff that sounds like a chorus of police sirens run amok. Carried along by their own euphoric propulsion, the Master Musicians are still going full tilt long after "Continental Drift" has faded out of the monitor speakers.

It is a heart-stopping performance, a blast of alien sound fueled by a celebratory intensity that is damn close to rock & roll in spirit, if not form. Rolling Stone Brian Jones, sinking into a pit of drug-heightened paranoia and estrangement from the other Stones, was so entranced with the music and its cleansing powers that he journeyed to Joujouka, located south of Tangier at the foot of the Rif Mountains, to record the Master Musicians in their native element. (The results were released posthumously in 1971 as Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Pan at Joujouka.) Two decades later, the Rolling Stones have returned to Morocco to tap an important vein in their past – and to reestablish their relevance in the present.

"I remember Brian playing the tapes," says Jagger, relaxing in an airy upstairs sitting room in the palace. "We had this engineer we were working with, George Chkiantz, and George was one of the first people to be heavily into phasing, which was like the scratching of the middle Sixties. So Brian took all of the Joujouka tapes and put them through phasing, which was really quite before its time. I always felt the Stones were quite adventurous in that way."

But, Jagger adds, "a lot of that had gone by the boards in the last few years. Not necessarily this particular kind of sound, but the whole idea of pushing the envelope open a little bit. We became a hard-rock band, and we became very content with it. The ballads got left a little behind as well. The hard-rock thing just took over, and we lost a little bit of sensitivity and adventure. And it's boring just doing hard rock all the time. You gotta bounce it around a little."

Hence this trip to Morocco, and hence. "Continental Drift," which was hatched in Barbados. "I woke up one morning," Richards says, "to find Mick playing this thing on the keyboard [he hums the song's core riff]. And I thought, 'Ah, that's nice, that reminds me of Morocco."' It was Richards who suggested adding the Master Musicians to the track.

"I thought, 'Yeah, we need something like this,"' Richards says, "the unification of what this band is about. It really pulled a string in me."

It also tugged at something inside Bachir Attar, the twenty-seven-year-old Master Musician who succeeded his late father, Jnuin, in 1981 as the group's leader. He was seven years old when Brian Jones came to Joujouka with his tape recorder.

"I become a musician, in a way, because of the Rolling Stones," Attar says. "When Brian Jones come, I listen for the first time to music from outside Morocco. And it gives me the wish to play this music, to someday play with this band. I was little, and it was a big dream for me."

Fdall, a stately gentleman of seventy-five and a veteran Master Musician who actually performed for Brian Jones all those years ago, is also moved by the import of this Stones-Joujouka collaboration. When Fdall is asked his opinion of "Continental Drift," his impassive, dark-mahogany features crack into a warm smile and he speaks solemnly in his native tongue.

"He says this is big music," Attar translates with a beaming smile of his own. "He mean there are big things in this music." Fdall interrupts to elaborate his point. Attar laughs. "He says, 'If anything, we need more of this."'

 

It's probably the longest-running gag in rock & roll. Every time the Rolling Stones release an album or go on tour, the press and fans ask the same question. Could this be the last time?

"First asked in 1966!" Jagger declared sarcastically when a reporter asked the inevitable question at the Stones' July 11th press conference at Grand Central Station, in New York City. But he's not quite as flippant about it in private. "If you asked whether I want to do it for the rest of my life," Jagger says, "Keith and I would probably disagree."

Which, of course, they do.

Richards is confident that Steel Wheels and the fall tour constitute a second chance for the Stones, not a swan song.

"A new sense of realism is pervading the whole arena," Richards says, "and that's all I need right now. If we can build on that, then we can keep this show on the road."

Jagger is nothing if not a realist. He says he is utterly committed to the Stones, for now, but is hardly ditching other options. "The Rolling Stones are the Rolling Stones," Jagger says. "When it's good, it's really good. And when it isn't good, it's boring. And I'd rather go and make solo albums than make boring Rolling Stones albums. It's very hard to keep doing the same thing with the same people over and over again. It just is.

"I think if Keith goes and makes another solo album," continues Jagger, "it won't be the same one. It will go further and further away from the Rolling Stones thing. The same with me. And that should be encouraged, not discouraged.

"Charlie should be encouraged to play jazz," Jagger says. "Keith should be encouraged to do whatever he wants to do. And I should be encouraged to do what I'd rather do. What it is, I don't know. But I should be encouraged to push it further. I don't want to stay only with this."

"Ah, fuck it, who cares?" he says wearily when asked, one more time, if this album and tour could really be the last time. "That's all I can say we're gonna do at the moment. That's all anyone can say."

Except Richards.

"I can never think of starting something up again in order to make it the last time," says Richards.

"This," he promises emphatically, "is the beginning of the second half."

This story is from the September 7th, 1989 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 560: September 7, 1989