The Rolling Stones: The Road Ain't What It Used to Be

Has the band lost that touring magic?

Mick Jagger and Keith Richards Rolling Stones
Photo by Lynn Goldsmith
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the Cover of Rolling Stone
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And at that time shall Michael stand up, the great prince which standeth for the children of thy people: and there shall be a time of trouble, such as never was . . .

-Daniel 12:1

Your last story was all fucked up," Stones tour manager Peter Rudge was yelling at me as we suffered along in a Terminal cab en route from Dallas to Fort Worth. "How's that?" I yelled back over the sound of the cab's air conditioner, wheezing away in an unsuccessful attempt to combat the 105 degree temperature. But it wasn't the heat that had Rudge on edge. It was the usual Rolling Stones tour insanity. And it could only get worse, I realized with a sinking feeling.

Stones tours have a manic quality unequaled in rock, with an ever-present current of madness that could be unleashed at any moment. The anticipation of some dark unpredictability was doubly high on this tour as show dates were added and dropped left and right. If Rudge was any barometer of the Stones' mood — which he usually is — the band was a coiled spring.

"Who said you could come on the tour anyway?" Rudge rattled on in his clipped, British tones. "Your story [RS 270] was wrong. You said Mick [Michael Jagger, a well-known socialite] was opposed to the tour. We started planning it January 2nd in Barbados; we must have had reservations on a hundred small halls.

"For the small shows, we pick two or three halls in each city and then decide on the right one. The promoters don't know until three or four days before the show who's playing. A show this size tonight, 2500 or so, won't pay the hotel bill, won't even pay for the drinks. But if the Stones won't do the small dates, who will? We had to tour and this is part of it."

We passed the Six Flags over Texas amusement park, and Rudge's eyes popped at the sight of the parachute ride: "How much is that? That's the way to put the band onstage. Can I buy that?"

"I doubt you could afford it, buddy," said the cabbie. "What line of work you in? Show business?"

"You might say that," Rudge replied. "I have a little group playing tonight in Fort Worth."

When we pulled up to the Will Rogers Memorial Center, the cabbie turned to Rudge and asked, "Which hall, the big one or the little one?"

"The little one," Rudge said. "Maybe someday we'll get to the big hall."

"That's right," said the cabbie. "That's what it's all about. Keep on pushin.'"

Rudge borrowed ten dollars from me to pay the cabbie: "Sorry about that," he said. He kept the receipt.

As we walked past a statue of Will Rogers, I said, "Well, Peter, it's too bad Will Rogers never met you."

"Eh, what's that mean?"

"Nothing. Just an old American folk saying."

"Oh, Look at this: the kids are quiet, no fuckin' riot for you."

He was right. The Fort Worth police had things well in hand. Ticket scalpers, whose prices had peaked earlier at $400 a ticket, were noticeably absent.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Rolling Stones

Inside the auditorium, Rudge swung into his full managerial pace. That's a physically discernible persona he dons when it's time for him to publicly become the Rolling Stones Tour Manager, a persona not unlike Captain Bligh mainlining pure caffeine. Rudge ran onstage and pointed to the wooden ridges at stage front. "Paint those black," he shouted. "We're filming tonight and I want it looking good." The audience started filing in and Rudge raised his voice, to no one in particular: "Put some music on." "There is music on," I pointed out. "Well fuckin' turn it up then. What is this, a fuckin' funeral march?" He was rubbing his hands with glee: "We're gonna have some fuckin' fun tonight."

He ran off to greet five Atlantic Records executives who ostensibly had flown in to meet with the band about releasing "Far Away Eyes" as a country single.

"Peter," I asked, "are you really serious about that?"

"Sure, we're gonna prove the Stones can be country. That's why I asked Doug Kershaw to play tonight. Callaghan! Why don't we give this fiddle player, Kershaw, a pass so he can come backstage and work on 'Far Away Eyes' with the band? Good idea, wot?"

Kershaw walked into the Stones' dressing room with eyes as big as saucers: "Man, I was supposed to open in Dallas tonight, but how can I turn this down? This's it." He got out his fiddle, and he and Ron Wood and Keith started on "Far Away Eyes." Bill Wyman smiled: "I went to see Kershaw in New Orleans and had to get him on with us. What an incredible show tonight: reggae with Peter Tosh, Cajun country and rock & roll with a little blues thrown in."

Mick Jagger, with Jerry Hall in tow, walked very slowly into the dressing room, took a look at all the people — including record-company executives — who were sitting around drinking his liquor, and kept on walking, executing a slow figure eight right out of the room. He looked at me and through me, literally not seeing me. His eyes were unfocused, his cheeks sunken. He went and hid in the guarded tuning room.

The Stones hit the stage at Will Rogers Auditorium at 10:58 p.m. to a sustained ovation. Jagger, suddenly transformed into a dervish, was shouting, "Awright, the fuckin', amazin' Rollin' Stones!"

There have been bad shows on this tour, but Fort Worth was not one of them. It was the last small show of the tour, and the Stones gave it everything they had: these old pros, crippled by age and by dissipation, but still holding the flag high. Jagger's defiance, missing in so many of the shows, returned for a while and Richards was — usually — leading the band. In "Beast of Burden" when Jagger pleaded, "Ain't I tough enough?" it was a real question, not a rhetorical one. Thirty rows back, though, with everyone still standing, I was thinking: I'm thirty-four years old and I've seen rock & roll for seventeen years and I'd kinda like to sit down. Jagger is also thirty-four and he's been doing rock & roll seventeen years and most of the time he acts like he'd like to sit down, too. Why does he keep this up? Just for these few moments of glory? I studied him through binoculars and his face showed no emotion whatsoever. During "Shattered," he was mumbling the words, "I've been shattered" as he half-heartedly shook his cock. That's been the extent of his 1978 theatrics: teasing the audience with whatever was in his pants and performing an intermittent striptease with his T-shirt. The audience reaction, even at this relatively supercharged show, was the same as at the other concerts I'd seen: at first buoyantly up and ready for the old Stones magic to wash over them. As that magic wanes, a certain listlessness sets in. At some of the outdoor shows, that listlessness turned to anger and stage-trashing.

"If the band's slightly lacking in energy," he mumbled after "Shattered," "it's because we spent all last night fuckin'. We do our best." Well, I thought, I'm glad this is a good show because the bad ones these days are really painful. Jagger's voice started cracking and Richards gave over his guitar solo in "Tumbling Dice" — usually a magical moment — to Ron Wood. A good show, very close to being a great one. If the Stones continue to work this hard, they can hold on to their championship title for a while yet.

The getaway after the show at least recalled the golden days of rock & roll: we mounted six Cadillac limousines and, with five police motorcycle escorts, raced through red lights all the way back to the Fairmont Hotel in Dallas. At least some things never change. It looked almost like Elvis Presley's funeral.

Rudge was right when he'd told me the revenues from that Fort Worth show wouldn't be big. The gross was $25,710, but the Stones paid out approximately the following (in rounded-off figures; not all the totals were final after the show): stagehands, $5270; limos, $1700; gofers, $180; piano rental and tuning, $250; police, $1600; furniture rental for the dressing room, $285; ticket printing, $250; medical team, $85; ticket commission, $1285; backstage food and refreshments, $2125; production, lighting and sound, $5000; promoter profit, $2500; support acts, $2000; backstage phone, $300; ticket takers, $500; hall rental, $1000; ASCAP/BMI performing fees, $100; insurance, $500; damage deposit, $250. The Stones received a check from Beaver Productions for $969.37 net profit for their Fort Worth show. They spent $1500 on liquor alone for a birthday party for pianist Ian Stewart after the show. Their hotel bill for the Texas shows was $17,000.

Of course, the Stones are not eager to release figures from the big shows, like the New Orleans Superdome date, which grossed $1,060,000, or the Chicago date, which grossed $919,425. Or for the entire twenty-five-concert tour itself: the band performed to 760,000 people at prices ranging from ten dollars to thirteen dollars per head. Any way you look at it, that's getting close to a $9-million-grossing tour. For a ninety-minute show, that's a lot of money being generated. What the Stones got in profit, no one will say. Bill Graham, who promoted the last date on the tour in Oakland, would say only that it was an "equitable deal." That show grossed about $750,000, and it's unlikely the Stones walked away with less than $400,000. It's said the Stones usually get ninety percent of the net. Graham, when asked about that, said, "No, it wasn't ninety. It was a fair financial deal."

At the birthday party for Stewart in the Fairmont Hotel's Far East Room, Richards and Wood sat at a corner table savoring their tumblers of Jack Daniel's. Jagger — who has taken to wearing glasses offstage — had already come for two minutes and left. "Cocksucker Blues" was on the stereo and Keith smiled at that: "Ah, the good old days. Tonight was a bit like the British halls in the old days — so hot you come offstage and pant. I love it, though; I'll play forever."

"Even after Toronto?" I asked.

"Let's forget Toronto for now. Let's have a drink."

The next afternoon, I was swimming in the Fairmont's pool with Seraphina, Charlie Watts' ten-year-old daughter (who looks exactly like Watts circa 1965), when Watts came out to sit by the pool. "Did you like the party?" he asked. "Yeah," I said, "but I had to pack it in at five. Keith can still drink more Jack Daniel's than I can."

"Keith can do most things more than most people can. Did Mick come to the party?"

"Yeah, but he left. Too many strange girls."

Watts laughed: "He usually likes that. Did you like the show? We had tremendous feedback — the stage was shaking like a ten-ton truck."

"What were you saying last night backstage about rock being unable to be progressive?"

Watts turned serious: "I don't really think it's possible for rock to be progressive. It swings with a heavy backbeat and it's done that for twenty-five years. That's what the Beatles did, that's what we did. It's dance music. But it hasn't progressed. Progression was Miles Davis playing modals and you can't do that in rock. Progression was Coltrane and you can't do that in rock. McLaughlin is close but he can't really stretch out; we can't. Chicago didn't influence the orchestra sound the way the Ellington band did, now did they? How can you write about rock & roll? It's silly, it's supposed to be fun. How can you do that?"

"Well," I finally answered, "the only alternative is politics — or gossip." Watts squinted into the burning sun and nodded: "I see what you mean."

The Houston show that night was not good and the reviews were worse: "One reason why," Houston Post music critic Bob Claypool told me, "was that the Stones followed Springsteen's tour to town, and their show was miserable compared to his." In a supreme moment of rock & roll irony, one young man fell out of the top row during "Shattered" and landed on his head. The Houston Post's gossip column claimed — wrongly — that Jagger had kicked Charlie and Shirley Watts off the Stones' plane, a twin-engine Convair 580, for fighting. (The stewardess on the Stones' plane is named Bianca.)

The Stones fled back to the security and quiet of Dallas' Fairmont Hotel after the Houston show. I went up to Keith's room and found him in bed, either asleep or dead — it was hard to tell which; he had one arm stuck grotesquely up in the air. (The next night he didn't bother with the bed — just conked out on his dining-room table.) I located Mick watching a videotape of Australian comedian Norman Gunston interviewing people lined up outside Elvis' Graceland mansion, waiting to file past the earthly remains of the King. Gunston was asking people if they would scream when Mick Jagger came onstage. "I didn't know the Stones would be here," was one perplexed answer. Mick found this highly amusing. He was taking voluminous notes on a legal pad.

"Well, Mick," I said later as we were having drinks with Ron Wood in Wood's suite, "is rock progressing or is it static?"

"Rock & roll is really just like the show this evening. When jazz came out, right, at the turn of the century, colored people had this kind of music and it took much longer for white people to play it, with some exceptions, right? It took till the Fifties for white people to make a success out of rhythm & blues, a success out of black people. It was very quick, it was an explosion. Now you can see — the Stones are not creating anything new, personally, that I can see. But we don't know for sure, that's the adventure."

"But," I said, "the Stones did create something originally."

"Oh well," he waved his hand and took one of my cigarettes, "we contributed things. All music is contributing."

Wood turned to me: "Are you saying rock & roll's getting stale?"

"Well, who today is not doing remakes of Elvis or Holly or the Stones or Beatles?"

Jagger interrupted: "You're just talking about the mainstream, there's a whole lot else."

"Watch out," said Wood, "you're gonna get him talking about Springsteen."

(No one on the Stones tour likes to talk about it, but the fact is the Stones and Springsteen are the two big summer tours and the Stones are outdrawing Springsteen, but Springsteen is getting the good reviews. Personally, I'd rather see the Stones on an off night than Springsteen on a good night, but that's neither here nor there.)

"I don't wanta argue about it," Jagger said flatly. "I just wanta say that I don't really care. Because all music to me is the same. Ever since I played music, I never defined it. Now Brian Jones defined it as R&B, that's blues and that's rock & roll. And to a certain extent that was the Rolling Stones. But after that I refused to define it, so it's all music to me — country, R&B — they're popular music, folk music, call it what you will, but don't talk about strict rock & roll."

I helped myself to more of his liquor and said: "But right now the Stones are the only ones bringing back the old excitement and selling out the stadiums; no one else is doing it."

He smiled, flashing the diamond in a front tooth: "Wal, that's because we're playing better than the other groups. Your original precept, though, that rock's not going anywhere — you're like one of those old jazz people who say jazz doesn't exist after the death of Bix Beiderbecke. I think that rock & roll will go on and slowly change forms but it's always had the basic form, the basic, basic form."

"But," I said, "that's also its limitation, because it's dance music."

"Yeah, yeah, strong backbeat, it's primitive. You can go on upward and outward but you have to come back to that. I just say music is music because I'm not trained musically. If I was trained, I would write really good things that I can't write. I could write a symphony. I'm not interested in just playing rock & roll, as rock & roll is defined by rock & roll writers. I like African music, Cajun music — whatever makes me dance.

"I'm a dedicated show-business person," Jagger continued. "I'll go onstage and do Noel Coward. I mean, I'm just a show-business person, whether it's playing guitar, piano, acting, singing, dancing. I just chose rock & roll as my career in show business. If I'd been born in 1915, I'd have been a jazz drummer or singer in a jazz band or an actor."

"Did you feel a lot of pressure this year that you had to have a good album or else it was over?"

"Sure," he laughed, "but you should hear the tracks we have in the can for Certain Women, which is the next album. The original title was More Fast Numbers."

"The song 'Shattered' reminded me of Solzhenitsyn's speech on the decline of the West," I said. "Did you read that?"

"Yeah. I agree with some of it but I disagree with his facts. He hit it too hard, he said more than he meant. He's right in a lot of ways. Everyone in the U.S. is subject to this terrible TV and radio. But, you're right. 'Shattered' is the same thing he was talking about. But I know much more about it than Solzhenitsyn does. I know America. I'm half-American."

"Well," I said, "rednecks and limeys are brothers, really."

"Right."

"Is that tour poster of the woman pointing onward supposed to represent America?"

"Oh, yeah, that is America. Onward American women is what it really means. We're for everyone to go onward. What I don't like is for these girls to get married and have a baby and get divorced and get like $350,000 and then call themselves feminists. What's that? In Central Europe, the women work and have close families and that's what I want."

I made the mistake of saying something about punk bands and Jagger was on his feet in a minute: "Punk, punk, punk. We're a punk band, one of the few."

"You're punks and you're staying at the Fairmont with police escorts for your limos? C'mon, Mick."

"Shut up, shut up. It's the attitude that counts."

"Okay. What about this attempt to put 'Far Away Eyes' on the country charts? Are you serious?"

"Sure. What we do is, the people like it and the DJs, if they've got any fucking brains, they come to the concert because their children wanna come and we bring 'em in and have a beer and they say, 'What's this about the Lord Jesus?' They're real religious people and you can't sing country music if you don't believe in it."

"Mick, do you believe in the Lord?"

He poured another glass of brandy. "Sure, I believe in the Lord. All my life. And I believe in gospel music, I believe the Lord's in gospel music. I learned to preach from Little Richard. I don't preach as much as I used to. I just play guitar now, that's all I want to do. Woody and Keith helped me learn. Brian would never help me out. The only numbers I preach on now are 'Eyes' and 'Beast of Burden.' Keith wrote that. Most of it. I wrote most of 'Before They Make Me Run,' but it was Keith's idea."

"Uh, Mick, this may be touchy, but a lot of the reviews you're getting have not been all that good and . . ."

He cut me off, angrily: "I don't care about them. The kids are what I want. We don't want critics. They ought to fuck off. The stuff they write is rubbish. I don't want people to write on the front pages what the tickets are scalped for. It's a journalistic invention. I mean, one of the reviewers reviewed the 1975 show. They think 'Let It Rock' is 'Johnny B. Goode.' They don't even ask for a song list. You don't need those people."

Mick was obviously tired of talking. He started singing "Do You Think I Really Care," one of the forty-four tracks the Stones cut in Paris, and before I knew what was happening, Wood whipped out a guitar, Mick produced a harmonica and Ian McLagan wheeled in an electric piano and we were caught up in a Stones jam. Mick showed me how to improvise a percussion table with telephone books and sticks and there I was, drumming along furiously to the legendary, never-released "Cocksucker Blues." Our set was varied: a lot of Jimmy Reed, "Got No Spare Parts, Got No Oil to Change" off our next album, "Maybe Baby," a few oldies. At noon, after seven hours of jamming, Mick Jagger, the king of rock & roll, slumped over on a bed.

I ran into Keith later and he apologized for sleeping all night. "That's okay, Mick had me up drumming all night but I think I failed the audition for the band."

"That's alright," Keith smiled. "Everyone does."

There is probably nothing I can do better these days than sit in an expensive hotel for days on end, exhort and abuse room service until the corridor outside my door looks like an African safari, and send phone call after phone call into the ethereality otherwise known as the Rolling Stones organization and wait for those phone calls to come home and roost. When the silence on my end of the phone becomes cryptlike, I figure it's time for some action. I mean, when Keith Richards kicked me off the tour in Dallas because he didn't like Rolling Stone's reviews of the band's shows and album, I told him he was kidding and he bought that. And when I arrived in Los Angeles at the Westwood Marquis, an elegant little hideaway far from the usual rock & roll hotels, and Peter Rudge kicked me off the tour, I told him he was full of shit and he bought that. But I've been through every all-night movie and my twenty-eight or thirty outgoing phone calls are still flying around in the Stage-Two Smog Alert that is L.A.'s air tonight. I need some kind of human contact.

A mere four phone calls fetches me up Paul Wasserman, the Stones' A-1 press agent, who is wisely hiding out at home.

"Wasso, I'm sitting for two days in my seventy-dollar-a-day hotel room here, which it will puzzle my boss as to the need for same luxurious surroundings, and I can't raise anybody on the phone higher than the Stones' baggage handler. What gives? Did my five-day deodorant give out? Is it my breath? My drumming?"

Wasserman draws a deep breath before replying: "Well, Mick and Keith are so pissed off by the reviews in Rolling Stone that they won't talk. I have never seen Mick so livid. I tried to explain it, but they think it's a grand plot on Rolling Stone's part. It's the theory of the carrot and then the stick. Mick especially is furious. Right now you have no interviews and no ticket for tomorrow's show. That was a collective decision. Ciao."

Well. At least now I know where I stand. In quicksand. Time to smoke out the enemy.

Mick and Keith are locked away behind double-security layers. I lay for Rudge in the hotel bar. At 1:45 a.m. he passes by and I snag him. Security chief Jim Callaghan trails him into the bar.

I signal the bartender to set us up. "All right, Peter, what the hell is going on?"

Rudge hyperventilates for a moment. "We — want — assurance from your boss that he won't hatchet your story."

"That's crap and you know it."

"No, no, no. Rolling Stone has a vendetta against us. These reviews prove it. If Rolling Stone wants to go up against us, let 'em. They don't know our power. We'll start with the scoreboard in the stadium tomorrow. You wanta be up on that scoreboard in front of 50,000 people? We'll do it."

I signal for another beer. "Peter, what's wrong here? This is the worst kind of paranoia I've seen. When I was busting my ass to do a story on Keith on trial in Toronto, you wanted me there."

"Paranoid? Who are you calling paranoid?" Rudge snaps his head around and at the same time signals for Callaghan to throw out the mystery girl who'd been arrested outside Keith's door the night before and who has suddenly shown up beside Rudge at the bar.

"Furthermore," Rudge says, "Mick said he might sue over the use of the name 'Rolling Stone.'"

"Tell that to Muddy Waters," I say. Meanwhile, I'm stuck with the check. Another ten dollars I won't see again. Good money after bad.

"Peter," I call out, "I'll be at that show tomorrow."

"I know that," he throws over his shoulder.

There is not much reason to go to another big Stones outdoor concert, other than to go to it, so I go. There is not much reason to go. It is not very good. Jagger's heart is not in it. Nor is the heart of the great beast in the pit — the audience in the red dust of the infield of Anaheim Stadium.

Later, back at the hotel, I buy drinks for Wasserman (thirty dollars more down the drain) and he says, "It looks bad. Mick has decided to kick you off the tour."

"He's playing before 760,000 people on this tour and I'm the one he has to pick on?"

"He won't listen to me. You can try to call him. Good luck."

I run to a house phone and call Mick's room. Jerry Hall answers. Talk about "Some Girls," I think: Bianca's also in town now and Marsha Hunt's trying to sue Mick to get her child support raised from seventeen dollars a week to $2300 a week.

Mick gets on the line shouting, "You're off. I'm not pissed at you personally, I'm fucking pissed off at Rolling Stone. I got real mad at this vicious shit that was printed. I've given all this great access. This is the end. No more interviews."

"But, Mick, I've always been fair to the band. I didn't write those reviews. Besides, you said you ignore reviews."

"I know that. I don't mind criticism, real criticism, but I don't expect this kind of bitchiness. I can smell it. It stinks. Rolling Stone will always say, 'the Stones are great' for four weeks and then knock us down. Set you up and then knock you down. That cunt of a boss of yours."

"Well, Mick, does this mean you want me to leave?"

"Fuckin' right! I've known Rolling Stone a long time and gotten on with a few people. I don't trust many people, you know. I trusted Rolling Stone and they let me down. I like you and I'm sorry it's you that's here and not those critics. There ain't gonna be no more."

"Does this mean, then, that you're breaking relations?"

"Right! No more access. I like you and I'll talk to you but not for Rolling Stone. This is goodbye for Rolling Stone. I'm sorry it's you that has to suffer for it. Goodbye."

I fall asleep on the plane back from L.A. and have a dream: I have been up all night finishing my story; I hand it in. The editor calls me into his office: it is Charlie Watts, wearing a green editor's eyeshade. "This piece isn't bad," he says, waving his blue pencil, "but it needs a little work. Maybe you did it too fast. Or maybe," he pauses, "maybe we're all getting a little too old for this work." And then he quotes from St. Matthew: "Verily, I say unto you, there shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down."

This is a story from the September 7, 1978 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 273: September 7, 1978