They're mad," smiles Charlie Watts, sitting backstage at New York's Madison Square Garden, where, in three sold-out nights, the Rolling Stones will gross $6.4 million. The good seats are $300, the cheaper ones $150. (For real tightwads, there are a few bargains – at $85, $50 and $30 – but the thriftiest concertgoers get only a view from behind.) "I shouldn't say that, really, I suppose," Watts continues. "If they're having a good time." His more pragmatic singer, Mick Jagger, is unapologetic: "Let me put it in perspective – people pay much, much more to watch the Knicks here every week."
And these aren't even the tour's most expensive tickets. On February 15th the Rolling Stones will play the Hard Rock casino, in Las Vegas, where tickets are $500. "It's only money," shrugs Jagger. "I'm sure the people who go to the Hard Rock and pay $500 a ticket do not worry about the $500. Any more than I would."
These are just two of the more striking engagements in the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon tour, most of which has been in stadiums and which, by the time this leg is finished up, in Las Vegas, will have become the highest-grossing North American rock tour ever. At this point, the band members admit to different levels of excitement. Jagger sits in his dressing room, a humidifier pumping out moisture. (The previous week he canceled two shows because of throat problems; on the first night at Madison Square Garden, his doctor examined his tonsils backstage in the middle of the set.) He seems quietly pleased with their achievement. "I suppose it's a good show," he says, "though I've not seen it."
Keith Richards is joined backstage by his dog, Doobie. "He's a smoking dog," Keith explains. (Does Doobie like the band? "He puts up with them," says Keith. "He hasn't eaten any of them. And he's quite capable.") "Apart from the fact that the Stones will give you a good show, come what may – it's worked because of the drive of it," says Richards. "We're basically a low-tech band, but we have the best of high-tech going for us: There's a happy marriage between technology and the roots and the necessities."
"I've never liked stadium tours, to be honest," says Watts. "I think it's the most alien place to go and see a band. But people seem to like us in them." He smiles. "Maybe we're that alien."
Michael Cohl, the promoter of the last three Stones tours, says that he began discussing what became the Bridges to Babylon tour with Mick Jagger when the Stones were still on the Voodoo Lounge tour, in 1995. "On Steel Wheels, there seemed to be such a love from the audience and such a momentum of the Rolling Stones in the marketplace," Cohl says. "Then there was this five-year break. And when Voodoo Lounge first started, we had to work hard to get that momentum again. So one thing we kept our eyes on was, five years is too long."
In the meantime, the idea that big-time stadium shows were a thing of the past gained currency. "There have been a batch of articles about, 'Is the stadium show dead?' " says Cohl. To his mind, that was never the case – what is the case is that only a few acts can do it. U2 had a rough time on parts of their PopMart Tour, but that was arguably down to what they were selling. While the Rolling Stones communicate, accurately, that they'll do their best to give the audience precisely what it wants, U2 communicate, also accurately, that they are not interested in doing so. And the Stones have made it work: The Bridges to Babylon tour has generated more excitement and less cynicism than many tours by the Stones' younger and supposedly cooler rivals.
The band decided to play fewer shows than on previous tours, though Cohl maintains that the higher ticket prices (typically around $60 for a basic stadium seat) were not introduced to counterbalance that. He says they've simply kept pace with the top prices in the market: the Eagles and the Elton John/Billy Joel double bill. "The Stones could charge more without any backlash," Cohl says. "But it isn't the policy of the band. I'm sure $75 wouldn't have been a problem."
In most places, the dates have sold well and so has Rolling Stones merchandise. There are, Cohl estimates, sixty different pieces of merchandise available; the full list at the Rolling Stones online shop includes Bridges to Babylon incense ($3.99), Rolling Stones golf balls ($11.99 for three), a tongue-logo Rolling Stones lamp ($149.99) and a signed Bridges to Babylon cover-art lithograph ($290). Jagger and Watts approve the designs. "But they always slip things in you've never seen – ashtrays with a bloody tongue on them," says Watts. "We usually grumble about the price of something and the quality of it." On a tour of this type, Cohl explains, merchandise might provide fifteen to twenty percent of the total income. "Significant," he says, "but not as significant as people think. At the end of the day, the significant thing is tickets, period."
What are you going to do with all the new money?
Mick Jagger: "I haven't a clue, really. I haven't got a specific sack to put it in."
Ron Wood: "Um . . . not see it, like normal. Written down on a piece of paper from the bank."
Charlie Watts: "My wife and I look after animals, and I keep the tailoring trade going, single-handedly."
Keith Richards: "What do you want me to say – 'Give it away'? It gives me room to maneuver. It lets me absorb the costs of things like The Wingless Angels [the Jamaican chant-and-drums album that Richards recorded]. And the rest of it, I don't know. Maybe I'll give it to you. Are you a deserving cause?"
After New York, the stones head to Hawaii, where, following two shows at Honolulu's Aloha Stadium, they play at a beach resort for 3,500 Pepsi bottlers in celebration of the company's 100th anniversary. Pepsi also purchased the rights to "Brown Sugar" for a TV commercial that debuted during the Super Bowl (it's sung by a studio musician). The company paid an estimated $3 million for the concert and about $1 million for the song.
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