The Rolling Stones: Babylon By Jet

An in-depth look at the Stones' upcoming Bridges to Babylon tour

Mick Jagger Ron Wood Keith Richards Charlie Watts  The Rolling Stones
KMazur/WireImage
The Rolling Stones in New York City on August 18th, 1997.
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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."

The Rolling Stones Live, 1964-2007

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 Rolling Stones on the Cover of Rolling Stone

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.

Cohl says that, financially, the Hawaii shows made no sense without the Pepsi show: "It created an opportunity for the Rolling Stones to play Honolulu for what may be the last time, and take the real show. We're talking about three big 747s – and one little plane for the bridge [the show's most impressive special effect]. The bridge needs its own plane. It's very temperamental."

"It's not something I particularly want to do," Jagger says of the Pepsi show.

Why are you doing it, then?

"The money, I suppose. And everyone else seems to want to do it, so I said OK. It's a theater; it might be quite good fun."

"I wouldn't know who we're doing it for," says Richards. "As long as they're not selling biochemical weapons or guns." He doesn't seem thrilled to be asked about it. "You want to talk business," he says firmly, "you talk to the business people. You want to talk music, you talk to me. Pepsi? It's a fizzy drink. But so what? I'm sure there's nothing wrong with Pepsi employees. Everybody needs a job."

"I never drank Pepsi," says Watts. "Actually, I used to, with whiskey, during the early sixties. And I think it's an awful drink, to be honest with you."

As for "Brown Sugar," it is one of the many Rolling Stones songs whose publishing rights are controlled by the band's former manager Allen Klein, though Jagger and Richards still get a share whenever these songs are used or performed. "I know nothing about the money," says Jagger, "and it's not performed by us – it's not ours to negotiate. But I'd prefer they didn't do it. I hate it. I would never do it again. Never."

He means that he'd rather never have another Stones song in a commercial after allowing Microsoft to use "Start Me Up" for an estimated $3 million to promote Windows 95. "I fucking hated it," Jagger says. "The rest of the band loved it. I just don't want to be involved with this stuff. I do not want my songs to be used in television ads."

Richards shrugs, unconcerned, when I ask him about selling "Start Me Up." "It's better than doing another video for it," he says. "Listen, the first ad the Stones did was for Kellogg's bloody Rice Krispies in 1963 or '64. We did 'I Wanna Be Your Man.' We started really early in this game." (This, a little research establishes, is entirely true. The twenty-year-old pop rebel Mick Jagger sang a lyric that began: "Wake up in the morning, there's a snap around the place/Wake up in the morning, there's a crackle in your face/Wake up in the morning, there's a pop that really says/'Rice Krispies for you and you and you.' ")

There is another issue raised by Pepsi's use of "Brown Sugar": It's a strange song for a squeaky-clean cola company to embrace. "It's a bit odd, isn't it? I know," Jagger grins. "Don't let's mention it. They probably haven't listened to it."

The "Brown Sugar" of the title is generally taken as a sexual reference or a drug reference. Most likely, it's both. "It's not going to be good either way, is it?" says Jagger. ("It's such a mishmash – all the nasty subjects in one go," Jagger told Rolling Stone in 1995. "I never would write that song now. . . . I would probably censor myself.") I mention to Jagger, in passing, that the literature around the Rolling Stones is divided as to whether, as a drug allusion, brown sugar refers to heroin or some kind of strangely colored cocaine.

"There used to be that Mexican heroin called brown sugar, didn't there?" clarifies Jagger helpfully.

When I raise the subject with Richards, he considers, barely hiding his amusement, what Pepsi must have been thinking of. "Sweetness . . . brown . . . in a bottle," he says wryly.

But Pepsi is hardly the original reference, is it?

"Well, brown sugar's brown sugar," Keith chuckles. "Some of us know what it is, and some of us don't. I just love their naïveté. Do you know what I mean? Life's fucking hilarious, isn't it?"

The Bridges to Babylon tour continues to Japan and South America, and will finish in Europe by mid-September. It is the Stones' habit to release a record off the back of their world tours, and they expect to do something of that sort next year, though they've yet to decide what. Some concerts, including these Madison Square Garden dates, have been recorded. Jagger mentions their live collaborations with Taj Mahal, Pearl Jam and Joshua Redman. Richards says they're still waiting for a concept. "It might not be live at all," he suggests. "I think everyone's got their noses sniffing in the wind to see if there's an idea."

As far as future tours, the band leaves the door open. "I would think, from pure musical enjoyment and our over-indulgence of loving to rock, it's quite possible," says Wood.

Watts agrees, though he says he won't do a tour this long again: "It's too wearing and nerve-wracking if you take it seriously, like we all do." "I don't want to think about it," says Jagger. "Whatever I say now is not going to be applicable in three years. I've got another six months of this to do, and anything can happen."

"I suppose there is an addictiveness that comes into play," says Richards. "The creak of the boards. This is what you do. Why in the world would you stop doing what you like to do and a lot of people like to see you do?" That Keith Richards grin. "If nobody turns up, then I go back to the top of the stairs, where I started, and play to myself."

This story is from the March 5th, 1998 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 781: March 5, 1998