'Rip this joint' – let's hear it!" yells Mick Jagger, looking like a sinister emergency-room surgeon with his loose-fitting green pants and end-of-the-day facial expression. His weary voice fills the school gym on the edge of Toronto where the Rolling Stones have gathered to rehearse for their 1994-'95 world tour, and for a long moment after Jagger has made his request, the other Stones stand in a sort of furrowed silence, like men trying to hear something way off in the distance.
Across the room, hidden behind a massive soundboard, a technician rifles through a stack of Stones CDs and cues up Track 2 from Exile on Main Street. As the original studio recording comes over the PA – the raw, fast-paced sound of the Stones in the early '70s – the room comes alive. Keith Richards picks up a guitar and begins playing over his youthful self, tracing work he put down two decades ago. Jagger, with a Stones lyric book in hand, sings. Charlie Watts drums, Ron Wood clowns, and Darryl Jones, the Chicago-born 32-year-old bassman who has replaced Bill Wyman, trails after his predecessor's ancient rumbling riffs. "For Darryl, it's like looking at photos of something he's never seen," says Jagger, who is 51. "For us, with so many songs and so many shows in our past, it's a way to remember how we did something, to find the groove."
Indeed, watching the Stones rehearse in 1994 is like watching a tribe of religious mystics piece together a sacred text. Though the band will tour behind Voodoo Lounge, its most compelling work in years, a lot of rehearsal time is devoted to the past. Classic songs like "Connection" (Between the Buttons, 1967), "Far Away Eyes" (Some Girls, 1978) and "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)" (Goats Head Soup, 1973) are being revived and made stage-ready. The band is also exploring the deeper roots of its sound, running through the R&B songbooks of Otis Redding ("Mr. Pitiful," "I Can't Turn You Loose") and Al Green.
With each song, the Stones follow the same basic routine. Jagger calls out a title, a technician cues up the track, and the Stones, like kids tracing an image from a comic book, play right over the original. Then there's a second, leisurely run-through, this time without aid of the record. By the third time out, the band comes on with a full-blown rendition. At the end of all this, if the song has retained some of its original power, Wood crosses the gym floor and scribbles the title on a chart from which the band will eventually create a set list. "We'll spend two months uncovering the show," says Richards, pulling on a cigarette. "It's all there, we just need to find it."
Watching these rehearsals – marathon sessions that often run from late afternoon until the sky grows pale the next morning – you must ask yourself: How is this possible? How can a group of middle-aged musicians, men who cruised through youth in a haze of alcohol and drugs, just keep on going, seemingly unfettered by time? For Richards, who is 50, the answer is simple. "On any given night, we're still a damn good band," he says. "And on some nights, maybe even the best band in the world. So screw the press and their slagging about the Geritol Tour. You assholes. Wait until you get our age and see how you run. I got news for you, we're still a bunch of tough bastards. String us up and we still won't die."
The Stones are rehearsing at the Crescent School, an all-boys school set amid the rolling hills and shade trees of Ontario. The band members chose Canada so as not to burn up the precious working days allowed on their U.S. visas; they chose Toronto because it's the home of their promoter Michael Cohl, who drives over daily to check in with the band and discuss business dealings with Jagger. "It's OK us being in Toronto," says Wood. "We've only had huge problems here before." Indeed, this is where Richards was arrested for intent to traffic heroin in 1977 and threatened with a lengthy prison term. "I feel fine being here," says Richards, smiling. "If I held grudges against every place I've been busted, there would be few places left for me on this planet."
Roadies have taped brown paper over the school's windows to hinder gaping onlookers. As a result, the building's interior has the otherworldly feel of a Las Vegas casino, where time has been banished and great victories seem possible. On the second floor, alongside the dining room, the entourage has arranged a sort of dream rec room, complete with a pingpong table, video games (including Mortal Kombat) and a giant screen TV. Just before dinner, band members gather around the set to wager on the World Cup.
I arrive in Toronto a week into rehearsals. I was born in 1968, the year Beggars Banquet was released, and have been a fan of the Stones since I was a kid. At one point I even dressed like Keith Richards to perform in a junior-high-school talent show. For me, going to these rehearsals is like attending a rock & roll fantasy camp, where I am alone with a few technicians as the band runs through "Live With Me" and "No Expectations." It also plays "Under My Thumb," my least favorite of the classics; if a bar mitzvah band is going to play a Stones song, that's it.
Between songs, Richards occasionally comes over, throws an arm across my back and says, "How you doin', my boy?" At one point I am writing in my notebook as the band plays "Some Girls" – itself not unusual, as I often write with the Stones playing in the background. Only this time they are live and playing about 10 feet away. The members of the band express some wonder at my age and are curious to know how they are coming across. "I should be interviewing you," Richards says one night. "You've never known a world without the Rolling Stones. For you, there has always been the sun and the moon and the Stones.
"And me?" Richards adds. "I've known Mick Jagger since before rock & roll."
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