The Rolling Stones Take Their Rock & Roll Circus Back on the Road

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Since The Late '60s, When a Night of Rock & roll was a $10 bill (including parking), the very mood and tempo of the rock & roll show have been set by this band. The Rolling Stones were the first group to move in a tactical way from clubs into arenas. The Beatles may have played Shea Stadium in 1965, but they did so with rinky-dink equipment, with speakers so small they had no hope of reaching the cheap seats. In that setting, the Beatles were a story told in mime – Marcel Marceau's version of A Hard Day's Night. In late 1969, when the Stones moved into arenas (their first tour since 1966 and their first without founding member Brian Jones, who died in July of'69), they took with them the lighting and sound equipment that the rooms, and the music, demanded. Twenty years later, when they went out to promote Steel Wheels, the band hosted perhaps the biggest stadium-only tour.

The Stones have also led the way to the profitable world of corporate sponsorships, first signing Jovan Perfumes as a sponsor in 1981 for the Tattoo You tour. Budweiser, which sponsored the Steel Wheels jaunt, is back again for the Voodoo Lounge tour. In exchange for the prestige of associating its name with that of the Stones, Budweiser provides promotion for the tour and has paid the band an undisclosed sum of money, certainly in the millions – money used to offset the upfront cost of things like stage construction. According to Jagger's arithmetic, so long as the beer company's money helps keep down the ticket prices, he sees nothing wrong with accepting the cash.

The history of the Stones in concert may best be told as a progression of stages: the stripped-down workaday set of the '69 tour; the '75 lotus-shaped stage that opened like a flower; the 1981 stadium-size monster, a network of runways and ramps that carried Jagger and Richards off into the crowd, leaving a frustrated Charlie Watts complaining about isolation. "At the very least," says Watts, "I need to see Keith's legs; I need to know I'm in a band."

Members of the band's entourage feel the best Stones stage to date was the Steel Wheels wonder – a neobaroque industrial structure fronted by giant blowup dolls and massive video screens. "It was a landmark," says Patrick Woodruff, the lighting designer on both that tour and the current one. "The Steel Wheels stage broke the standard look of the stadium show, which had been a PA system and video screens set around a rectangular stage." So last year, when the Stones began talking tour, Jagger, who is behind every decision the group makes, thought of Mark Fisher, the London-based architect who designed the Steel Wheels stage.

"Mick contacted me last January, and we've met or spoken about once every two weeks since," says Fisher, who also designed the Zoo TV set for U2 and the stage currently on tour with Pink Floyd. When approached by Jagger, Fisher decided he wanted to do something special. More than any other band, the Stones have a financial reserve equal to the demands of the architect's imagination. "With the Voodoo Lounge tour, we wanted to change the way people see the rock show," Fisher says. "We wanted to get some ideas across – ideas about the 21st century, about the future as clean and cool and technologically upbeat. A place filled with computers, where information is something you traffic in. And we also wanted a stage that knocks you over when you see it."

Working closely with Jagger and Watts, who together function as the Stones' visual sense, Fisher came up with a stage stripped bare of standard PA towers, overhead steel structures and hanging lights. All sound issues from a few slender columns. The set's backdrop, a 300-foot wall that represents the information highway, comes alive with the glow of 1,200 light bulbs. This stage, which cost around $4 million to build, progressed in four months from sketches to scale models and finally to a Toronto airplane hangar, where it was fully constructed for dress rehearsals. All told, the set was assembled from thousands of separate pieces built in France, Belgium, England, Texas, Pennsylvania and California, and it will be hauled around the nation this fall in 50 semitrucks.

Throughout the stage design and construction process, Woodruff has employed what he calls the Streisand Test. "However wonderful and beautiful and amazing a stage, and even if it's a fantastic stage for the Rolling Stones," he explains, "we have to ask ourselves, 'Can Barbra Streisand play on it?' And if the answer is yes, we chuck it."

Charlie Watts is sitting on a green couch in his suite at the Four Seasons hotel in Toronto. Every few minutes, he crosses the room to look through a window down at the street. The street is crowded with summer traffic. The other band members have rented houses around town, sprawling estates with barbecues and swimming pools where they will soon be joined by their families. But Watts, who at 53 is the band's oldest member (an honor previously held by 57-year-old Bill Wyman), prefers the quiet anonymity of a hotel. "Charlie likes to have his little room and little things in near little rows," says Wood. "He likes everything neat and clean."

The drummer is wearing pressed green pants, a green T-shirt and the sort of two-tone shoes sported by the Chicago gangsters he admired as a kid. "People say we risk nothing going back out on the road," Watts says, folding his arms. "But we risk reputation, and that's everything." Standing to cross the room, he moves with the jaunty grace of a silent-film star. In the middle of the room, arranged on custom-made shipping racks, his silk suits and sport shirts are neatly spaced. Stepping around these racks, he walks over to the window and looks out on downtown Toronto, the tall buildings that cut the skyline and behind that the flat blue expanse of Lake Ontario, like a photographer's pull-down backdrop. "You miss the road when you're not on it," says Watts, looking down. "Then you get back, and you're fed up right away. This is the worst bit. Rehearsal. You never know if the band still clicks until you get before a crowd."

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