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

But is it still the greatest show on earth?

The Rolling Stones Keith Richards Mick Jagger
Photo by Anton Corbijn
The Rolling Stones appear on the cover of Rolling Stone
By |

'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."

Rolling Stones Album Guide: The Good, The Bad, and The 'Angie'

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."

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."

The phone rings. Watts looks across the room and then decides to answer it. Saying hello, his voice becomes a whisper, like a man phoned entirely too early on a Sunday morning. And now he's talking to someone about the set, about an image of Elvis Presley that is to appear above the stage during the show. "We need to change that," he says, into the receiver. "It's wrong."

Hanging up, Watts returns to the couch. Fisher, he explains, has chosen a Vegas-era Elvis. And what the band needs now is a young Elvis – Elvis in pink or in gold lame.

This is the crux of it, isn't it? Rock & roll is not an easy place to grow old gracefully, and for a group of aging rockers to associate themselves with a latter-day King, a man fast ballooning toward self-parody, seems the worst kind of judgment. "With age, what you learn most is doing what you do even better," Watts says. "That doesn't mean Louis Armstrong at 70 was better than Louis Armstrong at 20. But he did get Louis Armstrong across better. And the same is true with the Stones.

"It must seem strange that we do the same thing with the same boys all these years later," Watts continues, standing. "It seems strange to me. But it's like when you get drunk at a bar and wonder later how you got home. You know where you are – you're home – but how did you get there? That's the mystery."
Over time, life has grown more complicated for the Rolling Stones. In the '60s this was a band driven by instinct, by those same forces that have always led boys to girls. "When you're in your teens, everything's intense – friendship and love," says Jagger. "That intensity may follow into your 20s, but after that, you've got to find other things." For Jagger, a growing motivation is the sheer pleasure of doing business – not so much the dollars and cents of touring as the thrill of bringing off such a largescale operation. These days, it seems, when Jagger sings about satisfaction, he may be thinking less of willing teen-age girls than of the neat aesthetics of a well-turned deal. "That's what lead vocalists are like," says Wood. "They want to know just what's going on, and for an old LSE [London School of Economics] student like Mick, there's a thrill in keeping an eye on everything."

Some Stones associates, debunking the carefree image of rock & roll on the road, even refer to the Voodoo Lounge tour, which will employ thousands of people in several countries, as the Company. "This is a disposable corporation," says Patrick Woodruff. "The Company will run for a year and a half and have an income of hundreds of millions of dollars and employ doctors and travel agents and accountants. And then we'll throw it all away."

Within this framework, the four Stones occupy the seats around the directors' table. Jagger, who micro-manages the financial nitty-gritty, acts as CEO. "He's involved with every decision, from stage design to ticket prices to merchandise," says Michael Cohl. Those decisions are funneled out through Prince Rupert Loewenstein in London, who has operated as the band's Big Picture Man since the early 70s and remains the invisible hand behind all managerial activity.

For his part, Cohl, who also promoted the Steel Wheels shows, acts as President of the tour. "If this is a corporation," he says, proudly, "we're in the Fortune 500." Cohl, who runs Concert Productions International and controls Brockum, one of the world's biggest rock-merchandising companies, has cut a special deal with the band. In return for the rights to the entire Voodoo Lounge tour and a share of the profits, Cohl has assumed much of the tour's financial risk. In 1989 he cut a similar deal, guaranteeing the Stones around $65 million to $70 million; he has promised them even more this time. In the end, after selling tickets and souvenirs to the 4 million people whom Cohl expects to see the Voodoo Lounge shows, the tour is likely to gross around $300 million.

On many rehearsal nights, in the quiet time after dinner, Jagger and Cohl sit at a long table in the Crescent School lunchroom, scanning figures. "We've got a lot at stake here," says Cohl. One thing that must concern both men is the stiff competition offered by big acts on the road this summer; in addition to Pink Floyd (also promoted by Cohl), there are the Eagles and the Elton John/Billy Joel tours. But the Stones may have checked this threat by keeping their top ticket price at $50, while Pink Floyd has charged $75 for some seats, and the Eagles have broken the $100 mark. (In 1989 the top Stones ticket went for $31.50.)

Yet within the context of a still sluggish national economy and a music world where the roads are crowded with aging rock bands, Cohl can still find plenty to worry about. "It's easy to look from the outside and say, 'These are the Stones, they will make money,'" he says. "But you always ask, 'What if?' What if the kids don't come? What if?"

Voodoo Lounge, the Company, will operate in the red for the next several months. Long before the first chord of the first show in Washington, D.C., has been struck and several months even before most tickets went on sale, the band anted up something like $20 million. Despite any risk, the Stones have spent this money joyfully, with the confidence of a man letting his dog run, a dog that has always come back before. And they spend it expansively: In addition to the stage, several million goes for housing, feeding and paying an entourage that by opening night will swell to 250 people. On any given night, 200 additional workers, each making about $10 to $20 an hour, will be hired to move the band. For each night the band plays, tens of thousands of dollars go for stadium rental. Giants Stadium, in New Jersey, for example, is costing the Stones around $75,000 a night for three nights. And for the tour, the Stones have leased a customized 727 jet for about $1 million.

"When you look at all the detail, you might think, I'm not really interested in that,'" says Jagger. "Well, you've got to be in the end, otherwise you wind up getting ripped off."

The band will not pay off this debt until next winter, when it crosses the red line marked on the map in tour coordinator Alan Dunn's office. Dunn can trace the route the band will follow across America and show just where the break-even point should fall, where ricket and T-shirt sales will at last outpace operating costs. "It should come in February," says Dunn, studying the map. "I watch it carefully and hope it doesn't move." And though no formal ceremony is held to mark the crossing (no toasts made, no parties thrown), employees note the day as you might note the first real day of spring, when the sun comes out and the snow melts and you can here the runoff in the streets. "Everyone," says Dunn, "is much happier on that day."

What came along in my lifetime which has been horrible for the youngsters is AIDS," says Ron Wood, looking at his wife, Jo. "That's why I would never be unfaithful."

"Don't you love me?" she asks. "What about love?"

"Well, of course, there's some of that, but boys will be boys," Wood goes on. "You know, I really do miss the old groupies. There used to be some great characters. Today, they're not as good looking as they used to be, and there's always the danger of catching the old full-blown."

Over the years, it seems, as they have been overcome with age and money, the volume of life on the road for the Stones has been gradually turned down. There are physical reasons for this. These days, when Jagger decides to go on tour, he is undertaking an endeavor that requires months of roadwork and weight lifting with the guidance of a personal trainer who travels with the tour. In many ways, in fact, the Stones are fighting a war of attrition with time. Last year, when Wyman became a casualty, some of the band members wondered if they would still be able to tour.

"I was incredibly mad at Bill," admits Richards. "I even thought of making him play at gunpoint." But in the end, he says, the addition of bassist Jones, who played for several years with Miles Davis, has given the band a fresh burst of energy. "It's amazing just what some new blood can do."

There are other reasons for the changing nature of life on tour. With age, some realizations have drained the road of mystique. The Stones once romanticized and even emulated the lives of black American blues singers crossing the nation with a guitar and a song. But at 51, Jagger sees these same men in a different light. "You make legends of their lives, but you don't really know how they lived," he says. "Their lives weren't documented in tabloids. And they made up their lives as they went along. I was a hobo on the railroad,' and the white people went, 'Cool.' In reality, it was scraping and fighting and being old at 40 and maybe not remembering half of what happened."

Jagger pauses, then says: "But it's surprising how much you do remember. Someone comes up and says, 'I saw you in Heidelberg in 1976. Do you remember the guy who ran out onstage?' And you say, 'Fucking hell, I do remember!'"

For Wood, the Rolling Stone who most enjoys those aspects of the road that remain freewheeling, all those little stories have become one big story, a narrative that recounts his life with the Stones and before that with the Faces in the early '70s and Jeff Beck in the late '60s. "I remember it all," says the 47-year-old guitarist. "I remember Anaheim when Mick said, 'Give me your shoes,' and onto the stage came a hail of shoes and one cowboy boot, and after the show we went out and looked for the other boot and could not find it, and it was a great comic mystery. And I remember Barcelona, where we played in the bullring and the red dust rising and the people." In the end, Wood says, he will continue to travel, with the Rolling Stones or with his own band, for the same reason that he continues to live. "To keep the story going," he says. "For the material."

"You're talking to the Madman," says Keith Richards. And as he talks, he smokes, and the smoke curls around his face, and his eyes look out from behind a brilliant fog. He smokes cigarettes in one, two, three monster drags, smokes them right down to the knuckle and has another lit before the first is out. "My image, I drag it on a chain behind me," he notes, chasing the smoke with slugs of Corona. "To some I'm a junkie madman who should be dead, and to others, I'm a mythical genius."

Richards is sitting in a green easy chair in a room across the hall from the gym where the Stones are rehearsing. Stubbing out a cigarette, Richards does not look old and does not look young but instead has entered that land beyond time, where each new wrinkle seems as promising as the folds in a familiar map. He is wearing a black sleeveless T-shirt and blue jeans, and tied around his waist is a black long-sleeved shirt decorated with skulls.

"If these guys didn't think they could still play better than anyone else, you couldn't drag them out of their mansions for all this," Richards says, waving his arm. Indeed, he seems unconcerned with the task at hand, with selling the Stones to yet another generation of rock fans. He says he has just finished reading six volumes of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and has acquired some perspective on the comparatively brief reign of the Rolling Stones. "We're the only band to take it this far," he says, reaching for his pack of smokes. "And if we trip and fall, you'll know that's how far it can be taken." He lights a cigarette. "If there's someone out there doing it better than us, they can have the gig," he says, exhaling. "But I ain't heard it so far."

What's more, Richards feels the band has already made it over the rough patch – the public rift between him and Jagger that was the subject of so much talk about 10 years ago. "We were just tired of always being the Rolling Stones," Richards says. "And since we couldn't find a way out, we started fighting and smashing it all to pieces. At that point, you either break up or weather the storm and never break those bones in the same place again." He pauses to stub out and light another cigarette, then says, "If we made it through the 1980s, we can go on forever."

Arriving at rehearsal from their homes in England and Ireland, the other members of the Stones seem a bit out of sorts. They have entered a strange country – rock & roll on the road – and must adjust to a change in time and climate. For Richards, however, everything seems just right – as if the plane landed, bringing him home. "I'm all messed up when a tour ends," he concedes. "Eight o'clock rolls around, and I'm looking for the gig. And what I really miss is the police motorcade. Even better than a platinum record is going through a Manhattan rush hour in 20 minutes."

In the course of the tour, unless something goes very wrong, Richards will leave the business dealings to Jagger, concerning himself instead with the rises and falls in the road. "Whenever we play outdoors, God joins the band," he says, dragging on his cigarette. "Suddenly, there is this other guy in the band, and he shows up in the form of wind or rain or whatever, and we've got to be ready to play with him."

When asked how long he thinks the Stones can endure – can a band of rock musicians play past age 60? – Richards stubs out his cigarette, lights another, inhales, exhales and declares: "Man, I don't know how long I'm gonna live. I was No. 1 on the death list for 20 years. Here's all I know: I look around and say, 'There's Mick, there's Charlie, and here's me, and we're the Rolling Stones, and God knows how that happened.' It's just you and your mates from way back. And then you start playing, and it feels the same as it did in the beginning. You might feel like dog shit two minutes before a show, but the minute you hit the crowd, you feel great. It's a cure for everything, and I recommend it for everybody."

Richards exhales and stubs out his cigarette. When he reaches for the pack, when he shakes it and looks inside and sees that it's empty, our discussion, in the most profound way, is over. "Come on, my boy," he says, standing. "Ronnie has a pack over in the gymnasium, and we're gonna start rehearsing again anyway."

The hour is late, but the Stones keep pushing back into the past. Tonight, they have returned to 1976 and are winding through a mournful version of "Memory Motel," from Black and Blue. Jagger, on the far side of the gym, is on keyboards and looking across the floor at Richards, who has found a cigarette. It dangles from the corner of his mouth. And his right arm, working slowly over the guitar, looks like something left too long in the wind and the rain.

Watts is sitting at his drums. His eyes are closed, his chin is resting on his chest, and he is waiting for the moment to come in. Wood, sitting on a stool, is looking down at the slide guitar on his lap, which he works at like a man solving logarithms. On some nights, wives come to rehearsal and stand around like mothers at a Little League game. "I asked the kids if they wanted to come," says Richards' wife, Patti Hansen, one evening. "And they said no, that Daddy is no fun when he's with his friends."

But tonight it's just the Stones, those great weathered faces, faces as recognizable and suggestive of mystery as those on Easter Island, faces that tell of a culture lost, of the rock & roll circus of the '70s. Sometimes, as he sings, Jagger walks through some of his concert moves (puckering his lips, shaking his hips), but it's just a walk-through, and it's clear that what he's thinking of is the music. The Stones might as well be playing in a garage. And what you really hear is what a good band they still are.

As "Memory Motel" winds down, Jagger stands at the keyboards, and his eyes go very far away. When the song ends, everyone is silent. "Ronnie, write that one down," Jagger finally says. "That sounds like something we can keep."

This is a story from the August 25, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 689: August 25, 1994