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

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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.

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