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The Rolling Stones: Notes from the Babylon Bar

On the road with the Rolling Stones

December 11, 1997
Mick Jagger Keith Richards Rolling Stones
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the cover of Rolling Stone
Photo by Mark Seliger

Backstage, on the second night of the Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon tour, most of the world that will cosset and comfort them over the next year is up and running – a world that is serviced by at least six chefs, including a dedicated dessert chef, and that allows two full-time tour employees to have their job listed in the tour program as Backstage Ambience. In the area known as Bar Babylon, I float on the edge of a conversation with some non-performing Rolling Stones insiders. The hot topics of conversation: the best face creams, the rise of Krispy Kreme do-nuts. Over on the other side of the room, Keith Richards greets the visiting blues wives (Muddy Waters', Willie Dixon's). Keith's father, Bert, wanders by, smoking a pipe, talking about the 20 lengths he swims each day. Ronnie Wood has some glitter on his face, which he excuses as (a) "posh cocaine" and (b) a side product of all the women he has to greet. "Where's wardrobe?" he asks. "And why am I asking now? We've already done one show...."

Keith Richards is scooping ice into a glass with his right hand when we are introduced. My first moment with him. Warm pirate grin; ice-cold handshake.

Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones

These shows start with a bendy, overexcited, un-anchored "Satisfaction." Each Rolling Stone easily slips back into role. On Mick Jagger's face, there's the determination and the scowling effort and, when it's going well, that swagger. He shimmies and contorts himself in a flurry of hyperactivity, always as though he is trying to prove something. Charlie Watts has that slightly bemused, patient look, his head turned slightly to one side, half-smiling: It's silly, really, isn't it? Ron Wood assumes his customary jack-the-lad demeanor. Whenever a camera for the overhead screen comes close, he displays his casual repertoire of daftness: the stuck-out tongue, the stupid face. As for Keith Richards . . . anyone who is cynical about the Rolling Stones' motives in touring the world once more – as plenty, quite reasonably, are – would struggle to explain Richards' exploding grin, at once childlike and old-man wise, stuffed with delight and reverie.

This is the Bridges to Babylon tour. Except . . . well, I'll let Mick Jagger explain it. "We haven't got a fucking bridge yet," he pouts. It won't arrive until 10 days into the tour. "I ordered it," he laughs. He says it's like decorating your flat: Everything's supposed to be ready for a party on Friday, but when Friday comes, there are no curtains.

"And," he repeats, "there's no fucking bridge."

What's the worst part of getting old?
Ronnie Wood: When your ankles start to change color [lifts up an ankle and shows off discolored blotches]. It's not serious. It's probably just broken veins. I still feel like I'm 23. My kids are, like, 'You're so old.' That's the hardest thing about old – when the kids kind of rub it in.

Mick Jagger: I suppose you do think about the time that's allotted to you more than when you were younger. The mortality thing obviously has a stronger pull for you. It's an imminent truth; it's not necessarily a bad thing. You realize – much earlier than my age now – that you won't be able to play for England's football team, just to take a really crass example. So you can't have that life again. Unless you believe in reincarnation or whatever. Reincarnation? That's a whole other question. I find people who talk about that sort of thing in interviews idiotic. And I don't want to go down with them.

Mick Jagger Through the Years

Charlie Watts: It's only if my wife mentions growing old, because I think it affects women a lot more than men, this stuff. It'd be nice to be rich and grow old – I'd hate to be shuffling 'round Brixton Market in a pair of slippers. Then again, I'll probably be shuffling 'round the garden.

Keith Richards: I haven't found it yet. I still zoom around and do what I do. I'd hate to have to go 'round thinking about [derisively] health and shit like that. It's never occurred to me. This is what I am, this is what I've got, and I do what 1 do. It's such a sturdy frame, this; I even abused it to see how far it could go, but that was a long time ago. Hey, I've got the measure of this thing. [Lights a cigarette] There's only one really fatal disease, I've concluded. It's called hypochondria. And it is deadly.

 

SOME MYTHS ADDRESSED, SOME PROPAGATED #1
The Rolling Stones' history has been repeated and regurgitated and mulched over and over. I read all the books: the smart ones, the sturdy ones, the dumb ones. It is, I decide, only the occasional pithy detail that demands revisiting.

You are, I believe, one of the few rock stars who actually has pushed a TV out a window.
Keith Richards: Yeah. In the old days, motel TVs were bolted to the floor, so that was the challenge. Room service had pissed us off by refusing to serve us.

They weren't just late?
Richards: No. We didn't do it for little things. That was 1969, and as I say, it was a very strange year.

How far down did it fall?
Richards: About 11 stories.

Was it exciting?
Richards: Well, by then it had become a project. You do things like that on the road when you've been up four or five days.

Do you still skip nights?
Richards: I'll do two days sometimes.

On this tour already?
Richards: Yeah. A couple of times.

But no three-dayers?
Richards: Not unless I have to. Nine was as far as I could go. And loads of four and fives, especially with Ronnie in the '70s. But after three days, another thing clicks in. It's a fascinating world. I was so interested in what I was doing, whether it was music, songs, tapes, listening, talking, that sleep seemed superfluous.

Presumably you can't do the long multiples without the right drugs.
Richards: [Nods] Oh, no, the chemistry comes into play here. Incredibly important, of course. It was a laboratory. As far as I was concerned, the whole thing was a scientific expedition.

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