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The Rolling Stones: Notes from the Babylon Bar

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SCENES FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH CHARLIE WATTS
I am invited to Watts' hotel room, which is meticulously tidy. He reluctantly turns down his jazz, in deference to my tape recorder, but doesn't seem pleased with the compromise. His wife has just flown off to a horse show in Germany; he seems a little melancholy, but he oozes gentle dignity. When I ask a question that seems foolish, he furrows his brow, like a kind uncle trying to be patient with the wayward next generation, and simply says "Good Lord..." before gamely attempting a reply. "Mick's good at interviews, you know, and you get only so much, and he doesn't want you to have any more," he says. "Whereas I'll prattle on forever. But it's not of much importance . . . "

He has mixed feelings about being on tour. "It's still a huge pressure," he says. "All I really like to do is play the drums with this band. The rest of it I find very difficult to take. The world of this is a load of crap. You get all these bloody people, so incredibly sycophantic. Us sitting here doing this is a bit . . . " He looks along the sofa at me with friendly distaste. "Well," he says, definitely. "It is."

The Rolling Stones on the Cover of Rolling Stone

So we talk about the 29 dogs Watts lives with on his stud farm in the English countryside. The numbers are growing because his wife is on a mission to save ex-racing greyhounds. "I used to have a pig, actually," he says. "Billy Pig." Billy Pig lived in the house until he got too big. Watts tells me of his sports memorabilia; of his earlier cowboy obsession; of the 1937 Lagonda Rapide that sits in the garage because he has never learned to drive; of his vintage guns. He is a collector and, one might deduce, a compulsive.

One of the most fascinating things about Charlie Watts is how, after sitting out some of the most extreme drug abuse of the late 20th century, he quietly and privately became a heroin addict himself for a period in the mid-'80s. I don't exactly bring it up, but he misunderstands a question I ask about Mick and Keith's fractured relationship during that decade. He nods. "I was very fucked up," he says. "I was warring with myself at that time."

We talk about the band. "I'm closer to Mick than I've ever been," he says. "I think Jerry's done that. The children and that. He's grown up a lot."

Would you accuse Keith of having grown up?

"No. He's a bohemian. They don't work by the book. He'll either miss very badly, whatever it is, or he's 100 percent and two weeks ahead of you. I've seen Keith fall asleep at business meetings about millions of dollars for him – because of heroin, just nod out, and then wake up and answer a question."

And Ronnie?

"I don't really know him as well like that. He's a very likable person. He's not grown-up. He doesn't need to be. He's not at all sensible, Ronnie. It's not his role. He's a maniac."

For decades, Charlie Watts has followed an on-tour ritual. In each hotel room in which he stays, he sketches the bed. (Sometimes other things, too: a lamp, hotel signs, his meals.) It began when he was bored, which was often, and now he has to do it. He can't leave a room without doing it. "It's a panic," he says. "I always try to do it when I get there." It's a diary, of sorts. "All the rooms look the same, really," he says.

 

SOME MYTHS ADDRESSED, SOME PROPAGATED #3

Did you really use to own a Hovercraft?
Keith Richards: Yes. But it was the size of this table. I bought it for my son to play with. It went 'round the lawn for about two weeks. We hovered in there for a while. Interesting sensation. And then it went in the moat. It never came out the same.

(Perhaps that is the perfect metaphor for true, untrammeled, insulated '70s rock stardom in all its pointlessness and gloriousness. The Hovercraft went in the moat, and it never came out the same. But what the hell. It was your Hovercraft. And your moat.)

 

WHAT MICK AND KEITH DID ON THEIR HOLIDAYS
Keith Richards is discussing his lead singer's acting career. "As far as I'm concerned, I like to keep Mick busy doing rock & roll to stop him doing those things," he says. "Mick, to me, is a purely physical and audio person. I don't really think acting is his forte and métier. But at the same time, if you've got to do it, have another bash, boy."

You sound like someone who's seen Freejack.

"No," he says. "Just the ads."

Nonetheless, Jagger has a new film awaiting release. Richards says he had no idea it even existed. The film, Bent, is about gay prisoners in a Nazi concentration camp. Jagger appears for the first 20 or so minutes as a faded drag queen, both in and out of drag, and he is quite splendid in it.

"Did you like Bent," Jagger asks me carefully, "or did you get bored?"

I reassure him. He says that he was a little wary about slipping into another frock. He's since been offered another drag part: "A gay man that's mad about Latins. I haven't read it yet."

Why do people come to you for that?

"I don't know. Because it's a laugh and they know that I'll... do things."

You have a great expression in Bent, as though you have done every last debauched thing but you simply don't care. I was vaguely wondering where you got that look from.

He smirks. "It's acting, darling."

Keith Richards has another new album, Wingless Angels, which he co-produced, played on and shepherded into existence. He has been hanging around and playing with a group of Rastafarians in Jamaica for 25 years. This music – mostly drum rhythms and voices performing slow, soaring versions of traditional songs – isn't, he says, just nice; it is "good for you. These people understand the necessity for trance in one's life. The beat they play is designed to be just slightly under heart-rate."

This is one of the mistakes people make with Keith Richards: They see him punching out the chords to a rough rock song, and they imagine that's where the whole of his heart is. But, more and more, Keith Richards' strength is his sentimentality. The closing two songs on Bridges to Babylon &Ndash; "Thief in the Night" and "How Can I Stop" &Ndash; are, even with Richards' strange voice curled around them, two of the most affecting. "See, chicks see the other side of me, which guys don't," he says. "I have a good empathy with women. I mean, nobody has ever divorced me." Quite who that is directed at, I think we should leave to the parties concerned.

 

When did you last cry?
Charlie Watts: When I last left home, because I hate leaving home. And I was a bit sad today because our remaining cat died. Jezebel. A bit sad, really. Well, not a bit sad, very sad.

Jagger: This morning, when my toast was burned. When I read your Madonna interview. She shouldn't have let you in the flat, I reckon.

Keith Richards: I cry quite often. I look at a picture of my grandfather sometimes, listening to music that he loved. And I cry for dead Jackie, my dead Rastaman who is on that record we just brought out.

Ronnie Wood: Watching Princess Di's funeral. All those poor people. So sad. It silenced everything, didn't it? Two days before, I was on the plane with Dodi. My wife used to go out with him. He proposed to her and everything. In fact, she dumped Dodi for me. I think that was a good move on her part.

 

A CONVERSATION ABOUT DAVID DUCHOVNY AND PREMATURE EJACULATION

Did you read what David Duchovny said about you recently?
Jagger: [Quizzically] David Duchovny?

Do you know who he is?
Mick Jagger: I do indeed. X-Files. Actor. What did he say?

He was talking about how much he liked you when he was young, and he said you "offered the promise of premature ejaculation."
Mick Jagger: [Slightly amused] What does that mean?

I thought you could help me here.
Mick Jagger: The promise? In a sort of gay-sex way, I suppose. I assume. What else could you assume? [Pause] I met him.

And he didn't mention this?
Jagger: [Shakes his head] He didn't talk about premature ejaculation. It was more of a business meeting. About an action thriller called, at the moment, All the King's Horses.

And not a word about premature ejaculation?
Jagger: No, nothing [laughs]. There were other people there.

Do you think it's a compliment?
Jagger: Yeah. Anything that lures you with a promise of something like that has got to be a compliment.

Yes, but premature ejaculation can be a bad thing . . .
Jagger: No, I assume it was when he was younger. . . . [Stops short, reconsidering] Well, maybe it isn't such a good thing. If I go to the second meeting, we'll bring it up.

 

SCENES FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH RONNIE WOOD
Ronnie strides in, bearing cans. A Guinness for him, a Guinness for me. We are in Philadelphia, two weeks into the tour. I accept enthusiastically, and from then on, whenever I am in the same room as Ronnie, he will get me a Guinness. Perhaps this is a common form of Ron Wood bonding. Later he will recite the last fax he got from Bob Dylan: "Hey, Woody. How are you doing? I'm sending you this from East Asia. You can't get good Guinness down here. Send a truck. Love, Bob." Bob Dylan visited him in Ireland last July. They recorded lots of Dylan's songs and a couple for Wood's next solo album, After School, which he plans to release first as an instrumental because "that way people can't criticize my voice."

Wood is another on-tour sketcher: "I do views from hotel windows when I'm not allowed to go out walking," he says. "There's a lot of old, fat people outside that make it hard for you, and they've usually got guitars in their hands." Until fairly recently, Wood sometimes had to support himself by selling his portraits. He was made a full member of the band only in this decade.

"I didn't mind doing, like, a 17-year apprenticeship," he says with a broad, but somewhat wistful, smile.

Of course you bloody did.

"No. I mean, I wasn't treated like a skivvy," he says. "I was always respected. But it's a hard nut to crack, the Stones' financial side. Everything comes to he who waits." He has other reasons not to be bitter: "Luckily, the big money only came when I got cut in."

A final, odd detail. Ron Wood does not know the lyrics of many of the Rolling Stones' most famous songs: "Brown Sugar" and "Jumpin' Jack Flash," for instance. "I like to keep them preserved as I've always heard them," he says. Recently he's been sneaking a glance at the teleprompter, particularly during rehearsals, if he's got his glasses on. It's a fresh new world of discovery. "I was reading 'Bitch,' " he says, "and I was cracking up at some of the words."

 

SCENES FROM AN INTERVIEW WITH KEITH RICHARDS
Since our first chilled handshake, Keith Richards has been involved in a pop tiff. In an interview for Entertainment Weekly, he was asked about the death of Princess Diana and shared a few thoughts about her funeral singer, Elton John. John's main talent, he said, is writing "songs for dead blondes."

"He's so pathetic, poor thing," Elton John retorted. "It's like a monkey with arthritis, trying to go onstage and look young." The second part of the accusation is strange – if a Rolling Stone is guilty of trying to look young, it's not Keith Richards – but it's the phrase "monkey with arthritis" that caught the public imagination.

Richards ushers me into his Philadelphia hotel room and fixes himself another vodka and cranberry. The room is as you would imagine seeing Keith Richards' Room in a rather heavy-handed biopic. Incense is burning. Scarves are draped over the lamps. There is a photo of '60s soul singer Garnet Mimms across the room, a small framed photograph of Richards' grandfather Gus on the desk. We sit at a table littered with books: The Rastafarian, Erotica Universalis, Antonio Vivaldi. Some Portuguese guitar music booms from a hefty music system.

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