The Rolling Stones: Notes from the Babylon Bar

Page 5 of 6

That night, backstage in Philadelphia, I am invited into the tuning room. Wood gets me a Guinness. "This is the sanctuary," Richards explains. "This is the string section's room." For a couple of hours before the show, the two guitarists gravitate between here, where they noodle about together on guitars, and the bar, where they play each other at snooker.

Wood stands up. "I've got a bee up my nose," he complains.

"It could be anything up to the size of a large bat," mutters Richards. "The sun's not down," he adds quietly.

Wood nods. "Can't wake up till the sun goes down."

Richards breaks into a spirited boogie; Ronnie sits back down and joins in. Richards breaks off and holds up his guitar. "Some guitars are too good for the stage. This is a '54." He points to Ronnie's. "That's a '47." It's a nice flourish, within all the ritual excess of such tours: these guitars traveling from city to city, tuning room to tuning room, never to be seen in public, forever a private pleasure.

An emissary tells Richards and Wood that they will be required in 10 minutes for the meet 'n' greet with people of local importance – in particular the representatives of their sponsor, Sprint.

"Meet 'n' greet," grumbles Richards. "That shit. Sprint in and out. Can we do it by phone?" He plays on. "We had enormous gunfights about which song to play," he says. "Everything was cool. Once the smoke cleared."

Mick Jagger joins us. This is a different Jagger from the one I met in a hotel room or the one I see onstage. Those have a certain swagger and a king-of-the-castle-and-I-don't-care insouciance about them. But this man looks like the other Jagger you see in those early-'60s clips – already cocky, no doubt, but also delicate, slightly effete and curiously deferential, his arms always likely to fold over in front of his body when they have nothing else to do.

Wood has something to ask Jagger. Tonight is Blues Traveler's final night opening for the band, and maybe this can be the night when John Popper satisfies a small dream. "The bloke from Blues Traveler," Wood says, "offered his services as an extra harp player . . . "

"Fuck off," says Jagger.

"I thought you'd say that," says Richards. "The dueling harps – I don't see it."

"He's a pretty good harp player though," Jagger reflects. "Too good. He plays an awful lot of notes."


Which book have you read twice?
Ronnie Wood: Silence of the Lambs. I like evil books.

Jagger: Travels With My Aunt, by Graham Greene, comes to mind instantly. I've read quite a lot of Graham Greene twice. He's a very good prose stylist.

Charlie Watts: I've just been through all the Wodehouse books: Jeeves and Wooster. I think he's very funny.

Keith Richards: Loads of them. I never catch it all the first time. There's an excellent book I've quite often read called Hashish, by a couple of French guys. Very interesting. It's an education in chemistry and folklore. I've done the Bible and the Koran a few times. Sometimes just for the prose, sometimes for information. The Kamasutra I've been through a few times, come to think of it. [Laughs] I've done the chandelier, and the revolving table with the melon. I've done it all, mate.


Sometimes they have come to blows. Keith Richards enjoys telling of the Amsterdam Watts vs. Jagger affair in the '80s, when a drunk Jagger phoned up Watts' room at 5 in the morning and referred to him as "my drummer." Legend has it that Watts got dressed in his best clothes, went to find Jagger and nearly punched him out a window.

"It never actually happened like that," says Jagger. "He pushed me, but I don't think he actually punched me. There's quite a lot of difference, in my book."

Watts acknowledges the incident – "I was drunk. I was really pissed off" – but looks mortified at its mention. "It's not something I'm proud of," he says.

Then there was the great Richards vs. Wood setto sometime around the end of the '70s or the beginning of the '80s. "There was too much stuff going on in his room," Richards recalls. "He had some dodgy people in there."

"He came at me with a broken bottle," remembers Ronnie. "He was going for the face. So I said, 'Keith, I may be stupid, but I'm not a cunt.'" Ronnie fought back: "He'd have gone out the window if someone didn't catch him."

Do you think he would have used the bottle? Ronnie nods. "Yeah."

And, as it happens, there has been a third, more recent, altercation. Holed up in Toronto before the tour started, the band had decided, unusually, to rehearse on a Saturday. Ronnie had pointed out that he would want to stop to see the boxing: Oscar De La Hoya vs. Hector Camacho. He had a bet on it. "Everyone watched it as well," says Ronnie, "but I got the blame for dragging everyone away from the rehearsal. But, unknown to me, Keith was pacing during the whole fight, waiting for everyone."

After the fight, Ronnie went upstairs to the rehearsal room. "I was totally surprised. I walked back in and . . . hrrgggh-hhhh-eurgghhhhhhh!" explains Wood.

Richards leapt on Wood, his hands around Wood's throat. "Everyone was in shock," says Wood. "But it's something I have to be aware of with Keith, you know. I could say, 'OK, I can't live with this shit,' but he's my mate. He's my pal."

Were the others there?

"Yeah," he says. "Just . . . shocked."

Keith doesn't look too happy when I bring this up. As it turns out, there is another side to this story. "I had to go to a funeral the next day, and I made a mistake," he says quietly. "I was pissed off at being there, and I was left alone. When Ronnie came back . . . I'd asked him to stay with me, because I should have been with my old lady, whose sister had died, and I felt very bad about that. The next day I had to fly to New York and carry a coffin, so I wasn't really compos mentis. But in a band, anyone got a problem, it's best to flash it out straightaway . . . "



Have you ever performed with anything stuffed down your trousers?
Jagger: Oh, no. Do people actually do that?

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