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Love and War Inside the Rolling Stones

How the band endured drugs, booze, tragedy and each other to bring back the greatest show on earth

May 7, 2013 10:00 AM ET
rolling stones mick jagger keith richards charlie watts ronnie wood terry richardson cover 1183
The Rolling Stones on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Terry Richardson for RollingStone.com

Perhaps these men, the Rolling Stones, should not be here, at this time in their lives, doing this – doing it so well and so scarily. It is a Friday afternoon, late April, in a rehearsal space the size of a large garage, on the outskirts of Burbank, California. Keith Richards, the band's rhythm guitarist, stands just a few feet in front of white-haired drummer Charlie Watts, who is following intently as Richards plays the intricate and foreboding opening pattern of "Gimme Shelter" with the delicacy of a man edging through hell. When Richards begins the pattern again, Watts joins on drums, just a shadow behind the guitar's beat, and lead singer Mick Jagger moans a high-pitched spooky howl, sounding like the ghost of a future you never want to see arrive yet can't wait for. Then the whole band – Richards, Watts, guitarist Ronnie Wood, bassist Darryl Jones, backup singer Bernard Fowler and keyboardist Chuck Leavell (who is playing with one hand, as his other tries to staunch a steady nosebleed) – bears down on the song with a menacing roar. Jagger paces back and forth in front of the others, in cat-feet movements, making eye contact with nobody, looking at some space beyond the room's walls – that the band sounds capable of battering through – as he sings his mortal plea: "Oh, a storm is threatening/My very life today/If I don't get some shelter/Oh, yeah, I'm gonna fade away." This song is Jagger and Richards' best collaboration in dread – a vision of ruination and a benediction of mercy. In this room, on this afternoon, it also works as a reminder that, in the moments of creating something so frightening and liberating, these men cannot afford to escape their fellowship. In this space, they have to work together and help one another. "The individual components of the band," says producer Don Was, "merge into this one thing that is the Rolling Stones, and when it merges, man, it's really powerful. When you stop hearing the parts and you see the forest from the trees, it's a huge, powerful entity."

Inside Rolling Stones 50: Rare Photos of the Band's Career

The occasion is a rehearsal for the Stones' first major tour in six years, following a handful of concerts in Paris, London, Brooklyn and Newark, New Jersey, in the fall of 2012, commemorating the band's 50th anniversary as a performing unit. Last year's shows and the present tour both amount to an extraordinary milestone, for various reasons. Few musical units of any sort survive, much less prosper, with its core membership (Jagger, Richards and Watts) intact. As Watts pointed out to me, the only other major band of the past century to enjoy such longevity was Duke Ellington's, which the jazz pianist led from 1924 to 1974 – 50 years – though there was no lasting core membership during those decades.

The math in all this means that the musicians in the room are in their fifties to seventies and are playing a volatile sort of music that's commonly regarded as the province of the young and defiant. In the early and mid-1960s, the Rolling Stones represented attitudes, looks, desires and resentments – and in turn were reviled, condemned, targeted for legal persecution and even, at times, banned. ("Not usually the ingredients for longevity," Richards says.) Though the Stones have aged, and though much has changed in the past 50 years, they remain the most definitional band that rock & roll has produced. They continue to play music with tenacity and a sense of risk, as if it's still possible to upset the world around them with sound and rhythm. They have made that collective determination into an ongoing defiance, despite the dismay of some critics and even peers. "You know, they're congratulating the Stones on being together 112 years," John Lennon said in 1980, not long before his death. "Whoopee!" Yet here the Rolling Stones are, in 2013, playing with an uncanny unity as they embark on what will possibly be their most anticipated series of musical performances since the epochal treks of America in 1969 and 1972.

They will, of course, be well rewarded for their efforts. Ticket prices for these appearances range from around $150 to more than $2,000. In April, Kid Rock told Rolling Stone, "We're all over-paid. It's ridiculous. People stopped going to concerts because they can't afford them! The Rolling Stones are charging $600. That just makes me speechless. I love the Stones, but I won't be attending."

The Rolling Stones Offer Plenty of Surprises in Los Angeles Tour Kickoff

At one point, I ask Jagger if he worries that there's an incongruity between the band's lucrative success and its early renegade image. "Well, I don't know," he says. "I don't really want to go . . . that's like an endless, sort of commerce versus art, rebelliousness and, um. . . ." Richards doesn't dismiss the subject out of hand, but it also doesn't seem to nag at him very much, either. "From my point of view," he says, "it's like this: We say we want to put a Stones tour together and people come to us with proposals. And these proposals are all basically the same. We actually did push down the prices a little bit. We took the lower offer, in other words. But, um, it's the price of the market. I don't really know. I don't have much to do with it other than I would like people to get in, to be able to afford to get in, without sort of starving their babies and all. And that's about it."

Despite the tour's commercial prospects, Jagger – who approves every detail on any tour – had doubts about this venture as recently as early 2012. "Basically," he told Rolling Stone, "we're just not ready." When we talk in L.A., shortly before the tour is about to open, Jagger says, "Well, I said that because we were being offered so many things, the Olympics and stuff, and it was a really good way. . . ." He pauses, then doubles back. "It was true, they weren't in shape to do it. That was a good excuse for me to turn down all these things." But the problem wasn't just preparedness.

The band is notorious for occasional discord and intrigue, stretching back to the group's early years, when guitarist Brian Jones floundered in his attempt to take the band's leadership as Jagger and Richards emerged as the Rolling Stones' creative force. In later years, it became evident that Jagger and Richards no longer always saw eye to eye about the band's purposes, and Richards' legendary keenness for heroin and alcohol threatened to rout the band's chances.

Keith Richards on His Remarkable New Memoir, Life

In 2010, Jagger and Richards' relationship was strained to the brink when Richards published his acclaimed autobiography, Life. He said some brutal things about his friendship with Jagger, and about the singer's personality, in Life's pages, and Jagger was hurt and angered. Richards, anticipating the arrival of the Stones' 50th anniversary, later contacted the band's members and said, "Hey, boys, I'm getting itchy. Anybody feel like it?" But Jagger wasn't willing to shrug off Life's insults so easily.

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