Things have also proved unsteady at times for those who remain in the Rolling Stones. Richards incurred his drug travails, followed by years of drinking. For the present, he's keeping his intake moderate. "Being totally straight would be unnatural to me, you know? Everything in moderation, really. It's when you forget that little old cliché that shit can hit the fan." Richards also sustained serious cranial damage in 2006, after falling from a tree in Fiji. "I'd totally forgot about it," he says, "except when I sometimes scratch my head and there's a dent there. I go, 'Oh, yeah.'" According to a friend of Richards', the guitarist must take medication on a daily basis as a result of the incident. Wood also suffered injury, breaking his legs in a car accident in 1990, in Newbury, England. "I had an operation a year ago, where they had to open my foot up and refill the hole in the bone with parts of my knee and hip. It took really well and has healed, but I still have to be careful with standing too long." A few years ago, Wood quit drinking and using drugs altogether. He says he is playing guitar better than ever. "It's some kind of magic," he says, "the reassurance of the clarity that I now have. I find that I'm playing far less now, but the stuff that I do play has far more meaning. That's the big reward. We all see it, especially in the rapport with Keith. He and I have this kind of unwritten thing of,'Yes, that's what we've been trying to say,' rather than eyes down and meet you at the end, the way it used to be – drug-fueled."
Even Watts, the most naturally graceworthy of the Rolling Stones, briefly had difficulty with drugs – "a period of taking heroin," he said in a 2011 interview. "I used to get off it whenever I went home. My wife noticed I wasn't the same." Watts was also diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004 and underwent two operations to treat the disease. Today, at age 71, he is the Rolling Stone who works the hardest. Over the course of a two-and-a-half-hour show, Jagger can strap on an acoustic guitar and stand still at the microphone, or leave the stage during Richards' two-song spot, as a brief rest of sorts. Watts cannot leave the stage or pause. "That's a drummer's lot," he says. "The drummer is the engine. There's nothing worse than being out of breath or your hands are killing you, and you still have a quarter of the show to go. That's the worst one."
Only Jagger has withstood his tenure in the band without any serious health concerns or debilitating crises, though his marriage to Bianca Jagger ended in 1979, and his 22-year relationship with Jerry Hall ended in 1999. Plus there are the vicissitudes of his partnership with Richards. The men's writing relationship has been off and on over the years – tearing and fraying as far back as some of the material for Exile on Main Street in the early 1970s. During sessions for 2005's A Bigger Bang, Jagger says, they often collaborated face to face in the studio. Those days haven't returned yet: Last year's "Doom and Gloom" was written and partly recorded by Jagger before the band worked on it – it's his guitar riff that opens the track. ("I don't give a damn," Richards told Rolling Stone's Brian Hiatt last year. "He'd never have learned how to play that without me teaching him how to do it.") And the band's other 2012 track, "One More Shot," came from material that Richards had been preparing for a possible future solo album.
This is to say that there has been some toll – though not equally distributed – in the life of the Rolling Stones. But not enough to deter them, or any audience, in the past 50 years. What is it that sustains that appeal? Answers Jagger, "I could say just these things I usually do, but the answer is that you don't really know. Why do the Rolling Stones endure? I always say, because they're successful. Because people still like them. However much we might like to do it for ourselves, if nobody wants to see you, then we probably wouldn't do it. But you ask me what we mean to ongoing and changing audiences, I don't know what we mean. I haven't got a clue. I do think our sort of longevity, standing up for being long-lived, rather than being any good – I'm not saying we're not any good – but that longevity adds an extra sort of layer to the appeal. Adding a patina to the piece of old furniture. Because you've been around for 50 years, it does add this kind of . . . this luminosity, if you want. But in some ways, it's a kind of a disadvantage, because then you're tempted to rely on it, you know?"
For once, Jagger overstates himself. On Saturday night, April 27th, the Rolling Stones jump-start their 2013 tour with a surprise show at a Los Angeles music club, the Echoplex, in the neighborhood of Echo Park. The show was announced only a few hours earlier, and about 500 people obtained tickets – a fairly even mix of young people and those who appear to be 50 or over. On this night, in this small space, the Rolling Stones rely on nothing but talent and drive, and both are prolific. In a 90-minute set, they play 14 songs, spanning music of their own from 1968 ("Street Fighting Man") to 1994 ("You Got Me Rocking"), along with covers of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie," the Temptations' "Just My Imagination," and "That's How Strong My Love Is" (originally recorded by O.V. Wright in 1964, and by Otis Redding in 1965). The Stones are astoundingly loud and raw – they are like an avant-garde din – with Richards' guitar work sounding undyingly ominous. Jagger proves tireless and protean. His expressions mutate constantly, and though he has sung these songs more times than might be knowable, he still delivers them as fervent discoveries, as hilarious or imperative or desperate – and always with what is either a wild abandon or a remarkable enactment of it. Richards pauses playing for a moment while watching the singer, then shakes his head with an admiring smile that he turns to share with Wood, who then shares it with Watts.
Days before, Richards and I had been talking about the Everly Brothers' reunion concert at Royal Albert Hall in London in September 1983. The Everlys are two men who famously did not get along at times and who would not work together, but at one point during this performance – the first time they'd been willing to share a stage in 10 years – while singing a haunting version of "Let It Be Me," face to face at their microphones, Phil Everly leaned back, watching as his brother Don sang beautifully, and gave his sibling a look of unqualified love and reverence. "I know that feeling," Richards told me. "Mick and I can get there, and it usually happens via music. There's moments when you realize, 'God, man, I love you, baby.' That can happen onstage a lot. I watch Mick and I'm still astounded. I have to watch out that I don't become the audience from behind, because when he pours it on, he still amazes me. That's another reason I love to do this."
Watts said something similar: "Mick is the best frontman going, now that James Brown and Michael Jackson have gone. Being out there, he's the best. He takes it deadly seriously, as well; he keeps himself together. He looks great – everything you could want." That assessment bears out in the Stones' encore performance on this night, "Jumpin' Jack Flash." In 1968, this song transformed rock from a field of ingenuous ideals – songs like the Beatles' "All You Need Is Love" had asserted that hope and altruism might be enough to offset the chaos and dangers of the time. By contrast, "Jumpin' Jack Flash" was a song about being lost and outcast yet finding nerve – even dangerous nerve of your own.
At the Echoplex, Jagger encapsulates this creed, by pointing his finger hard at his temple as he sings the line "I was crowned with a spike right through my head," looking as if he's about to drop dead, then executing a swaggering, hip-wagging prance to the front of the stage as he proclaims, "But it's all right now, in fact, it's a gas! But it's all right, I'm Jumpin' Jack Flash, it's a gas! Gas! Gas!" It's an ecstatic and mean and loving illustration of going to hell and coming back. That's the purpose that the Rolling Stones' music has often served at its best. Blues is a music about enduring the unendurable, including pleasures – the things people do to one another and to themselves. The Rolling Stones' music is about that as well, and it's about enduring history, including the history they have together. It's been the Stones' way of getting through their time in this world, and it's not a bad model for us all: Sometimes there's no escape. Sometimes we have to help one another.
Days before, Richards talked about what he heard in the 1930s Delta-blues singer Robert Johnson: "Robert Johnson, there's fear there, yeah. A fear of what? If you've faced fear yourself, you want to tell other people that it's faceable. There's no point in ignoring it. That's an element of the expression in what we've done, in, say, 'Gimme Shelter.' Fear is just a viable element, an emotion to use in a song, as any other emotion. You know what I mean?
"I guess you could say, in that case, we scrape every emotion we can."
This story is from the May 23, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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