The Rolling Stones are already gone. Riding in six dark-blue vans, a police car in front and one in back, they are making their way through the Southern darkness to the Raleigh-Durham airport in North Carolina, en route to New York for an appearance at MTV's Video Music Awards. Behind this train of vans, you can still make out the dark shape of the N.C. State football stadium where, moments ago, the Stones finished a two and a half hour show with "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and where 50,000 fans, ignorant of the band's retreat, continue to clap and scream, hoping to win one more song. In the third row a girl grips the bottom of her T-shirt, impatiently waiting for a reason to take it off. Meanwhile in the lead van, Keith Richards, slumped next to Ron Wood, is drenched in sweat and breathing hard. Someone has tossed a blue robe across Richards' shoulders, and he has the spent look of a boxer awaiting a decision. "The minute I come off, I lose all the air in my body," Richards says. "During the last bit of 'Jumpin' Jack Flash,' I give it all away. And then I stumble off, and then I'm Jake LaMotta saying, 'Put my robe on right! Hey, Tony, put on my robe!' "
As Richards talks, the sky outside fills with fireworks, a dazzle that marks the end of a visit from the Stones, and the display, reflected in the window of the squad car ahead, looks like shattering glass. "How can I hold back?" he asks, sitting up. "How can I hold back when I have 50,000 people rooting for me?"
The "Voodoo Lounge" tour, the Rolling Stones' 14th of the United States, has been on the road for more than two months. The band has already played for millions of people in dozens of cities. The tour has turned out to be the highest grossing ever, breaking the record set earlier this year by the Pink Floyd tour. And as the Stones travel, they are followed by rave reviews; what had been seen as an absurdity — the band members' age — turns into triumph. "There were lots of hacks out there who said we couldn't do it anymore," says Jagger, who is 51. "But maybe what they meant was they couldn't do it anymore. Anyway, once we started playing, all that died down. You can talk about it and talk about it, but once we're onstage, the question is answered."
Indeed, the Stones' current show, which consists of 22 songs written during 30 years, is a lesson in endurance, with the band carrying the audience across eras and moods, as Jagger, in a parade of costumes and gestures, darts across the stage as easily as a ray of light. Voodoo Lounge has already sold 4 million copies worldwide, and the band has just released the second single, "Out of Tears," along with a video directed by Jake Scott, who last month won Best Director at the MTV video awards for his work with R.E.M. "It's surprised me just how well the new material has gone over," says Richards. "It's welded quite naturally with the old stuff. So when you hear 'Sparks Will Fly' next to 'Tumbling Dice,' it makes sense — it's all Stones shit."
Even so, the musicians only now feel the show is coming into its own. "It's taken time to build momentum," says Chuck Leavell, who has played keyboards with the Stones since 1982. "We haven't been on the road since '89, and that was a different time. In '89 you didn't have Pearl Jam, Nirvana, Counting Crows, Blind Melon — bands that have captured the imagination of a younger audience. So audience attention is more scattered now, and you have to work up to speed. But it's finally happening; people are finally saying, 'The Stones are coming to town, and I'm not going? Am I crazy?' "
Despite a slow start, ticket sales have picked up dramatically. "In the last few weeks the on-sales have been beyond incredible," says Michael Cohl, the Voodoo Lounge tour promoter. "Atlanta sold out in 29 minutes. San Diego sold out just like that. In Oakland we kept adding shows, and they kept selling out. When we first announced the tour, we only had 28 dates scheduled. What we hoped to end up with was a tour with maybe 42 dates. Well, already we have 62 shows scheduled."
In January the band will head to South America before traveling to Asia and winding up the tour next summer in Australia. And they recently signed a pay-per-view deal to broadcast the Nov. 25 show live from Joe Robbie Stadium, in Miami, to cable subscribers for $25. According to Cohl, the broadcast will resemble the pay-per-view show that ended 1989's Steel Wheels tour, when the Stones were joined by special guests Eric Clapton and Axl Rose. A fitting finale for the tour's North American leg, the deal will bring the Stones many millions of dollars and bring many millions of Americans the Stones.
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