Tour De Force: The Rolling Stones Rake it In and Rock the House

With the Voodoo Lounge the highest-grossing tour ever, the Stones' age has turned from absurdity to triumph

The Rolling Stones on the Voodoo Lounge Tour
Paul Natkin/WireImage
The Rolling Stones on the Voodoo Lounge Tour
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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?"

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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.

The Concert in Raleigh was a hit-and-run, with the band arriving a few hours before show time and departing during the fireworks display. "Like fleeing the scene of a crime," says Wood, smiling. The Stones flew in from Boston, where they had played two shows. The weather in Boston was unseasonably cold, and Richards was forced to open a trunk he had packed for December. "It's too damn early to wear me leathers," he says, stretching out his pants. That night, Jagger's breath was visible in plumes, and the wind carried the faint, almost melancholy smell of marijuana in the crisp nighttime air.

The morning after the second Boston show, the Stones learned that Nicky Hopkins, who played keyboards with them in the '60s and '70s, had died in Nashville, Tenn., the night before; he was 50. After hearing this, saxophonist Bobby Keys took a long walk through the park across from the band's hotel. When the band reached Raleigh a few hours later, the somber mood was lifted by the sunshine and the breezes, and it seemed like the Stones had been given one more shot at summer. "Beautiful," says Leavell, who owns a tree farm in Georgia, as he steps off the plane. "My beloved South."

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The band and their entourage pass the dead time before each show backstage, wandering through a maze of trailers and small prefab dressing rooms. Backstage is a self-sufficient universe: There is a makeup room, wardrobe room, tuning room and workout room, where Jagger limbers up. At the center of the complex is a high white tent, the Voodoo Lounge, where some members of the entourage make bets at the snooker table, others slide trays along the buffet table, and local dignitaries meet the boys. This year the Voodoo Lounge has already welcomed, among others, John F. Kennedy Jr., Steven Tyler, Peter Wolf, Bjorn Borg, John McEnroe and Jack Nicholson. "They come out to see the monkeys," says Richards, racking snooker balls across the room. Wood selects a cue and says, "Set 'em up."

Wood and Richards share a dressing room across a path from Jagger's workout room. An hour before the show, the guitarists have gathered here, each to prepare in his own way. Wood has switched from cranberry juice to vodka and cranberry juice. And the two men, sitting on the arms of a floral-patterned couch, each with acoustic guitars, wind through several old country songs. "Warming up the hands," says Wood, sipping his drink. Every now and then, the crowd roars as a guitar tech or a roadie crosses the stage, casting shadows. "Let me at 'em," says Richards, strumming. "Open the cage."

A moment later, Richards puts down his guitar, crosses the room and opens the door. He looks at the sky. Above the din of the swelling crowd he can hear an odd singsong — Jagger is going through his scales. Then he notices the sign across the way: Workout Room. "What can he do in there that we can't do in here?" he asks, closing the door. Dropping to the floor, he does five quick one-handed push-ups, the tip of his cigarette gracing the floor each time, leaving a neat brown circle. He jumps to his feet, pats his stomach and says, "Peak condition."

Just before the band takes to the stage, the members of the entourage go to work, taking their places around the stadium. The Voodoo Lounge is desolate in these final moments. The band meets in the tent and then starts walking together: up a flight of stairs, through a tunnel, into the evening. They're greeted along the way by various members of their crew. Information is exchanged. When they reach the back of the stage, these people fall away. "I've never seen our show," says Charlie Watts. "I've never seen the screen with my face 20 stories high. Everyone out there, they all face one direction; I'm looking the other way."

The crowd comes alive with the unmistakable beat of "Not Fade Away." Jagger slinks across the stage. As he moves, he can see how each note registers in the same basic way on each face, like a roomful of TVs all tuned to the same channel. It has been almost three decades since the Stones first retooled American blues, and still they have the power to bring the crowd to its feet. As the set moves on, they run through standards: "Honky Tonk Women," "Brown Sugar," "Beast of Burden," "Monkey Man." When they play the first chords of "Satisfaction," the crowd roars, and the stadium fills with all the associations those notes hold for the 50,000 fans: summer nights; beach roads; bar brawls.

Jagger makes full use of the sprawling stage, climbing ramps that move out over the crowd, gliding down onto the floor. From the seats he seems to vanish and reappear at various points onstage, and following him is like tracking a missile on a radar screen. "He's the best frontman in rock & roll," says Leavell. "It's hard for me not to watch him when I'm supposed to be up there playing."

Wood and Richards are less active, moving onto the ramps only rarely. And Watts watches it all from behind, taking in the madness with cool, detached eyes. "I've never filled the stereotype of the rock star," he says. "Back in the '70s, Bill Wyman and I decided to grow beards, and the effort left us exhausted."

The band has 54 songs ready but each night play only 22, leaving the show room to evolve. "We have to break a show in," says Richards. "Trim a little here, lose a song there — make it into something we can live in." Thus far, they have cut some slow songs ("Hot Stuff," "No Expectations") and added upbeat numbers like "Street Fighting Man" and "Miss You." "Each show is better than the one before," adds Richards. "And we're heading for that perfect show, and the last date we play will be the closest we get."

During the encore, the noise from the crowd, worked to a frenzy, reverberates like a jet engine. "It's just this amazing roar," says Jagger. A few minutes later, riding in the vans, the only sound they hear is the peaceful hum of the air-conditioning and the rattle of tires crossing railroad tracks on the way to the airport.

The Stones travel by Jet, a 727 customized to seat just the band and its entourage. Earlier in the tour, each band member was accompanied by his family. Now the plane has a more businesslike feel, with seats being occupied by the horn section, backup singers, tour publicists, tour coordinator, managers, assistants. There are two classes on the plane: first and Rock Star. First is wide leather seats, video monitors and food before, during and after takeoff. Rock Star is four private compartments, similar to those on a luxury train, dozens of drinks, business updates and stories of the road, tales that move easily into the band's oral history: the afternoon in Madison, Wis., when an escort cop ("Wrong-Way Norris," says Richards) led the band 40 miles in exactly the wrong direction; the night in New York when the rain came in sheets and the Stones played possibly the tour's best show. "You realize you're gonna get soaked and say, 'Fuck it,' and have a great time," says Richards. "I'm wet, and I love it."

From Raleigh, the plane is heading to New York and the MTV awards, where the band will play "Start Me Up" and "Love Is Strong" and be presented with a Special Recognition Award by Jann S. Wenner, editor and publisher of Rolling Stone. The atmosphere on board is festive. "After a good show, the plane is the scene of much debauchery," says Wood, who has switched from cranberry and vodka to just plain vodka.

Up in Rock Star, Watts is sitting quietly, talking of home, a stud farm in the English countryside. "But I play drums, and the only way to play drums is to be away from home," he says, looking out the window. "It's the blight of my life. It's like being a soldier. When I get a call from Mick or Keith, it's a call to arms: five months on the road."

Night in New York City. The Stones are in a conference room in the basement of the Four Seasons hotel. The video awards ended a few hours ago, and the band is at a party thrown in its honor by Virgin Records. The Stones are staying upstairs, so the location offers an easy escape. During the last 30 years, they have attended the most fantastic soirees in the world; so for the Stones, the party as an artistic medium is exhausted.

Still, the evening somehow holds their interest. At 2 a.m., Steven Tyler of Aerosmith is standing at the bar, arms spread wide. Smashing Pumpkins' Billy Corgan is circling the dance floor, a swimmer afraid to take the dive. Charlie Watts is talking quietly in a dark corner. Mick Jagger is dancing by himself to "You Got Me Rocking," a Stones song recorded live earlier this tour. And in the center of it all are Keith Richards, Ron Wood and Steve Winwood, trading jokes as they might trade guitar riffs. Most of the jokes concern the misadventures of musicians. Traffic's Jim Capaldi steps into the circle and begins to tell a long joke, the story of a pianist who plays his producer two new songs ("My Dick Is Long," "My Penis Is Huge"), then goes to the bathroom. When he returns, the producer says, "Do you know your fly is open and your dick's hanging out?"

"Know it?" says the pianist. "I wrote it!"

Richards leans back and laughs, a low rumble that sounds as if a water main were erupting somewhere in the city. "I wrote it," he repeats, still laughing. And one senses this is a reprieve, a brief respite for a band that will continue, will cross the country, descend into Latin America, fly to Asia and Australia before it's over. And above it all hangs the specter of those shows: crowds waiting impatiently for the Stones; mishaps; epic evenings. But for now, this is not a band on the road, it's a group of people at a party.

In the corner, Richards is talking with his wife, Patti Hansen. Unkempt brown hair curls around his ears; his voice is raspy; he has the wry intelligence of a man who was there at the beginning, when it was all a joke you played on your parents. Someone leans over and whispers in his ear. Richards jumps back on his heels. "Know it?" He roars. "I wrote it!"

This is a story from the November 3, 1994 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 694: November 3, 1994
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