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.”
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.”
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.
The only prior times I’ve talked with Jagger and Richrds were in the late 1980s. This was more or less during the troubled halfway point in the band’s history, in between 1986’s truculent Dirty Work and 1989’s Steel Wheels. It was the period that Richards has described as “World War III” – a stretch when the band’s future was in question. When I met Richards in Manhattan in February 1986 to talk about Dirty Work, there were already reports that Jagger had decided the band would not support the album with a tour. Richards showed up at his publicist’s office with a half-gallon of Jack Daniel’s and drank tall glasses from it, one after another. (He didn’t seem any worse for the wear nearly two hours later.) He was trying to put the best face on matters and voiced praise for Jagger’s rendition of Bob and Earl’s 1963 R&B classic “Harlem Shuffle,” which was the current single. The guitarist also said that it was his hope to see how far the Rolling Stones could take their music, to see if they could age gracefully as a rock & roll fraternity. No other band had yet done it. It was as if he was uttering a prayer for the future.
Jagger wasn’t so sure. When I met him in London in the summer of 1987, he had already released his first solo album, She’s the Boss (1985), and was about to release another, Primitive Cool. By this time, the possibility of Jagger casting aside the Rolling Stones, or trying to exceed the band’s prominence with a solo career (as Michael Jackson had done, after leaving the Jacksons), openly infuriated Richards. There was also talk that Jagger was about to tour without the Rolling Stones, which Richards took as an insufferable affront, since he’d been hoping to put the band back on the road before much longer. “I really believed Mick wouldn’t dare tour without the Stones,” Richards later said. “It was too hard a slap in the face to deliver us. It was a death sentence.” (Jagger did tour briefly in Japan and Australia in the late 1980s, but not in the U.S. or U.K.)
Over lunch at an Indian restaurant, I asked Jagger if he was willing to elaborate on what was happening with the Rolling Stones. “No, not really,” he said. “It only goes to fuel more troubles, and Keith gets real upset every time I say anything that’s even nice or understanding.” Then he went on to elaborate on what was happening with the Rolling Stones: “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs in the Rolling Stones, and this is one of them. I, for one, hope we will regroup. Having said that, I think that one ought to be allowed to have one’s artistic side apart from just being in the Rolling Stones. I love the Rolling Stones – I think it’s wonderful, I think it’s done a lot of wonderful things for music. But, you know, it cannot be, at my age and after spending all these years, the only thing in my life. . . . And if I want to step outside of it, in any way I want, I feel I have the right to do so.”
The Rolling Stones, of course, did regroup, in 1989, to record Steel Wheels, and to mount a spectacularly successful worldwide tour – the first of several. Something about them, however, seemed necessarily changed – in ways both good and bad. Beneath the towering stage sets and the breathtaking light arrays, the Stones remained first and foremost a band, a live band and a living band, examining hard truths of pleasure and dread in much the same way that their blues idols, such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, had done until death. The band also made new albums – Steel Wheels (1989), Voodoo Lounge (1994), Bridges to Babylon (1997) and A Bigger Bang (2005) – in which Jagger asserted an ambitious sonic palette and Richards recast his vision of blues into something even more anguished and lonely sounding. But Jagger and Richards never resumed a true partnership. The two bandmates, who had faced down the wrath of British authorities who viewed them as social threats, who went to trial and faced prison together in 1967, and who faced disillusion and risked danger at the notorious 1969 Altamont free concert – now these men no longer appeared to share an essential fraternity after all. Over time, Jagger seemed to win the big argument: His scrupulous professionalism gained a control that Richards – between his bouts with drugs and drinking, and his world-weary cool – couldn’t hold on to. More often than not, now, both men lived in different towns, even different countries, and might not speak for months unless the discussion entailed necessary business. They seemed to regard each other with mutual incomprehension. Said Richards of life on the road with Jagger, “I haven’t gone to his dressing room in, I don’t think, 20 years. Sometimes I miss my friend.”
It turned out, though, that Richards had been keeping notes over the years – rather literally at times – in notebooks and in a diary. Following the 2007 tour, Richards and his co-author, James Fox, began to combine those recollections with numerous other interviews to construct Richards’ Life. Richards recounted every triumph and challenge, every loss and heartbreak, as well as breakthroughs in the formations of his guitar style. (“To me, the surprising thing about the book,” he says, “was the number of people that came up to me interested in the esoteric guitar tunings. I didn’t know that there were so many in the closet.”) In some passages, though, perhaps Richards said too much (he described Jagger’s 2001 album, Goddess in the Doorway, as “irresistible not to rechristen Dogshit in the Doorway“). Richards portrayed Jagger as a man who had changed too much – from beguiling and attentive to cold, ambitious and controlling – to be known or even liked. “It was the beginning of the Eighties,” Richards wrote, “when Mick started to become unbearable. That’s when he became Brenda, or Her Majesty. . . . We’d be talking about ‘that bitch Brenda’ with him in the room, and he wouldn’t know.” Richards also wrote, “Mick doesn’t like to trust anybody. . . . And maybe that’s the major difference between us. I can’t really think of any other way to put it. I think it’s something to do with just being Mick Jagger and the way he’s had to deal with being Mick Jagger. He can’t stop being Mick Jagger all the time.”
Some of Richards’ comments could hardly have come as a surprise – both men had taken jabs at each other in the press over the years, only to overcome and smooth over the resulting agitation. This time, however, proved different. Richards had always claimed to put the band’s cohesion and imperishability foremost, but Life imperiled that by portraying the band’s most famous figure as having turned hollow and self-absorbed. The risk, as a result, wasn’t merely another strain between Richards and Jagger, but was also a threat to the band’s very survival.
When Jagger took the stage at the 2011 Grammys and, in a tribute to late R&B singer Solomon Burke, stole the evening with a remarkably soulful and quick-witted performance that had a dumbstruck audience on its feet, he may as well have been sending a signal to Richards. Jagger could still do something this startling without either Richards or the Rolling Stones. Could Richards do as much? It had been Jagger, after all, who at times took care of Richards, nursing him through health problems and tolerating the hazards caused by the guitarist’s drug habits. “Mick was the one person who never stopped believing in Keith,” Richards’ manager, Jane Rose, told author Victor Bockris. Jagger had held the Rolling Stones’ organization together and negotiated their business deals. Through it all, Jagger found himself strapped to Richards, the folkloric hero, for life, though Richards portrayed his partner as a man obsessed with self and success.
This time, before there could be any serious preparations for a 50th anniversary tour – something Richards wanted to see happen – Jagger made it plain that there would have to be some sort of reckoning. The details of whatever transpired between the two men remain private, but as Wood commented, things were “tense and awkward.” There was even a rumor that Richards’ position as the Rolling Stones’ rhythm guitarist might be in peril. Some thought he was having trouble playing – that perhaps his hands were growing afflicted with arthritis or that his steady intake of alcohol affected his musical agility. Following a critical review of his performance at a 2007 Rolling Stones concert in Gothenburg, Sweden, in which it was suggested that the guitarist was “super-drunk,” Richards demanded an apology from the reviewer, Markus Larrson, who replied that he wasn’t going to apologize to “a rock star who can hardly handle the riff to ‘Brown Sugar’ anymore.” According to a source close to the band, when the Rolling Stones convened in London in December 2011, it wasn’t merely for rehearsals but, as far as Jagger was concerned, to see if Richards could still get the job done.
In mid-April, I sit for nearly an hour with Jagger in his Beverly Hills hotel suite. “I don’t know what the hell we’re going to talk about,” he says, as he takes a seat at a dining-room table, smiling. I’m reminded of what guitarist Waddy Wachtel’s wife said: “When Mick Jagger smiles, it’s like everything’s all right with the world, you know?” Jagger is wearing slim black jeans and a light pink long-sleeved shirt with a button-down collar. He is terrifically fit, so we talk for a while about his physical regimen – “I have to bump it up when I do a tour, but I don’t have to start from ground zero. That’s fairly important for me, to keep that” – and I also ask about how he prepares for the songs’ vocal requirements. “When I’m onstage,” he says, “I’m not just singing. I want to do a performance, as well, so that’s waving my arms around and running around, and I’m dancing. That takes 50 percent of your breath power, so my challenge is how to balance that with my vocals. You don’t want to be out of breath when you do the ballads. That’s the kind of balancing act. I have things that I can do at home for keeping my voice together. I do karaoke singing, and I write songs a lot, and I do demos and sing them. I’m very lucky, in a lot of ways, because – I’m not trying to sound bigheaded – I do all the Rolling Stones songs in all the same keys as they always were in, so my higher end is still there, maybe better than it was, because I don’t smoke anymore and I don’t drink as much and whatever.”
About Keith Richards, and what he wrote in Life, I ask Jagger if an apology from Richards was . . .
“A prerequisite, you might say?” Jagger offers, with a tight smile. “Well, I think it was a good thing he got together with me and said that. I don’t really want to talk about it apart from that, but I think it’s good that he said it, and yes, it was a prerequisite, really. You have to put those things to one side; you can’t leave them unspoken. It’s very tempting – English people like to do that quite a lot. They don’t like to face up to these things. Sometimes it’s easy to push them out of the way, but I think it’s good that we had that conversation.”
Nonetheless, were there things that Jagger liked about Richards’ book? Did he find it an overall accurate rendition of the band’s early history and musical formations?
“Accurate . . .” He repeats the word with a bitter laugh. “I don’t really want to talk about Keith’s book.”
In 1987, when I asked Jagger about Richards, he said, “I feel . . . I respect him, and I feel a lot of affection for him, and I feel protective. He’s the kind of person who, well, he has a certain vulnerability. He’s had a lot of hard times. He’s had a lot of good times [laughs]. We’ve had a lot of fun and a lot of heartache together.” Today, when I ask him about his present relationship with Richards, Jagger replies, “It’s a really good working relationship. Keith seems to be quite focused, and he seems to be enjoying playing.”
I’ve found that sometimes in an interview you reach a point where you might not want to push further. Sometimes you push anyway, sometimes you pull back. In the moment when Jagger declines to say more about Richards, he looks down at a glass of water and his reticence seems to emerge from a place of genuine hurt. I try a sideways approach into the matter of Richards’ criticisms of the singer as a cold and designing person. Over the years, others have said something similar. Does Jagger understand that reaction to him? “I think it’s kind of cliché, really,” he says. “People like to pop-analyze others, put them into boxes and say, ‘Oh, Keith’s so passionate, and Mick’s cold and dispassionate.’ People aren’t like that in real life. Keith can be as cold and dispassionate as almost anyone I know. I don’t mean that as a criticism, because you have to be sometimes. People have different natures. Talking about yourself as a person, not just as part of a band, I don’t know where to separate or not. I have to be analytical sometimes, outside of music, then I have to be feeling as well. I have to see other people’s points of view. If I’m talking business with someone, I try to see their point of view. You step back and analyze it. You don’t need to be emotional with these things.
“But that doesn’t mean that I’m not passionate about the musical side of it. I can be really emotional about it. You have to be all things at once. I get very excited about designing stage sets and things like that, graphics and merchandise. I work sometimes with Charlie on them, and we get very excited about these things. I have lots of different roles within the Rolling Stones, and then I have roles outside of the Rolling Stones that have nothing to do with the Rolling Stones at all. So I don’t want to be pigeonholed that I’m one thing.”
Later, I try one more roundabout question about Jagger’s relationship to Richards. Talking about the band’s emotional ups and downs, Watts told me, “The two big offenders of that virtually lived together when they were kids, didn’t they? They lived down the road from each other. It comes from all that. They’re like brothers, arguing about the rent, and then if you get between it, forget it.” This has been echoed by Richards himself, who told another magazine recently that he and Jagger were like “two very volatile brothers – when they clash, they really clash, but when it’s over . . .”
Does Jagger see it that way?
“People always say things like that,” Jagger replies. “But I have a brother [Chris Jagger], you know? My relationship with my brother is a brotherly relationship, and it’s nothing at all like my relationship with Keith, which is more like someone you work with, completely different. With a brother, you have parents in common. You have families in common. We don’t have that, Keith and I. We work together. It’s nothing to do with it being a brotherly relationship. I suppose if you didn’t have a brother you might say that it was like being a brother. But being in a band is another kind of relationship.”
Doesn’t that band relationship nevertheless make for a strong bond?
“Well, yeah, if you work with someone for that long, it makes a lot of bonds, it makes a lot of memories and things you can relate to from your past. Oftentimes, when you have long relationships with people, you have reference points that you can evoke, if you wish. You have relationships with everyone in the band, and then also you have relationships with people in the periphery of the band, so it’s a very large kind of group. But it isn’t a family.”
Does Jagger see an advantage or an appeal of writing his own account of the times he’s lived through? He did, after all, take up the project once, then abandoned it.
“Money,” Jagger answers. “I could only see the appeal of money in writing [a book like that]. I can’t see the appeal of anything else.”
The next day, I meet Richards in a lounge room at the rehearsal complex, where the Rolling Stones are practicing for the tour. He wears slim jeans, a ragged-looking black T-shirt, and his gray hair
puffs up above a gray bandanna headband. Richards no longer dyes his hair, nor has there been any obvious cosmetic surgery efforts to soften age for him or any of the other Rolling Stones. These are no doubt reasonably vain men, but they are at home with the age in their faces. As we talk, Richards keeps a cigarette going.
I ask the guitarist about a comment by Prince Rupert Loewenstein, the former longtime financial adviser to the Stones, who in his recent book, A Prince Among Stones, wrote, “[One] of my relations who dabbled in psychoanalysis had once told me . . . ‘In a way, Keith is coming out the winner on a human level – Mick on a professional one.’ ” I half-expect a demurral from Richards – nobody in or around the Rolling Stones, I’d been told, wants to risk disturbing the present armistice – but he responds without hesitation. “I would say that’s a pretty fair judgment on it, yeah.”
In a red-carpet interview for the premiere of Martin Scorsese’s 2008 band concert film, Shine a Light, Richards was asked if he could imagine life without the other Rolling Stones. He looked bemused by the question. “Easily,” he said. Which might be true – then again, maybe not. “We know we’re damn good,” Richards tells me, “and we have some weird desire to make it better. Everybody’s still here, which is obviously an important ingredient. With any band that has been around, even for a few years, not everybody likes everybody all the time. But maybe you have a need for that conversation to continue, and music is the one way you can do that. It’s stronger than any of the other things that can get in the way. It would be a miracle, wouldn’t it, in 50 years for two guys to get along, let alone three or four? At the same time, I don’t want to overemphasize the differences between Mick and me, because that’s all you hear about. You never hear about the 98 percent of the time that we’re pretty much in sync and know each other and know what we want to do. But my main communication is through music. Call it a gentlemen’s agreement, or something like that. It’s unspoken and it’s unsaid, but I do notice that once we start working, then a lot of the sort of barriers or whatever you want to call them do tend to disappear.”
According to Wachtel, who plays in Richards’ occasional band, the X-Pensive Winos, Life‘s troubling revelations perhaps didn’t come without warning to Jagger. “Before the book came out,” Wachtel says, “Richards showed Jagger what was in it. Completely. Mick knew everything that was in that book, and then when it came out they had to make a stink about it. Keith says, ‘I sat with the guy! I showed him it.'”
Richards doesn’t offer that claim himself, though he says he wasn’t surprised by Jagger’s response. “No, not really. Uh, because I know what he’s like. At the same time, I was going to tell the story. As I told Mick, ‘You should have seen what I left out,'” Keith says with a laugh. “I did also say to Mick, ‘I know exactly what you did. You got the book, you went straight to the index – Jagger, M – and that’s what you read. You didn’t take it in context. You didn’t.’ So, yeah, we had a bit of a doo-dah about that, but I was expecting it. We resolved it, in our own way, you know.”
Mick requested an apology? “He did,” says Richards, “and I said that I regret if I caused you any, you know, inconvenience or pain, or something. It was . . .” Richards laughs. “I’d say anything to get the band together, you know? I’d lie to my mother.”
Did Richards feel the band was in jeopardy at that point?
“No, not at all. No. I thought it was a very interesting little prick – a little shot of adrenaline.”
Looking back now, is there anything he wishes he hadn’t said in print?
“No, no, no, no.” Richards laughs again. “I say what I say and that’s it. I wouldn’t retract a thing, man.”
I have to wonder: Have there been times, perhaps even during this recent dispute with Jagger, that Richards worried that the band was just broken?
“Sometimes I’d look at it and say, ‘This damn band is broken – but not unfixable.’ But none of us, not me or anybody else, ever discarded it in the junkyard, but it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s a bit broken, and it’ll take a bit of work to, you know, to get it into shape again.’ That’s what we’ve done the last year, is we’ve knocked the thing back into shape and into far better shape than I’d hoped for.”
I remind Richards about what he said before, that one of his goals was to see the Rolling Stones grow up, or grow older, gracefully. It might be fair to say that the Rolling Stones have also grown up a bit ungracefully, at times. Is there a value to growing up ungracefully, too?
“Um, yeah. Grace is . . . is a wonderful thing. Only, though, when you see it done with imperfection. Otherwise, if everything’s graceful all the time, you get used to it. It’s the odd ungraceful move that enhances the grace of the rest of it. You get my drift?”
Watts also told me something about grace: “If the music we play together is great, then that’s why Mick’s forgiven Keith, and vice versa – that’s why Keith’s forgiven Mick, or himself, for whatever he said about Mick. I think that’s probably the saving grace of it all.”
The idea of grace – as blessing or forgiveness – might not seem an obvious fit for the Rolling Stones. Certainly not for everybody in or near their history. On a bad summer night in 1969, guitarist Brian Jones died facedown at the bottom of his swimming pool. At the end of that same year, the band played the Altamont concert that resulted in a stabbing death in front of the stage as the Rolling Stones played. “It did teach me a lesson,” Jagger told me in 1987. “The lesson is that you can’t do a large show without, um, control. . . . It was a lesson that we all learned.”
In subsequent years, others close to the Stones – Gram Parsons, producer Jimmy Miller – succumbed, perhaps hastened by their association with the band. In 1974, guitarist Mick Taylor left after feeling that Jagger and Richards hadn’t given him the songwriting credits he deserved; he was also drained by the entire experience. “Some of it was incredibly chaotic,” Taylor says now of his time with the Stones. “We toured, and if we weren’t touring, we were creating some of their best music. We did six albums in six years. It was incredible, and then they carried on that way. I was strained, burned out.” Taylor played as a guest at the 2012 shows, often joining on “Midnight Rambler,” from the 1969 album Let It Bleed. He’ll be back with the band for this tour. “I didn’t realize how much I missed being with them until we played again, to be honest,” he says. “Once I got on the stage, I felt completely at home and very much in my element.”
Bill Wyman, the band’s original bassist, left in 1993, after he began to feel uneasy about so much time in airplanes. “I got to a point, I just thought to myself, I don’t need to fly anymore,” he told Rolling Stone recently. “I’ve got my career, and I can do anything now. I’m going to raise a new family. I want to be with them. I don’t want to be traveling around the world.” Wyman also played with the Rolling Stones at last year’s London shows at the O2 Arena but was unhappy with his short stay on the stage. “My three teenage daughters saw me for the first time with the Stones onstage, which they hadn’t seen before, so it was a bit special for that reason. But I was there five minutes and off. I was a bit disappointed with that. That’s the end of it, you know. That’s why I didn’t go to America, you know? To do three concerts for two songs? I realized you cannot really return to something from the past after years, because it’s not the same. School reunions, old girlfriends, divorces and getting back with the old wife – it doesn’t work. It’s the same with a band.”
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.