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The Rolling Stones: Back With a Bang

‘You can’t get off this machine, except when the wheels fall off,’ says Keith Richards

Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Ron Wood and Keith Richards, The Rolling StonesCharlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Ron Wood and Keith Richards, The Rolling Stones

(L-R) Charlie Watts, Mick Jagger, Ron Wood and Keith Richards of The Rolling Stones on May 10th, 2005.

Kevin Mazur/WireImage for TGA Entertainment/Getty

Solo first, bridge later!” Mick Jagger yells, turning to the rest of the Rolling Stones as they come to a messy halt behind him. Jagger, guitarists Keith Richards and Ron Wood, and drummer Charlie Watts are rehearsing for their 2005-06 world tour – dubbed A Bigger Bang, after their outstanding new album – in the gym of the Greenwood College School in Toronto. They are grappling with a song they have not played live since 1982, “Hang Fire,” from the album Tattoo You. Unable to agree on which parts go where, the Stones collide in the middle of it on the first pass.

It’s a split-second crash. Watts hits a hard, fast roll on his snare, and the entire cast – including bassist Darryl Jones, keyboard player Chuck Leavell and background singers Bernard Fowler, Lisa Fischer and Blondie Chaplin – jumps back into the song at full speed.

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But the crossroads of energy is at the foot of the drum riser. As the Stones charge through the last choruses of “Hang Fire,” Jagger sings facing Watts, shimmying in place as the drummer swings with perfect, racing tension. Richards and Wood also pull in tight, almost toe-to-toe as they riff and solo like dueling swordsmen. This is the spot where lightning strikes again and again: tonight in the surging finale of “Let It Bleed” and the slow boil of “Some Girls,” and every night, no matter how big the stage. The Rolling Stones are the biggest rock & roll band in the world, an unstoppable institution still setting tour-gross records in stadiums and arenas after forty-three years. But Jagger, 62, Richards, 61, Watts, 64, and Wood, 58, spend a good part of every performance in that airtight formation, making their best music in close quarters.

That is why A Bigger Bang, the Stones’ first studio album in eight years, is their finest since Tattoo You. Jagger and Richards wrote and refined many of the songs literally side by side, and the Stones recorded all of them with no special guests and no excess garnish, from the carnal romps “Rough Justice” and “Oh No, Not You Again” to the dirty, crawling blues “Back of My Hand” and the political brickbat “Sweet Neo Con,” the last two featuring the bare-bones trio of Jagger, Richards and Watts. Things could have turned out a lot differently. In June 2004, just as Jagger and Richards began working on new material, Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer. But the operation was successful. After six weeks of chemotherapy, the drummer received a clean bill of health and was soon back at his kit, proving again that for the Stones, mortality is not an issue. It’s an irritant.

“There is a certain feeling on this one, an excitement,” Richards says, with his crusty swashbuckler’s laugh, of the album before rehearsal one night. “There were no huge obstacles to overcome, like, ‘What about that tuba part?’ These songs lend themselves to live work. They are beautifully ready to play, and everybody’s ready to play them.”

By the time the Stones sit down for these four interviews – two weeks into rehearsals, in their respective dressing rooms (except for Watts, who prefers the quiet comfort of his hotel suite) – they have run through much of the new album, including “Back of My Hand,” Richards’ smoky vocal feature “Infamy,” and the R&B ballads “Streets of Love” and “This Place Is Empty.” In fact, there are nearly 100 different titles, written in colored marker on the large whiteboards on the gym walls, listing the songs the band practices each night. There are vintage surprises (“The Last Time,” “It’s All Over Now,” “Little T&A”); the expected hits (“Tumbling Dice,” “It’s Only Rock and Roll”); even a pair of Ray Charles tributes, “Lonely Avenue” and “(Night Time Is) the Right Time.”

“A lot of these things we do very occasionally,” Jagger says. “We try them in different ways. In the end, I’m trying to collect a group of eighty tunes for the whole year.” He laughs. “That way, I can say, ‘We rehearsed those in Toronto. C’mon, let’s have another go at this.'”

Rock & roll is supposed to be unpredictable, but the Stones operate like clockwork: a world tour every three or four years, usually with a new album; rehearsals in Toronto.
Mick Jagger: The whole act of touring is ritualistic: You’re here one day, there the next. It’s super-predictable. I can tell you exactly where I’m going to be in Frankfurt – the hotel I’m staying in and the room – next July.

Is that the life you envisioned for yourself forty years ago?
In the old days, the best thing you could get was a residency at a club. Your life was formulaic. We’d play Tuesday nights at the Ealing Club, Friday nights at the Marquee, Saturday night somewhere, Sunday afternoons at Ken Colyer’s and Sunday evenings in Richmond. You didn’t worry about where your next gigs were coming from. And they were all within a five-mile radius.

You get the question whenever you announce a tour: “Is this the last time?”
The first time I answered that was in 1966. It’s on film.

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Are you ever tempted to say yes?
I always feel like that at the end of a tour. They never ask you at the end [laughs]. To be honest, I didn’t think the Stones should do another big tour. I was thinking of just twenty shows: “There are all these festivals in the summer. Let’s do ten gigs in America, then come to Europe.”

I’m quite happy to do less. Because I get bored after twenty shows. It’s interesting and challenging to get the thing going. But after you’ve done it, it becomes routine. Every night you have to make it fresh for yourself, so that when you go out there it’s fresh for the audience.

Did you feel that way in, say, 1978?
Yeah. And creatively, it’s rather dull. You have all these great ideas – “I’m going to write twenty songs.” You don’t write anything. Keith will tell you he writes all these songs on the road. Bollocks. The most you write is a few bits, because you’re so focused on this one thing — getting the show right.

How far along were you in planning this album-tour cycle when Charlie told you he had cancer?
We had OK’d the tour. He was straight up about it: “The doctor says I have a ninety percent chance of being completely cured.” I would have been in such a state. If Charlie had said, “I can’t do this tour, I’ve faced mortality,” we would have had to change our minds. No one pressured him. But the treatments couldn’t have been easy. I kept worrying: Is he eating? I’m like a nanny [smiles].

Have you ever had a serious health scare?
No. I’m sure I will one day. It’s going to happen: You’re going to get ill. You’re going to die. What can you do? Keep as healthy as you can. The physicality of touring is problematic, but it’s always been the same, since I was twenty. It’s December in bloody Edmonton, Canada, you get a cold, you have to miss a show. That’s the worst that will happen. And you’re doing it in the lap of luxury. Everyone’s looking after you. Let’s not exaggerate how difficult this is.

A Bigger Bang is the Stones’ first studio album in eight years. What makes you sit up and say, “It’s time to record”?
If we go out on tour, we gotta do a record. It shows you are an actual functioning rock band. I don’t want to be one of those bands that just does hits. People say, “I much prefer to hear ‘Brown Sugar’ than some new song.” Well, I don’t give a shit what you prefer. If everyone else in the band had said, “We can’t be bothered, no one listens to our new records,” fair enough. We can do more repackages [rolls his eyes]. But everyone was up for it.

And we did it in a different way: less people around, concentrate on what you’re doing. No fucking about and jamming for days. You know how it is with rock bands in studios. Once they get in there, they never want to leave. It’s not a record anymore; it’s a way of life.

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When you and Keith sit together to write, what happens?
It’s never the same from one song to another. I’m very different from Keith. I like everything organized. I love it when things go wonky and funny, but I want to move forward. I don’t want to sit around waiting for shit to happen. “This is how it goes, these are the words. Should it be fast or slower? Do you like it or not?”

This time, I got into this thing where Keith would have an idea and I would put a drum program to it. Then I’d play drums over that, create a groove. By the time Charlie got there, I’d say, “This is the beat.” I wanted to impress him [laughs].

We were in such a confined space — some of it was in France, some of it in the Caribbean — without loads of hangers-on. There was nowhere to hide. “Is it good?” “Is it not good? Then bung it out the window.” There were no three-hour blues jams. There wasn’t time.

On this album, and in almost all of your lyrics, you write about sex in two basic ways: In the rockers, it’s conflict and the chase. In the ballads, it’s losing and leaving. You never write about satisfaction.
It’s easier to write about conflict. Try writing “I’m at peace with the world” in a rock tune. See where that gets you. But if you went into some country singer’s songbook, you’d find a lot more heartache than in the Rolling Stones.

How much of the conflict and heartache is autobiography?
It’s a mixture of your diary and creative imagination. That’s what being a writer is about. Totally autobiographical songs are cringe-y. Teenage girls love that shit. When Britney broke up with Justin and he did that tune [“Cry Me a River”], my daughter was explaining to me, “You see the scene in the video? That actually happened, Dad.”

If I wrote about what my life is really about, directly and on the money, people would cringe. “Oh No, Not You Again” is based on a real incident. But I made it funnier than it was.

So was there really an “Angie”?
I don’t know. That was one of Keith’s songs [laughs]. I just filled in the gaps.

“Sweet Neo Con” is direct in its politics and accusations. Who are you singing to?
I don’t want to overexplain it. But it is very direct. During the presidential election, I was asked by the New York Daily News which side I was on. I said it’s not polite to take sides in foreigners’ elections. But we’re not in an election now.

So whose side are you on now?
I’m not on anyone’s side. There is no side that has an absolute answer. That’s the trouble with politics. You might say, “The Republican take on the Middle East is incorrect.” The Democratic policy wasn’t that brilliant, either.

The most explicit thing in “Sweet Neo Con” is your own fear: “There’s bombers in my bedroom/And it’s giving me the shits.” You sound pretty scared.
It is a scary time. Since I wrote the song, London’s gotten even scarier. “Rain Fall Down” is a song about London. It has a line, “Feel like we’re living in a battleground/Everyone’s jazzed.” That was in my head already. There were so many armed police in the streets. Walking around, seeing machine guns, is not how you imagine London to be.

If we keep going down this track, we’re not going to get back. The same feeling is in “Back of My Hand”: that well go too far, get away from our original values, and this overreaching imperialism will take us to a place where we eventually collapse.

Music technology has changed so much just in the three years since Forty Licks. How has that affected the way you oversee the business of the Stones?
The first important thing has nothing to do with technology. You have to create new songs. If you don’t, you are definitely set into a time zone. We recorded this album digitally, without any tape, which is pretty normal now. The rest of it is just distribution: ring tones, different kinds of digital delivery. We used to tour to support a record. In 1972, I would have said, “We’re promoting Exile on Main Street.” Now you’re touring, you have a new album, there’s merchandising and television shows. We have partnerships with the NFL and Ameriquest to get our music on television. It’s old-fashioned, but you reach more people than you do with downloading.

Keith is so negative in public about your solo albums. Don’t you ever feel like telling him to knock it off?
I do [laughs].

But after collaborating with people like Rob Thomas and Lenny Kravitz, do you find that you do your best work the Stones?
Not necessarily. You can do a song with the Rolling Stones that turns out not to be very good at all. There are songs you write that you wouldn’t ask them to play. And there are songs where you know the Stones will play them far better than anyone else. It’s all one creative process. Some things you like less than others. And you never know what that’s going to be.

What was your first reaction when you heard about Charlie’s cancer?
Keith Richards: Mick and I were at Mick’s place in France – we were beginning to write – when we got the news. Mick and I looked into each other’s eyes and realized, “It’s down to this – just us.” Then I said, “For the moment, you’re on drums, and I’ll double on bass.”

I don’t think that, between us, there was any doubt that Charlie would beat it. I wondered how long and debilitating it might be, which Charlie answered in spades when he came back. He looked exactly the same, like he hadn’t done anything more than comb his hair and put a suit on.

This is Charlie Watts’ finest album. If you listen to the drumming, it’s as if he came back and said, “A minor flesh wound!” When he came in, we were still running down songs, rehearsing. You don’t usually go into fifth gear in rehearsal. You lay back a little. But Charlie came in as if to prove “I’m back.” He played every rehearsal like a show.

There was a chance he would not be back, which raises the question: Who is indispensable? When do you admit that you can no longer carry on as the Rolling Stones?
There is a certain equation that ends up as zero. The Stones will make their decision about that eventually. At the moment, they’re rockin’, so who cares? This is something we gotta do. OK, shit hits the fan. But the bus is still rolling. You can’t get off this machine, except when the wheels fall off. And we’ll all know when that happens.

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How much did Charlie’s illness bring you and Mick closer together, as songwriters and otherwise?
It pulled us together quicker than I would have expected. Because the man does like to keep his distances. On the basic level of putting songs together, it made us play together more, on guitars and piano. Mick, as a guitar player, has finally gotten there. Before, I’d always been wary of him when he played electric guitar – he let the rhythm run away. He’s also a good drummer – not in a technical sense. But he’s got a great beat, good feel.

With the blues “Back of My Hand,” we just went, “Let’s start with where we started.” It’s easy to pass off a blues. But what’s the point of that? This was original but right at the roots. You could feel the ghosts coming back. You could feel Muddy Waters and Little Walter in the room. You felt you were among friends as you played it.

What does the Jagger-Richards credit truly mean? Are you still that tight, shoulder-to-shoulder, when you write together?
Once we left England and started to live in different places, we had to develop a new way of writing. Instead of being crammed in a room, you knocked out ideas on your own, then you put them together, see what you got. A lot of times, we’ll get together, and one of us will play something: “Oh, that’s nice, but where does it go from there?” “I don’t know.” I’ll play what I’ve been doing, and one bit will fit exactly with a bit he has.

It’s kind of weird. If you’re working with Mick in a room, it’s great fun. It’s just getting to those moments when it is cool. We’re like quarrelsome brothers. It’s sibling rivalry, without having the same parents. Mick and I spent so many years living in the same room. And you have all the baggage that goes with life: women and babies. It’s amazing that we’re still working together and liking it, that we can still put up with each other.

On some traces on “A Bigger Bang,” Ronnie doesn’t play at all. Sometimes Mick, plays slide guitar. You play bass and keyboards. How do you know when a song sounds like the Stones? It’s clearly not a strict matter of role and lineup.
It’s a feeling. It’s not something you can define. The lineup’s changed considerably over the years. Some people will say, “It’s always been about Jagger-Richards.” I don’t even know if it’s about that. Without Watts, it wouldn’t be the same.

At the same time it is never just about the lineup. Two or three guys don’t make a band. They have to want to make a band and give up those selfish interests, all that bickering: “That’s my solo.” If somebody’s ready to go for it, I’11 back him. It’s gotta be like that. You can’t be like, “It’s my job to play that.”

Mick swears “Sweet Neo Con” is not specifically about George Bush. But he admits in the song, “It’s getting scary/Yes, I’m frightened out my wits.” Are you scared?
I thought the song was about Condoleezza Rice [grins]. There is definitely a fight on. Am I scared any more than I was of being blown up by the IRA twenty years ago? I don’t know. I was born in the middle of bombing.

But who’s the enemy? Maybe we are. Somehow, the Western world has pissed off some of the Eastern world. At the same time, these people have their own agenda, and I wouldn’t give them the time of day. It’s not my fight, but I’m caught up in it. We all are.

We’re all invited to play God these days, to phone in and say what we think. There is an overload of information. I don’t want to know a lot of this. People go, “If it’s available, why not have it?” But how much can you eat in a day? You get obesity of the brain. People should do less: Eat less, watch less TV. Get out, walk the dog.

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Do you have an iPod?
Not personally. My family has them. I don’t carry around any bits of equipment – except my knife. I’m aware of what’s available. The things that have been going on since I was growing up, working in the business I do – I’ve been on the cutting edge of technology, without even realizing it. The minute something was off the military-secret list, it was in the studio. They wouldn’t even change the name on the button: “Missiles fire.”

But can we handle it all? As a species, we have to step up to the plate and say, “Enough.” We keep trying to put the nuclear thing back in the bottle: “Wish we hadn’t let that one out.” [Smiles] Shit, it’s too much for a guitar player to contemplate.

Is it true that you are playing Johnny Depp’s father in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels?
I saw Johnny in L.A. a month ago, and they wheeled in this wardrobe of Disney pirate costumes. Johnny and I spent a great afternoon trying these things on. But that doesn’t mean I’m doing it. At the moment, I turned them down — they’re shooting while I’m touring. I’d love to do it if there was no hassle. But it would be a side trip. I know what my gig is. The idea of working for Disney gives me the shivers in the first place [laughs].

You have rehearsed a dozen songs from A Bigger Bang, which suggests you’re very proud of the album. On tour the Stones usually do only a couple of tunes from a new record.
We’re not saying we’ll do them all. But this band is weird. We gotta know every song, whether we actually play it or not, just in case somebody wants to call one out.

You can look at the Stones on one level and say, “Well, here they go – same-old same-old.” But atmospheres change, and there is a sense of that here. I don’t know where it comes from, whether it’s from in the band or the music. Maybe everybody’s just happy to see us again.

Does it bother you that when critics and fans talk about the the Stones’ golden age, they always mean the years before you joined – the Sixties and early Seventies?
Ron Wood: It only bothers me because I wasn’t on those albums. But I can do those songs better now – as good, anyway [laughs]. Even though I wasn’t on Exile on Main Street, I know it inside out. I teach the band more about those songs than they know. They’ll go, “How does that middle bit go?” I have had the songs in my head for so long – I know what’s happening next in each one. [Keyboard player] Chuck Leavell will know the actual structure of the songs, how they were arranged. I do it by feel.

On the 1975 tour, officially you were subbing for Mick Taylor, who had just quit. How much effort did you put into learning his guitar parts note for note?
I knew those solos in my head. I could reproduce them, with tremendous respect, on my part, for Mick [Taylor]. It’s like painting: If I look at some Expressionist or Impressionist work, I can reproduce it. In the Sixties, when Mick was in the Gods, I used to stand in for him when he was too nervous to go on. He didn’t feel he could play any good. He’d say, “Ronnie, please do my bit, I can’t go on.” I’d go, “Mick, c’mon, you’re great.” “No. I can’t go on.”

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I’d play his set with the Gods, then come back out and play with my band, the Birds. Mick would come back later: “Thanks, man, for covering for me.” That shyness was his downfall, whereas I just go for it. I’m not technically as good a guitar player as Mick.

What kind of deal did you get for doing the ’75 tour?
I’m the world’s worst businessman. I did my own negotiations. I got a hundred grand for the whole tour. I was standing next to [photographer] Robert Ellis. He said, “Are you sure you don’t need help with that contract?” I said, “Why?” “You’ve got it upside down.”

Did you think of the ’75 tour as an audition? “If I get this right, I’ve got the job.”
The Stones were the band I wanted to be in. The Faces were corroding at the time. There was a really bad vibe. And without the engine room concentrating, you can’t have that whimsical feeling up front. I thought, “If I can get these 140 songs that have suddenly landed on my head…” It was intense — to get hit with all of those Mick Taylor lines, to echo what Brian [Jones] had done, then to add my own bluesy input to it all.

Charlie thought I was a natural. Mick asked me to join. Keith asked me. But we never formally announced it. For some reason, they never wanted to say I was the man. They just let it seep in.

You gave up a lot to join the Stones: the writing and singing you did with the Faces, your starring role as guitarist.
It was a relief to be in the Stones: “Let somebody else call the shots.” I respected what Keith did as a guitarist. But there were lots of things I could take over, like solos and doing lots of slide guitar, which is my big dream.

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I miss the songwriting. I’m credited for songs with the Stones: “Everything’s Turning to Gold” [1979 B side], “Dance, Pt. 1” [on Emotional Rescue, 1980], “Black Limousine” [on Tattoo You]. But it’s a futile thing, because they’ve got songs stacked up on the back burner. I’ll throw suggestions in, but they’ll go, “Sorry, mate, we’ve got these hundred ahead of you at the moment.” So I do things like film music. I’m working on some at the moment.

How was “Everything’s Turning to Gold” written? It’s rare to see a third name in the credits with Jagger-Richards.
I came up with the chorus when my son Jesse was born. It was inspired by him. I basically wrote the whole thing. Mick wrote the verses – there’s few verses actually, and the whole song relies on the choruses. “Dance” was like that too. But it’s like Lennon-McCartney. Mick and Keith always split the credit. If I write a song with Mick or Keith, it’s immediately split three ways.

You still play with Rod Stewart on occasion. How would you compare the way you work with him and Mick onstage?
Rod lets me sing. He loves it. And he wants me to come to the front, lead the whole band. He says, “We don’t do nothing without Woody’s say-so” – which is wonderful. With the Stones, there is this embedded thing – legend, really. Everything we do has to have the Stones’ stamp, which is an exciting thing to go along with and live up to – to bring the juice, carry it to the max. Without a challenge, we’d be boring.

Are there restrictions you have – what you play, where you stand – onstage with the Stones?
Oh, yeah. That’s extremely to the forefront of my thinking as I’m playing. For example, where I lay back is very important. Otherwise I can blow the whole song. That’s the same with every individual member, even the leading members of the band. Like Keith’s intros – sometimes you’ll get a bit of bang ‘n’ crash. Mick looks at me like, “What the fuck is that?” And Keith’s like, “Talk amongst yourselves for a minute, and I’ll try that again.” [Smiles] Keith can get away with that. If it was me who fucked up an intro, I’d have the whole Stones world down on me [laughs]. But that’s all right. You have to be responsible for what you can and cannot do. It’s a fine line, and I love that. That’s what keeps us so fresh.

There are plenty of things I can do. Mick gives you the freedom to run around. I can run around with him if I want to. The only way I can really fuck up is by being too loud. That is a sore point with Keith and Mick. I’d get my guitar wrapped ’round my head by Keith.

How do you and Keith create guitar parts for Stones songs, onstage and on records?
Keith and I have this unwritten law where he’ll lay back and I’ll let go, or I’ll lay back and he’ll go for it. We rarely conflict. Once in a while he’ll growl at me: “Hey, this is me. Back off.” Then a few licks later, I do the same – “Fuck you, this is me” – and he’ll move back.

In the studio, we’re not in the same room together. I’m usually with Mick and [co-producer] Don Was. Keith will often do his bits first. But “One-Take Ronnie” – that’s what they call me. I’m always better on the first take. They’ll play me the song, then they’ll play it again for me to play on, and I’ll do my thing: a lick here, a lick there, sometimes bring in the slide.

The new album was so improvised. I did all my overdubs in four days. On “You Saw Me Coming,” that is Mick on bass, Charlie, Keith and me, cut live. We should do more like that, like in the Faces’ days where we would just take off – eyes down, meet you at the end. In songs like “Stay With Me,” the Faces had a structure, then we’d go for it. There are songs on the new Stones album, like “Rough Justice,” that remind me of the Faces so much. I did all the slide on my original “Stay With Me” guitar. It’s beaten up, but it’s still got a fantastic sound.

How would you describe the changes you’ve seen in the relationship between Mick and Keith? And how bad did it get?
Growing up has a lot to do with the way they get on – accepting the fact that “OK, I’m never going to change this guy. And we’re joined at the hip, whether we like it or not.” They’re sharing jokes and hugs now. They’re getting on so well – as opposed to the Eighties, when it was murder being around the two of them, trying to repair things. Mick would say, “Keith hates me so much.” And I’m going, “He really respects you and loves you. He just doesn’t know how to say it.” Meanwhile, Keith’s going, “I don’t know if he wants to fucking talk to me anymore.” And I’m saying, “Just believe me – why don’t you call each other up?”

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There are stories where I was the diplomat in those days. I knew when to step in. And I instinctively know when to get out of their way. But it’s all about keeping that institution – the Rolling Stones – going: “Whether you like it or not, you guys are going to have to patch it up, or forget everything.”

Did Charlie’s cancer force you to think about your own health and mortality, particularly your battles with alcoholism?
When I started taking drugs and drinking, I was sixteen. I hadn’t grown up. I’ve had my aims and ambitions. I always knew what I wanted to do. But I was stoned throughout. I have a lot of growing up to do. It’s a great challenge, but I think, “Fucking hell, is it too late?”

I try to do my best every day. You have a great gig or rehearsal, and afterwards you want to reward yourself. I have to go home and put CSI on the TV. Instead of having a drink, it’s “Let’s get involved in some forensics.”

It’s very difficult to shake the habits of forty-odd years – the smoking, drinking and drugging. I was talking to Keith and [saxophonist] Bobby Keys last night. The two naughty boys were in my room here, in recovery [laughs], and they’re going, “Yeah, baby, remember that hotel . . . ?” And right away, that feeling rubs off. That high, the reminiscing – that’s the hardest thing to deal with. I still miss the actual doing.

How are you feeling?
Charlie Watts: Fine. I’ve been very lucky. They caught the cancer early. It was just a lot of work getting the muscles in order again. Mick’s physio [personal trainer] looks after me.

What exercises are you doing to get back in shape?
I do stretching and sit-ups. They removed all the lymph nodes [points to throat]. When they do that, the muscles go. Then you sit around for eight weeks in treatment. You can’t lift your arm. It’s like being minorly paralyzed.

It was a worry, because of what I do for a living. We’ve got a tour, and I didn’t know if I could get through a song. You can’t stop once you get going, if you’re a drummer. A guitar player can lay back in the middle. A drummer has to be there all the time. I didn’t know if I could make it. I was fifty percent fit when I arrived in Toronto. But it’s amazing how quickly your body heals.

You got throat cancer even though you gave up smoking decades ago. Are you amazed that, after everything Keith has done to himself, he’s in such defiantly good health?
He’s got an amazing constitution, and he’s very strict on himself, in a funny way. He never overdid drugs. He always had a set amount that he did, and he would never do the whole lot at once. Most people who do that are dead. He could have fallen; he was in a position to do that. And he never did. He has a very strong will to live.

He’s different to Ronnie. It’s hard for Ronnie. He has a nervous energy. If he’s talking to you or playing guitar, he’s fine. But he can’t do that all day long. When he puts the guitar down, that’s when he wants a cigarette or a drink.

Mick and Keith had started writing for the new album when you were diagnosed. Were you concerned about how your illness would disrupt the album and tour plans?
I didn’t think of the Rolling Stones at all. Mick rang a few times: “You have to get well. Don’t worry about us.” I was sorry not to be there when Mick and Keith were writing. In a way, it was fortuitous, because they were on their own. It was a lot of fun for them, to be together.

Can you imagine the Stones going on without you?
I think they would, if they wanted to. If I hadn’t been well enough to do this tour, someone else would have done it – if Mick and Keith wanted to do it. There’s no reason why they shouldn’t, if people turn up to see them. There’s guys in our road crew who can do what I do. They see me play every night. It’s like Buddy Rich – his roadie used to do all the rehearsals with the band.

The greatest thing, I suppose, is the combination of the four of us. The Stones is that. Technical ability is another thing. It’s like the Who. They’ve had some fine drummers. They’ve got one now – Ringo Starr’s son Zak. He’s great. He’s not Keith Moon. That was a personality. Pete Townshend and Keith – they were fantastically mad, the pair of them, onstage. John Bonham was the same with Led Zeppelin – it was a sound, thunderous. And you couldn’t have Cream without Ginger Baker.

Do you wonder about the careers in art and jazz you could have had if you hadn’t joined the Stones? What was it about the Stones that was more fulfilling?
Initially, more people came to see me play than with any other band I’d been in. The Stones always had a following, whether it was four girls or four hundred. I was also impressed with the fanaticism of Keith and Brian [Jones] – their absolute dedication to Chicago blues, to Elmore James, Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry. They would sit up all night, playing the records over and over. Brian would write letters of protest to music magazines. Keith was just as fanatical, without writing letters.

The word “pop” was not very big in our lives until we saw the Beatles. They weren’t something I wanted to be. We did shows with them. Onstage, they didn’t do bugger-all. None of them moved much. And they didn’t have a great sound. It wasn’t like Eric Clapton and Cream or Jimi Hendrix. But the Beatles were a phenomenon. The great thing was how people looked at them. That’s what got you, more than John Lennon going “la-la-la” or Paul McCartney shaking his head. The effect was amazing.

Do you still get a rush from that first roar of a Stones crowd when the curtain goes up?
It’s been a long time since curtains went up [grins]. I get very nervous. If you didn’t, you’d toss it off – you’d take it for granted. And I don’t take the Rolling Stones for granted, or anything they do. I wish I could relax and enjoy the show more, instead of thinking, “Where are we now?” Keith always gives the impression that he’s happy with whatever bar he’s playing in a song. He’s never worried about the next one. And those two hours are over in a flash. You think, “God, that was Chicago done,” and all I did was worry about where the ending of a song was.

How would you describe Mick and Keith’s relationship today? They sound closer – in the songs and performances on A Bigger Bang – than they have in years.
They’re like brothers: always opposite, always agreeing. But you better not get between them. Because they’ll agree with each other, and you’ll be left on your own [laughs].

Have there been times when they were so far apart you felt the need to mediate, to bring them together?
When they get too far apart, you think, “Enough is enough.” But most of the time they do it themselves. They’re getting on very well at the moment. I think it was the way this record was done – simply. Even when I came back, it was simple. For a while it was just the three of us.

Many Stones fans probably don’t know that you are active with Mick in graphic design for the Stones: staging, artwork merchandise. What do you look for in a Stones image?
Something catchy and hopefully beautiful. But you don’t want it to be tacky. The tongue is a classic example. For myself, I would go straight for the beauty. But because of the huge position we are in, you have to have a catchy thing that takes over.

Mick’s taste in music, for example, is not as airy-fairy as mine. He’s blues- and R&B-oriented. On the last tour, the record he raved about was the Beyoncé thing [“Crazy in Love”]. He had that going all the time; he used to dance to it. Visually, it’s the same. I will veer to the right color, and Mick will put an edgy stamp to it. If I go too pink or chartreuse, he’ll bring it back to bright red – which I find hideous [laughs]. I’m not a great lover of the title for this tour and record. But what it conjures up is fantastic, and that’s what sold me.

I’ve always loved the comic strip you drew on the back of Between the Buttons. In it, there is a two-faced guy who on one side complains that the Stones aren’t what they used to be, then on the other says, “Hi, Mick! Love your latest.” The hypocrisy and fawning, it seems, goes all the way back, to 1967.
You forget that, funnily enough. Well, Keith might not [smiles]. I remember being turfed out of hotels, because you had long hair. Unbelievable, isn’t it? I once went on holiday with my wife to Corfu. We checked into the best hotel and went to go upstairs when the manager said, “You can’t go up there” – because of my hair. We stayed in a little farmhouse, which was much nicer. But in this day and age, in this hotel, people come through the front door in tracksuits and sign for their rooms. And I couldn’t go up the stairs because my hair was an inch too long.

This story is from the September 22nd, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.


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