Los Angeles – One year, to the weekend, after the Rolling Stones played the final concert of their “farewell” tour of England, Mick Jagger is at the wheel of a big black Mercedes, going east on Sunset Strip, Rock and Roll Billboard Row. Mick is on his way to Studio Three at Wally Heider’s for another assault on a final mix for “Tumbling Dice,” which will be the single from Exile On Main Street, the Stones’ new double album, out May 7th.
On June 3rd, in Seattle, Washington, it all begins again, as the Stones start their first American tour in more than two years. In six weeks, they will play some 30-odd cities.
Today, though, things are quiet, and Mick is simply on his way to work.
“Main Street” in the new album’s title is in seedy, way-downtown L.A. where Mick says, “You can see pimps, knives flashin’, real inner city . . .” and where some of the pictures for the back cover were shot by Robert Frank, the internationally respected filmmaker and photographer. The front cover of the album is a photo he took of a wall in a tattoo parlor in New York City. The wall is covered with photos of strange and unusual people. Frank filmed the Stones with a Super 8 camera, then made stills out of individual frames and composed the back cover to match his original wall picture.
The album contains 18 previously unheard songs, including a Slim Harpo song written by James Moore called “Shake Your Hips,” a Mick Taylor-Jagger-Richards composition, “Ventilator Blues,” a tune called “Happy” on which Keith Richards sings lead, the single, “Tumbling Dice,” and even a Jesus song: “Just Wanna See His Face.”
Other titles are “Rocks Off,” “All Down the Line,” “Loving Cup,” “Torn and Frayed,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Stop Breaking Down,” “Sweet Black Angel,” “Rip This Joint,” “Shine a Light,” “Turd on the Run,” “Casino Boogie,” “Let It Loose,” and “Soul Survivor.”
Most of the basic tracks were laid down almost a year ago in the basement of Keith Richards’ house in the South of France. “It was cut during the summer and we’ll be touring this summer, so it all fits in,” said Jagger. “It’s a summer-y album and very commercial, I think . . . It’s a double album, like Electric Ladyland. God knows there was enough in that for a year’s listening . . . I expect, too, that eventually there’ll be a live album coming out of the tour.”
* * *
It’s Saturday afternoon and sometime around the civilized hour of four or so, Mick Jagger comes padding barefoot down the stairs of his rented Bel-Air home. The house was originally owned by Marion Davies, William Randolph Hearst’s protegee. The place is straight South California Gothic even now, tangles of jungle vines and underbrush by an artificial waterfall that’s gone dry. The only sound around is the whisper of a sprinkler outside.
Mick sits down at the dining room table with a beer, wearing one of those shiny silk zippered jackets that sometimes have maps of Vietnam or Japan on the back. Two tigers snarl at each other across the shoulders of this one.
“It’s not such a grueling schedule really, this tour,” he says. “It’s like the one we did las’ time. Five cities a week for six weeks. We wanted to ‘ave a rest in the middle, two weeks off to recover, but that meant we’d have been in the country more than six months and eligible for national service . . . you know, the draft . . .
“It’ll give us a chance to play music people haven’t heard us do before . . . I mean . . . God knows I love rock and roll. Still, I’d like to see the band experiment more, with form as well as content. Because myself, I like Satanic Majesties . . . I mean Mick Taylor has even more strange ideas than me an I know Charlie wouldn’t mind goin’ along with it . . . I wouldn’t wanna be a band people think they could rely on . . .”
Is it the last tour, as a band?
“Naw. I’d like ta come back and play another in the autumn meself, in all the places we missed . . . we’ll be doin’ a little bus tour of the deep South this time, playin’ in New Orleans for the first time and in Shreveport . . .
“The toughest cities to find a place to play in are L.A. and San Francisco. In New York, you just do Madison Square Garden. But out here . . .” Mick reaches back and stretches, “. . . one would like to do something outside, in the open air. But it’s so smoggy and all. What we’ll probably end up doin’ is work different places around L.A., Long Beach, maybe the Palladium. In San Francisco, we’ll do Winterland . . .” Mick sighs. “But see there are problems. We’ll have to do four shows at Winterland to make what we could with one at the Oakland Coliseum.”
Mick, Bianca, and their baby daughter Jade have been in L.A. for four months. He’s worked once, with Bobby Bland in a ballroom in Watts at three in the morning.
Los Angeles has always been particularly a Stones city, the place where they come to mix and master their albums. Their music is forever coming out of car radios and jukeboxes. Nowhere else is an English accent, a velvet suit, or a ruffled shirt more in demand. Movie star tourist buses have begun to stop outside the driveway to Mick’s house. “Still,” he says, “the anonymity here is pretty good. It’s not like England, where it’s so crowded one has to buy a thousand acres to have any privacy, where they line up outside your house to find out who you fucked the night before. I hate that place . . . you think if only they’d let you, you could take it over and really get it together because it’s so small really. You think something like the miners’ strike is going to really bring about a change . . . But Heath . . .” he sighs. “Really, it’s such a pathetic little village sometimes.”
As for France, where he has lived since last spring, he sighs again. “Do you know there are no more salmon in the rivers of France any more? They’ve killed them all with pollution. In Nice and Cannes, the French are thieves . . . I’ll never live there again . . .”
Mick goes up the stairs to gather his things. Time to go to the studio. When he comes down again he says, “People have asked me if I’m not frightened to go out on a stage and work every night in America . . . maybe you shouldn’t even print anything about that . . . But, I mean, if we can’t play here, in our other home so to speak, what good is it?” His voice trails away as he moves through the great dining room.
* * *
“Was this the Beach Boys studio?” Jagger says the minute he gets inside the control room at Heider’s. “I mean ai’ve been here before. You lose all the highs.” Jimmy Miller, who’s produced the Stones for years, is at the console along with Andy Johns, brother of Glyn, who is engineering tonight and in actual control of the knobs and switches. “Uh,” the regular studio engineer says hesitantly. “Actually it was completely rebuilt a while ago . . . You might still think there’s too much bottom, but that’s ’cause the top is going out over your head.” Mick grimaces and decides to stay.
A rough mix of “Tumbling Dice” is racked up. Four guitars, two playing rhythm, one coming through a Lesley, horns, piano, organ, Mick’s voice singing lead, Stones singing harmony, girls wailing background, answering the lead voice and exchanging harmonies. Dense music. “Well,” Andy Johns says, after it’s played through for the first time. “What do you think?”
Mick looks up at the soundproof ceiling. “I want the snares to crack,” Mick says finally, “and the voices to float . . . it’s tricky aw-rite . . . You think you’ve got the voices sussed and all of a sudden, the backing track seems so . . .” Mick stops and reaches for the word, “. . . so . . . ordinaire.“
The tape is reeled and re-reeled. Andy flicks knobs and the bass recedes, the drums get crisp, the guitars overlap. “I thought you liked cymbals like that,” Andy says, after a take Mick has disapproved of. “They sound like dustbin lids,” he says. Andy pouts for a second, then rewinds the tape again.
* * *
Keith Richards is lying on the roof of a big two-tone Chevy parked in front of his house, making faces at his two-year-old son Marlan through the windshield. “Hallo,” he says, climbing down, “Have you heard? They’re at it again. They decided to re-mix the whole album. Been up for 31 hours so far I hear.” He laughs. “Always happens. The more you mix, the better it gets.”
Things are more chaotic than usual at Keith’s house this day. They are packing for a four o’clock plane the next day. “We’re going to Switzerland,” Keith says, as Anita walks past into the kitchen looking extremely pregnant. “We figgered Marlan was lonesome, so we let it happen.” Is it twins? “No,” Anita says sternly, “it is the dress.” She starts throwing things into what is to be the first of 19 pieces of luggage. “It was nice for me making this album,” says Keith. “At the end it got a little hectic in the house what with playin’ all night in the blazin’ heat . . . but with the 16 track truck always outside and ready, we’d go downstairs whenever we felt like it and work on a riff.”
“I’m not even thinkin’ about this tour,” Keith says, concentrating on coloring circles on a piece of paper with a yellow crayon he’s found. “I’m just gonna show up and be on it. I wish we’d work some places we haven’t been though, like Kansas City. We’ve only been to Memphis once . . . y’get hung up in the same old circuit of cities all the time . . . we’ve got a short list of people we’d like to take with us, the Staple Singers, Joe Tex . . . an old bluesman would be nice but they’re pretty fragile . . .
“By the time we get ’round to doin’ it, it’ll be almost as long a gap as between the last and the one before it. Funny though how things have changed, no one’s talkin’ about free concerts anymore and yet right now grass is legal in Michigan. It’s like maybe when you stop pushin’, you get what you want . . . there’s a message there somewhere, folks . . .”
Will it be the last tour?
Keith looks up from his coloring. “I doubt it,” he says. “We need the money.” Keith’s worked only once since he’s been in L.A., an attempted jam with Chuck Berry. Mr. B. kept casting nervous glances at Mick, who was attracting all the attention at one side of the stage, then asked Keith to “turn down.” Finally he asked him and the piano player, Mac Rebennack, Dr. John, to leave. Now, Keith puts some of the dubs from their new album on the record player. “I wanted to release ‘Sweet Virginia’ as kind of an easy listening single,” he says. The refrain in that song is “Scrape the shit right off your shoes.”
Keith says the Stones might work a festival in the English countryside this summer. They’ve learned it’s legal for them to work there: “Either that or Lebanon.” There’s a short silence. A festival in Lebanon? “Yeah,” Keith says, matter-of-fact. “Might be a gas, actually.”
The phone rings and Keith picks it up. “They’ve got the new mixes at Marshall’s house,” he says. “Let’s go.”
* * *
Things are slightly crazy in Marshall Chess’ little pool house overlooking the lights of Hollywood. Chris O’Dell, the Stones do-everything lady in L.A., is on the phone looking for a piano player. Mick might want to cut a promotional jingle for radio about the album. “Billy Preston isn’t home,” she explains earnestly. “Stevie Wonder‘s available but I haven’t asked Mick about him . . . I called Carole King and she said well, she wasn’t working much any more, what with the baby and all.”
Jimmy Miller comes through the door with his hands full of album sleeves. “Take that shit off,” he says, “and play something good. We’ve re-done five songs.”
All the mixes of “Tumbling Dice” are played, loud and numbing. Marshall’s on the phone making arrangements so he can hand-carry the masters onto the plane and deliver them to Atlantic Records in person on Monday morning.
With the sun fading behind the hills and the light failing, Mick and Keith sit slumped on the couch. In the gathering gloom, all you can see is their wan white faces and feathered hair. They look like brothers.
The last chords of “Tumbling Dice” fade away. “They’re both good, y’know Jimmy,” Mick says, closing his eyes. “Maybe the old one . . .,” Keith mumbles. Jimmy looks around. He says, “I think the new one is more commercial.” The two are almost identical; even Mick can’t tell the difference. They discuss it around the room. The old one, the new one. Which one will sound better mono? The old one. “Ok,” Jimmy concedes, “the old one. We’ll go back now and play with it.” “Yeah,” Andy Johns agrees, “just a fraction more top on it. It’s still a bit dull.”
Across the room, Marshall Chess is talking to himself. Jimmy and Andy collect the mixes. Mick Jagger grabs a piece of paper and draws the album title the way he wants it. “Fanatics,” Marshall says to himself, softly. He sputters a laugh, “Fanatics.”
The new Rolling Stones album is ready to be delivered.