The Rolling Stones: Artist of the Year

After resolving their difficulties, Mick, Keith and the gang recorded 'Steel Wheels' and hit the road to prove they're still one of rock's greatest bands

The Rolling Stones: Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger, circa 1990. Credit: Dave Hogan/Hulton Archive/Getty

As they relax backstage at the Pontiac Silverdome, outside Detroit, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards burst into giddy laughter at the very idea that the North American leg of the Rolling Stones' Steel Wheels tour — sixty shows in three and a half months — is within two weeks of closing. The prospect of life at home for the Christmas holidays seems welcome — and strange — after the rigorously structured life of the road.

"It's got that end-of-term feeling," Jagger says.

"We were just talking about that," Richards says. "Having to go to the kitchen from the bedroom without a police escort."

"Should I really go to the restaurant without my bodyguard?" Jagger asks, with feigned superciliousness. "It's so stupid. My old lady says, 'You're going to be impossible for the first week and for the holiday. I know you are. I'm going to be as patient as . . . ' " He catches himself careening into the genre of domestic comedy and brings himself up short, with a smile. "No, I'm sorry," he says, ready to resume the interview. "Carry on."

Jagger is draped along a comfortable gray chair, his back against one arm of the chair, his legs, crossed at the ankles, dangling over the other. Wearing black trousers and a green sweater and shirt, his hair cut short, he looks like a mischievous English schoolboy surprised by middle age. Richards, in a black leather jacket over a white T-shirt, sits opposite him a few feet away in the small room, smoking, nursing a drink.

If they aren't the inseparable Glimmer Twins of old, Jagger and Richards are easy and familiar around each other. The differences that have developed between them over the years are obvious and, neither man being a fool, they are both aware of them. Their bond at this point seems to rest more on mutual respect than affection; they are partners, no longer soul mates.

But their partnership, which had looked to be on the point of a permanent severing, has instead proven to be the driving force behind one of the most successful years in the Stones' tumultuous history. Steel Wheels won positive reviews and achieved double-platinum sales; The Rolling Stones Singles Collection: The London Years, assembled by the band's former manager Allen Klein, was a mainstay on the charts, and the Steel Wheels tour, marred, though it was, by a shameless marketing campaign, was an unparalleled musical and commercial triumph. Both the critics and the readers of Rolling Stone voted the Stones Artist of the Year; both groups also cited the Stones for the year's Best Tour, and the readers named the Stones Best Band. All the honors are well deserved.

Jagger and Richards say that writing and recording the album Steel Wheels was the crucial first step in making 1989 such a stellar year. "We had to prove to ourselves — as well as proving to other people — that we wanted to do new songs," Jagger says. "People will like them or not, depending on their own personal tastes. . . . People said, 'Oh, they only did three numbers from the new album.' Bullshit. In reality, you don't want to do a hell of a lot more than that at the beginning. You know they like 'Start Me Up' and 'Angie,' but how are they going to like 'Mixed Emotions'? That's the thing that you want to know. In the beginning, they don't."

"That little bit of fright on a new number, breaking it in the first night, you're really going out there on the tightrope," Richards says. "It saves the show from becoming stale to the band. If you've got one or two things that keep everybody on their toes, playing new stuff, then they'll play the old stuff with a fresher aspect as well. It winds them up just that little bit extra, that little bit of chance."

Along with the challenge of making an album and presenting some new songs onstage, the Stones were determined to perform material from every phase of their career. That meant going so far as to include a touchstone from the band's largely discredited psychedelic period: "2000 Light Years From Home," from the 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request.

"I knew that one was going to come up," Richards says, when asked about the song.

"We made that album, for better or worse," Jagger says about Satanic Majesties. "I didn't know if '2000 Light Years' would work, but I wanted to give it a shot, just so that period was in there, and we didn't, as we'd done before, gloss over it" — he begins laughing — "because it was an embarrassing moment we rather wanted to forget. Maybe it was, but, fuck it. People actually do like it."

"Trying to remember making it was the hard part," Richards says, laughing.

Partly because they tend always to perceive the Stones as embattled — a holdover from the long period in which that was the case — Jagger and Richards are almost humorously disinclined to give outsiders the benefit of the doubt. Media coverage of the tour was "overly reverential," Jagger says, while Richards quickly adds, "And the criticism we did get wasn't really valid. It was obviously some guy, like, the only way he could get the review in was by panning us." Asked if, given the enormous scale of the venues the band chose to play, he and Jagger attended many stadium shows themselves, Richards says, "I've done, once or twice. I'll go and see some band, if somebody says, "Oh, they'd like to see you,' or if I'd like to see them. I just hope they don't do a four-hour show."

Jagger agrees. "I don't have that long an attention span," he says. "I've seen Bruce Springsteen's show in two parts."

Richards breaks up, saying, "Come back tomorrow for the other half."

Jagger did go to a number of stadium shows to see what other bands were doing and to generate ideas for the Stones. "To be honest, I would never go to the Pink Floyd show," Jagger says. "The show, just musically, leaves me cold. That's just a personal take. But when they add the whole spectacle, it's great. The Who has done great shows."

Richards found the high-tech logistics of contemporary stadium performance somewhat inhibiting. "With the technology," he explains, "it's no longer 5 people in this band — it's like 300. The coordination has to go down. You can't get up there and jam, because then the computer's out and the lights."

"That was a criticism: 'Spontaneity was lacking,'" Jagger adds. "You don't come to the Rolling Stones in a stadium for spontaneity. You go to a jazz club. 'Spontaneity' usually means 'mistakes,' I find."

As for the countless sponsorships, presentation arrangements and marketing deals that made the Steel Wheels tour, estimated to gross as much as $140 million, perhaps the most lucrative venture in rock history, the Stones — with a characteristic blend of defiance, charm, pragmatism and sheer nerve — want to have it all ways.

"I don't know about the appropriateness of it. . . ." says Richards.

"I don't think you should be defensive about it," Jagger says.

"After all, if there's anybody to blame for sponsorship, you can blame us, because I think we were probably the first — with the perfume," continues Richards, alluding to the Stones' groundbreaking sponsorship deal with Jovan in 1981. "You see, ideas get perverted. The idea was to get somebody to front the bread, so that you could keep the ticket prices down. Then other people take the idea over. They take the sponsorship money and still jack the ticket prices up. But if you want to put on a show like this in places of this size, you need some financial help."

"I have another point on sponsorship — which I don't really like," Jagger says. "I think Keith and I both agree. I would personally prefer to do the show without sponsorship, and I told Anheuser-Busch the same thing when they asked me. But for the people with our Canadian promoter, it's useful for them, because it gives them a lot of TV presence and awareness.

"You can sell 2 million tickets quite easily," Jagger continues. "But when they want to get out there and do 3 million-plus tickets, that's the bit that's hard to sell. The last bit, you know what I'm saying? So their attitude, which they sell to us, is that you get that TV sponsorship, which is money that they could never use for advertising, because it's so expensive, and with that you get the awareness. You never know how much you would sell without it. Yes, you would have sold 2 million tickets — but would you have sold 3?

"That's America in the Eighties. Now it's another question, whether you like it or not. If you're under thirty, I don't see that you'd have any problem with it. The people that are over thirty, like probably all of us are, have a different attitude. . . ."

"We have a lot of problems with it, you know?" says Richards.

"The Sixties people, we don't like it," Jagger continues. "In the way that we were growing up, we have all kinds of objections to it."

"It's the sellout clause we're talking about," Richards says.

"And we don't want to do ads," says Jagger. "We say, 'Sponsoring the tour only. When the tour's gone, you're gone.' You never see us with a can saying, 'Drink this.' You might say, 'Well, that's a bit splitting hairs,' but to us, it isn't."

"Hey, I don't mind taking the companies for a ride" Richards says, laughing.

"But we're not taking them for a ride, because they're getting something out of it," says Jagger.

"And they think they're taking us for a ride, and so . . ." says Richards.

"I don't think they're taking us," Jagger says. "I don't think they think that, anyway. I don't think that."

"I don't know," Richards says, wearily. "You never know. Who knows the inside of the corporate mind?"

"They're pleased with it," Jagger says.

"All we say is we want to build a stage like this, and it's going to cost us so much to do it, and we've got to build two of them — how can it be done?" Richards says. "After all, you know, this is America. And I find it funny — it's always the Americans that get up in arms about sponsorship — and it's their system."

After Jagger wanders off to attend to some Stones organizational matters, Richards continues the conversation. "He's a smart little motherfucker, I'll give him that," Richards says about Jagger, with an appreciative laugh, after the singer leaves the room. Despite his 1988 solo album and tour with his band the X-Pensive Winos, Richards is still a Rolling Stone to his bones. For all their differences, he admires Jagger deeply and speaks of the group in almost mystical terms.

"To me, a great band is a miracle," Richards says, "because you really need to stick together. You never think about it when you start off. You think a year or two's a long time. I remember distinctly when we got our first record contract. In a way, there was a sense of dismay among the members of the band, because you felt in those days, even if you really hit it big with the first couple of records: two years. It was like 'We've only just started, and we're already watching me downside.' "

Similarly, the Stones' success has lost none of its rush — and none of its mystery — for him. "The amazing thing about this band," says Richards, "I look around, say, like when I go up onstage. 'Mick. There's Charlie. There's Bill. There's Ronnie. I know I'm here.' It's like 'Is that all?' " He shakes his head and laughs. " 'Is this what all this is about?' You're still looking for someone that really knows what's going on, because nobody does."

For years, the Stones earned a reputation as the bad boys of rock & roll, and Richards was the baddest of the lot. He's taking it a good deal easier these days. "I recognize that I'm not twenty or thirty anymore," Richards says, almost wistfully. "I make sure I get . . . a little sleep." He chuckles. "Not a lot, but at least a bit. It's the longest show we've ever done, and you want to do it right. There's this incredible feeling amongst the band: We've got to deliver. Instead of hanging out for that extra five minutes — which usually means five hours by the time that five minutes is over, because that's the killer five. You say, 'Oh, one more drink,' and then suddenly, 'All right, who fancies a game of poker?' 'Well, why not?' And then five hours later, you've blown it. They don't do that. It's amazing to me to watch this lot's self-discipline come down."

In the early days, when the Stones came to a city, the band incited a heady combination of arousal and fear, as if a street gang had blown into town. Asked whether he missed that aspect of the Stones' appeal, Richards laughs and says, "The Wild Ones? Not really. You get older, you know? You've got families and kids. It will happen to the best of you, baby, don't worry. The one thing I can guarantee is you're gonna get older — if you're lucky. If you're really bad, you get older; only the good die young. But I've known a few exceptions to that rule, as well.

"There's no point at this point of life still trying to play bad boys just for the sake of it," Richards continues. "I was as bad as you could get. I look back, and I say, 'I was trying to commit suicide for ten years.' But I couldn't kill it. So I came to terms with myself: 'Okay, well, then, we'll get on with living.' Now I want to see how far I can take this thing. If I can grow up, then surely my music can."

Richards knows that the context in which that music will grow up is somewhat in doubt. Jagger, while fully committed to the Stones for the present, isn't saying much about the future of the band. Such reticence used to make Richards's skin crawl; now he accepts it. "From the very minute that I waltzed into this joint in Barbados with my little bag, thinking, 'Mick and I are gonna write some songs,' I'm taking it a day at a time," Richards says, adding significantly, "at the moment."

Taking it a day at a time has, so far, produced an album and a North American tour. The Stones have played Japan and will likely go to Europe in the summer. Jagger is fronting the band and doing an extraordinary job of it. For Richards, that's enough — at the moment.

Still, Richards values the time he spent away from the Stones. "The Stones, it's a weird thing, it's almost like a soap opera," he says. "We needed a break to find out what you can and what you can't do on your own. I had to find myself a whole new band. Hell, I've got another band round the corner that's damn hot. And they're still there; my guys are still there. I kind of provoked the Stones with the Winos. Before I did that, the idea of doing something like that meant to me 'You failed to keep your band together.' I thought I always could. But then I realized maybe that's the way to keep the band together: leaving for a bit."

Clearly, however, the absurd amounts of money and the hoopla of the past year mean far less to Richards than the fact that, in 1989, his real band, the Rolling Stones, won the battle of the bands hands down. Of skeptics who had written the Stones off before the tour, Richards says, "Loads of people have tried that. That was the idea: Saying, ' 'Ey, I've got a good band here. All you've got to do is come and see them. We'll take you down in the basement and show you what's what.' And try and make a basement out of a football stadium, get back in the garage. Get that feel going. I never doubted the band, personally — but I'm an incredible optimist where this band is concerned. It never occurred to me that they might not be able to cut it. Absolutely not."

"Back out on the killing floor," Richards says cheerily as he sets off to prepare for the first of the two Silverdome shows. But first he goes looking for Jagger with the words "I'll send Her Majesty back over."

Referred to earlier by one member of the Stones entourage as "The house of God," Jagger's dressing room is not especially posh, just a rigged-up space off the sterile corridors within the bowels of a stadium, outfitted with a couch, a table, some chairs and a humidifier. Jagger's assistant, Miranda Guinness, kneels on the floor preparing a pot of tea to his specifications; someone else's previous effort had proven unsatisfactory. She will later bring him a plate of fish that he will pick at as he speaks.

Sitting on the couch, Jagger is wound up much tighter than he was just an hour ago. It's nearing show time, and he's pulling into himself. When the Stones hit the stage a little over an hour later, 55,000 people will roar at the mere sight of Mick Jagger and will follow his every move, blown larger than life on the video screens, for two and a half hours. It's not the sort of prospect that makes you want to kick back, get vulnerable and bare your soul — or makes you feel that you need to.

Despite his obvious intelligence, Jagger is impatient with introspection and speculation. He doesn't question his desires — he wants them satisfied — and, as a result, he exudes an extraordinary air of self-possession. The world and what can happen in it — that is, the present and, as concerns his specific plans, the future — are his exclusive focuses. What might have happened, could have happened, should happen or, even more improbably, whatever you might feel about any of those issues, are quite beside the point.

"I hate talking about future plans, because if they don't work out, you look like a cunt," Jagger says, while discussing his interest in television production. "Then you'll say, 'What happened to that idea?' It didn't work, you know?"

When talk turns to the Stones, he again emphasizes the band's currency, "As I said to you when we were talking with Keith," says Jagger, "I was so insistent that we put out a new album, because I thought the Stones were becoming just a nostalgia thing. And they are nostalgia. They're out there selling their catalog and we're playing these old songs because a lot of them people want to hear. But you've got to put out new things. You've got to think for the future. The past is the past. It's gone, thank you very much.

"I hope younger people just see the band as a band, without the baggage of history," Jagger continues. "You can't deny the history's there; I'm not denying it's there. But I'm not really interested in the history of the band. I'm not really interested in what happened then. I'm still interested in the songs — if they hold up. I'm not interested in doing them just as history. I'm more interested in doing new things. I'm just not that orientated toward the past. I think it's a waste of time. It's dumb. It's done, nothing's gonna change it."

As for the Stones' future, Jagger addresses that in pragmatic terms as well. "You can't particularly plan the future that hard and fast," he says. "I mean, they want us to go and tour Japan, which is easy, lots of money, so you say, 'Yeah, okay.' And then Europe. You say, 'Well, yeah, but not hundreds of shows,' because Europe is, like, a terrible nightmare compared to this. It's not so much money, it's much harder work, it's endless border problems, it's huge tax problems. No one gets that much money, you never know how much you're going to get, the stage can't be as good. It's a logistical nightmare. I was just doing that before you came in: How many thousands of hours can the stage be put up and how can we do it and on and on.

"I hate doing these other things," continues Jagger, "because America's like A and everything else is B — and living with B is never as good. It's like you rent a Ferrari and you have to be in a Honda the next day, and it just isn't very good. And you have to live with it.

"I don't know. After that, I don't know what happens, really. I've got enough planning to get to the end of this monstrous week: pay-per-views, special guests, song lists for Axl." Jagger suddenly brightens, his hard, blue-gray eyes lighting up. "It's quite amusing, really. It always comes out right at the end, right?"

But isn't it hard shifting gears between the business and the artistry of the Stones? "Not really," he says, stirring his tea. "I'm used to doing it. I mean, people say, 'You shouldn't do it. Mick does too much.' But if I don't do it, it'll get fucked up. I read these things always: 'Mick's the one calculating; Keith's passionate.' But, I mean, I'm really passionate about getting things right. And if I'm not passionate about the details, some slovenly person that's employed in this organization will just let everything go, and you'll end up with a lot of crap. It degenerates very, very quickly. To be honest, no one can do that for you. Maybe that's one of the reasons the Rolling Stones thing comes off."

Without a doubt. And Jagger is as proud of his version of the Rolling Stones as Richards is of his. "This was the huge challenge: to do a good record and a good tour," Jagger says. "And I think we've done really well. I mean, the record could have been better, there could have been more hits on it; it could have sold more. But, apart from that, the tour did really well. There's not been one night — and I'm a terrible critic of the Rolling Stones, I've said when they've been fucking useless — where I've felt that the band has not been worth the money paid. I'm quite pleased. I think the Rolling Stones have been very, very professional and kept a very high standard."