For years now, there have been three givens to a Rolling Stones interview: Keith Richards will tell you what's really happening, Mick Jagger will keep his guard up, and there's no reason to talk about the new music because it's probably not very interesting.
But this time something was different. Jagger showed a new openness, especially in the music, and that helps make the Stones' new album their strongest since "Tattoo You" almost a quarter-century ago.
As the Stones wrapped up rehearsals here for a world tour that begins tonight in Boston, it was clear that after nearly two decades of off-and-on feuding, Jagger and Richards have not only reestablished their friendship but also recaptured their creative partnership. And in doing so, they may have averted a showdown regarding the future of the band (yes, Keith does tell you what's really happening).
Some of the new songs offer classic jolts of the Stones' blues-rock swagger, while others show a vulnerability that has rarely surfaced in the band's work (that's part of Jagger's opening up).
"There was a time when Mick and I could have argued forever over the most mundane things," Richards says. "The color of the album cover could turn into a life-and-death debate. I used to think he was getting too big for his boots, and he probably thought I was a cantankerous sod."
Last year, though, instead of being pulled apart, Jagger and Richards found themselves coming together. The bridge: finding out that drummer Charlie Watts was battling throat cancer. Past differences suddenly seemed petty.
"When we got the news about Charlie, we sat there, looking at each other and thinking, 'OK, what now?' " Richards said in his dimly lighted dressing room, reggae playing in the background. "We realized we may not totally agree on everything, but there are too many plusses to our relationship."
They were at Jagger's house in France at the time, and they threw themselves into writing songs.
"Mick and I hadn't worked like this for God knows how long," Richards continued. "We wrote 'Satisfaction' and 'Get Off My Cloud' in a little motel room. If I said, 'Mick, I have an idea,' he'd be in my room within five minutes or I'd be over in his.
"After 'Exile on Main Street,' we got used to being exiles ourselves, and it's hard to write songs 3,000 miles apart. Talking on the phone isn't like looking across the room, eyeball to eyeball."
Don Was, who has produced Stones albums for more than a decade, said he's never seen Jagger and Richards as close as they were during the making of the album.
"They didn't just hang out together in the studio," Was said. "They went out to dinner. They enjoyed each other's company. In the past, I could tell in the studio if it was a Mick song or Keith song. But this time, everything sounded like a Rolling Stones song."
Richards went even further in stressing the importance of the new work.
He wasn't thrilled with the band's 2002-03 tour, which was designed chiefly to promote the greatest hits package "Forty Licks." It felt too retro, he said.
"The last tour, you might say, was basically resting on your laurels. It was like celebrating your wonderful career, your great success and all that — a hurdle to get over. After that, we needed to prove ourselves again. I don't think we would be talking about the new tour if it was pure regurgitation.
"But now I feel like a kid again. I can't wait every day to walk up to the rehearsal room and play with Mick and Charlie and Ron. It's been like that ever since Charlie came back. He's already playing with the intensity of being on stage at Madison Square Garden. What a thrill."
Renewed closenessFor all the camaraderie surrounding the Stones these days, the rehearsals are serious business. Jagger and Richards frequently huddle in the rehearsal room, but they're talking about bridges and choruses.
The mood was lighter several weeks earlier as they mixed the album in a Hollywood studio. They were frequently arm in arm, simply high on the new music. This renewed closeness may explain why the atmosphere was so warm as the Stones dusted off their old "Moonlight Mile" during an early-evening rehearsal.
A little Maltese spaniel, named for the Stones' '60s hit "Ruby Tuesday," checked the contents of an equipment case in the corner of the room, while Richards' wife, model Patti Hansen, and one of Jagger's daughters listened across the room.
Rather than book an actual rehearsal hall, the band had set up shop in a high school that was closed for the summer.
During the dinner break, Jagger, Richards, Watts and guitarist Ron Wood all went to the cafeteria for a stylish buffet prepared by their chef. Richards joked with Jagger before sitting down at a table with his wife. Wood and Watts shared another table
"This is my 30th-year anniversary with the band, and I've never enjoyed it more," said Wood, who had previously been in the Faces with Rod Stewart. "Everyone is more relaxed, and I think the music is better for it."
Everyone expects Richards, one of rock's great eccentrics, to be relaxed. His image has softened considerably since the '70s, when his renegade lifestyle made him the odds-on favorite to be the next celebrity casualty in office "ghoul pools."
It's been almost 30 years since he was arrested here in a heroin bust and faced a seven-year prison term. After pleading guilty, he received a suspended sentence.
Jagger's image hasn't changed much, partly because he's so private. Just about everything we know about him is from watching him swagger across the stage and from tabloid accounts of his latest affair. People close to the singer say he's smart and extremely loyal, but his public image remains a bit cold — the love 'em and leave 'em playboy with a heart of stone. Despite the years (he's 62) and his reputation, there always seem to be beautiful young models ready to be under his thumb.
When a pretty young woman gave Jagger a hug just before the rehearsal break, it underscored how strong that playboy image is. I thought she was the latest in that long line of young models. But she turned out to be his teenage daughter from his longtime relationship with model-actress Jerry Hall.
In that same sort of "more here than meets the eye" way, the Stones' new work toys with longtime assumptions about the band. They've never been known for confessional music. They've built their work around rebellion, sexual swagger and blues mythology, all framed by a rhythm section so seductive it can make words feel unnecessary. But the new album, "A Bigger Bang," takes the band beyond mere pose.
The social commentary of one of the album's songs, "Sweet Neo Con," has attracted some attention because of anti-Bush administration remarks such as "You call yourself a Christian / I think that you're a hypocrite."
But it's only interesting because it's coming from the normally apolitical Stones. Even Jagger admits that social commentary isn't his "forte."
The real breakthrough is the personal songs, including the melancholy, country-tinged "The Biggest Mistake" and stark, R&B-rooted "Laugh I Nearly Died," that not only help humanize Jagger but greatly extend his range as a writer.
In "Biggest Mistake," he begins:
When love comes so late It'll really hit hard It slams through the gate It'll catch you off guardJagger has written about love and loneliness before, as in "Miss You," but it seemed like a generic exercise, not a personal outpouring. This time, he doesn't just talk about his own feelings more convincingly but laments his playboy tendencies.
In "Biggest Mistake," for instance, he acknowledges his role in sabotaging a relationship: "But after a while, I started to rebel / I'm back in the past, and I'm raising up hell." Later, he says, "I acted impatient, acted unkind / I took her for granted."
Jagger doesn't talk easily about these songs. He laughed nervously as he answered questions about them, and at one point he gave himself time to think by walking across the room for a bottle of mineral water.
Unlike Richards' darkened room, Jagger's was filled with bright light. He wore a red T-shirt with the letters "Enjoy Rock 'n' Roll" in the pattern of "Enjoy Coca-Cola" signs. You got the sense this was where everyone gathered to make tour decisions.
"Of course, you are as vulnerable as anyone else," Jagger said finally. "It's crazy to think someone can't be hurt just because he's famous or he struts across a stage. If you go back through Stones albums, I'm sure you'll find vulnerability along with the swagger.
"It may not have been as easy to see, though, because it's not my temperament to share that feeling. I've often hid my feelings with humor. This time the songs were written very quickly, and I was in a certain frame of mind.
"I thought about some of the words afterward to see whether they were too personal, but I decided to just let them stay. Keith was very encouraging."
Did Jagger want to take the next step and talk about the relationship that led to the songs?
"No, no," he said with another laugh. "I don't want to get into Us magazine territory. I'm not a confessional person. I don't feel comfortable in that role. It's just the way I was brought up, I guess. You don't do that. I find it tacky when people use interviews as a psychology session. It seems so shallow. I don't want any part of that."
But he said he putting his feelings into a song helped heal the wounds. "Translating that vulnerability into a song is very cathartic for you. You have to write it down and examine it and decide what you wanted to share. There's something in the process that helped me get past the hurt."
Richards, whose "This Place Is Empty" on the new album is as tender and as introspective as the key Jagger tunes, was delighted when he first heard "Biggest Mistake" in France.
"I thought it was about time he owned up and stepped out of that closed shell," Richards said. "I knew he went through bad periods, even if he didn't want to write about it. I used to wrestle with that too. As a writer, you don't want to bore people with your own story. But you eventually realize that you're not the only one who is lonely or having problems."
Enthusiasm for new tunesThe band spent more than a month here, rehearsing nearly 100 songs, which they'll slip in and out of set lists on a tour expected to gross more than $200 million.
After every number, Wood wrote the title on a large poster board in the rear of the rehearsal room so the band could start piecing together set lists.
But the real enthusiasm is for the new tunes.
"I was delighted when I finally heard the new material," said Watts, whose doctor told him there are no longer traces of cancer in him. "It's always good to have something fresh to play."
There are some tracks with the rollicking, guitar-driven feel of "All Down the Line," while the bluesy "Back of My Hand," featuring some wicked slide guitar by Jagger, takes the band back to the heart of their early blues exploration.
"A lot of people say this track reminds them of 'Exile' or that one reminds them of 'Between the Buttons,' or whatever," Richards said in his dressing room. "But [what] they are talking about, more than specific albums, is that these songs capture the spirit that they like about the Rolling Stones.
"And I wanted that spirit back too. In this band, it's almost a necessity to have new songs we are excited about, otherwise we go out like the Beach Boys and just play the old favorites. Please, no."Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times