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COVER STORY : Has Attitude Brought the Stones This Far? Yeah. : Thirty years after their first U.S. tour, the Stones are hitting the road again. Could this be the last time? Even they don’t know. On the ‘Voodoo’ road with Mick, Keith, Charlie, Ron (and that new tyke on bass).

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic. </i>

We’re backstage at the RPM Club, deep in the heart of the Rolling Stones’ inner circle, trying to answer the question hovering over every Stones tour for the past two decades: Is this finally the last time?

The band has been in town for a month, rehearsing for the mammoth tour that begins Monday in Washington, D.C., and the guest list for this warm-up date is filled with longtime friends and associates.

Among those eager to see the Stones in the intimate setting: comedian Dan Aykroyd, who hosted the group a few days earlier at his country estate near here, and Rolling Stone magazine publisher Jann Wenner, who flew here from New York to see what he still regards as the world’s greatest rock band.

No one, including those who work with the Stones, is surprised by the question about whether this will be the last tour. Didn’t a twentysomething Mick Jagger once say he couldn’t imagine singing “Satisfaction” when he was 40?

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It has been 31 years since the Stones began defining the renegade attitude in rock, and the band’s co-founders--those who have survived--are all past 50 with the meter running. Bill Wyman, the bass player who is 57, called it quits last year.

“This is definitely the last time,” says one insider, standing in the shadows near the crowded bar in the waterfront club’s upstairs VIP area. “The only reason they haven’t announced it is they think the idea of a farewell tour is tacky. . . . Like you are trying to drum up extra business by saying, ‘See us before we are gone.’ ”

But that’s an extreme view. Most of the others questioned feel the issue is more fluid.

“If age was going to intimidate them, they would have quit long ago,” says one high-ranking member of the production team, standing by a rail overlooking the dance floor where 1,200 fans are restlessly awaiting the show. “It’s not a lot of fun being called wrinkly rockers, but they kind of take it as a badge of honor. They are intrigued with seeing how long they can keep going.”

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Ultimately, the answer has to come from the band members themselves.

Mick Jagger, who is 11 years past the once-dreaded 40, frowns when asked about the Stones’ future. “Next question, please.”

Drummer Charlie Watts, who at 53 is the oldest Stone, weighs the matter before politely saying, “Well, that’s the big one, isn’t it?”

Keith Richards, sitting alone in a backstage lounge area, sets down his beer and shrugs.

Where Jagger likes to joustc with the media in a teasing attempt to keep you away from the family secrets, Richards, 50, enjoys bringing you into the circle.

“There’s part of you that feels the Stones will be here forever, but you know that can’t be,” he says.

“The truth is things were a lot more fragile for us during the ‘80s than anyone realized, including the band. It’s only now that I can look back and see how close it came to coming apart.”

Richards--whose bluesy guitar riffs on such hits as “Tumbling Dice” and “Honky Tonk Women” are as much milestones in rock as a great Dylan lyric--pauses to light a cigarette and look across the room at a guitar case.

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“Now that Bill has left, we are down to the hard core, aren’t we? We are able to continue without him, but if anyone else decides he’s had enough, that will be the end . . .

“That uncertainty makes you (savor) every moment now . . . even the rehearsals, because you don’t know how much longer it’ll last. One phone call and it could all be over.”

*

The ultimate finish line for the Stones isn’t the only provocative question swirling around the legendary British band as it rolls into a five-month U.S. tour that arrives at the Rose Bowl on Oct. 19. (National tour grosses could reach $135 million. The tour is expected to continue around the world for most of 1995, and attendance for the entire tour could total 6 million.)

Another key concern is whether the Stones can still compete in the Pearl Jam world of ‘90s rock.

The question is important because box-office success could be a factor in the Stones’ decision about future tours--and the news about ticket sales hasn’t been all good so far.

Where the band sold out four stadium shows in the Los Angeles area on the 1989 “Steel Wheels” tour, promoters are only committed to two so far this trip.

Michael Cohl, the Toronto promoter who is handling the entire tour, says he’s not worried. He’s counting on response to the new album, “Voodoo Lounge,” and strong word-of-mouth from the early shows to spur ticket sales. “My feeling,” he says, “is that in the end, the tour will be at least as big as ‘Steel Wheels.’ ”

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But are the Stones still relevant?

Here’s an outfit that has been attacked as over-the-hill for more years than most bands stay together. People have been calling for their scalps off and on ever since the rival Beatles disbanded in 1970.

Though strong albums (such as 1978’s “Some Girls”) or dynamic tours (1989’s “Steel Wheels”) quieted the grumbling at key points, the rise of a new generation of young bands raises questions about the Stones again.

Such songwriters as the late Kurt Cobain, Nine Inch Nails’ Trent Reznor and Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder explore contemporary alienation and rage in ways that give today’s rock its strongest sociological kick in years.

What does that do to the Stones, whose lyrics continue to deal with sex and rock ‘n’ roll (no more drugs, please) more than with trying to understand adolescent Angst ?

Critics are divided over the value of the Stones and the new album. (See PopMeter, Page 57).

Rolling Stone magazine speaks of the collection, which entered the U.S. pop charts at No. 2, as a musical rebirth: “The new album is ragged and glorious, reveling in the quintessential rock and roll the Stones marked as their own some 30 years ago.”

But the New York Times finds it “hollow.”

Newsweek declares it, “The most muscular and exciting work from the band in a decade. . . . Nice one, lads.” Yet England’s Q magazine feels it represents the Stones at their “least newsworthy.”

The best test of relevance, however, may rest with today’s young rock fans--and there was no question about the Stones’ relevance to most of the young fans who started lining up at 8 a.m. for the group’s show at the RPM.

*

“I don’t think of them as just a history lesson, but as a band that is still great, " says Rick Lee, 18, who is wearing a “Lollapalooza” T-shirt as he waits in the club for the Stones to walk on stage for the first time in five years.

He and the rest of the crowd surge forward as the lights go down just before 10 p.m. It’s the band’s first show with Wyman’s replacement Darryl Jones, who formerly played with Miles Davis and Sting.

The band opens up with “Live With Me,” a tale of nasty habits from 1969’s “Let It Bleed,” and Jagger springs to life with his trademark marionette moves.

Except for the severe lines in his face, Jagger looks remarkably youthful. He’s been a dedicated jogger for years, but he has now added weights to his exercise routine. The once skinny arms and chest are noticeably muscular.

As the band continues through such trademark hits as “Brown Sugar” and such surprises as an acoustic “No Expectations,” the room is filled with rock electricity.

Afterward, the crowd stands quietly, looking at the stage as if mesmerized. In the abstract, it’s easy to joke about the Stones and whether Jagger will someday be singing “Satisfaction” from a wheelchair. Put them on stage, however, and they remain masters of the form.

On the stadium dates, the show will be expanded into a massive spectacle. Joseph Rascoff, longtime business manager for the band and producer of the tour, said the stage will be bigger than the “Steel Wheels” set. The dimensions will be nine stories high, 100 feet deep and as much as 300 feet wide in places.

“I never thought I’d see a setting more spectacular than ‘Steel Wheels,’ but the band enjoys pushing the envelope . . . creating a thrilling rock ‘n’ spectacle,” says Rascoff. “This is a whole new show. We’re not talking ‘City Slickers II’ here.”

But the music alone wowed the local media.

“Satisfaction!” declared the headline in the Toronto Sun.

“Concert of a lifetime,” cheered the Star.

“Gathering no moss,” reported the Globe and Mail.

On the issue of relevance, Jagger says, “I can understand when someone says we are irrelevant, because when I was twenty-something, I thought people over 40 were just dead . So the idea of someone 50 being in a rock band is a bit ridiculous to someone 20.

“Of course, you don’t think it is ridiculous when you are 50. To me, it’s still a terrific thing to do and so you go on doing it just as you go on making films after you have made successful ones. If you are a singer, you go out and sing. Beyond that I don’t think you really need to look.”

*

Twenty-four hours before the RPM show, the atmosphere is even more intimate as the Stones rehearse in the gymnasium of a private boys’ school in suburban Toronto.

Paper is taped across the windows to keep the light out during the late-afternoon-to-midnight sessions--and to discourage curious fans from trying to get a peek at the action.

Titles of 60 to 70 songs, from such album tracks as “Monkey Man” to such signature numbers as “Street Fighting Man,” are written on the bulletin board--tunes that will be rehearsed so that they can be added at will to a particular show.

Given all the public squabbling between Jagger and Richards in the mid-'80s over Jagger’s decision to make a solo album, it’s disarming to see them so playful together--almost like brothers--in the rehearsal room.

Between songs, Jagger frequently walks over and puts his arm around Richards as they have a private chuckle. Watts, sitting behind the drum kit, chats with guitarist Ron Wood, 48, who joined the band in 1975. Adding to the family atmosphere is the fact that Richards’ father is seated nearby, watching the whole thing.

Even the support musicians seem like family. Most, including saxophonist Bobby Keys and keyboardist Chuck Leavell, have toured with the band before. During a dinner break, the whole cast sits together with the crew in the school dining room rather than go to separate rooms. Video games and a large-screen TV are positioned nearby for relaxation.

“They have been very embracing, very warm,” says bassist Jones, a 32-year-old Chicago native who has also worked in the studio with Eric Clapton and Madonna.

“They have a different work ethic than some of the people I’ve worked with. With some artists, if we are going to be rehearsing from 6 to 12 at night, we are going to be rehearsing from 6 to 12 . . . not a lot else is going to go down.

“These guys work in spurts. We might work one tune or three or four tunes for a good period of time and then have a break. They work hard, but they play equally hard . . . watching sports on TV or lots of joking around.”

*

It wasn’t always so harmonious.

In all the media attention over the Richards-Jagger feud about their respective commitment to the band, an even greater threat to the Stones’ future went largely unnoticed.

“I said over and over at the time, it wasn’t just Keith and me,” Jagger explains during the dinner break. “It was the whole band and people didn’t believe it. They just wanted to talk about the two of us.”

Wyman wanted out after the band’s 1981 tour--agreeing to come back for a final tour only after constant urging from Jagger.

Watts, too, thought about calling it quits at the time. The jazz-loving drummer has always been the most dignified Stone--the one who seemed furthest from the group’s sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll image.

For years, he was almost invisible on the road--keeping away from interviews and the assorted tour hoopla. Even now, he stays at the band’s headquarters hotel here rather than at private homes in the countryside like Jagger, Richards and Wood. It’s less fuss, he says, and he avoids the 45-minute commute.

But Watts speaks easily now about his problems during the mid-'80s.

“I was pretty ill, for me, very ill . . . lots of drugs and lots of drink,” he says, tugging at the crease in his sharply tailored trousers. “I nearly lost everything. I nearly lost my marriage and the band as well through it.”

It was only after he straightened out himself and the marriage that he agreed to go on the road again for the “Steel Wheels” tour.

Does he understand how Wyman could walk away from the most celebrated rock group in the world?

“Sure, I know why Bill left,” Watts says without hesitation. “He got fed up being on the road and in the studio. . . . He wanted to spend the rest of his life, which he considers not very long now, 20 years maybe, at home.”

And how does Watts feel now?

“Before the tour, I asked myself if I wanted to stop now at the age of 53 and I thought that is a bit young,” he replies. “The problem is I think that once you do stop, and you can afford to sit at home, you become a person that sits at home, you know what I mean?

“Now, there is an awful lot to be said for that and I miss (being home) at the moment, but I didn’t feel it was the right time. Maybe in a couple years’ time.”

Jagger, too, says he understands Wyman’s decision.

“He doesn’t want to go through what I’m going to go through for the next year or so,” he says straightforwardly in a separate interview.

“Every so often, I think about what else I could be doing. Someone will call me up from France and say it’s a pity I’m not there because there are all these people coming over and they’re going out to the country or whatever. I can imagine the scene, but I’m sitting here in the school and think maybe next year.”

Like Richards, he agrees that the Stones would be over if Watts decided to stop.

Short of that, what would tell him that it is time?

“I have no idea,” he says, somewhat wistfully. “I’m sure I’ll know when I see it.”

*

Of all the Stones, Richards appears the one pledged to rock on forever. It’s ironic because he once seemed like everybody’s best bet in the “ghoul pools” that speculated on who would be most likely to join Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix as rock casualties.

The memory of those wild days is on Richards’ mind in Toronto because it was here that he was arrested for heroin possession and faced a seven-year prison sentence. He was finally sentenced in 1978 to one year’s probation and ordered to give two benefit concerts.

In the dressing room of the RPM, Richards recalls that time.

“I guess I hit the bar at the right time,” he says of the arrest. “It just happened to be here. It could have happened anywhere. For me, it turned out to be the kick in the ass that I needed. I realized I was screwing my family and the band.

“I knew what seven years of hard time meant and I wasn’t going to enjoy it, but I knew it wasn’t fair to everybody else. That was too much to bear . . . enough for me to shake out of it.”

Unlike Jagger and Watts, Richards shrugs when asked if he ever thinks of hanging up his rock ‘n’ roll shoes. Even if the Stones call it quits, he says, he’ll continue, probably with the Winos, the band he put together in 1988 for his first solo album.

He seems wistful, though, at the thought of the Stones’ last days. His mood brightens as the club doors open and he hears the excitement of the crowd as they race for positions near the stage.

“I still can’t imagine anything ever happening to the Stones,” he says. “The attitude in the band is so strong now that we are like snarling tigers. If this is the last time, it’s going to be a hell of a time.”

They Do ‘Voodoo’

The Rolling Stones’ “Voodoo Lounge” tour kicks off Monday at RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C.

It’s the Stones’ 12th U.S. tour; so far, they’ve announced 22 shows in 16 U.S. cites and the number is expected to more than double.

Along the way they’ll sell about 2.5 million tickets and gross up to $135 million. They’re expected to go international next year and will be seen by another expected 3.5 million.

The only announced West Coast date is Oct. 19 at the Rose Bowl, with the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Buddy Guy opening, but a second show there, Oct. 20, is expected be added.

Aug. 1, 3: RFK Stadium, Washington D.C.

Aug. 6: Legion Field, Birmingham

Aug. 10: Hoosier Dome, Bloomington

Aug. 12, 14, 15, 17: Giants Stadium, New York

Aug. 19, 20: Exhibition Stadium, Toronto

Aug. 23: Winnipeg Stadium, Winnipeg

Aug. 26: University of Wisconsin, Madison

Aug. 28: Municipal Stadium, Cleveland

Aug. 30: Riverfront Stadium, Cincinatti

Sept. 4, 5: Foxboro Stadium, Boston

Sept. 7: Carter Finley Stadium, Raleigh, N.C.

Sept. 9: Michigan State University, East Lansing

Sept. 11, 12: Soldier Field, Chicago

Sept. 15: Mile High Stadium, Denver

Sept. 18: Univ. of Missouri, Columbia, Mo.

Sept 25: Univ. of South Carolina, Columbia, S.C.

Oct. 19: Rose Bowl, Pasadena


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