When Keith Richards gets aroused, he gets a wild, distant look in his eye, his voice cracks, and his left leg rises slightly, the way a cat's hindquarters do when you stroke its butt. Richards' leg goes up when he plays a signature guitar line in a song like "Honky Tonk Women"; when he finds himself at a mike in front of 50,000 people with his longtime partner, Mick Jagger, to sing a chestnut like "19th Nervous Breakdown"; or when he gets a moment to sing one of his quixotic solo songs, his arms around a pair of backup singers, his winning grin disarming all before him. Seeing that pleasure, it reminds you that the Rolling Stones are very lucky people. At a time of strange cultural torment many years ago, they self-selected themselves to play roles that didn't exist and whose implications none could have understood. In the 35 or so years since, they've maintained their position with the mysterious benefits of charisma, the unflagging canniness of Mick Jagger, and the help of a wavering but formidable discipline.
But that maintenance in recent years has not been pretty. The irregularity of the Rolling Stones' touring schedule captures the vicissitudes of the band bleakly. In the mid-'60s, there were great rushes of tours as the scruffy, ill-mannered aggregation (the Oasis of their day, only deadlier) made their name. Magisterially, they hit America with escalating foofaraw every three years from the late '60s to the early '80s; if the 1972 tour movie Ladies and Gentlemen, the Rolling Stones is any indication, the band was taking its audience to more convincingly dark places than any of its peers. Then came more than a decade of doldrums, as Richards slept a heroin-lidded sleep and a disgusted Jagger vainly tried to construct a solo career for himself; the band played only one series of American dates between 1981 and 1994.
But now back to health and self-respect, the band, a voracious moneymaking machine wary of the declining record sales it faced in the '80s, no longer takes chances. The Rolling Stones don't record albums per se: Instead, the group erects six- or 12-month publicity campaigns during which it proffers an album, a tour, a live album, and a live film or video. An agreeable, chuckleheaded press assures consumers that the Stones are back in top rock 'n' roll form on album and marvels endlessly that the group is able to show up and perform. The tours, for which the band grosses well into the nine figures, are of course the financial center of these affairs, but this year, the money, I think, is only half the reason the group is back on the road again. The other is timing. Not yet ready for the inevitable final tour -- with the band members closing in on 60 it should come at some point close to the millennium -- the Stones hit the road quickly for one extra $100 million-plus payoff. One more, and then the weary Charlie Watts can relax, Richards can embark on a busman's retirement of guest shots and loopy ad hoc tours, and Mick Jagger may finally shut the fuck up.
At the opening of the tour on a nippy night in Chicago last week, you had to admire the financial single-mindedness. Corporate sponsor Sprint chipped in $4 or $6 million; besides the logo everywhere, the company got its customers tickets to the best seats. (If the arrangement was the same as it was with Budweiser on the Voodoo Lounge tour, Jagger came in to fellate bigwigs and major clients at a meet-and-greet before the show.) Jagger says that corporate sponsorship is necessary to make the tour profitable; actually, it just makes it more profitable. The seats on the grass of Soldier Field (the lakefront football stadium where the Chicago Bears play) were packed together so ludicrously tight that fans were having trouble standing up for the songs. T-shirts were $30 plus; tickets were $60 -- plus another $8 in TicketMaster charges, at least half of which was funneled back to the band. The Stones grossed $3 million-plus for a performance of slightly more than two hours, and for all that couldn't get their sorry asses onstage until 75 cold minutes after Blues Traveler had finished their opening set.
Not even the band has paid much attention to the new album, Bridges to Babylon. Why, it must be their best record since Some Girls! Richards has a lot of natural dignity, but it's hard to hear it on Babylon, as he, Ron Wood, and Watts are mushed along by their grim leader. Whose idea was it to put the incoherent "rap" or "toast" or whatever it is in the middle of the slow ballad "Anybody Seen My Baby?" Then there's Jagger painting a gritty urban portrait in clumsy swipes on "Out of Control": "The drunks and the homeless/ They all know me." Oh. "Gunface," another of those pinched Stones rockers, contains Jagger's most hateful imagery: "I stick a gun in your face/ You'll pay with your life .../ I'm gonna teach her how to scream." It would be more offensive if Jagger's idea of vocal menace was anything more than risible. And at this point he's so transparent about the plasticity of his motives that it's hard even to concentrate to hear what bullshit he's selling this particular year.
Richards, as usual, contributes the only things of interest on the record, a wan but diverting reggae tune, "You Don't Have to Mean It," and an oddly ambitious torch song, "How Can I Stop," which ends with an intoxicating sax solo by Wayne Shorter. Jagger shows his lack of interest by not appearing on either. The band steals the chorus of "Anybody Seen My Baby?" from "Constant Craving," and the arrangement and instrumentation of "Out of Control" from "Papa Was a Rolling Stone." After years of telling us that the band is "getting back to basics" with generic producers like Don Was, the group now tries to earn points by moving further away, using the Dust Brothers on two tracks, "Anybody Seen" and "Saint of Me." Those wondering what this clash of titans would produce musically will be disappointed; when the Stones and the Dust Brothers go eye to eye, the Dust Brothers blink. And now both Jagger and Richards in interviews disparage their contributions.