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Rolling Stones' Last Tour (Before the Next Five) by Jeff Apter
Looks like the Rolling Stones plan to keep on rolling well into the next millennium. On August 18, 1997, they launched their most recent album/tour package, Bridges to Babylon, with a full production number under New York City's Brooklyn Bridge. Traffic disappeared and a chopper hovered overhead as the four oldest teenagers in the world cruised in from Manhattan in a cherry-red 1955 Caddy convertible, a police escort leading the way.

Not surprisingly, little of substance emerged from the very tokenistic question-and-answer, as Mick Jagger strived to keep the media happy with platitudes and easy sound bites. A typical Jagger response? When asked why they always launch new material in New York, he zapped back: “Because you're the best press in the world,” flashing a million-dollar smile.

But while Charlie Watts was daydreaming, and Ronnie Wood looked distracted by all the hoopla, Keith Richards was on a totally different plane altogether. Inadvertently, his comments made for the day's best entertainment. First came Richards' explanation of the meaning of his trademark skull ring: “Beauty is skin-deep, baby, this is what we all really look like.” Then there was his comment as to what inspires his songwriting: “You don't write them, they come to you; you receive, you transmit.”

But the pick of the day was his observation of the musical bond between time-keeper Charlie Watts and newish Stones bassist Darryl Jones. “It's a bit hydrogen, a bit oxygen...,” he offered, disappearing into an inaudible mumble. Richards, it's also worth noting, was the only Stone not favoring a suit, a clear nod to his status as the coolest 50-something on the planet.

Keith: Always the most
relaxed man in show biz.

Joking aside, the Stones are at odds with the 1990s dictum that an album and tour every five years is plenty. With the dust barely settled from their Voodoo Lounge extravaganza, Bridges to Babylon hits the road on September 23rd. And as with the sight-and-sound spectacular which was Voodoo Lounge, Bridges has forgotten all about the word “modest.”

With the designer for U2's Pop tour, Mark Fisher, leading the way, Jagger promises a show “just as big, just as wonderful as Voodoo Lounge, but (it) will be more interesting as far as the music's concerned. We'll be mixing up old favorites with new songs and some unusual things, and we'll play a mixture of theaters, clubs and stadiums. You're gonna have to be there.”

Expect Stones regulars such as Bobby Keys to join the band on the road, while they've recruited hip acts such as Foo Fighters and Smashing Pumpkins to warm-up North American crowds. When asked how they plan to break in the Bridges tunes while still pumping out the hits, Richards replied, “Dunno. Ask me in six weeks,” which is when the tour kicks off in Chicago.

Bridges to Babylon was recorded, quickly, in Los Angeles earlier this year, with Don Was sitting alongside Jagger and Richards as co-executive producer. An impressive roll-call of session musos, from Waddy Wachtel to ex-Heartbreaker Benmont Tench, Billy Preston to Jim Keltner and bass-master Me'Shell Ndegeocello, all chipped in, while several tracks (“Anybody Seen My Baby,” “Gunface,” “Saint Of Me”) were produced by either Danny Saber or the very hip Dust Bros (who are responsible for current chartbusters Hanson, plus Beck and the Beastie Boys). One track recorded with Babyface, however, didn't make the final cut, Jagger feeling it wasn't quite Rolling Stones enough (which is no great surprise, given the Stones like their rock with a fair bit of roll, whereas Babyface is all smooth grooves).

Richards has stated how “a lot of it (the album) is experimentation;” Jagger admits to having “gone for a few different noises,” while the word from their label Virgin is that it's a “very 90s album spanning the realms of rock, blues, R&B and electronica.” Although no advance copies of Bridges to Babylon were up for grabs at the time of writing, what I've heard sounds strong and brassy: “Low Down,” especially, is drenched in trademark, testosterone-heavy Stones' riffs, and the lead-off single, “Anybody Seen My Baby” is smooth and melodic in a “Waiting For A Friend” kind of way. To Ron Wood, Bridges offers “plenty of fance – that's funk and dance put together.” Charlie Watts, characteristically, had no comment.

If their differing levels of enthusiasm at the launch were any indication of who's pulling the Rolling Stones' strings, Jagger is surely the puppetmaster. Grabbing the mike from the get-go, he bounded into the crowd, admitting how before he got into rock & roll, “I fancied myself as an investigative reporter.”

He then got the jump on the huge press contingent by asking the band: “Is this your last tour?” Despite the media vibe that the Bridges tour may well be the end of their four decades on the road, the band were noncommittal, Richards facetiously mumbling, “yeah, this and the next five.” Swan song or not, be assured that while Bridges to Babylon is probably no Let It Bleed, the road show to support the album will resemble something from another planet. Just like Keith, really.

September 1997

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