The Stones age
Mick, Keith, and the boys launch their tour with 'A Bigger Bang,' rocking Fenway Park
The core members of the Rolling Stones are now in their 60s -- a time when most rockers are firmly planted on the couch. But Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, and Ron Wood (the young pup at 58) are enthusiastically cranking up their tour schedule, not winding it down. The band, whose brash, bluesy sound has made it one of the most successful in rock history, stayed off the road for long stretches in the '70s and '80s. But in recent years, that's all changed.
''It's called the mysterious rhythm of life," Richards mused earlier this week. ''I can't quite account for it. It's probably an addiction, quite honestly. I need that shot of stage every two or three years."
The Stones will get just what they're looking for when they open their latest world tour at Fenway Park on Sunday, followed by another show Tuesday. The tour is called ''A Bigger Bang" -- and what bigger bang is there than performing at Fenway, the baseball haven where 36,000 fans are expected to catch the Stones each night?
''I must admit that I have never visited this hallowed hall, but I'm looking forward to seeing it because it's quite a historic place," singer Mick Jagger said in a phone interview.
''I can't wait. It's quite a privilege to play a place like that," Richards said during a later phone call. ''And I've never caught a game there yet. Maybe when I retire -- which will be never!"
Forget about swapping Red Sox trivia with these British gents. ''Don't try and get me to be smart-alecky about knowing Red Sox history," Jagger said. ''But to be honest, I watch baseball when the playoff season starts. It gets super-competitive then, and that's when I like to watch it."
In the meantime, the Stones are here to rock, and for the second tour in a row, they're opening in Boston. Their 2002 ''Forty Licks" tour kicked off with shows at the FleetCenter, Gillette Stadium, and the Orpheum Theatre. This time it's all about Fenway. Fans who couldn't score tickets will be crushed to know that the Stones were offered a third Fenway date but couldn't fit it into their schedule.
Why open again in Boston?
''Boston is a good city, and they're tolerant of our first-night mistakes," Jagger said. ''On the first night there are quite a few mistakes, not only from the band but from the video crew, too. They're showing feet when they should be showing hands, that short of thing. But we've had good first nights in Boston, so we figured we'd stick with it."
''A Bigger Bang" is also the title of a new Stones album due Sept. 6. It's their first studio disc in eight years; the last one was ''Bridges to Babylon." They've obviously been more active on tour than in the studio.
''It certainly shocked me when someone pointed out last year that it had been so long [between albums]," Richards said. ''I gave Mick a call, and he said, 'It's time to get moving again.' "
They didn't waste any time. At Jagger's home in the south of France, they churned out 16 songs for a Stones album that industry insiders have termed their best since 1978's ''Some Girls." It's spare, high-intensity garage-rock, studded with vintage Stones guitar riffs and razor-sharp lyrics from Jagger, who mixes cocky love songs with bittersweet laments and terse political commentary.
The fast-paced single ''Rough Justice" is already on the radio, but the song earning the most media attention is the politically charged ''Sweet Neo Con," which many critics have assumed is about George W. Bush. A sniping Jagger fires off these lines: ''You call yourself a Christian / I think that you're a hypocrite . . . How come you're so wrong, my sweet neo con? / Where's the money gone in the Pentagon?"
Jagger has refrained from saying the song is specifically about Bush (it's not ''personally aimed at anyone," he told the syndicated TV show ''Extra"), and he wouldn't address it in this interview.
''I don't want to elaborate further on 'Neo Con.' I think I've said enough," he said. ''But I'm not at all anti-American. I love America and I love all the American culture and history, and I spend a lot of time here, and four of my children have American passports, God bless them."
Richards won't say the song is about Bush, either. ''It's about a certain mind-set. I'll leave it at that," he said, but he's loyally sticking by Jagger as a songwriting partner. ''My only problem was that having some political storm in a teacup could sidetrack from the rest of the album. But I told Mick, 'If you feel you really want to say it, let's go. I'm right with you. You write the songs as well as me. It's not for me to censor you.' "
The new record is very adult in scope as it addresses dreams both lost and fulfilled. Jagger still crows about women having an ''animal attraction" to him (a phrase in ''Rough Justice"), but also deftly describes love's fragility in ''Let Me Down Slow," the acoustic ''Streets of Love," and ''The Biggest Mistake," about taking a woman for granted.
The album is consistent with Richards's hope that the Stones keep maturing with each release. The music is angry, sad, and conciliatory and ranges from the punky defiance of ''Oh No, Not You Again" to the minimalist Delta blues of ''Back of My Hand," featuring just Jagger, Richards, and drummer Charlie Watts.
''It's still got the braggadocio in some of these songs that people expect," Jagger said. ''There's lots of humor as well. There's vulnerability and humor and strutting and social comment. I tried to make it lyrically as wide-ranging as possible, and musically I tried to make it stay within the Stones orbit -- making the center of it rock."
The CD is the first since drummer Watts's battle with throat cancer, which started the ''Bigger Bang" recording sessions on a terrifying note.
''Mick and I were sitting in Mick's house in France, and at that moment we got the news about Charlie having to go in for treatment," Richards said. ''We were sitting on the couch going, 'What do we do? Do we wait for Charlie? Should we put it on hold?' Then within a few seconds we looked at each other and said, 'No, let's forge ahead.' Charlie would hate it if he thought he forestalled anything. So we decided to cut a few tracks. 'Mick, you get on drums, I'll cover on bass, and let's cut some of these things and send them to Charlie so we'll keep him in touch.' And sure enough, a month or two later when Charlie did come back, he showed us how they should be played."
The circumstances brought Jagger and Richards -- who have famously had their differences in the past -- closer than ever. Jagger broke from tradition by playing a lot of electric guitar, including slide guitar.
''Mick was very much more integrated as a member of the band as opposed to just being the lead vocalist," Richards said. ''He has tamed the electric guitar at last, though he's always been great on acoustic."
Comparisons have been made between the new album and the Stones' classic ''Exile on Main Street" from 1972, but Jagger doesn't buy them. ''It's long, and some of it was made in a house," he said of the similarities. ''But the 'Exile' stuff has a lot of extraneous musicians. . . . It's got a lot of people -- horn players and ooh-eee-aah backing girls, you know? Where this has none of those."
The stripped-down nature of the new disc validates comparisons to ''Some Girls," Jagger agreed. And so did Richards. ''That's not a bad analogy," he noted. ''This one was saying to us, 'Don't give me the marzipan and the icing and the candles on top. Just give me a straight, neat cake; leave me alone.' "
The Stones expect to play three new tunes from the album at Fenway. ''People have to know them a little bit more before they want to hear more than three, I think," Jagger said.
As for the show's stage design, Jagger took a personal interest -- especially in the concept of having some fans seated on the stage and the idea of having balconies in the back.
''First of all, I was doing my daughter's homework, and I was looking [with her] at designs for the Elizabethan theaters," he said, citing the famous Globe Theatre where Shakespeare's work was performed. ''So I started thinking about that . . . and I met with the design team and we came up with the current design."
So the Stones are the modern Shakespeare?
''That's a jump," Jagger said with a laugh. ''No, it's still a rock show."