Time really is on their side: The Rolling Stones -- featuring Mick Jagger and Keith Richards -- managed to survive for decades against the most impossible odds, roadblocks and dead ends.
In the beginning, they were gunning the gas; now they’re coasting on cruise control, but they’re still in motion.
However, like actual rolling stones, they’ve powered through and tossed aside every obstacle in their very determined way, with the heft and thrust of a fully stocked Brinks truck. The Rolling Stones were many things, but above all, they were a business not to be fucked with.
When you step back and take a real good look --as writer Rich Cohen has done in his new book The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones -- we realize that these blokes should have barely made it out of the gate before stumbling to their knees and becoming a dusty oldies footnote. Yet, despite every land mine that detonated in their forked-road paths -- including the trouble they simply created exclusively for themselves -- they continue to refuse to be ignored.
Entrepreneurs take note: each cliffhanger ends with them somehow surviving the fall. Yep, believe it: you can learn a business lesson or two from Keith Richards.
Generations of us love their music but don’t really know their hazy backstory -- nor do we intimately know Jagger, Richards and the rest. Their unlikely story includes gifts of music and showmanship, dangerous drugs, an agility for changing with the times, infighting, backstabbing, models, groupies, Hell’s Angels, an army of offspring, shady hangers-on, and Satan. God too -- how else can you explain the grace that was bestowed upon them?
As a young journalist for Rolling Stone magazine, Rich was able to penetrate the fortified inner circle. They invited him in, and that’s no small thing. Through the years, he sat down with the major cast and its supporting players to get a comprehensive take on how it went down and how (and why) it’s moving forward.
As a lifelong fan, Rich already had some ideas about making heads or tails of their grand but baffling story. Turns out the story includes both heads andtails.
He’s a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone and has written for The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Harper’s Magazine, among others. He’s won the ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for outstanding coverage of music, and was the co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl.
Here, Rich clues us in on The Stones and how they roll:
RON: You’ve always been able to write about your obsessions. What is that process like? How do you feel after you’ve completed a project? Are you still obsessed? Or is it all gone?
RICH: When you write about [obsessions], you kind of use them up. There is something sad about it -- in a way, you’re finished with them. For me, a lot of it is tied up in memory. I get to live it again, and usually come to understand it in a much better and deeper way. I do a lot of researching and reporting and thinking about it a lot more deeply, When I’m writing about it, I’m accessing a different part of my brain that experiences it differently.
RON: How did you approach The Rolling Stones story, which is sweeping and grand and complex?
RICH: I like stuff that you can approach from several different angles. With The Rolling Stones, you can do that, because there is the music itself, then there is the historical stuff, and then there is your own experience -- what the music has done in my life and in my own time -- the time I had spent with them. If you put all of that together, you get a three-dimensional portrait.
RON: In your book, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards go from being fast friends to being savvy business partners. That evolution changes everything.
RICH: I first wrote about them [for Rolling Stonemagazine] around 1994. That was basically the story I was given to pursue -- that this [Voodoo Lounge] tour is so big that it’s almost like a massive Fortune 500 company that is put together, runs for a year and a half, and then dissolves. And it makes so much money -- that really is a business story.
What’s interesting is that -- of all the great British bands of rock and roll, and maybe all rock and roll -- the Stones were the one who didn’t break up. But when you get into it, you realize that they did break up. They broke up when Jagger and Richards went off to do their solo albums. They then realized that they were not at the same level apart as they were together. They couldn’t make nearly as much money; they didn’t have nearly as big of an audience or as big of a spotlight. They realized that if they wanted to be at the very peak level of making money and holding the attention of the world -- because those two things go together, both are equally important -- they had to do it as The Rolling Stones. And at that point, they came back together as something different, as a slightly bloodless business arrangement.
By the time I got to them, I had this fantasy of them as The Outsiders, hanging out in an old shack by the river. In fact, what I found was these guys existing in separate orbits, having nothing to do with each other, often meeting only for two hours a day on stage. It was a little bit disillusioning. Still great, but it made me grow up and realize what this is, which is a rock-and-roll business and a rock-and-roll corporation. They might love each other on some deep level; I’m sure they do. But at that moment, they didn’t like each other very much.
They had this love affair with each other that was really intense. At this point, they had been through so much together that they’re sort of sick of each other.
RON: And continuing to perform together for so many decades, it’s probably almost as much about a need for attention as it is about money.
RICH: It’s the money and it’s also the size of the crowds -- the idea that you can fill a stadium for five straight nights. Jagger and Richards could never do that on their own.
RON: In 1969, when Jagger is attempting to deal with an outbreak of tension and violence at their notorious Altamont concert, we witness him transform from a showman into a businessman.He’s trying to avert a catastrophe between The Hells Angels and various concertgoers.
RICH: [Up to that point,] he had been playing a character, a satanic character. He was at a costume party every night dressed as the Devil, and then, one night, the real Devil showed up.
The thing that was devastating for them about Altamont is that Jagger -- in order to prevent a horrible situation from happening -- had to step out of character. And he had to be what he was, which was a guy putting on a show and running a business. And it was on film too [Gimme Shelter], and everybody’s seen it, so you realize that the whole thing is just an act.
He couldn’t pretend he was the Devil anymore -- everybody had seen him take his mask off.
RON: How are The Rolling Stones faring in the digital age?
RICH: I don’t know. I haven’t really kept up on Spotify and all that stuff. The Rolling Stones are good for life, because the way that artists make money now -- the way they’re told to make money, which seems really wrong -- is by doing shows.
As far as being a live act, they’re constantly touring and performing. They have to be in the top two or three moneymakers in the world, so they make as much money as they’ve ever made. I’m sure they just don’t make it on records. They make it on concerts and merchandise.
You have to figure out other ways to make money, and they’re perfectly situated for that, actually. Whereas, if you are The Rolling Stones in 1963, you have a big problem.
RON: Originally, The Stones were marketed as the antithesis to The Beatles: bad boys who wanted to do more than just hold your hand. Ironically, The Beatles were working-class blokes whose act was cleaned up; The Stones were essentially middle-class school boys who were promoted as dangerous gutter rats.
RICH: Only because that niche was the only one left. [Unlike The Beatles], they didn’t have to worry about their clothes. They could do whatever they wanted. The worse they were behaving, the better they behaved, in a way.
RON: You’re already a huge Stones fan, but in the course of your research, what surprised you?
RICH: This was a little thing, but I found it pretty amazing: it was about Brian Jones, who was the first Stones guitar player when they started the band. He’s the one who got them going, and he’s the one who died young. He was one of the early guys who was kind of an LSD casualty. He was convinced that two Bob Dylan songs were about him: “Ballad of a Thin Man” [“do you, Mr. Jones?”]. He was convinced that it was Bob Dylan making fun of him. The other Dylan song was “Like A Rolling Stone.” [Jones] gives the sense of what it’s like to be really paranoid, a mind coming undone.
RON: We perceive The Stones differently, depending on which era we’re seeing and hearing them. Today, we do not have that rebellious, shocking 1965 perception of them. Do we owe this to time and money?
RICH: The Rolling Stones, as they exist in their music, cease to exist somewhere around 1985. They came back together as more of a corporation. That really became clear to me when I went back and looked at it. Everybody wants the fantasy. I just accepted the fantasy because it’s more interesting. That The Rolling Stones are now acting, pretending -- that was a real surprise for me.
RON: Looking at the bigger picture, is rock dead?
RICH: I’m not incredibly plugged in. There are great bands who are not old. There are great young bands. The great songs are as great as any songs ever. But what I think is missing is the idea of there being energy and movement and an avant garde and a whole group of bands pushing each other. That doesn’t exist anymore.
That energy is a really useful energy -- of a revolution -- and I think that energy has just passed to other industries. More like Silicon Valley, computer games, television, movies. For whatever reason, rock and roll kind of died, in my opinion.
Nirvana was the last band where it felt like they were going to say something in their new record that was going to change your life, and it’s something so vital and important -- they can tell you how to live, how to get through your life. People don’t expect that from music anymore.
RON: What is it about The Stones at the apex of their creativity and popularity in the ‘60s that consistently gives meaning?
RICH: It was just a moment. People didn’t expect that from music before that. If you listen to the popular music of the 1940s, they didn’t expect “this song is going to tell me how to live my life.” But [in the ‘60s], youth culture got caught up with rock bands that got caught up with literature, and it became this driving force that had these great artists pushing each other, and that just kind of petered out.
It doesn’t exist like it did, and it’s harder to find the music, because there is no center. There are no Beatles and Rolling Stones driving each other. There are a lot of little niches. Basically, you’re on your own. You gotta find your own way to live.
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