Mick Jagger is sitting on a sofa wearing a pale grey fleece and talking about Charlie Watts. The drummer first played with the Rolling Stones in early 1963, after they had tried six months with a different man. Watts was at every gig they played until he died last August, aged 80. One month later the band were back on stage in the US, in St Louis, and the setlist hit the same beats as it did the last time Watts played. Rock through Start Me Up, roll into Paint It Black, end with (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction. Except Watts was not there. And Jagger missed him.
"I don't really expect him to be there anymore if I turn round during a show," Jagger says. "But I do think about him. Not only during rehearsals or on stage, but in other ways too. I would have phoned him up and talked about last night's Arsenal game because he supported Tottenham and I'm Arsenal. I miss him as a player and as a friend. In the show, when we come to the front and bow at the end, there's no Charlie. He'd always be the last one down. I'd go: 'Come on, what have you got to do?' He'd be fiddling with his sticks because he always had to have them in a row before he'd get off the seat."
I catch Jagger, with Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, on a break from rehearsals for their latest set of live shows. It is the Sixty Tour, which marks six decades since the band formed, and opens next month in Madrid. There are 14 dates in total — a reduction from their previous tour, which started in 2017 and was wrapped up in 2021 because of the pandemic and had 58 dates.
The homecoming tour was headline news before Watts died — the Stones have the fourth highest-grossing tour in history and these men are of nursing home age — Jagger and Richards will be 79 this year, and Wood hits 75 in June.
The trio have endured serious health complications: Wood has had two stints of cancer; Jagger had heart valve replacement surgery in 2019, but was back on stage three months later — he now travels with a cardiologist; Richards, off drugs and drinking only sparingly, had cranial surgery in 2006 after falling from a tree.
Watts, though, was the first one to go. He died following as yet unknown complications after heart surgery. After Watts' 58 years behind the kit, the surviving Stones enlisted their regular collaborator Steve Jordan, 65, to take his place. It was a similar situation in 1969 when, weeks after sacking the original Rolling Stone Brian Jones and two days after the multi-instrumentalist's death aged 27, the band performed at a free concert in Hyde Park.
For the Stones, the show always goes on, but they have mellowed with age. After two lengthy periods of estrangement between Jagger and Richards, there is harmony. They first fell out in the 80s, when Jagger was devoting much of his time to his solo career. They sparred again after the publication in 2010 of Richards' autobiography, Life, in which he wrote sneeringly of the singer's "tiny todger".
So what's changed? "Getting more mature," Jagger says, before realising that's a rum thing to say about septuagenarians. "I'm not joking. It's true, and it's taken a long time. We're in a very immature business. I'm under no illusions about that. But it doesn't mean that you have to be immature."
Wood, with his Mr Punch-like features, concurs. "We've matured among ourselves. The attitudes within the band are no longer throwaway. It used to be all 'Oh, crawl back under your rock.' I had many years of 'Shut up, you're the new boy,' that kind of feeling, but now every tour has a changed demeanour. Mick's been through so many different moods and images in his life, and he's come back to this really warm person. Keith too."
Richards joins the love-in. "I'm amazed by how tight we all are. Mick and I are still firmly at the reins." A beat. "We still don't know what the reins do, though."
Of course, this tour is happening when anyone from the living (Abba) to the dead (Michael Jackson) can be replaced on stage by a hologram. Surely the Stones are aware of questions being raised about the spectacle — and indeed appropriateness — of rock musicians continuing to strut their stuff into very old age?
"Rock'n'roll, or any kind of pop music honestly, isn't supposed to be done when you're in your 70s," Jagger says. "It wasn't designed for that. Doing anything high-energy at this age is really pushing it. But that makes it even more challenging. So it's, like, 'Okay, we've got to f***ing do this right,' but it's got to be as full-on as possible. Of course you could do another type of music — we've got lots of ballads. I could sit on a chair."
Wait, the man known as Snake Hips reborn as a Val Doonican tribute act?
"I don't see it quite as Val Doonican," Jagger says with a laugh. "I remember something about a cardigan? I mean, Perry Como used to sit on a stool."
Still, they look after themselves, when in tour mode at least. Their 1975 American tour was fuelled by cocaine, Richards wrote in his memoir, but now it is more about health than hedonism.
For Jagger, whose partner is a ballerina, that means "six weeks of practice even before rehearsals start. And I do dancing, gym, every day of the week. I don't enjoy it very much, but it has to be done."
Even Richards' pre-gig ritual is more sedate than it used to be. "I may or may not have a stiff drink, but usually I don't. You know, you grow out of everything. I've spent all my life giving up things, so that's about it now."
Wood likes a green juice "and after all my battles in recent years with the big C, I try to keep moving, keep my joints warmed up — stretches and stuff".
Would they ever do an Abba and have a hologram tour? "What's the point of that?" Richards says with a growl. "I'm dying to leave home for a few days. I'd never leave the house otherwise."
Touring means navigating a minefield of post-Covid hurdles and extra politically related paperwork. Yup, here comes the B-word. "There are a lot of supply-chain problems," Jagger says. "A lot of shortages, a lot of problems because of Brexit. Brexit has not been a success for the British touring industry. I'm not saying, 'Well, we've got to rejoin the EU.' Unfortunately, that's all in the past. But from personal experience and talking to friends who are in other businesses, it's not a success, it's a nightmare. We've isolated ourselves, and that sounds good to some, but it's an ideology more than a practicality."
Jagger has long had a reputation for being business-obsessed and a chameleon — Richards once described him as unknowable. Today, reinforcing Wood's remarks about everyone getting on, he is chatty and catty, never more so than when he describes a recent pre-tour anxiety dream. It's a delicious echo of Phil Cornwell's pitch-perfect impression of the satirical comedy Stella Street.
"I had one dream about travelling and the plane was trying to fly indoors, for some reason, in this large cavernous space. Like, flying the plane into the stadium. And I'm going: 'The wings are going to touch.'"
The business stuff is, he contends, "so overdone. I'm not the slightest bit interested in business per se. I only had to get interested because everybody tries to con you."
And the accusation of being a chameleon? "I read an obituary in The Times about this guy who used to work for me called Peter Swales." Swales, who died this month, was an early assistant to the Stones. "And he had said about me, 'Sometimes he was a rock star; other times a drugged-out hippie; another time a fast-talking businessman; another day my big brother.' I hope they weren't consecutive days. That's a chameleon!"
He considers the idea that he inspired Harry Styles, who channels Jagger's early-70s look. "I like Harry — we have an easy relationship," Jagger says. "I mean, I used to wear a lot more eye makeup than him. Come on, I was much more androgynous. And he doesn't have a voice like mine or move on stage like me; he just has a superficial resemblance to my younger self, which is fine — he can't help that."
Richards, meanwhile, appears to have had the 21st century pass him by. "I don't do [streaming] myself because I don't have a phone," he says. "Me? I've got a problem with high-tech. There are too many damn options. When I get a menu, if there are more than five dishes I'm already overwhelmed."
A new album is in the works, Richards says. "We already had some stuff cut with Charlie. It should be coming next year."
Can we expect a Seventy tour in 2032? Imagine: the three of them in a row on high stools, wearing cardigans; some cocoa on the rider. You wouldn't bet against it. Long may they roll.
Written by: Dan Cairns
© The Times of London