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Stones celebrate 40 years of licks

An exclusive interview with the legendary rock band the Rolling Stones as they release a behind the scenes concert DVD.
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It has been said that “they invented rock and roll and their successors are simply impersonators.” They are the Rolling Stones. “Today’s” Matt Lauer did an exclusive interview with the band, taking a look at the personal side of this larger-than-life group, which has so publicly been entertaining fans for the last 40 years.

STARTING UP THE Rolling Stones Forty Licks tour means you can expect a colossal endeavor. Weeks of rehearsals and then no sooner are you off one plane then you’ve boarded the next one for the 115 performances on the tour schedule. Satisfaction for this group can simply mean a day off.

Keith Richards: “I mean eventually you just sort of crash out on the floor and then wake up and mumble, ‘Is there a sound check?’ And somebody says, ‘no’ and you say, ‘great,’ and go back to sleep. You know.”

Matt Lauer: “Call me when there is one.”

Richards: “Yeah.”

Lauer: “You talk about how unpredictable a life being a musician and a rock musician is.”

Richards: “There is always that element in the life of a musician where — especially with a band like the Stones (laughs) that you really — you’re kind of always waving with one foot in — one foot in the grave and the one on the dry land. And you’re always prepared for anything to happen.”

Touring with a band for a year doesn’t mean you leave your personal struggles at home. Guitarist Ronnie Wood says he took it one day at a time in his battle with alcoholism.

Lauer: “I believe at the start of the tour you were 10 weeks sober?”

Ronnie Wood: “Yeah.”

Lauer: “And so how did that make the experience different for you this last year?”

Wood: “It’s a very worrying feeling of not having anything to fall back on like where normally I’d have a crutch, you know, of alcohol or whatever.”

Lauer: “Do you guys notice changes?”

Charlie Watts: “He plays a lot better, a lot better.”

Richards: “Oh, absolutely. The attention span went up, you know. I can look him in the eyes now.

Forty years of touring have taken a dramatic toll. There’s no mistaking the physical demands of a Rolling Stones show, particularly when you have a guitarist like Keith Richards who doesn’t just play guitar, he consumes it.

Lauer: “I remember sitting down with you last time and I was drawn to your hands. I was looking. And I was saying this is a guy who makes a living playing guitar and I’m looking and I’m saying, ‘He hasn’t lost any of his deft touch.’ And yet the wear and tear is very evident.”

Richards: “Oh, they show that. Yeah. I’ve had a continual fight with that thing.”

Lauer: “I mean if people take a look, you, you’ve [done] this 40 years.”

Richards: “Mike Tyson has better hands than I do.”

Lauer: “But how much does that impact you on a daily basis out on stage?”

Richards: “Not at all. I mean, you know in actual fact, these are muscles because it’s all strength. And I guess I put a lot of pressure on ‘em, you know? And hey, there’s probably a bit of arthritis. But I mean I’ve never found it to get in the way.”

Lauer: “But it’s a sure sign of there’s a lot of wear and tear out there?”

Richards: “Oh, yeah, man. Yeah. We don’t call it the killing floor for nothing. Out there you put it all in. And I come off bleeding and, you know, sometimes. I hit the thing too hard sometimes. I should be gentler, I know. And I’m going to try in the future.”

Questions of the future surround the Rolling Stones. This is their 30th tour, most band members now in their sixties, and they just released a book, “According to the Rolling Stones” a retrospective of the band since their early days. But while the book takes a look back, the band says they’re only looking forward.

Wood: “I can’t see us stopping.”

Watts: “Oh, I just quit.”

Lauer: “He did?”

Watts: “As usual.”

Lauer: “You just handed in your notice.”

Watts: Yes. I always do that.”

Lauer: “When you get to this stage, when you’re wrapping it up, can you even think about the next tour is it just are you spent?”

Mick Jagger: “On this tour I was fine. I don’t know what happened. Maybe I didn’t work hard enough. But, some tours I’ve come off it completely out. You know?

Lauer: “Don’t want to talk about the music?”

Jagger: “I just…”

Lauer: “The Stones?”

Jagger: “No, I don’t want to do anything. I mean my body is like (groans). I don’t want to talk about it. I don’t want to see anyone. This time it’s slightly different. I think maybe you just get slightly better at that and contract you know this is going to happen. And so I’m not so, I’m more able to think clearly. I mean I don’t want to go out on a major tour this second, ‘cause there are lots of other things in life to do.”

Lauer: “Ronnie, obviously still people call you the new — the new kid. Keith said something on the DVD about you. I don’t know if you saw. He said that you’re the guy who keeps morale up, that you always are in a good mood.”

Wood: “God.”

Lauer: “And that even to the point where they say, ‘We don’t want to be friggin’ happy today.’ You know, ‘Stop it. Stop it.’ I mean is that true? I mean are you kind of the easygoing guy of the group?”

Wood: “I am painfully always in a good mood. You know even if — I’m not really feeling it inside. But, you know that’s who I am. You know I just can’t help it. You know. I look on the bright side.”

Lauer: “Ever worried, do you say, ‘You know what? This could be the night they say, ‘Thanks, Mick, for everything.’”

Jagger: “Yeah, any performer faces that every night they go on stage. OK? It’s not the first night only. That’s the life of a performer. You’re putting yourself on the line every night. That’s what you’re doing. The same way if you’re playing baseball or football, you’re putting yourself on the line every time you go out and play because if you’re a failure out there, you’re out of the team and your career is in the toilet. That’s the end of you.”

The end is not in sight for the Stones. The time will come when the road calls them back into action. And when that happens the world’s most famous rock and roll band will hit the stage from club to club, and continent to continent.

Flashback to early September: The Rolling Stones are about to embark on their 30th tour, and the world’s greatest rock and roll band is nervous.

Lauer: “The band is nervous before the opening night of this tour. And I’m curious what would make you nervous at that stage?”

Jagger: “When it came to the opening night at the Fleet Center, I was slightly nervous. Because there’s many, many unknowns. You don’t know if your long work on [the] show is going to look right.”

What the audience never knows is what it takes to get to opening night. Weeks of rehearsals — the band hasn’t played together in nearly three years — 400 songs in the band’s repertoire, more than 50 trucks of equipment to set up and break down, and endless decisions like lighting, special effects and stage design.

And for a band that seems to have seen it all, touring for 40 years, this particular tour was unusual. America went to war with Iraq and SARS devastated Asia. Many concert dates were canceled.

Richards: “You know it really struck us in Singapore, I think. Suddenly we’re sitting there and China’s gone dodgy. We have SARS. In a way we were stuck in a way between war and pestilence. We looked east, there was pestilence. We looked west, there’s war. And there’s the, ‘OK, this is the crunch, boys.’ You know I mean we either call it quits here or what else can we do?”

As history has shown, this is not a band that calls it quits. The Stones continued the tour — they say it was their most ambitious ever. They played three different venues: stadiums, arenas and theaters. That means three different stages and three different shows. The smaller theatres mean fewer fireworks and a longer play list. More of what Keith Richards calls “ammunition.”

Lauer: “One of the things that comes up on the DVD and the documentaries is that from time to time, and I know this can’t happen very often, but the band and its members do forget songs.”

Richards: “Oh, yeah.”

Lauer: “Keith are you telling me that some of the classics, you’re in the middle of the song and you go blank?”

Wood: “Oh, yeah. He says that. I may have wrote it, but I don’t know it. That’s one of the — ”

Lauer: “What happens? I mean so how — ”

Jagger: “Everyone knows that on the stage you get actors out there that have done a play 100 times. You get out there one night and they can’t remember the first line. It’s quite often a first — for me sometimes you forget a first line of a tune. I did it once on this tour. And I just couldn’t believe it. It was ‘Mannish Boy,’ which we didn’t write. But nevertheless we’ve done it enough. And I completely couldn’t remember. And I turn over to Chuck [Leavell], the keyboard player, ‘What’s the first line in ‘Mannish Boy’?’ And he should really know as well, to be perfectly honest. And he said, ‘I don’t know.’ And now I decide to sing the second verse. It’s not the end of the world.”

Lauer: “Do you ever look at what you’re doing and now and just say, ‘You know what. Ho hum, another day at the office?’”

Richards: “It’s just like, ‘Oh, here’s the little two hours of the day where you can do what it is you really want to do.’ And the rest of it you have to get there to those just to get up there and get some peace and quiet.”

Lauer: “So it never becomes ho-hum? Still for those few hours up on stage, it’s still a blast?”

Richards: “No. No. There’s always an edge on it. And like I say, we never remember everything. So you always wonder.”