When a band has entered its fifth decade and its name is virtually synonymous with rock ‘n’ roll, it needs no introduction. The Rolling Stones are the Stones. And “Forty Licks,” released this year to mark the band’s 40th anniversary, is simply a collection of their hits. “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Let’s Spend the Night Together,” “Start Me Up” — they’re all classics. Oh yeah, there are also four new tracks. Any questions?
Thursday’s press event at the Four Seasons Hotel in Tokyo to kick off the Japan leg of the “Forty Licks” world tour was, therefore, despite its rather stuffy venue, appropriately “loose” and the audience unsurprisingly reverential. An hour late? No problem, that’s just “the Rolling Stones’ style,” as one of the more visibly enthusiastic (and curiously barefoot) rock journos asserted. (A further delay actually received applause by virtue of its messenger — a self-identified band rep).
Even the serious tone of the brief intro providing the rough details of the album and the tour — the former has proven the best-received since 1989′s “Steel Wheels”; the latter sold out 50 of its first 59 shows — was undercut by the sound of the Stones laughing in the corridor. And for a moment, it seemed possible that those wiry, shaggy-haired boys spotted earlier around the peripheries were not simply Mick and Keith look-alikes, hired to help recall the band’s more glamorous youth, but somehow their true selves, unchanged from the mid-’60s, ready to walk in and relieve themselves on the giant “Forty Licks” placard erected for the event.
Wrinkles (and bladders) aside, this fantasy wasn’t so far off the mark. Time has done precious little to alter the appearance of the Stones’ and their public personae. Mick Jagger still has rubberized toothpick legs and a head like a bobbly toy, Keith Richards has silly hair and wears eyeliner. Ronnie Wood looks like Rod Stewart, and Charlie Watts, in his stylish suits, like a sorely out-of-place hepcat. They still speak in one-line quips and, with the exception of perhaps Jagger, can’t seem to take promoting their band’s work seriously — even for a moment.
And so on this day, like so many others throughout their career, questions from journos, such as one regarding the band’s upcoming debut in China — probably the biggest milestone for the Stones in the past 20 years — were given the same witty, irreverent turn as the less-newsworthy inquiries, e.g. “What would you have written on your gravestone?”
“It’s always nice to go somewhere new . . . and China is very old,” said Richards about China, his eyebrows signifying the full-stop. “I told you I was sick,” Wood chose for his epithet.
Even the famously stone-faced Watts (who gave more attention to his cuticles and the neighboring wall than his audience) had a line to offer. Aside from the shows themselves, what else did the Stones plan to do during their stay in Japan?: “Buy a raincoat, at the moment.” (Only, as Jagger’s careful repeating of the statement — “Buy . . . A . . . Raincoat” — indicated, Watts was likely serious.)
The men’s interest did seem to be piqued by an inquiry into their choice of cover tunes for the recent tour. “Well, they’re very good songs,” began Richards. ” . . . All of which we’ve actually recorded at some point,” Jagger added, trying to give the issue more thought. This line, of course, did not last long. The singer was quickly interrupted by a mischievous Richards — “[We're] covering ourselves” — and so dropped all pretension to keep the joke going: “. . . Re-covering ourselves.”
Ironically, even the Stones could scarcely deny this repartee probably best describes the band today: a grand recycling project of very good songs. The only significant question of the day was, how much longer did they think they could get away with it?
There’s “Forty Licks” for their 40th, will there be “Fifty Licks” when the band turns 50?
With just the slightest pause, Richards replied, a glint in his eye: “See you there . . . ”