After half a century of hits, addictions, mayhem and enough bad blood to flood the Thames, the Rolling Stones have gotten it together just in time to celebrate their latest anniversary onstage. But Mick Jagger isn't inclined to get all mushy about the achievement. "I wanted to call the tour 'Fuck Off,'" Jagger says. "But no one went for that."
Adds Keith Richards, "To keep a band together this long, let alone a rock & roll band, is probably unique in musical history. After all, that's what I was born for: to make musical history." What the Stones have announced so far is not quite a tour: They're playing four shows this year, on November 25th and 29th at London's O2 arena, and on December 13th and 15th at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey. But Richards doubts they'll end there. "My experience with the Rolling Stones," he says, "is that once the juggernaut starts rolling, it ain't gonna stop. So without sort of saying definitely yes – yeah. We ain't doing all this for four gigs!"
The Stones expect former guitarist Mick Taylor (who quit in 1974) and founding bassist Bill Wyman (gone since '93) to come on board for the four shows, but only as guests on a few songs. Richards emphasizes that longtime touring bassist Darryl Jones isn't going anywhere. "Darryl doesn't get enough recognition," says Richards. "He and Bill can talk about songs they want to step in and out of." For the final show in Newark (to be broadcast live on pay-per-view), more guests are likely to pop by – Ron Wood drops names like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck as possibilities.
The band shrugs off grumbling about the $800-plus it's charging for the best tickets. "As Keith said, 'Sounds about right,'" says Wood. "I'd pay it! We already spent, like, a million on rehearsing, and we're not even halfway through. And the stage is going to cost millions and millions."
The Stones also have a new career-spanning documentary, Crossfire Hurricane, directed by Brett Morgen, that debuts on HBO on November 15th. In less than two hours, the film races through history from the band's earliest shows at the Marquee Club to the arrival of Wood, keeping a relatively light tone throughout. "I never wanted to make a nostalgic movie," says Jagger. "It's got to be kind of irreverent."
One prerequisite for the Rolling Stones' reunion was an apology from Richards to Jagger for the stream of insults the guitarist included in Life, his bestselling 2011 memoir. "He did apologize, to my face," says Jagger quietly. "So you have to put all that sort of stuff away. Water under the bridge, really. Hopefully, you know, we can carry on working."
Adds Richards, "It was something to get out of the bloody way so we could get the band on the road. You know, I'll say sorry to God if you like. I don't give a shit. I said, 'Look forward, brother, look forward.' If you was married to somebody for 50 years, you can have your little spats here and there, and we don't mind having them in public occasionally. We can't get divorced – we're doing it for the kids!"
"Doom and Gloom," the newly recorded single from the band's latest greatest-hits collection, GRRR!, sounds more or less like classic Stones, albeit with modern production tweaks. But that doesn't mean that Jagger and Richards have revived their songwriting partnership quite yet. The song began as a demo that Jagger made on his own, and even the opening guitar riff turns out to be Jagger playing, not Richards. "I don't give a damn," says Richards. "He'd never have learned how to play that without me teaching him how to do it."
Another factor in the long hiatus since the 2007 finale of the Bigger Bang tour was Wood's struggle with alcohol addiction. He's now in his third year of sobriety, and he expects to keep it up on the road, though previous tours were always a challenge. "Looking back," says Wood, "there was always that secret vodka, like the one before I'd go onstage. Which was never just one, anyway."
Richards is also drinking significantly less. "I don't get ridiculous," he says. "I like a glass of wine with my meal and everything, but I've given up sort of waking up and having a drink, you know? I gave up smack, I can give up anything. No big deal to me, I do it to impress other people. But if they come up with a great new drug, I'll be the first one on it, believe me."
Richards argues that his substance use, or lack thereof, has little effect on his playing, but Wood disagrees. "Keith is a pleasure to play with now," Wood says. "It was a pain on the last tour toward the end, because he was really going for it on the drinking and denial. But now he's realized that he has gotta look after himself." Since Richards isn't completely sober, Wood is inclined to keep an eye on him. "I'm not going to preach to him," he says. "I will step in if I see any danger."
The Stones seem genuinely excited about their recent rehearsals in Paris, which have included rarely played songs such as the Lennon-McCartney-penned "I Wanna Be Your Man" and the Aftermath ballad "Lady Jane." "Going in, one thinks, 'Oh, my Christ, I'm a doddering old man,'" says Richards. "But it's not true! The payoff from the energy that's been wound up over the five years is incredible."
For Jagger, performing with the Stones means living up to a reputation as an ageless physical marvel, which he insists is highly exaggerated. "Everyone's human," he says, "and you can't really expect it to last forever. On the other hand, you try to keep yourself in shape. Obviously you can't do the same things [onstage] you did when you were 19, so you have to do other things. There's no miracles in life." But he knows that fans expect him to somehow be an exception: "It's a bit of a burden, really, isn't it? I better be OK, at least."
If anything, the physical burden is even harder on 71-year-old Charlie Watts, who has a masseuse on hand for his back after every rehearsal. "It takes a heavy toll playing them drums," says Wood, "to make it look like he's doing nothing, and to make it sound like those firecrackers going off. It all goes to his back, you know? He suffers terribly."
The Stones are bracing themselves to be asked yet again if this could be the last time. But even if it was, they'd never tell you. "That's not a card, in my opinion, that should be played," says Jagger, who says he'd like to record another Stones album eventually. "I know lots of people do play that card, but it nearly always backfires on them."
It's not lost on the Rolling Stones that they won't be alone on the road this winter, with so many of their peers – Bob Dylan, the Who and Paul McCartney, to name a few – also playing to huge audiences at this very late date. "What can you say?" Richards says. "It's a hell of a generation."
This story is from the November 8th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.