Limo Ride to Babylon
"Is this the person who writes the column about photography?" inquired the stuffy British voice one weekend morning. I replied that this was indeed the author of the column Slap Shots, and no, it was not about photography, although it does occasionally run photos of taxidermied mice. The voice -- Cynthia somebody from Virgin Records publicity -- wasted no time. "Your column has been selected for an exclusive promotional interview with a member of the Rolling Stones, the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world. Mr. Richards has chosen you personally as the only journalist to whom he will grant a sit-down. He is scheduled to arrive --"
"I'm not interested," I said, and hung up, wondering which actress friend this was. Boredom-fighting on a Sunday has gotten more complex than ever. I was still dialing *69 when the doorbell buzzed. Outside was a 26-foot Krystal Koach black stretch limo from Bauer Limousine, hopping the curb onto the sidewalk with a regal lurch. Very rock 'n' roll. The vehicle halted, a rear window slid open halfway, and a gnarled, pale hand emerged, a single skull-ringed finger motioning to come hither, like a wicked crone's from a creepy kids movie. I peered inside. By golly, it was him, all right. He's still alive. Keith Richards, in slept-on hair and Italian shades, his full-length leopard coat barely visible through the cigarette smoke.
He smiled through his impeccable British dentistry. "Let's go for a drive."
"Look," I coughed, as we sped off toward the ocean. "Why me? I'm no music critic. I haven't listened to you guys since the early '80s."
"Our marketing research has indicated you represent a unique target demographic for the California leg of our tour," he answered, gesturing to some pie charts coming out of a fax machine. "We're covered for boomers and teeny-boppers, but ticket and CD sales are down for Gen-X and thirtysomethings -- hang on a second." He flipped open a chirping cell phone. "Yeah, KR ... they just need a tag? OK, give me a five countdown." He covered the mouthpiece and whispered it was more money, then the voice suddenly dropped into his familiar hoarse, nicotine growl.
"If you cannn get no thurst sa-isfackshunn, staht yourself up with an ice cole Mountain Dew, mate!"
The cell phone went back in the pocket. "I'll be frank. We need the readers of Snapshots, or whatever it's called. They're the fans who gave up on the Stones, and with your help, see, we get 'em back on board. The Beatles did over $200 mil last year, for fuck's sake, and they didn't even tour."
He handed me a tote bag of Stones-logo products, cracked open a Snapple, and guzzled a long drink.
Except for Pavarotti at low volume, the car was quiet as the driver whipped our limo through the Cliff House curve. This is Keith Richards? The one-man party-in-pointy-boots? I made some lame joke about the bottle of Jack Daniel's in the limo sink remaining unopened.
He didn't laugh. "My personal trainer won't let me. Even Ronnie's stopped with the sauce. Gave us all a start, that one. Look, everybody talks about our last good album being Exile on Main Street, blah blah, but that was '74. What are we supposed to do for the next 20 years? Get fat like Zeppelin? If the sponsors are there, we pack up the trucks and go on tour, simple as that." He gazed out the window at the white-capped Pacific, and for that moment, Keith Richards seemed a portrait of vulnerability. "Mick once said, if we had had Budweiser or Sprint help us out at Altamont, maybe none of it would have happened."
A sick feeling was growing in my stomach. The cellular rang again.
"KR ... Look, the backstage rider should be exactly the same as our '94 tour -- Neutrogena, San Pellegrino, ginseng, and two cartons of Pall Malls. And throw in a PowerPC with a T1 NASDAQ feed." He lit another smoke and winked at me. "I should probably get a PowerBook but I don't trust 'em."
I was trapped, held against my will by an aging, teetotaling rock legend turned computer geek. Worse still, I was too chicken to confront him with the truth -- the laughable posturing, the thinning gray hair, the pathetic albums of the past two decades. Instead, I became a stupid sycophant.
"I have to say," I began babbling, "I didn't start listening to the Stones until Black and Blue and Some Girls, and it seemed an interesting assimilation of the emerging disco culture fused with traditional R&B, and it was great to discover Mick Taylor -- who was always one of my favorite Stones guitarists -- actually played on many of the tracks on Tattoo You --"
"You wanna see my grandkids?"
He clicked a button on a lap-top and color photos came up on the screen.
"She's a cutie, eh? Break a few hearts ... oh, this one's gonna be a terror. And this is their shar-pei named Wyman. They named him, I didn't. And here we all are last Christmas in front of the mountain on Montserrat. You ever been there?" I shook my head no. "Beautiful island. Shame about what's going on there now."