Last week, the center of the rock & roll universe was located in an industrial part of Burbank. In one room at CenterStaging studios, Paul McCartney was rehearsing with his band for their upcoming world tour. Next door, his old pals and supposed rivals the Rolling Stones were preparing for their first tour in five years — and possibly their final series of concerts ever.
McCartney and his crew soon moved on to Brazil to start their tour, but the Stones occupied the studios for the better part of the past two weeks, winnowing through at least 60 different songs — both old and new, along with rare covers — that are being considered for their “50 & Counting” tour of England and North America. You know, the one that kinda kicked off at the Echoplex on Saturday and gets going for real tomorrow night at Staples Center. We were there, outside, while they practiced.
Although the Rolling Stones have often recorded in Hollywood over the past 50 years, they've only opened two of their previous tours in the L.A. area — at a half-empty Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino on the first U.S. visit in 1964 and two late-night sets at the Forum in Inglewood in 1969, following a warm-up show in Ft. Collins, Colorado. With the British blues-rockers ensconced in the Southland for such an extended period of time, it wasn't surprising to longtime observers that the Stones would end up playing a small show at the Echoplex.
But even that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the band in such an intimate environment wasn't enough for a dozen or so truly hardcore fans, who gathered expectantly and hovered reverentially (most of the time) on the sidewalk every day outside the gates of the Burbank studio, hoping to catch a glimpse of the band.
There usually wasn't much to see. The rehearsal rooms were located in a windowless building with blank white walls. Occasionally, guitarists Keith Richards (wearing a hat and a light-blue striped shirt) and Ron Wood (slouching in a green shirt) and backup singer Bernard Fowler (his thick dreadlocks spilling down his fuchsia long-sleeve shirt) stepped outside during breaks between songs. The rest of the time, Stones roadies and studio staff milled around the parking lot, moving trucks and carrying guitar cases back and forth.
There may not have been a lot to see, but there was plenty to hear. The eastern edge of Burbank Airport was just a half block away, and landing jets sometimes drowned out the band, but the music was unmistakably coming from the real Rolling Stones — the distinctively jerking interplay between the punchy drums and bobbing-&-weaving guitars was a dead giveaway. The vocals were usually faint or inaudible, with Mick Jagger saving his energy for the real shows, but Darryl Jones' deep bass and Richards' and Wood's trademark chiming suspended chords rang clearly over the parking lot, broken up only by Charlie Watts' stutter-step drum fills.
The small crowd gathered on either side of the driveway entrance and ranged in ages from 9 to 70 years old. Fans would come and go throughout the afternoon, dealing with family obligations and job duties, as the practices wound onward from 3 to 8 p.m. Early in the afternoon, as few as three people might be waiting outside the studio, with the number increasing to as many as 30 near the end of the sessions.
Some had heard rumors that the Stones were practicing in Burbank, so they visited every rehearsal studio in the area before finding CenterStaging. One especially clever onlooker should be a detective or private investigator — after seeing a photo that Fowler texted of the band hanging outside the rehearsal room, the fan recognized the shape of the Verdugo Mountains in the background and was able to pinpoint the studio's location.
There were basically two kinds of fans who showed up every day — Ardent Listeners and Autograph Hounds. Ardent Listeners were primarily there to hear the songs, gathering closest to the entrance in a respectful huddle and craning their necks to absorb each precious note of the quieter tracks. The Autograph Hounds, on the other hand, were clutching vinyl copies of Between the Buttons or the expensive edition of the new Grrr! box set in the hopes that they could score autographs from band. Most of the Autograph Hounds appeared to be genuine fans of the Stones instead of mercenaries intending to resell the autographed LPs. One of them ordered a pizza for everybody and had it delivered right there on the sidewalk.
Not all of the Autograph Hounds were interested in hearing the Stones, with some of them gathering out of earshot around the corner or talking nonstop in groups away from everybody else. The most intense fans were the Ardent Listeners, who seemed to know every obscure piece of trivia about the band.
Of all the Ardent Listeners, Dan Johnson was easily the most intense and knowledgeable. Dressed for two days straight in the same Throw Rag T-shirt, he was sort of the alpha Listener who everyone else looked up to and asked for advice. Johnson was literally one of the first two or three people in the city to suss out that the Stones' secret show would be held at the Echoplex — not that his prescient deduction did him any good. Amid the confusion and disorganization of the purportedly random lottery distribution of tickets at El Rey, Johnson was one of many faithful early fans who were skipped over in favor of late-arriving buyers.
See also: Rolling Stones Hysteria Hits Los Angeles
At the Burbank rehearsals, Johnson showed up early and kept a daily set list of all the songs and fragments of songs the Stones were playing. The 39-year-old Angeleno would often recognize which song they were starting after hearing just one or two chords. He'd already attended about 30 Stones concerts, but, like many of the fans gathered outside the studios, he couldn't get enough of the band, especially now that they're about to begin what's likely to be their final full tour.
Making the rehearsals and the upcoming tour even more compelling was the long-awaited return of the band's best lead guitarist, Mick Taylor, after an absence of more than three decades. After all, it was Taylor who transformed the Stones' sound in the late 1960s in the wake of the death of founding guitarist Brian Jones, turning them from lo-fi garage rockers into the hard and heavy band that could survive alongside the guitar-hero technicians, power trios and heavy-metal groups of the early '70s.
What's more, for all of his speed and fluid dexterity, Taylor has a melodic gracefulness that's rare in rock circles, which is how the Stones could expand into spiraling, dazzling and jazzy epics like “Can't You Hear Me Knocking?” and “Time Waits for No One.” Apart from a mysterious one-off appearance with the group at a Kansas City show on the 1981 tour, Taylor hasn't played live with the Stones since quitting in 1974, following the madcap (and drugged-out) 1973 European tour, when both Taylor and the Stones were at their musical peaks and emotional lows.
Despite the carping from critics about how they're too old or too irrelevant, the Stones have usually managed to make some underrated (if not always consistent) albums since Taylor's departure, but they've also never really been the same without his achingly lyrical touch and honeyed slide-guitar plunges. In other words, for most of the Ardent Listeners, the unexpected return of Taylor at the Stones' 50th-anniversary shows last November and December in Paris, London, Newark and Brooklyn was big, big news. The closest equivalent would be if Jimi Hendrix hopped out of the grave and joined the Beatles — that's how good Taylor is.
Fans breathlessly exchanged details about every Stones sighting and interaction — Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger walked up to the gate to sign a couple of autographs earlier in the week! A roadie handed out Taylor guitar picks to a lucky few on Friday! Keith unrolled his window long enough to sign autographs when his car was stuck in traffic at the stoplight by the airport!
But the most urgent gossip centered around Taylor. Although he's much younger than the rest of the band, Taylor appears to be the frailest. In 2010, he canceled a planned free solo show at the Santa Monica Pier, which would have been his first appearance here in a decade, because of health problems. Last Thursday, Taylor left the Stones' practice early when he reportedly wasn't feeling well, although he was back at the studio on Friday.
Fans worried and kvetched about everything. Would Taylor be allowed to play more than the one song he'd guest-starred on at the anniversary shows late last year? Granted, that one song, “Midnight Rambler,” was an epic showcase for Taylor's cascading flurries of sharp-edged dagger notes, but it was hardly enough. (At the Echoplex, the Stones also pulled out another Taylor showstopper, their somber remake of Robert Johnson's “Love in Vain,” alongside “Midnight Rambler.”)
Did the Stones intend to add more Taylor-centric songs to their set? At the Burbank rehearsals, he could be heard clearly on versions of “Sway,” “Can't You Hear Me Knocking?” and “Street Fighting Man,” the notes searing yet controlled, adding so much heft and power to the Stones' occasionally thin live arrangements. The possibility of Keef Riffhard feinting and jabbing with both Wood and Taylor at the same time suddenly made the Stones sound louder and dangerous, more open to wild possibilities instead of teary arena-rock nostalgia.
In their rehearsals and recording sessions, the Stones have traditionally warmed up and goofed around with tons of songs and covers they never intend to play live. In many cases, they're trying things on for size before quickly abandoning them for something else. That's why Ardent Listeners collect so many Stones bootlegs, particularly from the Taylor era. The Stones are both prolific and forgetful, often leaving some of their best and coolest tracks on the cutting-room floor. It's only been in recent years that they have started officially releasing the rare studio cuts (such as the intriguing bonus tunes that accompanied the expanded edition of Exile on Main Street) and prized concerts recordings (like the 1973 Belgian radio broadcast Brussels Affair, which is the the group's loudest and best live album) that have been passed around and traded by bootleggers since the '70s.
Although it's wise not to assume too much about the Stones' upcoming set lists based on overhearing just two days of rehearsals, the possibilities are nonetheless intriguing, especially with the tour starting here in L.A. Historically, the Stones tend to play a longer set list on the first night or two of a tour, before jettisoning songs they think aren't working. That means a great song like “Torn & Frayed,” which was performed once in Vancouver on the opening night of the 1972 North America tour, might not show up again on a set list for decades — if ever.
For what it's worth, the famously ominous and lurking bass line of the “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” pulsed often through the sunny Burbank afternoons. The Stones have never played the Norman Whitfield & Barrett Strong classic live, but it wouldn't be a shock if they give it a shot at least once on the new tour. Solomon Burke's soul-stirrer “Everybody Needs Somebody to Love” was also heard a few times, perking up the weary faithful on the sidewalk with its high-stepping, upbeat tempo. The Stones also cranked out old covers they haven't played much on their most recent tours, including Bobby Troup's “Route 66,” Chuck Berry's “Little Queenie,” the Temptations' “Ain't Too Proud to Beg” and Roosevelt Jamison's “That's How Strong My Love Is” (which was one of the few semi-obscurities at the relatively short Echoplex gig).
The Stones practiced both of the new songs from the Grrr! compilation, “Doom & Gloom” and the perhaps prophetically titled “One More Shot,” but they didn't get around to anything from their surprisingly strong 2005 album, A Bigger Bang. According to Johnson, they've rehearsed early hits that go as far back as “The Last Time” and “Get Off of My Cloud” (although apparently not “I Wanna Be Your Man,” the Beatles cover that was dropped after its one appearance at the London show last year).
Last Thursday, the emphasis was on the Some Girls album (including the rarely played title track) as well as a pair of contrasting early-'80s temperature songs (“She Was Hot” and “She's So Cold”). The spongy, flange-y guitars of “Shattered” sounded chaotic and anarchic, prompting a couple of guitarist-fans to point out that the Stones have always struggled with the live version and its deceptively tricky rhythm.
The Thursday rehearsal culminated in an ethereally dreamy rendition of Sticky Finger's closing cut, “Moonlight Mile.” If you closed your eyes, the intricate yet subdued guitar plucking wove a spell that carried you airily into a melancholically pastoral nighttime landscape. If you dared to open your eyes, you were suddenly back on the sunny sidewalk of an anonymous warehouse district that's wedged artlessly between the 5 freeway and Burbank Airport.
On Friday, the focus was on songs that appeared on the Get Yer Ya-Yas Out live album, plus scattered blasts through “Rip This Joint,” “Can't You Hear Me Knocking?” and “You Got Me Rocking,” whose generic lyrics were belied by fierce punk-style guitars. You had to strain to hear a gentle and affecting “Love in Vain,” which was rendered slowly and deliberately, closer to the studio recording than to later live versions.
The last song of the day, “Midnight Rambler,” was probably the most impressive, especially during the sadistic stop-&-start breaks, where the guitars and drums slammed down in tight and angry unison, the blood-drenched silences echoing forebodingly against the Verdugos.
Meanwhile, the piano-laden falsetto soul weeper “Emotional Rescue” was practiced heavily on both days, leading Ardent Listeners to assume that it'll end up on the tour. Most of the time, the Stones ran through a song only once or twice, occasionally spending extra time on certain sections, before moving on to another tune. That doesn't mean that they didn't return to the same song later, but the Stones didn't thrash a single song to death like so many bands do, which was refreshing.
There was a certain etiquette about standing on the sidewalk all day. Telephoto lenses were forbidden. If one was polite and non-aggressive, there was always a chance that someone like Charlie Watts would come out briefly and pose for a photo or two. This usually occurred earlier in the afternoon, when the crowd was still small. The more that fans swarmed and pestered and shouted at the band, the more the Stones stayed hidden inside the rehearsal room.
A tall woman with straight blonde hair and dressed casually in faded blue jeans and brown boots was able to engage Charlie Watts' bodyguard in conversation. She asked him if he knew anything about whether there was going to be a secret warm-up show before the Staples concert. As the Ardent Listeners leaned closer, the bodyguard said, “I shouldn't tell you this, but yes.” He didn't know it would end up being at the Echoplex, but it was the first real confirmation any of us had about a surprise show, a couple of days before the rest of the world would find out.
There was also a fascinating and sometimes-scary ritual that was enacted every night after the musicians stopped playing and the roadies came to fetch the guitars. Each of the main band members had his own car and driver. The vehicles were either town cars or SUVs, and they all were black, with tinted windows. It wasn't clear if there was a hierarchy about leaving, although it appeared that Jagger's or Richards' cars usually led the procession. On Thursday night, keyboardist Chuck Leavell was the first out of the parking lot. Most fans barely noticed him, even though he was driving the car, an unremarkable rental sedan without tinted windows.
When Richards' car exited the lot, several fans were waiting for him, parked across the street in four or five of their own cars with the motors already running. After Richards' driver stopped at a red light down the street, the other motorists madly gave chase as if they were paparazzi hounding Princess Diana, falling tightly in line in the left-turn lane. Several fans got out of their cars and ran up to Richards' car, banging on it and begging him to open the window, which stayed resolutely closed this time.
As all of this was happening, a different car came speeding down the street toward the rehearsal studio and nearly slammed into the next Stones' town car before being waved off at the last moment by an alert bodyguard, who rushed out in the street and caused the speeding driver to swerve away.
The departing ritual was even more hectic on Friday night, which appeared to be the final night of the Burbank rehearsals. Jagger's car was the first one to pull up to the gate, but instead of continuing down the street, Jagger had the driver stop. Jagger unrolled the window a very small crack, as the two dozen fans converged on the car in shock and panic.
Mick Jagger is often disparaged — sometimes most wickedly by Keith Richards — as an uptight, out-of-it swell who doesn't care about the real fans, but he was clearly the one Stone who went out of his way to meet folks during these rehearsals. As several grown women squealed and the Autograph Hounds rushed the car, brandishing well-worn copies of Let It Bleed and Satanic Majesties, several of the Ardent Listeners urged everyone to keep their cool and wait their turn patiently.
But it was no use. After standing in the sun for several days, most of the fans hadn't come close to getting an autograph or seeing any of the Stones, except from a distance. They'd already given up hope, and here was Mick Jagger, of all people, slowing down his car and pressing the flesh, albeit cautiously, his driver looking up and down the street, anxiously plotting an escape. Just about everyone went crazy, including most of the Ardent Listeners.
You could barely see Jagger through the narrow slit of his unrolled, blacked-out window, but the windshield of the car wasn't tinted, and it was possible to watch the seemingly unruffled singer sitting in the back seat, wearing shades and juggling in his lap the album covers that had been pressed through the opening.
I wondered if Jagger regretted stopping the car. Then again, he must be used to it by now. Even though most of the crowd was in their 30s, 40s and 50s, they were pushing and shoving like desperate teenage groupies from the early 1960s. By now, people of both sexes and all ages were literally hanging all over the car, piling on top of each other in a mass vehicular group hug. The car was surrounded, and the driver no longer had a path of escape. Everyone was yelling all at once — fans beseeching Mick to do this and sign that, while bodyguards and staff screamed at everyone to back off.
No one was listening, and no one backed away. Instead, everyone jostled each other and pressed even tighter against the car. A man, holding a personalized “ANGIE 73” California license plate that he wanted signed, dropped it in the hubbub. The plate clanged and landed on the sidewalk under Mick's car.
Meanwhile, Mick had finally stopped trying to feed the animals, and the driver was gunning the engine, ready to leave. Just as the Angie fan was reaching for the license plate, the driver lurched the car slowly forward, almost running over the fan, who drew his arm back, barely in time. Folks began falling off the limo like leaves, and, once free, the car darted swiftly away before anyone else could follow.
You read about such perilous arrivals and near-riotous escapes in dusty, ancient tomes about the early Rolling Stones, but it's weirdly astonishing when you realize that they continue to endure and/or instigate such ultra-charged moments of genuine panic and electrified hysteria in everyone around them — even in a place like Burbank.
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