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The 1997 Rolling Stones are corporate, calculating and, above all, cool.

The Stones' "Bridges to Babylon" world tour, which comes to Rich Stadium on Wednesday, is sponsored by Sprint.

In ads for the tour, the band allowed Sprint to stick its trademark pin right through the famed Stones red tongue logo.
As "Politically Incorrect" host Bill Maher quipped recently: "I hear the Rolling Stones tour is a complete sellout. And promoters report that the concerts are going good, too." Such blatant commercialism from rock's bad boys is enough to make you long for the days when the Hells Angels took care of Stones concerts.

But whatever the Stones' approach, it seems to be working.

The tour, which kicked off in Chicago on Sept. 23, is the biggest of the year. Ten of its first 13 dates have sold out. Over 30,000 tickets have been sold for the Rich Stadium show, sources say, and that figure is expected to go higher despite a steep $60 top price.

But just who are the Stones these days? And what's behind their enduring appeal?

Certainly, their rebellious days are gone forever.

What's left of the Stones is four men in their mid-50s living off their reputations with monster hype, hip record producers and a lot of residual charisma.

Keith Richards still looks like a junkie in search of a coffin; Mick Jagger's swollen lips and thin, angular body make him a sexy hip-shaking grandpa. Charlie Watts on drums is as elegant and proper as an English butler; Ronnie Woods, a cigarette perpetually hanging from his lips, offers just the right guitar licks to complement Richards.

Together, they're a rock band that could easily be the cover boys for Modern Maturity magazine. In a way, Jagger's aging rock-star gyrations and Richards' guitar-junkie persona are almost as farcical as seeing a bloated Elvis on stage in his final days.

But their attraction is eternal. While younger bands such as R.E.M. and U2 endure midcareer crises and struggle to sell records and fill concert halls, the Stones just keep on rolling. The band's new album, "Bridges to Babylon," and single, "Anybody Seen My Baby," are best sellers. A raunchy video for the single is on MTV and VH1.

It may come down to this: The Stones are a link from the idealistic and dark '60s to the bottom-line '90s. The Stones endure because they have a sense of history and a commitment to music, and because they're a living testament to rock 'n' roll in all its glory and absurdity.

That's why the baby boomers and the kids keep coming -- and paying -- to see them.

"They have more flair than most bands out today," said Michael Osborne, 18. "The Stones are still hot. You want to know what they're going to do next."

Kristyn Blair, 17, agrees. "They're strange; the drummer looks mummified and Keith Richards seems barely alive. You want to watch a concert to see if Keith will live through the show. But I like the Stones. They've got some good songs."

John Hager, a local radio executive, grew up with the Stones and has seen most of their tours since the 1970s.

"Every tour seems to grow in terms of size and (being) spectacular," he said. "I think the Stones' best years on record were between 1969 and '72. But just when you think they're finished, they surprise you and put out a great album. The Stones' concerts are always an event."

Maybe the reason the band has lasted is simple.

"The Rolling Stones are just a great rock 'n' roll band," said Tom Shannon, a longtime radio personality who just returned to WHTT-FM 104. "Just listen to the songs and the beat -- that's what makes them special."

Shannon has a picture of himself standing between Richards and Brian Jones in 1964, on the band's first U.S. tour. Jones, a Stones guitarist, died of an apparent drug overdose in 1969.

"My daughter's 11, and she saw that picture and couldn't believe her father was in a picture with the Rolling Stones," Shannon said. "I told her, 'Yeah, that's me.' Then she asked me to take her to see them. She likes their music. Everybody likes the Stones, but they used to be pretty wild in the old days."

Lisa Robinson is a journalist who remembers those hedonistic times. She covered the Stones for nearly two decades and she notices some differences. "They're still fun, sexy and wild," she says, "but they're not insane."

Sanity may come with age, but unlike other classic-rock bands, the Stones have a sense of contemporary vitality. The Who recycles old songs and albums; the Grateful Dead has lost its essence with the death of Jerry Garcia, and though Fleetwood Mac has reunited and is enjoying success, the band is basically rehashing old material.

The Stones, however, are cutting new music and trying to stay relevant. The band has moved from rock to a gritty, R & B-influenced sound, which is getting back to its roots. Hot producers such as the Dust Brothers, Babyface, Don Was and Danny Saber were involved with the new album.

"We're pushing boundaries again," Richards said in a press statement. "We wanted something provocative. We didn't want a competent Stones record -- we wanted a record people would either love or hate."

Don Was believes Richards and his musical passion may be the soul of the Stones. "To me, Keith is the paradigm, the connection between emotion and art. He's a musician that all musicians should aspire to emulate.

"He's a guy who understands how to just play in the moment and not be self-conscious. He knows how to get in touch with the feeling of a song and to translate that into music in a very spontaneous way."

Richards' first two decades with the band were marked by drug and alcohol abuse. Now Keith, gray, wrinkled and grizzled, seems sober and content.

"This isn't just a gig. To me, this is like breathing. This is what I do, and you do it until the day you drop," Richards said at the beginning of the tour.

Jagger, the other glimmer twin, is the master blaster whose stage antics give the band its punch. Jagger's voice is not as strong as it once was, but his physical conditioning and stage savvy are at a peak. He knows how to work a crowd and work the Stones.

Jagger may be what Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin might have been if they had lived. Rock music was never meant to age gracefully, but Jagger exhibits the undefinable chutzpah and ego to make rock relevant from an over-50 perspective.

It's Jagger's vibrancy and attitude that, along with Richards, keeps the Stones going. The Stones, better than any other rock band in history, have been able to escape their past and live in the present, as Jagger made clear in a recent interview on VH1.

"I don't want to be left on some shelf in a museum," he said.

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