December 18, 1989 12:00 PM

When the Rolling Stones rumbled into New York City’s Grand Central Terminal last summer to announce the start of their four-month, 60-concert, $60 million Steel Wheels stadium tour, Mick Jagger dismissed the idea that this could be the last time the Stones hit the road. Now he’s not so sure. Forty-eight shows down the road, as he sits in the bowels of Minneapolis’s Metrodome (the acoustics of which he compares to “a very large bathroom”), Jagger admits that not even Jack Flash can keep jumpin’ indefinitely. “It’s stupid to say, Tm never doing it again,’ ” says Jagger, whose 2½-hour, 25-song performances would entitle most men his age to a night in the hospital. “But I’m 46. Obviously I can’t go on at this energy level for very much longer. I’m really happy out there. I’ve never been so fit But nevertheless…”

If Jagger sounds as if he’s longing for the end of the trail, Stones co-founder Keith Richards, who turns 46 next week, is singing a different tune. He’s anxious to assure fans that this is not the last time. The guitarist says the Stones are “not out to grab and run, to do one last big sell-off.” Which brings up a delicate issue: The Stones have developed an image problem of late. Richards, who embodies the scruffy, outlaw spirit of the Rolling Stones of yore, admits that he winces when he hears “Start Me Up,” a 1981 hit driven by one of his patented riffs, used in a $6 million Budweiser tour promo campaign. And he worries about talk that the Stones, now the extremely wealthy grand old men of rock’s establishment are selling out “I can see how it can easily be perceived that way,” he says. “I mean the rag trade!” he says, referring to the collection of Stones garb, including $28 tank tops and $450 leather jackets now on sale at J.C. Penney and Macy’s. “Of course we want to make some bread,” says Richards. “This band hasn’t worked in quite a few years. But we don’t want to come off as some kind of company.” Even Jagger, who fashions the Stones’ business deals with the consent of the group, squirms when asked about the $39.95 limited-edition silver coins with embossed portraits that make the once-ragged Stones look as noble as Roman emperors. “I haven’t seen those yet” he says discreetly.

Both Stones believe their willingness to push themselves to the limit onstage is proof that they haven’t auctioned off their musical souls. In fact Jagger is so eager to, please that he has broken his old vow not to do “Satisfaction.” Says Mick: “I don’t mind if that’s what they want to hear. It doesn’t particularly turn me on.” Jagger insists that the tour’s next-to-last concert (on Dec. 19, to be broadcast live on a pay-per-view cable-TV hookup from Atlantic City, with guest turns by Eric Clapton, Axl Rose and John Lee Hooker) will be more than just another $1 million payday. “It’s high risk because it’s live,” he says. “You’ve just got to be good. It won’t be perfect but that’s part of the charm.”

And skeptics will learn, Richards promises, that despite their wealth and their age, the Stones still deliver. “The boys do work their butts off,” he says. “Everybody still wants to get a little better with each show. That’s been amazing. Especially with this cynical bunch.”

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