Do you feel that Dirty Work didn't do well because the Stones didn't support it with a tour?
Well, there was no promotion behind it. As it came out, everyone sort of said, "Well, they've broken up," or "They're not gonna work." So you got a lot of negativity behind it.
It seemed like it was released into a storm of chaos.
It was — mainly, I think, to do with the fact that Stu [Ian Stewart, the pianist with the early Stones and the band's longtime road manager] died at that point. The glue fell out of the whole setup. There's not a lot of people who realize quite what a tower of strength he was and how important he was within the band.
The first rehearsal that was ever called for this band that turned out to be the Rolling Stones, at the top of this pub in Soho, in London, I arrived, and the only guy there is Stu. He was already at the piano, waiting for the rest of this collection of weirdos to arrive. On the surface of it, he was very different from us. He was working — he was a civil servant. The rest of us were, like, just a bunch of layabouts.
Stu was somebody that couldn't tell a lie. I think one of the first things he said to me was "Oh, so you're the Chuck Berry expert, are you?" At the time, Chuck Berry wasn't in Stu's bag of tricks. His thing was, like, Lionel Hampton and Leroy Carr and Big Joe Williams — you know, swing, boogie freaks. And so Chuck Berry to him was frivolous rock & roll, until I got him to listen to the records and he heard Johnnie Johnson [Berry's longtime pianist]. In fact, one of the last things Stu said to me before he died was "Never forget, Keith, Johnnie Johnson is alive and playing in St. Louis." And the funny thing is within a few months I'd found Johnnie, and he's even on this record.
So Stu's death was part of the problem. Then what happened? Was it that Mick didn't want to tour?
In all honesty, it was Mick decided that he could do . . . I don't know whether "he could do better" is the best phrase, but he felt, actually, that the Rolling Stones were like a millstone around his neck. Which is ludicrous — and I told him so.
He said that to you?
Yeah. Yeah. He said, "I don't need this bunch of old farts." Little do you know, Sunny Jim.
I spoke to him about it the other week, because now he wants to put the Stones back together — because there's nowhere else to go. And I don't want to knock the cat. Mick's and my battles are not exactly as perceived through the press or other people. They're far more convoluted, because we've known each other for most of our lives — I mean, since we were four or five. So they involve a lot more subtleties and ins and outs than can possibly be explained. But I think that there is on Mick's part a little bit of a Peter Pan complex.
It's a hard job, being the frontman. In order to do it, you've got to think in a way that you're semidivine. But if it goes a little too far, that feeling, you think you don't need anybody, and Mick kind of lost touch with the fact of how important the Stones were for him. He thought that he could just hire another Rolling Stones, and that way he could control the situation more, rather than battling with me.
My point around Dirty Work was this was the time when the Stones could do something. They could mature and grow this music up and prove that you could take it further. That you don't have to go back and play Peter Pan and try and compete with Prince and Michael Jackson or Wham! and Duran Duran. But it's all a matter, I think, of self-perception. He perceived himself as still having to prove it on that level. To me, twenty-five years of integrity went down the drain with what he did.
How would you explain that?
Mick is more involved with what's happening at this moment — and fashion. I'm trying to grow the thing up, and I'm saying we don't need the lemon-yellow tights and the cherry picker and the spectacle to make a good Rolling Stones show. There's a more mature way of doing it. And Mick, particularly at that time, two or three years ago, couldn't see a way clear to do anything different. So therefore he had to go backwards and compare himself with who's hitting the Top Ten at that moment.
The last Stones show I saw was at the Fox Theatre, in Atlanta, in 1981, and it was just the band, without the gimmicks.
To me, the interesting thing about Mick is that he could work this table better than anybody in the world. And the bigger the stages got, to me it was a feeling that he had to use every inch of space on that stage. He would say that you've got to get to as much of the audience as you can when you're playing stadiums. But the bigger the stage, the more stagy it got. The fact is that Mick didn't appreciate that he had a band that he could rely upon, come hell or high water. I guess he took it for granted eventually and thought that he could hire that. And you can't. You can't hire that kind of thing.
At one point you seemed to feel that Walter Yetnikoff, the president of CBS Records, had encouraged Mick to go solo, that he believed that Mick was the Stones.
I think at the beginning, yes. But it's understandable that somebody just walking in on the Rolling Stones . . . it's an obvious thought. Mick is going to be talking to them. He's the frontman. Since then, Walter has certainly changed his mind [laughs]. It's understandable that you would think that, oh, if you've got it together with Mick, then you've got the Stones, because the next person to talk to is myself, and I've been a junkie, unreliable — in business people's minds I'm the dodgy artistic freak. I'm not the one that's going to be up in your office talking business at ten in the morning. So it's an understandable attitude to take. But it certainly didn't help keeping the Stones together at the time.
Didn't Yetnikoff hook you back up with Sarah Dash, who sings with you on the album?
She's a friend of Walter's. She happened to be popping by to see him at the time, and I said, "Oh, Sarah, I haven't seen you in donkeys' years." I mean, when I first met Sarah, she was fifteen or sixteen. She'd just started working with Patti LaBelle and the Blue Bells. This was in '65. She had a chaperone with her, you know, nobody could get near her. They used to call her Inch, I think, Sarah. She's still a dinky little thing, but what a girl, what a voice.
So by going to see Walter, I found the chick I wanted to sing on the album. The only other girl singing on it is the now infamous Patti Scialfa.
Springsteen has managed to tarnish his reputation.
Yeah, it was kind of surprising. In fact, the last overdub that Patti did for this record, she walks in with this guy. "Hi, Patti, how're you doin'?" We're talking. The guy is standing in the doorway, and I turn around, and suddenly I realize it's Bruce [laughs]. Oh, oh, naughty, naughty, naughty.
Had you met him before?
I've met Bruce two or three times. We've had several good chats, usually at some release party or premiere, and we just end up in the corner talking. He's a sweet guy, a nice guy.
Mind you, I think four-hour shows really are way over the top. To me, a great rock & roll act does twenty minutes [laughs]. I remember the Paramount, where you got the Impressions, Jackie Wilson, Joe Tex, and everybody does just their absolute supreme best shot! A lot of the shows you get these days are very self-indulgent. I don't think anybody can be enthralling for four hours onstage playing rock & roll.
You've been recording on your own for years. Had you built up a big backlog of songs?
Not really. All of the songs on this album were written last year. There's also a whole backlog of songs with the Stones that I didn't touch. I wanted it to be completely separate. Of course, certain ways of doing things hung over. For the Stones I would write for what Mick could sing, what I thought was the best thing that Mick could handle.
On this album, the songs are not that much different in structure or in content, even. I managed to do some of the things that with the Stones I'd say, "Nah, can't do that. Too complicated." I realized this writing with Steve Jordan. That was the other great thing: that I found somebody else to work with. To me, teamwork is important. The enthusiasm from the other guys is incredibly important, and these guys gave it to me all the way. They would never let me indulge myself. For instance, with the Stones, if I'm writing something and they're hitting it in the studio and I'd break down because I'm not quite sure how the bridge would go or something, I'd stop playing, and everybody'd stop playing, go off for a drink and a phone call and an hour later come back and try it again. With this lot, if I stopped, they'd just carry on. They'd look at me: "Pick it up, pick it up, man!" "Why, you goddamn nigger! Nobody's kicked me up the ass like that." At the same time I enjoyed it, because they were right. I would just pick it up again and get back in there.
Did you find yourself getting uptight about not wanting a song to sound like a Stones song?
No, I didn't In fact, it was the other way. My idea was if I allowed myself to think, "I can't do it like that, because it would be just the way I'd do it with the Stones," that would be phony.
My main hang-up, first off, was "Who the hell am I gonna play with if it ain't Charlie Watts?" If I'm gonna work on my own after twenty-odd years of working with this great drummer, who's going to have, without looking at each other, the same feel, the same contact? The beauty of Steve and myself finding each other at that particular time was that it was a very natural changeover, since Steve and Charlie know each other and respect each other's work very much.
Where are Charlie, Bill Wyman and Ron Wood on all of this? Are you in touch with them?
Well, yeah. In fact, in the last month or so I've been in touch with them. Mick suddenly called up, and the rest of them: "Let's put the Stones back together." I'm thinking, "Just as I'm in the middle of an album. Now what are you trying to do, screw me up? Just now you want to talk about putting it back together?" But we talked about it. I went to London, and we had a meeting. I think you'll find a new album and a tour next year from the Stones.
Will you be touring with your band?
With this lot, yeah, sure. I need to get on the road, and the only way you're gonna get on the road is to make a record. Since '86, I've slowly been putting the team together. This basic band, you know, Drayton, Steve, Ivan Neville, Waddy.
I don't want to do a big deal, you know, big stadiums and all that. I want to play some good rooms — theaters. We're just starting to talk about it. Basically I just want to do some class joints, you know, some nice 3000, 4000 seaters.
It's startling to hear "Big Enough," which has such a James Brown feel, as the first track on the album. Was that the first tune you recorded?
It's not exactly the first thing, but it was fairly early on. It was just Steve and myself, just drums and guitar. It was incredibly long, almost a jam. But the groove on it was just so strong and, as you say, the James Brown feel of it was so evident that what happened was, during last winter, James played the Apollo. Steve and I went up there, and we saw Maceo [Parker, James Brown's saxman], and we looked at each other, and we went, "Dig it. Maceo." So we got in touch with Maceo to give it that horn thing.
The bass end was another problem, because the fact that we cut it with just guitar and drums, we had the drums tuned very low down. There was an awful lot of bass on the drums. And every time we tried to put a bass on it, it would just get in the way. So we thought about it, and once again, Steve, who's got a great ear [snaps his fingers]: "Ah, it's got to be Bootsy" — who used to play with James. So Bootsy [Collins] drove from Ohio — because he doesn't fly, Bootsy — for one evening and heard it, grinned and did it. So that's how James Brown the track was — it ended up with James's guys on there!
On the other end of the spectrum from "Big Enough," you have "I Could Have Stood You Up."
To me that was "a little stroll through the rock & roll alley." I actually started to cut these tracks a year ago, just about today, at about this time [laughs] — that's why I'm looking at my watch — up in Montreal. We got about seven tracks in ten days, so I felt already "This thing's going well, this band is cooking."
Who was up there with you?
Charley Drayton, Steve, Ivan, Waddy and myself. Since we'd worked with Johnnie Johnson on the Chuck Berry thing, I really wanted to work with him. My next thought was "I don't know if I've got anything in that vein for this album." So Steve and I worked on it a bit, and I came up with that one thing. We wanted to do some sessions with Johnnie, so we got it together, and Johnnie — who happens to love me, for some reason. . . .
Well, your analysis of Chuck Berry's music in Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll, where you point out that it was all based on Johnnie Johnson's piano chords, might have something to do with it.
I would have never thought about it, except I went through that process and saw it. The guy's sixty-eight, sixty-nine years old, and he probably plays more regularly than just about anybody on this planet. He has five or six club gigs a week in St. Louis. He's one of the hidden masters of American music, to me. Also, given the fact that Stu had said what he said . . . [folds his hands in prayer].
"I Could Have Stood You Up" is also a reunion of Stones alumni: Mick Taylor, Bobby Keys, Chuck Leavell. Had you played with Mick since he left the Stones?
When he played the Lone Star last year, I popped up for a number or two. I hadn't seen him for quite a few years. It's sort of a mystery to me — and it's also a mystery to Mick Taylor — as to why he left the Stones [laughs]. I said, "Why did you leave like that?" And he said, "I ask myself that all the time. I don't know why I did that."
But being in the Stones is a weird thing. I guess for Mick, you've been in the Stones for five or six years, and you think you can expand. He wanted to play drums. He wanted to produce and write. Rightly or wrongly — because to me Mick Taylor is just a brilliant guitar player. That's what he is. And still is. But from the inside, you know, you think, "I've done this. I've got this now. Now I can go out on my own. I'm a bit bored with this."
And Mick Jagger made the same decision — and the same mistake. Whether it's a mistake or not, it didn't work out the way he thought it was going to work out. Maybe it's got something to do with the name Mick [laughs].
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