Being interviewed is one of Mick Jagger's least favorite pastimes, a necessity that accompanies his career. A typical session with a journalist lasts 20 minutes. His life has been public for so long, he sees little need to explain or justify himself and has everything to be gained by holding on to what privacy he has – such as the privacy of his thinking – as well as the value of a little mystery.
Nonetheless, after a 25-year professional and personal friendship, during which Mick and I have often discussed the private affairs of his life and the band, I suggested doing a long interview. He agreed, and we proceeded on the basis of trust and familiarity.
This interview was conducted in three-to four-hour sessions in Palm Beach, Fla.; Montreal; and Cologne, Germany. We began in November of 1994 and finished in October of 1995 with a New York-to-London phone call. We did this throughout the Voodoo Lounge tour, a time when Jagger and the Stones were proceeding at a new level of assurance, maturity and status. The atmosphere and congeniality surrounding the band were exceptional, reflecting the upbeat confidence and ease that occurs when you are at the top of your game. I think Mick felt this, too, and thought this was a good time to go on the record, knowing I wanted to go back to the old days and start from there. Also, it was a long tour, and he seemed to enjoy the company whenever I came to do background reporting or the interview.
This is the most comprehensive interview Jagger has ever granted, and I decided at the outset to avoid the gossipy byways in favor of getting Mick to recall and interpret the most significant aspects of the group's history and its music.
Mick is a difficult interview, not only because of his natural reserve and lack of interest in the past but also because he communicates as much with his elastic body gestures, great smile and expressive face as he does verbally: Half of what he says never makes it to the page. There is so much he doesn't want to talk about and therefore says only with a knowing look; you know how distasteful or delightful a particular experience was for him, but that information remains at best a confidence between interviewer and interviewee... You've been told, and you've been had!
We entered into this as a collaboration, and despite his reluctance about being interviewed, I think he enjoyed the reminiscing and was happy to get some things on the record.
I certainly enjoyed it, as a longtime Stones fan and great admirer of Jagger's talents, artistry and aplomb. I also had a pleasurable excuse to see more than half a dozen shows, in all kinds of circumstances, throughout the tour. It's my opinion that the Stones are still the greatest rock & roll band in the world, and based on both the Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge world tours, I think they are also the greatest show on earth.
Herewith, the ringmaster.
Nov. 7, 1995
When did you first realize you were a performer, that what you did onstage was affecting people?
When I was 18 or so. The Rolling Stones were just starting to play some clubs around London, and I realized I was getting a lot of girl action when normally I hadn't gotten much. I was very unsophisticated then.
It was the attention of the girls that made you realize you were doing something onstage that was special?
You realize that these girls are going, either quietly or loudly, sort of crazy. And you're going, "Well, this is good. You know, this is something else." At that age you're just so impressed, especially if you've been rather shy before.
There's two parts of all this, at least. There's this great fascination for music and this love of playing blues – not only blues, just rock & roll generally. There's this great love of that.
But there's this other thing that's performing, which is something that children have or they haven't got. In the slightly post-Edwardian, pre-television days, everybody had to do a turn at family gatherings. You might recite poetry, and Uncle What ever would play the piano and sing, and you all had something to do. And I was just one of those kids [who loved it].
I guess you just want some sort of gratification. You have to want some sort of approval. But it's also just the love of actually doing it. Fun.
You were going to the London School of Economics and just getting started playing with the Stones. How did you decide which you were going to do?
Well, I started to do both, really. The Stones thing was weekends, and college was in the week. God, the Rolling Stones had so little work – it was like one gig a month. So it wasn't really that difficult – we just couldn't get any work.
How committed to the group were you then?
Well, I wasn't totally committed; it was a good, fun thing to do, but Keith [Richards] and Brian [Jones] didn't have anything else to do, so they wanted to rehearse all the time. I liked to rehearse once a week and do a show Saturday. The show that we did was three or four numbers, so there wasn't a tremendous amount of rehearsal needed.
Were you torn about the decision to drop out of school?
It was very, very difficult because my parents obviously didn't want me to do it. My father was furious with me, absolutely furious. I'm sure he wouldn't have been so mad if I'd have volunteered to join the army. Anything but this. He couldn't believe it. I agree with him: It wasn't a viable career opportunity. It was totally stupid. But I didn't really like being at college. It wasn't like it was Oxford and had been the most wonderful time of my life. It was really a dull, boring course I was stuck on.
Tell me about meeting Keith.
I can't remember when I didn't know him. We lived one street away; his mother knew my mother, and we were at primary school together from [ages] 7 to 11. We used to play together, and we weren't the closest friends, but we were friends.
Keith and I went to different schools when we were 11, but he went to a school which was really near where I used to live. But I always knew where he lived, because my mother would never lose contact with anybody, and she knew where they'd moved. I used to see him coming home from his school, which was less than a mile away from where I lived. And then – this is a true story – we met at the train station. And I had these rhythm & blues records, which were very prized possessions because they weren't available in England then. And he said, "Oh, yeah, these are really interesting." That kind of did it. That's how it started, really.
We started to go to each other's house and play these records. And then we started to go to other people's houses to play other records. You know, it's the time in your life when you're almost stamp-collecting this stuff. I can't quite remember how all this worked. Keith always played the guitar, from even when he was 5. And he was keen on country music, cowboys. But obviously at some point, Keith, he had this guitar with this electric-guitar pickup. And he played it for me. So I said, "Well, I sing, you know? And you play the guitar." Very obvious stuff.
I used to play Saturday night shows with all these different little groups. If I could get a show, I would do it. I used to do mad things – you know, I used to go and do these shows and go on my knees and roll on the ground – when I was 15,16 years old. And my parents were extremely disapproving of it all. Because it was just not done. This was for very low-class people, remember. Rock & roll singers weren't educated people.
What did you think was going on inside you at 15 years old that you wanted to go out and roll around on a stage?
I didn't have any inhibitions. I saw Elvis and Gene Vincent, and I thought, "Well, I can do this." And I liked doing it. It's a real buzz, even in front of 20 people, to make a complete fool of yourself. But people seemed to like it. And the thing is, if people started throwing tomatoes at me, I wouldn't have gone on with it. But they all liked it, and it always seemed to be a success, and people were shocked. I could see it in their faces.
Shocked by you?
Yeah. They could see it was a bit wild for what was going on at the time in these little places in the suburbs. Parents were not always very tolerant, but Keith's mum was very tolerant of him playing. Keith was an only child, and she didn't have a lot of other distractions, whereas my parents were like "Get on your homework." It was a real hard time for me. So I used to go and play with Keith, and then we used to go and play with Dick Taylor [who was later in the Pretty Things]. His parents were very tolerant, so we used to go round to his house, where we could play louder.
What was it like to be such a success at such a young age?
It was very exciting. The first time we got our picture in the music paper called the Record Mirror – to be on the front page of this thing that probably sold about 20,000 copies – was so exciting, you couldn't believe it. And this glowing review: There we were in this club in Richmond, being written up in these rather nice terms. And then to go from the music-oriented press to national press and national television, and everyone seeing you in the world of two television channels, and then being recognized by everyone from builders and people working in shops and so on. It goes to your head – very champagne feeling.
You became quite the pop aristocrat in swinging London.
Well, it's quite a while until all that. But the earlier bit was even more exciting. The suits, the ties and getting ready for Thank Your Lucky Stars,the innocence and naiveté of it all, and famous photographers wanting to take your picture and being in Vogue. In England they were very ready for another band. It was funny, because the Beatles had only been around a year. Things happened so quickly. Then there were a lot of popular bands, and all these bands were from the North of England. Most people in England don't live in the North, and people are snobby in England, so they wanted a band from the South. We were it.
Satisfaction In the '60s
I recently listened to the very early albums, the first four or five you did, and they're all pretty much the same. You were doing blues and covers, but one song stood out: "Tell Me (You're Coming Back)," your first U.S. hit and your first composition together with Keith. It's the first one that has the seeds of the modern Stones in it.
Keith was playing 12-string and singing harmonies into the same microphone as the 12-string. We recorded it in this tiny studio in the West End of London called Regent Sound, which was a demo studio. I think the whole of that album was recorded in there. But it's very different from doing those R&B covers or Marvin Gaye covers and all that. There's a definite feel about it. It's a very pop song, as opposed to all the blues songs and the Motown covers, which everyone did at the time.
The first full album that really kind of jumps out is "Out of Our Heads."
What's on there? [Laughter] I have no idea. I'm awfully sorry.
"Cry to Me," "The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man," "Play With Fire," "I'm All Right," That's How Strong My Lore Is"...
Yeah. A lot of covers, still.
But it had a unity of sound to it.
Most of that was recorded in RCA Studios, in Hollywood, and the people working on it, the engineers, were much better. They knew how to get really good sounds. That really affects your performance, because you can hear the nuances, and that inspires you.
And your singing is different here for the first time. You sound like you're singing more like soul music.
Yeah, well, it is obviously soul influenced, which was the goal at the time. Otis Redding and Solomon Burke. "Play With Fire" sounds amazing – when I heard it last. I mean, it's a very in-your-face kind of sound and very clearly done. You can hear all the vocal stuff on it. And I'm playing the tambourines, the vocal line. You know, it's very pretty.
Who wrote that?
Keith and me. I mean, it just came out.
A full collaboration?
That's the first song you wrote that starts to address the lifestyle you were leading in England and, of course, class consciousness.
No one had really done that. The Beatles, to some extent, were doing it, though they weren't really doing it at this period as much as they did later. The Kinks were kind of doing it – Ray Davies and I were in the same boat. One of the first things that, in that very naive way, you attempted to deal with were the kind of funny, swinging, London-type things that were going on. I didn't even realize I was doing it at the time. But it became an interesting source for material. Songwriting had only dealt in cliches and borrowed stuff, you know, from previous records or ideas. "I want to hold your hand," things like that. But these songs were really more from experience and then embroidered to make them more interesting.
Where does that come from in you? I mean, you're writing about "Your mother, she's an heiress/Owns a block in St. John's Wood,"but she's sleeping with the milkman, or something.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it was just kind of rich girls' families – society as you saw it. It's painted in this naive way in these songs.
But at the time to write about stuff like that must have been somewhat daring.
I don't know if it was daring. It just hadn't been done. Obviously there had been lyric writers that had written stuff much more interesting and sophisticated – say, Noel Coward, who I didn't really know about. He was someone that your parents knew.
The lyricist who was really good at the time was Bob Dylan. Everyone looked up to him as being a kind of guru of lyrics. It's hard to think of the absolute garbage that pop music really was at the time. And even if you lifted your game by a marginal amount, it really was a lot different from most everything else that had gone before in the 10 years previously.
A lot of it was perhaps not as good as we thought, but at the time it was fantastic. "Gates of Eden" and all these Mexican-type songs, even the nonsense ones: "Everybody Must Get Stoned" and "Like a Rolling Stone," "Positively 4th Street."
Then you did "December's Children (and Everybody's)." Does that title mean anything particular?
No. It was our manager's [Andrew Loog Oldham] idea of hip, Beat poetry.
That record features "Get off My Cloud."
That was Keith's melody and my lyrics.
This is decidedly not a love song or "I Want to Hold Your Hand."
Yeah. It's a stop-bugging-me, post-teenage-alienation song. The grown-up world was a very ordered society in the early '60s, and I was coming out of it. America was even more ordered than anywhere else. I found it was a very restrictive society in thought and behavior and dress.
Based on your coming to the States in '64?
'64, '65, yeah. And touring outside of New York. New York was wonderful and so on, and L.A. was also kind of interesting. But outside of that we found it the most repressive society, very prejudiced in every way. There was still segregation. And the attitudes were fantastically old-fashioned. Americans shocked me by their behavior and their narrow-mindedness.
It's changed fantastically over the last 30 years. But so has everything else [laughs].
Is there anything more to say about "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction" than has already been said on the record? Written sitting by a pool in Florida...
Keith didn't want it to come out as a single.
Is there anything special to you about that song, looking back at it after all these years?
People get very blasé about their big hit. It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band. You always need one song. We weren't American, and America was a big thing, and we always wanted to make it here. It was very impressive the way that song and the popularity of the band became a worldwide thing. You know, we went to playing Singapore. The Beatles really opened all that up. But to do that you needed the song; otherwise you were just a picture in the newspaper, and you had these little hits.
Was "Satisfaction" a great, classic piece of work?
Well, it's a signature tune, really, rather than a great, classic painting, 'cause it's only like one thing – a kind of signature that everyone knows.
Why? What are the ingredients?
It has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times, which is very important in those kind of songs.
Which was alienation. Or it's a bit more than that, maybe, but a kind of sexual alienation. Alienation's not quite the right word, but it's one word that would do.
Isn't that a stage of youth?
Yeah, it's being in your 20s, isn't it? Teenage guys can't often formulate this stuff – when you're that young.
Who wrote "Satisfaction"?
Well, Keith wrote the lick. I think he had this lyric, "I can't get no satisfaction," which, actually, is a line in a Chuck Berry song called "30 Days."
Which is "I can't get no satisfaction "?
"I can't get no satisfaction from the judge."
Did you know that when you wrote it?
No, I didn't know it, but Keith might have heard it back then, because it's not any way an English person would express it. I'm not saying that he purposely nicked anything, but we played those records a lot.
So it just could have stuck in the back of your head.
Yeah, that was just one little line. And then I wrote the rest of it. There was no melody, really.
When you play it today, how do you feel about it? You've got to play it every night.
Well, I try to do it as well as I can, and I do the verse softer, so I give it some sort of dynamic. I try to make it melodic. Maybe we shouldn't really do it every night; I don't know.
"As Tears Go By" was your first big, classic ballad. Who wrote that?
I wrote the lyrics, and Keith wrote the melody. But in some rock, you know, there's no melody until the singer starts to sing it. Sometimes there's a definite melody, but quite often it's your job as the singer to invent the melody. I start with one melody, and I make it another melody, over the same chord sequence.
You wrote it when you were 21. What do you think of it now?
It's a very melancholy song for a 21-year-old to write: "The evening of the day, watching children play...." It's very dumb and naive, but it's got a very sad sort of thing about it, almost like an older person might write. You know, it's like a metaphor for being old: You're watching children playing and realizing you're not a child. It's a relatively mature song considering the rest of the output at the time. And we didn't think of doing it [initially], because the Rolling Stones were a butch blues group. But Marianne Faithfull's version was already a big, proven hit song.
Why did you go and rerecord it? Because you had a particular affection for that song?
Well, it was already a hit, so, you know [laughs], and Andrew was a very simple, commercial kind of guy. A lot of this stuff is done for commercial reasons.
Were you surprised that something of this kind popped out of you at 21?
It was one of the first things I ever wrote. I see songwriting as having to do with experience, and the more you've experienced, the better it is. But it has to be tempered, and you just must let your imagination run.
You can't just experience something and leave it at that. You've got to try and embroider, like, any land of writing. And that's the fun part of it. You have this one experience looking out of a window, seeing children. Well, you might not have felt anything, but then you just let your mind drift and dream, and you imagine an older person doing that. You put yourself in their point of view, and you start to write other things, and all this is a very subconscious thing. Out of that comes a mature thought, out of a young person.
I was reading Pushkin, and his stories are autobiographical. But not totally, because he was never in Siberia – but his friends were, so he uses it. You use your own experience, and then you spice it up with your friends' observations and your imagination.
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