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.
The next record was Aftermath, which has "Paint It, Black," "Under My Thumb" and "Stupid Girl." Does that stand out in your mind at all?
That was a big landmark record for me. It's the first time we wrote the whole record and finally laid to rest the ghost of having to do these very nice and interesting, no doubt, but still cover versions of old R&B songs – which we didn't really feel we were doing justice, to be perfectly honest, particularly because we didn't have the maturity. Plus, everyone was doing it.
[Aftermath] has a very wide spectrum of music styles: "Paint It, Black" was this kind of Turkish song; and there were also very bluesy things like "Goin' Home"; and I remember some sort of ballads on there. It had a lot of good songs, it had a lot of different styles, and it was very well recorded. So it was, to my mind, a real marker.
Why does "Under My Thumb" work so well?
It's got Brian playing these marimbas. That riff played on marimbas really makes it. Plus, the groove it gets in the end of the tune. It speeds up, actually. And it becomes this kind of groove tune at the end. It was never a single, but it was always a very well-known album track. And then it became a thing feminists fastened on.
Illegitimately, you think.
It's a bit of a jokey number, really. It's not really an anti-feminist song any more than any of the others.
It's more caricaturish than it is about real women.
Yes, it's a caricature, and it's in reply to a girl who was a very pushy woman.
No, I don't think so.
Also, on that same album you've got "Stupid Girl," which is a really nasty song.
Yeah, it's much nastier than "Under My Thumb."
What was going on in your life when you were writing songs like "Stupid Girl"?
Obviously, I was having a bit of trouble. I wasn't in a good relationship. Or I was in too many bad relationships. I had so many girlfriends at that point. None of them seemed to care they weren't pleasing me very much. I was obviously in with the wrong group.
Your pain worked out well for the rest of us.
[Laughs] The pain I had to go through!
Then you did "Between the Buttons." What do you think of that album?
Frank Zappa used to say he really liked it. It's a good record, but it was unfortunately rather spoiled. We recorded it in London on four-track machines. We bounced it back to do overdubs so many times, we lost the sound of a lot of it.
Does that record mean a lot to you?
No. What's on it?
It's nice. "Connection" is really nice.
Yeah, the first song I ever wrote completely on my own for a Rolling Stones record. "My Obsession," that's a good one. They sounded so great, but then, later on, I was really disappointed with it. Isn't "Ruby Tuesday" on there or something? I don't think the rest of the songs are that brilliant. "Ruby Tuesday" is good. I think that's a wonderful song.
It's just a nice melody, really. And a lovely lyric. Neither of which I wrote, but I always enjoy singing it. But I agree with you about the rest of the songs – I don't think they're there. I don't think I thought they were very good at the time, either.
You then did "Their Satanic Majesties Request." What was going on here?
I probably started to take too many drugs.
What do you think about "Satanic Majesties" now?
Well, it's not very good. It had interesting things on it, but I don't think any of the songs are very good. It's a bit like Between the Buttons. It's a sound experience, really, rather than a song experience. There's two good songs on it: "She's a Rainbow," which we didn't do on the last tour, although we almost did, and "2000 Light Years From Home," which we did do. The rest of them are nonsense.
I listened to it recently, and it sounds like Spinal Tap.
Really, I know.
Was it just you trying to be the Beatles?
I think we were just taking too much acid. We were just getting carried away, just thinking anything you did was fun and everyone should listen to it.
The whole thing, we were on acid. We were on acid doing the cover picture. I always remember doing that. It was like being at school, you know, sticking on the bits of colored paper and things. It was really silly. But we enjoyed it. [Laughs] Also, we did it to piss Andrew off, because he was such a pain in the neck. Because he didn't understand it. The more we wanted to unload him, we decided to go on this path to alienate him.
Just to force him out?
Yeah. Without actually doing it legally, we forced him out. I mean, he wanted out anyway. We were so out of our minds.
After it came out and it was kind of a chunk record, how did you consider it?
A phase. A passing fancy.
You followed up with "Jumpin' Jack Flash."
We did that one as a single, out of all the acid of Satanic Majesties.
What's that song about? "Born in a crossfire hurricane..."
It's about having a hard time and getting out. Just a metaphor for getting out of all the acid things.
And it did bring you back. You launch this golden era: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street.
Let's start with Beggars Banquet, a record that you could not have predicted from your earlier work. It had extraordinary power and sophistication, with songs like "Street Fighting Man," "Salt of the Earth," "Stray Cat Blues" and "Jig-Saw Puzzle." What was going on in your life at this time?
What were you listening to and reading?
God, what was I doing? Who was I living with? It was all recorded in London, and I was living in this rented house in Chester Square. I was living with Marianne Faithfull. Was I still? Yeah. And I was just writing a lot, reading a lot. I was educating myself. I was reading a lot of poetry, I was reading a lot of philosophy. I was out and about. I was very social, always hanging out with [art-gallery owner] Robert Fraser's group of people.
And I wasn't taking so many drugs that it was messing up my creative processes. It was a very good period, 1968 – there was a good feeling in the air. It was a very creative period for everyone. There was a lot going on in the theater. Marianne was kind of involved with it, so I would go to the theater upstairs, hang out with the young directors of the time and the young filmmakers.
Let's start with "Sympathy for the Devil."
I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire's, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can't see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song. And you can see it in this movie Godard shot called Sympathy for the Devil [originally titled One Plus One,] which is very fortuitous, because Godard wanted to do a film of us in the studio. I mean, it would never happen now, to get someone as interesting as Godard. And stuffy.
We just happened to be recording that song. We could have been recording "My Obsession." But it was "Sympathy for the Devil," and it became the track that we used.
You wrote that song.
So that's a wholly Mick Jagger song.
Uh-huh. I mean, Keith suggested that we do it in another rhythm, so that's how bands help you.
Were you trying to put out a specific philosophical message here? You know, you're singing, "Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints"...
Yeah, there's all these attractions of opposites and turning things upside down.
When you were writing it, did you conceive of it as this grand work?
I knew it was something good, 'cause I would just keep banging away at it until the fucking band recorded it.
There was resistance to it?
No, there wasn't any resistance. It was just that I knew that I wanted to do it and get it down. And I hadn't written a lot of songs on my own, so you have to teach it. When you write songs, you have to like them yourself first, but then you have to make everyone else like them, because you can force them to play it, but you can't force them to like it. And if they like it, they'll do a much better job than if they're just playing 'cause they feel they're obligated.
They get inspired.
And then you get inspired, and that's what being in a band's about rather than hiring people. But I knew it was a good song. You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on. It's all very well to write that in verse, but to make it into a pop song is something different. Especially in England – you're skewered on the altar of pop culture if you become pretentious.
The song has a very strong opening: "Please allow me to introduce myself." And then it's this Everyman figure in history who keeps appearing from the beginning of civilization.
Yeah, it's a very long historical figure – the figures of evil and figures of good – so it is a tremendously long trail he's made as personified in this piece.
What else makes this song so powerful?
It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn't speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it's also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive – because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.
But forgetting the cultural colors, it is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece. It becomes less pretentious because it's a very unpretentious groove. If it had been done as a ballad, it wouldn't have been as good.
Obviously, Altamont gave it a whole other resonance.
Yeah, Altamont is much later than the song, isn't it? I know what you're saying, but I'm just stuck in my periods, because you were asking me what I was doing, and I was in my study in Chester Square.
After Altamont, did you shy away from performing that song?
Yeah, probably, for a bit.
It stigmatized the song in a way?
Yeah. Because it became so involved with [Altamont] – sort of journalistically and so on. There were other things going on with it apart from Altamont.
Was it the black-magic thing?
Yeah. And that's not really what I meant. My whole thing of this song was not black magic and all this silly nonsense – like Megadeth or whatever else came afterward. It was different than that. We had played around with that imagery before – which is Satanic Majesties – but it wasn't really put into words.
After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?
Well, awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn't think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era.... I didn't think of any of that. That particular burden didn't weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed and how sad it was for his family and how dreadfully the Hell's Angels behaved.
Did it cause you to back off that kind of satanic imagery?
The satanic-imagery stuff was very overplayed [by journalists]. We didn't want to really go down that road. And I felt that song was enough. You didn't want to make a career out of it. But bands did that – Jimmy Page, for instance.
Big Aleister Crowley...
I knew lots of people that were into Aleister Crowley. What I'm saying is, it wasn't what I meant by the song "Sympathy for the Devil." If you read it, it's not about black magic, per se.
On that same record you did "Street Fighting Man." Tell me a bit about that.
It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions.
Did you write that song?
Yeah. I wrote a lot of the melody and all the words, and Keith and I sat around and made this wonderful track, with Dave Mason playing the shehani on it live.
It's a kind of Indian reed instrument a bit like a primitive clarinet. It comes in at the end of the tune. It has a very wailing, strange sound.
It's another of the classic songs. Why does it have such resonance today?
I don't know if it does. I don't know whether we should really play it. I was persuaded to put it in this tour because it seemed to fit in, but I'm not sure if it really has any resonance for the present day. I don't really like it that much. I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; DeGaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing.
Was this written in response to having seen what was going on with the students in Paris, a direct inspiration from seeing it on television?
Yeah, it was a direct inspiration, because by contrast, London was very quiet....
Sleepy London town?
Isn't "No Expectations" on that record?
It's got that wonderful steel guitar part.
That's Brian playing. We were sitting around in a circle on the floor, singing and playing, recording with open mikes.
That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing. He was there with everyone else. It's funny how you remember – but that was the last moment I remember him doing that, because he had just lost interest in everything.
"Let It Bleed"?
Yeah. What's on that? It was all recorded at the same time, these two records.
What do you mean? Those two records were recorded back to back?
Some of them were recorded on one and spilled over to the next.
It's got "Midnight Rambler," "Love in Vain," "You Can't Always Get What You Want." This seems to be one of the bleakest records that you made. The songs are very disturbing, and the scenery is ugly. Why this view of the world? The topics are rape, war, murder, addiction....
Well, it's a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn't like World War II, and it wasn't like Korea, and it wasn't like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn't like it. People objected, and people didn't want to fight it. The people that were there weren't doing well. There were these things used that were always used before, but no one knew about them – like napalm.
Are you saying the Vietnam War had a heavy influence on this record?
I think so. Even though I was living in America only part time, I was influenced. All those images were on television. Plus, the spill out onto campuses.
Who wrote "Midnight Rambler"?
That's a song Keith and I really wrote together. We were on a holiday in Italy. In this very beautiful hill town, Positano, for a few nights. Why we should write such a dark song in this beautiful, sunny place, I really don't know. We wrote everything there – the tempo changes, everything. And I'm playing the harmonica in these little cafes, and there's Keith with the guitar.
That's a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It's apocalypse; the whole record's like that.
Whose idea was it to do the Robert Johnson song "Lore in Vain"?
I don't know. We changed the arrangement quite a lot from Robert Johnson's. We put in extra chords that aren't there on the Robert Johnson version. Made it more country. And that's another strange song, because it's very poignant. Robert Johnson was a wonderful lyric writer, and his songs are quite often about love, but they're desolate.
"You Can't Always Get What You Want"?
It's a good song, even if I say so myself.
Why is that one so popular?
'Cause it's got a very sing-along chorus. And people can identify with it: No one gets what they always want. It's got a very good melody. It's got very good orchestral touches that Jack Nitzsche helped with. So it's got all the ingredients.
Anything else you can think of on "Let It Bleed"?
I think it's a good record. I'd put it as one of my favorites.
Partners for Life
What about your relationship with Keith? Does it bug you, having Keith as your primary musical partner? Does it bug you having a partner at all?
No, I think it's essential. You don't have to have a partner for everything you do. But having partners sometimes helps you and sometimes hinders you. You have good times and bad times with them. It's just the nature of it.
People also like partnerships because they can identify with the drama of two people in partnership. They can feed off a partnership, and that keeps people entertained. Besides, if you have a successful partnership, it's self-sustaining.
You have maybe the longest-running song-writing-performing partnership in our times. Why do you think you and Keith survived, unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney?
That's hard to make even a stab at, because I don't know John and Paul well enough. I know them slightly, same as you, probably, and maybe you knew John better at the end. I can hazard a guess that they were both rather strong personalities, and both felt they were totally independent. They seemed to be very competitive over leadership of the band. The thing in leadership is, you can have times when one person is more at the center than the other, but there can't be too much arguing about it all the time. Because if you're always at loggerheads, you just have to go, "Ok, if I can't have a say in this and this, then fuck it. What am I doing here?" So you sort of agree what your roles are. Whereas John and Paul felt they were too strong, and they wanted to be in charge. If there are 10 things, they both wanted to be in charge of nine of them. You're not gonna make a relationship like that work, are you?
Why do you and Keith keep the joint-songwriting partnership?
We just agreed to do that, and that seemed the easiest way to do it. I think in the end it all balances out.
How was it when Keith was taking heroin all the time? How did you handle that?
I don't find it easy to talk about other people's drug problems. If he wants to talk about it, fine, he can talk about it all he wants. Elton John talks about his bulimia on television. But I don't want to talk about his bulimia, and I don't want to talk about Keith's drug problems.
How did I handle it? Oh, with difficulty. It's never easy. I don't find it easy dealing with people with drug problems. It helps if you're all taking drugs, all the same drugs. But anyone taking heroin is thinking about taking heroin more than they're thinking about anything else. That's the general rule about most drugs. If you're really on some heavily addictive drug, you think about the drug, and everything else is secondary. You try and make everything work, but the drug comes first.
How did his drug use affect the band?
I think that people taking drugs occasionally are great. I think there's nothing wrong with it. But if you do it the whole time, you don't produce as good things as you could. It sounds like a puritanical statement, but it's based on experience. You can produce many good things, but they take an awfully long time.
You obviously developed a certain relationship based on him as a drug addict, part of which was you running the band. So when he cleaned up, how did that affect the band? Drug addicts are basically incompetent to run anything.
Yeah, it's all they can do to turn up. And people have different personalities when they're drunk or take heroin, or whatever drugs. When Keith was taking heroin, it was very difficult to work. He still was creative, but it took a long time. And everyone else was taking drugs and drinking a tremendous amount, too. And it affected everyone in certain ways. But I've never really talked to Keith about this stuff. So I have no idea what he feels.
You never talked about the drug stuff with him?
No. So I'm always second-guessing. I tell you something, I probably read it in Rolling Stone.
What's your relationship with him now?
We have a very good relationship at the moment. But it's a different relationship to what we had when we were 5 and different to what we had when we were 20 and a different relationship than when we were 30. We see each other every day, talk to each other every day, play every day. But it's not the same as when we were 20 and shared rooms.
Can we talk about Brian Jones for a second here?
Sure. The thing about Brian is that he was an extremely difficult person. You don't really feel like talking bad about someone that's had such a miserable time. But he did give everyone else an extremely miserable ride. Anyway, there was something very, very disturbed about him. He was very unhappy with life, very frustrated. He was very talented, but he was a very paranoid personality and not at all suited to be in show business [Laughs].
Hmm. Show business killed him?
Yeah. Well, he killed himself, but he should've been playing trad-jazz weekends and teaching in school; he probably would have been better off.
What was Brian's contribution to the band?
Well, he had a huge contribution in the early days. He was very obsessed with it, which you always need.
Obsessed with the band?
Yeah, getting it going and its personality and how it should be. He was obsessed. Too obsessed for me. There's a certain enthusiasm, and after that it becomes obsession. I go back to my thing about collecting: It's nice to collect stamps, but if it becomes obsessive, and you start stealing for your stamps, it becomes too much. He was obsessed about the image of the band, and he was very exclusionary. He saw the Stones as a blues band based on Muddy Waters, Elmore James and that tradition.
I don't think he really liked playing Chuck Berry songs. He was very purist. He was real middle class; he came from one of the most middle-class towns in England, Cheltenham, which was one of the most genteel towns in the most genteel area of England. So his whole outlook and upbringing was even worse in the gentility fashion than mine.
What started causing tensions in the group among Keith, you and him?
[Brian] was a very jealous person and didn't read the right books about leadership [Laughs] And you can't be jealous and be a leader. He was obsessed with the idea of being the leader of the band. You have to realize that everyone in a band is all more or less together, and everyone has their own niche, and some people lead in some ways, and some people lead in others. He never could understand that; he never got it, and he was kind of young. So he alienated people. And as I say, he was very narrow-minded in his view of music, and, really, Keith and I had been very catholic.
But did you take away the leadership of the band from him?
He had never had the leadership of the band to take away; if you're the singer in the band, you always get more attention than anyone else. Brian got very jealous when I got attention. And then the main jealousy was because Keith and I started writing songs, and he wasn't involved in that. To be honest, Brian had no talent for writing songs. None. I've never known a guy with less talent for songwriting.
What did he have talent for?
He was a guitar player, and he also diverted his talent on other instruments. His original instrument was the clarinet. So he played harmonica because he was familiar with wind instruments.
Did he give the band a sound?
Yes. He played the slide guitar at a time when no one really played it. He played in the style of Elmore James, and he had this very lyrical touch. He evolved into more of an experimental musician, but he lost touch with the guitar, and always as a musician you must have one thing you do well. He dabbled too much.
Does he deserve the kind of mythological status that he has among hard-core Stones fanatics?
Well, he was an integral part of the band, and he – for whatever it means – was a big part of it.
Can you describe your falling apart?
It happened gradually. He went from [being] an obsessive about the band to being rather an outsider. He'd turn up late to recording sessions, and he'd miss the odd gig every now and then. He let his health deteriorate because he drank too much and took drugs when they were new, hung out too much, stayed up too late, partied too much and didn't concentrate on what he was doing. Let his talent slide.
Did you fire him, finally?
How was that?
Not pleasant. It's never pleasant, firing people. But it had to be done because we felt we needed someone, and he wasn't there. He wouldn't come to the studio. He wouldn't do anything. We felt we couldn't go on. In fact, we came to a point where we couldn't play live. We couldn't hold our heads up and play because Brian was a total liability. He wasn't playing well, wasn't playing at all, couldn't hold the guitar. It was pathetic. Of course, now I suppose we would have had him admitted to rehab clinics and so on, but those things, unfortunately, in those days were not the path. He tried lots of doctors, but they just gave him more pills.
Do you feel guilty somehow about it all?
No, I don't really. I do feel that I behaved in a very childish way, but we were very young, and in some ways we picked on him. But, unfortunately, he made himself a target for it; he was very, very jealous, very difficult, very manipulative, and if you do that in this kind of a group of people, you get back as good as you give, to be honest. I wasn't understanding enough about his drug addition. No one seemed to know much about drug addiction. Things like LSD were all new. No one knew the harm. People thought cocaine was good for you.
I'm going to quote you something Charlie told me: "Brian Jones had a death wish at a young age. Brian's talent wasn't up to it. He wasn't up to leading a band. He was not a pleasant person to be around. And he was never there to help people to write a song. That's when Mick lost his patience. We carried Brian Jones."
That's straight to the point, isn't it? Whether he had a death wish or not, I don't know. He was a very sad, pitiable figure at the end. He was a talented musician, but he let it go and proved to be a rather sad precursor to a lot of other people. Why this should be, I don't know. I find it rather morbid, but it does keep happening, with people like Kurt Cobain. Why? Does this happen in accounting, too? Is this something that happens in every profession, it's just that we don't read about the accountants? I think the answer is, yes, it does happen in every profession – it's just played out in public with people like Brian and Kurt Cobain.
How do you think Brian died? There's been a lot of speculation.
Drowned in a pool. That other stuff is people trying to make money.
The Next Stone Age
After Brian died, you recorded what has to be considered another classic Stones album, Sticky Fingers. Was it strange making an album without Brian?
Oh, yeah. A whole new world, an era away from Beggars Banquet. We had Mick Taylor in the band, and we had a new record company. We'd been at Decca, and we'd been rather successful, but we didn't get paid very much, and it was like being with strangers.
The cover of that album is a pair of jeans with a real zipper.
This was Andy Warhol's idea.
There's underwear on the back. Is that you?
No. It's one of Andy's ... protégés is the polite word we used to use, I think.
All right. That's the news in this interview. Why does "Brown Sugar" work like mad?
That's a bit of a mystery, isn't it? I wrote that song in Australia in the middle of a field. They were really odd circumstances. I was doing this movie, Ned Kelly, and my hand had got really damaged in this action sequence. So stupid. I was trying to rehabilitate my hand and had this new kind of electric guitar, and I was playing in the middle of the outback and wrote this tune.
But why it works? I mean, it's a good groove and all that. I mean, the groove is slightly similar to Freddy Cannon, this rather obscure '50s rock performer – "Tallahassee Lassie' or something. Do you remember this? "She's down in F-L-A." Anyway, the groove of that – boom-boom-boom-boom-boom – is "going to a go-go" or whatever, but that's the groove.
And you wrote it all?
This is one of your biggest hits, a great, classic, radio single, except the subject matter is slavery, interracial sex, eating pussy ...
[Laughs] And drugs. That's a double-entendre, just thrown in.
Brown sugar being heroin?
Brown sugar being heroin and –
That makes it ... the whole mess thrown in. God knows what I'm on about on that song. It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.
Were you surprised that it was such a success with all that stuff in it?
I didn't think about it at the time. I never would write that song now.
I would probably censor myself. I'd think, "Oh God, I can't. I've got to stop. I can't just write raw like that."
"Wild Horses." Is that a Keith song?
Yeah, it was his melody. And he wrote the phrase "wild horses," but I wrote the rest of [the lyrics].
It's one of the prettiest.
I like the song. It's an example of a pop song. Taking this cliché "wild horses," which is awful, really, but making it work without sounding like a cliché when you're doing it.
What about "Moonlight Mile"? That's a song without Keith – that's you and Mick Taylor.
Yeah, we recorded it in my house in the country, Stargroves. And we recorded a lot of stuff [there]: "Bitch," stuff from Exile on Main Street.
At the same time? And then just divided the songs between records?
Yeah. It's a good house to record in. And that's also where the Who made an album. Led Zeppelin recorded one. But anyway, I remember Mick Taylor playing that song. Real dreamy kind of semi-Middle Eastern piece. Yeah, that's a real pretty song – and a nice string arrangement.
You do "Dead Flowers" on this record. You put on this kind of loopy, country voice.
I love country music, but I find it very hard to take it seriously. I also think a lot of country music is sung with the tongue in cheek, so I do it tongue in cheek. The harmonic thing is very different from the blues. It doesn't bend notes in the same way, so I suppose it's very English, really. Even though it's been very Americanized, it feels very close to me, to my roots, so to speak.
Do you have anything to say about "Sister Morphine,"which is also on this album? Did Marianne write part of this?
She wrote a couple of lines; she always says she wrote everything, though. I can't even tell you which ones. She's always complaining she doesn't get enough money from it. Now she says she should have got it all.
What is it about?
It's about a man after an accident, really. It's not about being addicted to morphine so much as that. Ry Cooder plays wonderfully on that.
It's not what we think it was – it's not about Marianne Faithfull?
No. If you listen to the lyrics – that's what I remember, anyway. "Here I lie in my hospital bed."
Yeah, that's the bit she wrote.
Critics say your next album, Exile on Main Street, is the best Stones album. What do you think?
It's a bit overrated, to be honest. Compared to Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet, which I think are more of a piece, I don't see it's as thematic as the other two. I'm not saying it's not good. It doesn't contain as many outstanding songs as the previous two records. I think the playing's quite good. It's got a raw quality, but I don't think all around it's as good.
What was the atmosphere recording "Exile"?
Well, Exile on Main Street was done in different pieces. There's this part which is recorded at Olympic [Studios], maybe a third. Another part is recorded in my house in the country in England. And half of it's recorded in Keith's basement in the South of France, and it's all mixed in L.A.
What was the band like at that time?
Stoned is the word that might describe it. [Laughs] It's the first album Mick Taylor's on, really. So it's different than previous albums, which had Brian on them – or Brian not on them, as the case may be. It was a difficult period, because we had all these lawsuits going with [business manager] Allen Klein. We had to leave England because of tax problems. We had no money and went to live in the South of France – the first album we made where we weren't based in England, thus the title.
Was the band at its drug zenith at that time?
What was the mood? What was the vibe around?
Just winging it. Staying up all night.
Keith was a full-scale junkie at that point?
And everybody else?
Stoned on something; one thing or another. So I don't think it was particularly pleasant I didn't have a very good time. It was this communal thing where you don't know whether you're recording or living or having dinner; you don't know when you're gonna play, when you're gonna sing – very difficult. Too many hangers-on.
I went with the flow, and the album got made. These things have a certain energy, and there's a certain flow to it, and it got impossible. Everyone was so out of it. And the engineers, the producers – all the people that were supposed to be organized – were more disorganized than anybody.
So it was a classic of that era, when that was a common approach to things.
Absolutely. But the previous ones were easier to make.
"Let It Bleed"?
We were still like that, but we were grounded because we were still in England and had this way of doing it. We went to the studio and lived in London. Though it was made in a screwy way, it was organized, structured; a studio rather than a home recording. Those home recordings have a good side to them, but they get floaty; you don't really know what you're doing.
Who wrote "Tumbling Dice"?
[Laughs] Keith and me. I wrote the lyrics.
And he did the groove?
Yeah. It comes back to that thing where I really don't remember who had the melody or not, but it doesn't really matter.
Why does that beat grab you so quick?
I don't really know what people like about it. I don't think it's our best stuff. I don't think it has good lyrics. But people seem to really like it, so good for them.
Do you cringe when you hear some of the old drug songs?
Sometimes. Not only the drugs – I just cringe, period.
Many people would be embarrassed to discuss the drug behavior of their youth, but you have no choice.
I was thinking about this the other day, and I don't really think I was suited to heavy drug behavior, to be perfectly honest. But I don't mind talking about it. It's hard to believe that you did so many drugs for so long. That's what I find really hard. And didn't really consider it. You know, it was eating and drinking and taking drugs and having sex. It was just part of life. It wasn't really anything special. It was just a bit of a bore, really. Everyone took drugs the whole time, and you were out of it the whole time. It wasn't a special event.
But drugs definitely had a big impact on your band.
All these drugs had tremendous influence on behavior. I think half of starting to take drugs in that early period was to kind of place yourself outside of normal society.
Thinking about those days, do you feel this was a good use of time or a waste of time?
Good use of time. [Laughs] I'm reticent to go into a sort of dreadful reminiscence of the swinging '60s.
What about the contribution of Mick Taylor to the band in these years?
I think he had a big contribution. He made it very musical. He was a very fluent, melodic player, which we never had, and we don't have now. Neither Keith nor [Ronnie Wood] plays that kind of style. It was very good for me working with him. Charlie and I were talking about this the other day, because we could sit down – I could sit down – with Mick Taylor, and he would play very fluid lines against my vocals. He was exciting, and he was very pretty, and it gave me something to follow, to bang off. Some people think that's the best version of the band that existed.
What do you think?
They're all interesting periods. They're all different. I obviously can't say if I think Mick Taylor was the best, because it sort of trashes the period the band is in now.
Why did Mick Taylor leave?
I still don't really know.
He never explained?
Not really. He wanted to have a solo career. I think he found it difficult to get on with Keith.
On musical issues?
Everything. I'm guessing.
After those four great albums, it seems like a weak period starts. There's Goats Head Soup which has "Angie." And Black and Blue has got "Memory Motel" and "Fool to Cry." But these records are kind of weak after those big ones. What happened? Did it have to do with Keith's drug use?
Yeah, I think so. I find it so hard to remember, though, I don't want to commit myself to saying something. I mean, everyone was using drugs, Keith particularly. So I think it suffered a bit from all that. General malaise. I think we got a bit carried away with our own popularity and so on. It was a bit of a holiday period [Laughs].
I mean, we cared, but we didn't care as much as we had. Not really concentrating on the creative process, and we had such money problems. We had been so messed around by Allen Klein and the British Revenue. We were really in a very bad way. So we had to move. And it sort of destabilized us a bit. We flew off all edges.
Everybody went in different directions?
We had all lived in London before this.
So for the first time you guys are not together all the time.
Not only couldn't we stay in England, we couldn't go to America because we had immigration problems. So we were limited. It was a very difficult period.
You came back, though, with "Some Girls." Did that have to do, perhaps, with being in New York City?
Yes, you are absolutely right! Well done! I'd moved to New York at that point. The inspiration for the record was really based in New York and the ways of the town. I think that gave it an extra spur and hardness. And then, of course, there was the punk thing that had started in 1976. Punk and disco were going on at the same time, so it was quite an interesting period. New York and London, too. Paris – there was punk there. Lots of dance music. Paris and New York had all this Latin dance music, which was really quite wonderful. Much more interesting than the stuff that came afterward.
"Miss You" is one of the all-time greatest Rolling Stones grooves.
Yeah. I got that together with Billy Preston, actually.
You and he came up with that?
Yeah, Billy had shown me the four-on-the-floor bass-drum part, and I would just play the guitar. I remember playing that in the El Mocambo club when Keith was on trial in Toronto for whatever he was doing. We were supposed to be there making this live record.
That was the first performance of it?
Yeah. I was still writing it, actually. We were just in rehearsal.
But that's a wholly Mick Jagger song?
And "Beast of Burden"?
That's more like Keith's song. I wrote lyrics.
It's got that really nice little lick on that. And "Respectable"?
Yeah, this is the kind of edgy punk ethos. Yeah, the groove of it – and on all of those songs, the whole thing was to play it all fast, fast, fast. I had a lot of problems with Keith about it, but that was the deal at the time.
He told me that you kept trying to make a disco album, and he didn't think that was the Stones. Was that the problem?
Not at all. I wanted to make more of a rock album. I just had one song that had a dance groove: "Miss You." But I didn't want to make a disco album. I wrote all these songs – like "Respectable," "Lies," "When the Whip Comes Down."
So most of the songs on this album are yours?
No, not most. I only mentioned half. I don't know what else is on there.
That's one of Keith's and me in combination.
"Far Away Eyes"?
Combination. I wasn't out to make a disco record, making "Far Away Eyes." But "Miss You" really caught the moment, because that was the deal at the time. And that's what made that record take off. It was a really great record.
I seem to like records that have one overriding mood with lots of little offshoots. Even though there's a lot of bases covered, there's lots of straight-ahead rock & roll. It's very brass edged. It's very Rolling Stones, not a lot of frills.
Boys Will Be Girls
On the Some Girls cover – and not for the first time – the members of the band are in drag. This now seems to have become a rock tradition. What are the origins of the androgynous appeal of rock & roll?
Elvis. Elvis was very androgynous. People in the older generation were afraid of Elvis because of this. That was one of the things they saw in Elvis. They called it effeminate. And they saw it straightaway.
I saw Elvis as a rock singer, and obviously you were attracted to him because he was a good-looking guy. But they saw an effeminate guy. I mean, if you look at the pictures, the eyes are done with makeup, and everything's perfect. I mean, look at Little Richard. He had a very feminine appearance, but you didn't translate that into what Little Richard's sex orientation was.
When did you first start to incorporate all that into your own act?
Well, we did it straightaway, unconsciously.
But when did you get deliberate about it?
Oh, about 1960. Very early, before we made records. As far as I was concerned, it was part of the whole thing from the beginning. I couldn't have talked about it like I talk about it now. But it wasn't some new thing. You were copying all your idols. I always thought Buddy Holly was very effeminate. His voice, not necessarily his look. And you just incorporated it all. I just pushed it further because it seemed the natural thing to do. Plus, there was that whole culture of people you met who were gay, in the theater and so on. And everyone in show business talked in a very camp, English way: "All right, duckie," "Come along, dear." So as soon as you were in it professionally, that was the way people carried on, so it became even more camp.
The Beatles weren't like this. You were wearing heavy makeup and skirts.
I think you just pushed the whole thing because you thought it was sophisticated to be camp and effeminate. It was a thing you showed some of the time and then put aside. It was very English – guys dressing up in drag is nothing particularly new.
But David Bowie told me that you were the master: "He taught all the rest of us."
Well, that's very nice. And it obviously worked and offended people, which was always the big thing, something new to offend them with. I think what we did in this era was take all these things that were unspoken in previous incarnations of rock & roll and intellectualize them.
But you went further than anybody else and became a symbol of it. When were you first aware that you were this beauty, that you had a power to attract both boys and girls?
Oh, from the beginning.
The girls, then the boys?
In a sexual sense?
I didn't really think about it. I mean, boys were a very essential part of rock & roll. The girls were more onlookers. When I was 15, 16, I used to play this old-fashioned rock & roll – like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. And I always felt the boys were more involved than the girls. Boys, as far as England was concerned, were always the hard core. And you just know the guys like it. They want to be you. Some might be attracted to you without knowing it. The girls are more obviously reaching out to you. In those days, guys didn't reach out, put their arms around you and kiss you.
Pete Townshend wrote an essay that appeared in Rolling Stone about your 40th birthday: "When I am with Jagger, I do love to look at him. He is still very beautiful in my eyes; much has been said of his androgynous attraction, and I suppose my response to his physical presence confirms all that." What's your response?
Gosh, it's nice to know, isn't it? Wow, Pete! You don't think of Pete Townshend as someone who would respond to any of that, do you? To be honest, he would be the last person. But I think John responded to it, John Lennon.
In what way?
He responded to it in a different way. When you get a big response, you push it and so on, until you've really done it. And then you don't do it anymore. And it's great fun, dressing up and being this figure. It's wonderful.
What did John Lennon say?
He said something in your magazine. It wasn't to do with appearance, more with music. When asked about the Rolling Stones, he said, "I like the butch stuff, and I don't like the faggy stuff." But you don't want to be butch the whole time. It would drive you mad, wouldn't it?
Rock & roll is a very macho field.
Yeah, but the Rolling Stones isn't just a rock band.
What does it say to you about rock & roll, in what we've seen in Elton and Boy George?
See, it's very confusing. In rock & roll, when I think of both sides of the coin or whatever you want to call it, I don't really think of Elton John. He doesn't spring to my mind, somehow. His appearance is flamboyant, always, but I don't think of him as a feminine stage persona. I'm not saying he was a great butch rocker. But he wasn't that feminine to me. Boy George was a feminine persona in a way – the moves and so on. He was an overt homosexual. Apart from those two, where are we going with it? I mean, I can't think of hardly any others who are that well known. Are there more who we've forgotten about?
Well, David Bowie played with the same images and themes that you have.
But as you said, rock & roll mostly is a very butch thing, and it appeals to one hard side of the masculine character. But I don't think the Rolling Stones are only a rock band. They can be other things. They can be very feminine.
Yeah. Which tends to be overlooked because we don't show it that much because of the nature of the gigs.
After Some Girls comes Emotional Rescue. Does it have a lot of resonance?
No, it doesn't. You know, Emotional Rescue is a lot of leftovers from Some Girls. Really.
And then comes Tattoo You.
Yeah, that's an old record. It's all a lot of old tracks that I dug out. And it was very strange circumstances. [Producer] Chris Kimsey and I went through all the tracks from those two previous records. It wasn't all outtakes; some of it was old songs. And then I went back and found previous ones like "Waiting on a Friend," from Goats Head Soup. They're all from different periods. Then I had to write lyrics and melodies. A lot of them didn't have anything, which is why they weren't used at the time – because they weren't complete. They were just bits, or they were from early takes. And then I put them all together in an incredibly cheap fashion. I recorded in this place in Paris in the middle of the winter. And then I recorded some of it in a broom cupboard, literally, where we did the vocals. The rest of the band were hardly involved. And then I took it to [producer] Bob Clearmountain, who did this great job of mixing so that it doesn't sound like it's from different periods.
I think it's your most underrated record.
I think it's excellent. But all the things I usually like, it doesn't have. It doesn't have any unity of purpose or place or time. What do you think?
The playing is so precise on it, so sharp. The band sound is very modern. And it's got "Start Me Up" on it.
Which is a track that was just forgotten about, a reject.
And who wrote "Start Me Up"?
It was Keith's great riff, and I wrote the rest. The funny thing was that it turned into this reggae song after two takes. And that take on Tattoo You was the only take that was a complete rock & roll take. And then it went to reggae completely for about 20 takes. And that's why everyone said, "Oh, that's crap. We don't want to use that." And no one went back to Take 2, which was the one we used, the rock track.
What about Undercover, your next album?
Not a very special record.
And Dirty Work? I think that was the last album the Stones made before you and Keith had a falling out. How was that record?
I remember that when you made Dirty Work, you were about to tour and then changed your mind.
Touring Dirty Work would have been a nightmare. It was a terrible period. Everyone was hating each other so much; there were so many disagreements. It was very petty; everyone was so out of their brains, and Charlie was in seriously bad shape. When the idea of touring came up, I said, "I don't think it's gonna work." In retrospect I was a hundred percent right. It would have been the worst Rolling Stones tour. Probably would have been the end of the band.
But, finally, it was your decision not to tour. Was Keith upset with that?
And the next thing you do is a solo album.
Yeah. He must have been quite unhappy with that. But when we signed the recording contract with CBS, I had a provision to make a solo record. Keith knew all about it, so it wasn't a bolt from the blue. I don't want to excuse what happened; it was a very bad period. Everyone was getting on very badly.
And then it turned into a public battle between you and Keith, with all the sniping in the press.
I think that was Keith's way of trying to get back at me; he just liked to mouth off about it. He quite enjoyed it. He became very upset and overreacted when I wanted to do a solo record, which in retrospect seems a natural thing to want to do.
But even before that, everyone was bored playing with each other. We'd reached a period when we were tired of it all. Bill [Wyman] was not enthusiastic to start with – there's a guy that doesn't really want to do much. He's quite happy, whatever he's told to do, but he's not suggesting anything, not helping ... a bit morose and bored. You've got Charlie overdoing it in all directions.
He was getting drugged up and drinking?
Yeah. Keith the same. Me the same. Ronnie – I don't know what Ronnie was doing. We just got fed up with each other. You've got a relationship with musicians that depends on what you produce together. But when you don't produce, you get bad reactions – bands break up. You get difficult periods, and that was one of them.
Do you feel like an underappreciated musician vis-à-vis Keith?
I don't think people really know or care that much about what really goes on. I don't think people care about the mechanics of songwriting, particularly. So they think, "Oh, well, Mick must write all the lyrics, and Keith writes all the tunes," which might have been true 30 years ago, but it really isn't true now. But that doesn't worry me very much. Keith might be underappreciated as a lyric writer. I don't think it worries him.
I was listening to your last solo record, Wandering Spirit, on which you play a lot of guitar, and there are songs on there that for all intents and purposes could be Rolling Stones songs.
Yeah. You couldn't tell. That's me doing what I do, and you think it's Keith. It's difficult not to do it. I didn't do it on every track. I would come out and go, "I don't want it to sound like that." Then I thought, "Fuck it. If they're good, they're good. It doesn't matter if they're too Stones-y."
Charlie says, "Mick is better with Keith Richards than he is with any other guitar players. I mean even a technically better guitar player – he's better with Keith."Do you feel that?
Well, yeah, up to a certain point. I do enjoy working with other kinds of guitar players, because Keith is a very definite kind of guitar player. He's obviously very rhythmic and so on, and that works very well with Charlie and myself. Though I do like performing or working with guitar players that also work around lead lines a lot – like Eric [Clapton] or Mick Taylor or Joe Satriani. Whether it's better or not, it's completely different working with them. We made records with just Mick Taylor, which are very good and everyone loves, where Keith wasn't there for whatever reasons.
People don't know that Keith wasn't there making it. All the stuff like "Moonlight Mile," "Sway." These tracks are a bit obscure, but they are liked by people that like the Rolling Stones. It's me and [Mick] playing off each other – another feeling completely, because he's following my vocal lines and then extemporizing on them during the solos. That's something Jeff Beck, to a certain extent, can do: a guitar player that just plays very careful lead lines and listens to what his vocalist is doing.
In the mid-'80s, when the Stones were not working together, did you and Keith talk?
Hardly at all.
A little while ago, Keith described your relationship like this to me: "We can't even get divorced. I wanted to kill him." Did you feel you were trapped in this marriage?
No. You're not trapped. We were friends before we were in a band, so it's more complicated, but I don't see it as a marriage. They're quite different, a band and a marriage.
How did you patch it up?
What actually happened was, we had a meeting to plan the tour, and as far as I was concerned, it was very easy. At the time , everyone was asking [whispers], "Wow, what was it like? What happened? How did it all work?" It was a non-event. What could have been a lot of name-calling, wasn't. I think everyone just decided that we'd done all that. Of course, we had to work out what the modus vivendi was for everybody, because we were planning a very different kind of tour. Everyone had to realize that they were in a new kind of world. We had to invent new rules. It was bigger business, more efficient than previous tours, than the '70s drug tours. We were all gonna be on time at the shows. Everyone realized they had to pull their weight, and everyone had a role to play, and they were all up for doing it.
Can you describe the time you spent in Barbados with Keith, deciding if you could put this together?
Keith and I and [financial adviser] Rupert [Lowenstein] had a small meeting first and talked about business. We were in a hotel with the sea crashing outside and the sun shining and drinks, talking about all the money we're gonna get and how great it was gonna be, and then we bring everyone else in and talk about it.
So that was your reconciliation with Keith? Was there any talk of putting your heads together and airing issues?
No, and I'm glad we didn't do that, because it could have gone on for weeks. It was better that we just get on with the job. Of course, we had to revisit things afterward.
Charlie said to me, "I don't think you can come between Mick and Keith – they're family. You can only go so far, and then you hit an invisible wall. They don't want anyone in there."
Well, it sounds like one of the wives talking, doesn't it? I remember Bianca [Jagger] saying a very similar thing. But if that's what he thinks, that's what he thinks. It's funny he thinks that. I don't know why he should say that. I think people are afraid to express their opinions half the time.
In front of you and Keith?
Or just in front of me. They think they're gonna go back to a period where people would jump down their throats for having an opinion. Drug use makes you snappy, and you get very bad-tempered and have terrible hangovers.
One more quote. Keith says, "Mick clams up all the time. He keeps a lot inside. It was the way he was brought up. Just being Mick Jagger at 18 or 19, a star, gives him reason to protect what space is left."
I think it's very important that you have at least some sort of inner thing you don't talk about. That's why I find it distasteful when all these pop stars talk about their habits. But if that's what they need to do to get rid of them, fine. But I always found it boring. For some people it's real therapy to talk to journalists about their private lives and inner thoughts. But I would rather keep something to myself.
It's wearing. You're on all the time. As much as I love talking to you today, I'd rather be having one day where I don't have to think about me. With all this attention, you become a child. It's awful to be at the center of attention. You can't talk about anything apart from your own experience, your own dopey life. I'd rather do something that can get me out of the center of attention. It's very dangerous. But there's no way, really, to avoid that.
Taking Care of Business
After Steel Wheels, you took a couple of years off and came back with Voodoo Lounge. What were your goals going into the album? Is it a better album than Steel Wheels?
I don't know if Steel Wheels is better than Voodoo Lounge, actually. I don't think there's a huge difference of quality between the two albums. I wish there was, but I'm afraid, in the end, I don't think there is.
On Voodoo Lounge it seems like you've got better, more distinctive songs.
I don't know. Perhaps if the Voodoo Lounge album had been more successful commercially, I might have agreed with you, because commercial success changes everything. It colors your opinions. If it had sold 5 million albums, I'd be saying to you, "It's definitely better than Steel Wheels."
Let's talk about it as two rock critics.
You told me when you started to make the record that you were going to spend a lot of time on this one, making as good a record as you could possibly make, making sure you've got the songs written in advance. You hired a producer, which you hadn't done for a long time. Do you feel that you've met that expectation?
Not completely. But may be we should list the positive things rather than the negative. I think there is a really good feeling of the band on it – that the band is playing very much as a band, even though it's got one new member [bassist Darryl Jones]. There's a good variety of songs. It's not overelaborate. You get a feeling of really being there, and it's quite intimate in nature. The ballads are rather nice, and then the rock & roll numbers kick quite well and sound enthusiastic – like we're into it. I think it's a good frame of reference of what the Rolling Stones were about during that quite limited time in Ireland in that year.
It's very much a kind of time-and-place album. In that way I was quite pleased with the results. But there were a lot of things that we wrote for Voodoo Lounge that Don [Was, the record's producer] steered us away from: groove songs, African influences and things like that. And he steered us very clear of all that. And I think it was a mistake.
What direction did he take you in?
He tried to remake Exile on Main Street or something like that.
Plus, the engineer was also trying to do the same thing. Their mind-set about it was just too retro. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with it inherently, but they went over the top; they'd gone too far.
Maybe that's why I like it so much. Was was tugging you toward doing a classic Stones record. Were you trying to fight that?
No, I didn't really fight it in the end. I gave up because there was no point in it. I think both Charlie and I didn't really like it, but we could see that that was the direction you could go, and it might be successful. I don't think it really was that successful, because I don't think there's any point in having these over-retro references.
I think it was an opportunity missed to go in another direction, which would have been more unusual, a little more radical, although it's always going to sound like the Rolling Stones.
At the beginning of the "Voodoo Lounge" tour, the rap was, these guys are too old. When people say that you're too old to tour, how do you feel?
You say, "I don't think so." The band still sounds very good, and it doesn't sound much different from before, and you all liked me before, so you're going to like this, probably.
But at the beginning of the tour, you seemed a little nervous and –
Apprehensive. We don't have two weeks to break in out of town. So the first time in a big place like Washington, it's very nerve-racking. But it settled down pretty quickly. After seven performances, it more or less got into a very good groove.
It always fascinated me that you are this great, hands-on manager of these massive tours – really involved in the day-to-day operation. And then you go out and perform, center stage, the consummate artist and songwriter. That's a very unusual combination of talent. Why?
There's really no one as experienced as I am doing it. And though I had huge arguments with [legendary rock promoter] Bill Graham, he had fantastic qualities, especially being an impresario, making a show a real show. I learned a tremendous amount from Bill. He was fantastically difficult on a personal level, not only with me but with all the people working with him. He'd just scream and shout at everyone, which would start driving me crazy and everyone else. It makes for a not very good atmosphere. Much too prickly, and that was one of his big problems.
I learned a lot from [Graham], and I feel that if I just leave everything to someone else that I get a very one-sided opinion of how things are. And they all have their own agendas.
People who are involved in tour directing, they don't understand what it's like to be on the stage. And just on a very simple level like booking the rest of the tour of Europe: How many shows are you going to do in a 10-day period? My agenda is, can the band do this? Is this feasible? That is, making it a tour that the Rolling Stones can actually function, do and have a good time on – not just a crazy skedaddle around with no time to think and eventually become totally exhausted.
How do you reconcile these two sides of yourself, your very artistic half and your very methodical, business half?
One is an extension of the other. I don't think of them as very different. It's being creative in another way. I find it very satisfying, the whole thing of designing a stage. One step from that it becomes real practicalities. It starts off as being a great design, but can it be made? And then who's going to pay for it? Well, the Rolling Stones, really. So can you make it for $30 million? And if you can't, you're going to lose. Now that's a kind of money decision, but who else is going to make that decision?
This passion for detail – does it come out of the same impulse as your artistic impulse?
It's the same impulse. It obviously divides itself up differently, but I don't separate them completely. I've learned that you have to just delegate. And once it's done, it's done. I'm not going to fret about the details. I used to, but I don't anymore. Don't fret, don't worry about it, and just enjoy yourself. I just leave other people to handle the day-to-day stuff.
Could you just describe how you see the show onstage evolve during the set?
You open it with this big, grand gesture, an explosion of fire and with a drumbeat going. The first number's really simple as far as the musicians are concerned. Then we have fireworks going, which changes the light on the sides. It's rather eerie and smoky. It's supposed to be a dark beginning, a bit dark and slightly foreboding, not a big, happy, fun beginning. And then we cut to the beginning of the first rock section, which is Tumbling Dice.
Why do you open with Not Fade Away?
Because we wanted something dark. It could be a bit moody, and then we thought that it would be good to revive this very ancient tune. And it's also rather short, which would be good. And that we could start off with this drumbeat thing we had.
So, you've got the rock section starting with "Tumbling Dice," then what happens next? What's the next big mood you're trying to set?
There's quite a big move at the end of "Satisfaction" that becomes the high point of that set; then we start to slow it down. It changes mood again going into "Beast of Burden" and whatever ballad we do. When we constructed the set musically, I had in mind that it was in these sections – like breaking down a screenplay or, very simply, a plot. It starts off with this moody thing, goes into this rock section, breaks down into this power section, then we have what we used to call the grab bag section. Then it goes into Keith's two songs, it goes up at the end of that into this more audience-participation thing – "Honky Tonk Women." Then it goes into the Voodoo Lounge section, where we change the set. Then it goes into the end, the rock & roll run-out section.
How do you prepare for a show?
I like to have a peek, see what the audience is doing during the opening act, because it gives you a clue and gives you a good feeling of where you are – the air can be different in different places. And I like to see the place before, because some of them are very wide, and they're much more difficult to play, because they tend to be baseball places, because they get so wide you have to work a lot more the outlying [Laughs] part of it. Because that's where the majority of people are.
When you go out to take a peek beforehand, what kind of things are you looking at?
Is the front section empty? Because that usually means that they're older and want to just show up at the time we go on. Or are they there only for the opening act or something? And just how do they respond? How loud they are, how enthusiastic they are. Of course, that's the opening act, too. Depends how good they are, whether they can communicate with them, which is not very easy. I'd hate to be a fucking opening act. You get out there, and you feel the temperature of it, really.
What's that moment like just before you go onstage? What's your energy like?
My energy's usually pretty good. Sometimes I think, "Oh, Jesus, do I really have to go on now?" You have to finally switch into the fact that you're just about to go on, because before it can be unreal.
As you walk down to the stadium from the dressing room, you start to buzz a little bit. And you hear the audience, what their response is when the music starts. And then just before we go on, just while the music's really warming up, you get an extra buzz then.
When you're onstage – can you describe that feeling?
When you first walk on, it's really – let me think.
I walk out to an empty stage; I'm very confident. This is what I do. I've done it so many times.
I'm not at all nervous about going on. It feels very comfortable and like home. But having said that, there's certain feelings that you get, you know: "Jesus, all those people!" There's a few empty seats sometimes, I see, and you say, "Oh, God, how many empty seats?" And funny things that you think of – just silly things – and you must not think of those, because as soon as you start thinking, "I hope that the heavy rains that we've had in London don't block the gutters up [laughs] and the roof leaks again." [Laughter] It's just – anything can come into your mind, but you have to throw it out because you just have to really concentrate on what you're doing.
When you're performing, what's that feeling? Can you describe that thrill of performing and dancing around and singing? Is that possible to describe?
It's very high adrenaline. If you've ever been in this high-adrenalin situation – like driving a car very fast or being in a championship basketball team in the finals or whatever it was – it's really high adrenalin.
Our concerts do have a lot in common with sporting events. I mean, they're held in the same places. And they have this kind of feeling. Obviously, what's lacking is the competition aspect, but there is a certain amount of the same feeling – that you're always present at the event. You know, the event is important. I was at Super Bowl XVII or whatever, and I don't even remember who fucking played, but you were there. You might not remember what songs the Rolling Stones played when you saw them in the Astrodome, but you were there.
But it's quite hard to describe just in trying to offer a description. I've sometimes tried to write it down. I have written it down – what it's like, what you feel like. But there's so much going on, it's hard unless you're really in a stream-of-consciousness thing. Because there are so many references: "Oh, I'm doing this, and I'm doing that," and you're sort of watching yourself doing it. "Oh God, look at that girl; she's rather pretty. Don't concentrate on her!" But it's good to concentrate on her, she's good to contact one-on-one. Sometimes I try to do that. They're actually real people, not just a sea of people. You can see this girl has come, and she's got this dress on and so on, and so you make good contact with one or two people. And then you make contact with the rest of the band. You might give a look-see if everyone's all right.
You're always checking everything?
The first number, I'm totally checking everything.
Now, you said you wrote down this other thing about feeling transported?
I don't let myself get transported on the first number, because that is very dangerous. I used to let myself do that, but it's not such a good idea, because there's too much to check. I mean, is everything working?
You seem to be split in various parts. There's part of you which is saying to you, "OK, don't forget this, don't forget that." And there's this other part of you, which is just your body doing things that it isn't really commanded to do, which I found is the dangerous part. You can hurt yourself if you don't watch out – because you've got so much adrenalin. That's why I rather like doing "Not Fade Away," because I don't do much physically on it. [Laughs] But if you start off with a number like, say, "Start Me Up," which we did on the last tour, your body starts to do all kinds of things on this adrenalin thing. You've got to watch out. You can really hurt yourself – or just tire yourself out too quickly in the first five minutes, and you're just wiped out.
I was standing down at the bottom of the stage in San Antonio, watching you do "Brown Sugar," and there was a look on your face kind of like ecstasy.
At some point in the show, you just lose it. You get such interaction with the audience that it feels really good. And it should be pushed. You should let yourself go. I mean, have those moments when you really are quite out of your brain. But there's always a point where a good performer knows when –
To pull back?
Yeah, when they're allowed to happen, if they're going to happen, and when they're not allowed to really happen, if they start to happen. And it's all to do with concentration, really.
Is it sustained, or does it come in isolated moments?
It comes in isolated moments. It's just a transcendent moment – I don't know whether you can say it's joyful. Sometimes it can be joyful; sometimes it's just crazy.
Charlie said about you, "Mick Jagger is based on James Brown. He's a younger version of James Brown."
[Laughs] Well, that's a nice compliment. I mean, of course, I'm not anything like James Brown. I used to aspire to be like James Brown in his moves, and so I copied a lot of James Brown's moves in the early days. I don't do them, really, anymore. But I think what Charlie means is that James Brown is constantly attuned to the groove, to the drums. I'm also very attuned to the drums. It's just natural.
Charlie said that he's following you all the time and that the dynamic of his playing is based on a move that you'll make.
Well, that's probably the oldest thing in music or performing: the link between drums and dancing – before there was any other music, really. If you watch any folk music, if you go to Africa or you go to Asia, you can see it in Ireland or England . . . you'll see the connection between the performer who's dancing and the drums. In Balinese dancing or any of these things, they watch – very closely – the dancer. And there may be accents when the dancer moves, and they make rhythmic accentuations on them – turns and so on. That doesn't strictly go in all rock, because a rock drummer has to keep very basic time.
And then when you leave the stage, when you're done – how is it?
You just let yourself go, just tired, you know. And then you recover pretty quickly. After about 10 or 15 minutes, you feel OK.
Do you think you're gonna come back to the States any time soon?
I haven't made up my mind.
What's at stake for you if you come back to the States so soon?
Every time you go out, you're putting yourself on the line.
And you can't repeat the same show?
That would be a bad mistake. We have to do another show. It's fine being on the road; there's nothing wrong with it, it's lovely. But it is a slightly unreal version of reality – it can be very addictive, and it can be very tempting to stay on the road, because you're absolved of a lot of responsibilities in your life.
I spoke to people in the band, and it sounds like the band wants to go on.
I don't think Charlie's wildly enthusiastic, nor am I. Sure, you can keep touring forever if you want, but I don't know whether Keith and Ronnie have thought it through.
I don't think they'll turn anything down. They just go, "Yeah, cool." They accept everything. Never question four shows in Edmonton. Never look at it and go, "Do you think there really are four shows in Edmonton?" If that's what they're told to do, they do it. I'm sure Keith would never say no.
Keeping Up With the Beatles
What was the relationship between the Stones and the Beatles?
Super, highly competitive – but friendly. Because when you're very young, it's very hard. Looking back, thinking of all that competition, I hate it. But I suppose it's all right, because I won out. But it wasn't only between us and the Beatles but us and all the other bands. I remember one time playing in Philadelphia, and Herman's Hermits were top of the bill, and we were second, and there was some argument about the dressing rooms. [Peter Noone] was complaining because he was top of the bill and his dressing room wasn't good enough. Anyway, there we were, and he was top of the bill because the Herman's Hermits were huge. And one of the most impossible things was going out to have a hamburger, and some guy would go, "Are you Herman's Hermits?" It would kill you. So you go, "Fuck you. Herman's Hermits is shit."
Weren't you particularly compared with the Beatles, though?
The Beatles were so big that it's hard for people not alive at the time to realize just how big they were. There isn't a real comparison with anyone now. I suppose Michael Jackson at one point, but it still doesn't seem quite the same. They were so big that to be competitive with them was impossible. I'm talking about in record sales and tours and all this. They were huge.
Bigger than Jesus?
They were bigger than Jesus!
And there came a point where you were Band 2 after that.
Yeah, we were Band 2. Like Avis. It's horrible being compared to a car.
What kind of a relationship did you develop with John?
I liked John very much to start. We all had a good relationship with John. He seemed to be in sympathy with our kind of music, so we used to go out to clubs a lot. We did a lot of hanging out.
Did you feel you were developing a special relationship with John? You're the leader of the one group, and he's the leader of the other group?
There was a professional thing above the friendship. You could talk about problems, bounce things off each other and get a different take on it. Later, when John wasn't in the Beatles any more, he was bouncing more ideas off me than ever before. I'm not saying I was the only person he bounced off of, but he used to bounce a lot off me – song choices and stuff.
He was educated and very smart and cynical and funny and really amusing company. He had a very funny take on the rest of the Beatles. If they boasted too much about how great they were, he had ways to shut them up. He'd say, "Don't worry, he's just getting used to being famous. Shurrup!" [Laughter] As if he'd been famous longer, you know. But I used to get on with Paul as well. Paul is very nice and easy to get on with – didn't have the acerbic side. You always knew with John, you're gonna be on the end of a lot of sarcastic remarks that you weren't always in the mood for.
What do you think was going on with him? What do you think motivated him?
Wanted to be the most famous person in the world [laughs].
I think he said as much.
Did he really?
Along that line. "We want to be more famous than Elvis." Something like that.
Yeah. Elvis just did it all wrong, didn't he? Put all these silly ideas into people's heads. And John picked up on it.
Do you think that drove him?
It seems incredibly crass and superficial, doesn't it?
Yeah, but if you feel you have this big message for everybody ... and at the end, he did.
Yeah, he did have a big message. I don't think he had a message in the beginning, although he might have thought he was gonna get one. Or you think the message is to be famous, and then I'll think of the message later [Laughs].
So now, looking back on his work, what do you think his contribution was?
He did wonderful things. John and Paul, I mean, because it's hard to separate this thing, and having been through a partnership, with people always asking you who did what, and, of course, you either exaggerate your own importance or you downplay it, but you never get it right. I think John himself was a very talented guy, very influential and wrote some wonderful songs. And he was very funny. I think he really was larger than life.
But the rest of them took it more seriously than John.
You got that feeling, and that's why I told you that little story about him shutting them up. He knew it was all bullshit.
And he showed he could walk away from it. But don't you evaluate his contribution as greater than, he wrote some good songs?
He obviously did more than just that, but he wrote really wonderful songs and performed them wonderfully. The stage performances were not mind-boggling, and after nineteen sixty-whatever-it-was, they didn't do any stage performances, so for all intents and purposes, Shea Stadium and the concert on the roof was it. But great songwriting, great personality, and he had all these other sides, which added to it: the writing, the drawing, the little books, the all-embracing, modernistic push, which was refreshing without being pretentious.
What was your thinking when you heard he was shot?
I was very sad and surprised. And it was all so horribly ironic. He thought he had found a place to be on his own, have this life, and he was quite taken with the idea that he was no longer in the Beatles, that he didn't have to have a lot of protection, bodyguards. He used to tell me how he would go in a cab in New York – go in a fucking yellow cab. Which, as you know, is probably to be avoided if you've got more than $10. [Laughs] A London cab is one thing, but a New York cab is another. He wanted freedom to walk the block and get in the cab, and he felt in these big cities you can be anonymous.
Did it have some deeper personal resonance with you when he died?
I just felt very sad for the loss of someone that I loved very much. I didn't write it up as a piece in The Guardian. I think journalists have this temptation to keep marking time lines. [Laughs] There are wall charts for children: dinosaurs end here, wooly mammoths here, and John Lennon dies here. You know?
Do you think John deserves this huge reputation he still has? The Beatles being the greatest group?
They certainly were not a great live band. Maybe they were in the days of the Cavern, when they were coming up as a club band. I'm sure they were hilariously funny and all that. And they did have this really good onstage persona. But as far as the modern-day world, they were not a great performing band. But do they deserve the fantastic reputation? They were the Beatles. They were this forerunning, breakthrough item, and that's hard to overestimate.
What do you think of Tina Turner?
I was influenced by her. She's one of the first women performers I worked with who has the same aggressive thing that I've got. A lot of women performers are quite static – or certainly were in the '60s. They did their best, but they weren't like Tina. She was like a female version of Little Richard and would respond to the audience – really go out and grab them.
I always loved Pete. He's very bright, always thinking. He had this insane, rebellious, self-destructive streak. The first time we traveled with him, we were on the same plane going somewhere like Belgium. He got on the plane and got completely drunk in an hour – drunk and crazy. We just watched. But I love Pete. He was an exciting performer in the heyday of the Who.
I loved Jimi Hendrix from the beginning. The moment I saw him, I thought he was fantastic. I was an instant convert. Mr. Jimi Hendrix is the best thing I've ever seen. It was exciting, sexy, interesting. He didn't have a very good voice but made up for it with his guitar. I first saw him at the Revolution Club, in London. I was one of six people in the club, and Jimi was playing. I couldn't believe it. It was insane – so good and the whole idea of this kind of English band behind him, this bizarre mixture between a blues performer and a rock player with an English touch.
Did you have any kind of relationship with him?
I was quite friendly with him. He was a really sweet guy. A bit confused. It's the same old story: Jimi Hendrix played all over the place with all these bands. He'd been a background guitar player for donkey years. And suddenly he gets what he wants, then has to play "Purple Haze" every night. He goes, "Uh, I don't want to play 'Purple Haze' every night. I don't want to burn the guitar." And then when everyone went off the deep end, he had to go off the deep end. He became a heroin addict.
What's your take on Prince?
It's fashionable to knock Prince now because he seems to have gone off on a tangent [laughs].
You mean the way he has no name?
That's become a bit of a joke. No, I think Prince is a great artist, very traditional in some ways. Prince has been overlooked. But he's so incredibly in the mold of the James Brown sort of performer. He broke a lot of musical modes and invented a lot of styles and couldn't keep up with himself. Very prolific, which is rare. Mostly people write three songs and repeat themselves. Prince has a lot of talent as a writer, and I've seen great performances by Prince. He's outperformed almost everyone. I'd rate him at the top. I don't think there's a lot of competition from new artists.
What about today's music?
I'm not in love with things at the moment. I was never crazy about Nirvana – too angst-ridden for me. I like Pearl Jam. I prefer them to a lot of other bands. There's a lot of angst in a lot of it, which is one of the great things to tap into. But I'm not a fan of moroseness.
Some of this music reminds me of the '60s. Do you see that?
In that there's four people playing guitars and so on, there's a lot of '60s influence. It may appear that they're playing the same thing or look the same on MTV, or there's certain haircuts you've seen on the Byrds. But the grooves are different. It's all influenced by dance music. In 30 years you don't keep playing the same beat. Which is good. I don't think any of these bands would claim to be daringly different. But it's heartening to return to live music, heartening for people like me in a band. It's a very traditional thing to return to. It re-validates the original form that we fell in love with.
Of the new bands: Are any of them going to take on the stadium show?
It took us 20 years of doing shows before we actually put on these big stadium concerts. It will be interesting to see if any of these bands today ever do the kind of shows we're doing. I don't think they will, because they don't seem to be that interested in it. You have to be really interested in showbiz to do this; you have to be interested in theater, otherwise there's no point doing it. It's only interesting if you're in control of it. And to be in control of it, you have to initiate it. I wonder if there's anybody that's going to do that.
And there has to be somebody central to it like yourself, who's a great impresario as well.
Yeah, you can't just be playing guitar in the corner. It's never going to work.
That's one of the things that distinguishes you from all the other songwriters, singers and performers: You're a great producer.
Well, you have to laugh at that, don't you? Now the whole ethos is to not be that. Which I understand. But it doesn't lead you to anything theatrical. None of these bands in America have that. The Chili Peppers have a sort of sense of the theatrical, but they can't take it anywhere. It's become a bit cliché, just a guitar thing. Everybody wants to be Neil Young, and Pearl Jam is trying to drive ticket prices down. Doing that, they will never get themselves on a stage this big.
Can you define rock & roll for me? What is it about? Is it about sex, violence, energy, anger?
All those things: energy, anger, angst, enthusiasm, a certain spontaneity. It's very emotional. And it's very traditional. It can't break too many rules. You have certain set rules, certain forms, which are traditionally folk-based, blues-based forms. But they've got to be sung with this youthful energy – or youthful lethargy, because youth has this languorous, lethargic, rebellious side to it as well. So they can be sung as an alternate mode of thrashing, this slightly feminine languor, the boredom of youth as well as the anger, because youth has those two things. To represent those emotions, this form seems to work very well.
Boredom and anger, which are both a form of rebellion.
Yeah, a statement of rebellion. Drawing the line where your generation is.
So the energy, the sexuality, is from this youthful aspect?
Yeah, but the sexuality is very potent and very obvious. There's nothing understated about it. That really comes from black music. The overt sexuality of black music was the precursor of all that.
And the violence?
Well, violence is mostly in the posing aspect of it. There's some in the lyrics, but it's also the attitude, the bad-attitude thing. I mean, it's very violent. Rock & roll in its very early days came with expressions of violence.
There were riots.
Not so much Elvis, but Bill Haley, when he was in Blackboard Jungle, do you remember? "Rock Around the Clock" was featured in this movie Blackboard Jungle. And when it was shown, there were riots everywhere. And rock & roll was associated with violence very early on.
All these things are about youth: sex, violence, energy, boredom, anger. Has your attitude toward rock & roll changed as you've gotten older? Do you still have the same feeling for it?
What has changed?
Well, it's much older. Rock music was a completely new musical form. It hadn't been around for 10 years when we started doing it. So we were playing with something new. I imagine it's a bit like walking into New Orleans after jazz had only been going eight years. I was there at the beginning. And we were going to change it – bring this rhythm & blues thing into it.
And at the beginning you felt like you were one of the chosen few, one of the only ones in the whole world who would get to play with this new toy.
We had evangelical fervor. So it was exciting, and no one knew where it was going, if it was going to last. When it first came out, people thought it was a dance craze like the cha-cha-cha or the calypso. Rock history is full of songs about hoping it would never die. It could have easily passed on.
So I have a very different attitude now. It's 40 years old. I still love performing it, but it's no longer a new, evangelical form. It's still capable of expression, and it's capable of change and novelty. But it's not as exciting for me. It's not a perfect medium for someone my age, given the rebelliousness of the whole thing, the angst and youth of it. In some ways it's foolish to try and re-create that.
Do you ever look back at your career and evaluate what you've done?
I'm afraid of doing that. Either you have this satisfied feeling, or you say, "What a bunch of shit. What a waste of time." You can say, "Well, it's something I should have done for a few years and given up, done something else."
Does that thought cross your mind?
Of course. It would be nice to have another shot. Instead of me being a rock singer, I could have done something else. You hope you've done something right, you've spent an awful long time on it, so you better be bloody right. "Did you waste a lot of time?" Yes, you've wasted a lot of time. "Did you use your intellectual and physical gifts?" Yes and no. Because I don't think rock & roll is as intellectually taxing as other things. It's not particularly challenging. So you get intellectually lazy. I don't think anyone is ever satisfied with what they've done.
Are the Stones the greatest rock band in the world?
It's just a stupid epithet. It just seems too Barnum and Bailey to me – like it's some sort of circus act. The first time we heard it said was to introduce us every night. So I used to say, "Will you please not use that as your announcement? It's so embarrassing. And what does that mean? Does it mean the best, the biggest, the most long-lasting?" You know?
Taking It All Off
What does your new record, "Stripped," tell you about the Stones today?
To me it was never a kind of life-shattering event, this record. We tried to get a twist on a live record 'cause I didn't want to go back and repeat the previous live record. I thought we just had to give something different. We eventually got into it and developed a more intimate record. And we got a few unusual tracks going on, which is always good for a live record – not original songs but reworked. I think "Like a Rolling Stone" was unusual to do. We've never done a Dylan song before.
What appeals to you about that song?
Well, melodically I quite like it. It's very well put together; it's got a proper three sections to it, real good choruses and a good middle bit, and great lyrics. It's a really well-constructed pop song, in my opinion.
Do you like singing Dylan lines?
This is really a good one; it's very much to the point, it doesn't waffle too much. I sang it a lot of times on the European tour – maybe 50 times. So I really got inside it, and I enjoyed it. I love playing the harmonica on it.
What else on this album is unusual?
"Shine a Light," which is a song from Exile. We had never done that before, being something that was just hidden. And I was really surprised when we first did it – that people knew it. The audience starts singing along, and I was like "Uh."
Why would you go back and pick out "The Spider and the Fly"? What is it about that song?
I wasn't really that mad about it, but when you listen to it on record, it still holds up quite interestingly as a blues song. It's a Jimmy Reed blues with British pop-group words, which is an interesting combination: a song somewhat stuck in a time warp.
You said you liked "time-and-place albums," ones that reflect the Stones at a particular period of time.
This is the Stones doing their small shows, doing a much more intimate show.
What does this say to you about the Stones as a band that other records haven't said? What's new about this?
I think it's more relaxed. It's more soft. Most of the album is songs that we were doing on the road that are acoustic songs. It's the Stones as a smaller club band; there's blues and country, and we're showing that side of the Stones rather than the big, huge stadium version.
Is there a version to the Stones that you prefer one to the other – the stadium version vs. this club version?
I like the club version of the band. But this is the quieter moments of the club version without the raucous parts of the club version.
Why did you reject making this part of the MTV Unplugged series?
Because everyone has done it, and I didn't want to particularly come to New York and do Unplugged in the middle of the European tour. And I felt that we would take the best element from Unplugged, the intimate thing of it, without actually doing it completely unplugged.
Do you think it's a little too retro coming off "Voodoo Lounge"?
Any live record would be bound to contain a lot of old material. There's a danger that you would fall into it – as I've said in this interview quite a few times. I don't think there's any virtue in being completely, only contemporary, but I think you do have to balance the two.
The Rolling Stones should do something adventurous for their next album, but I never thought you could, around the time of the tour, do a completely groundbreaking record. It would have been nice, but I don't think that was possible.
When you do your own records, you seem a lot more oriented toward dance music and rhythms.
My tastes are very much dance music of the '70s, which always enjoys a lot of popularity – people will always love it because it's got a lot of different time signatures – but it's not necessarily ground-breaking. On all three solo albums you can hear it. And it's quite obvious that that's what I like to do. And if I do another solo record, I'll probably take that a lot further.
Will you do another solo record?
I don't know when I'm gonna do it. But I'll probably do one. I look forward to it very much.
Tell me why you want to make another solo album.
I enjoy doing different kinds of things. I just enjoy being not tied too much. I feel that I'm tied to myself as a kind of traditional musician and a singer, and the history that I have ties me down. But I'm much less tied down than with the Rolling Stones. I can go in any direction that I want. And if I want to go in a traditional direction and play Irish music, I can.
Is it hard coming off tour?
No. I've been really busy since I finished the tour. I haven't really had any break, with all this stuff that we're doing – the record, the CD-ROM and all that. It's the same as being on tour, except that I haven't been doing shows in the evening [Laughs]. I'm doing my day job.
What are you gonna do next?
Take a vacation. Then I'm gonna write some songs, and then I'm gonna work on my movie-development stuff, and then it's Christmas, and then it's the next bit of shows. We're gonna be doing some shows in the Far East and maybe one or two in South America.
In a general sense, what is in the future for the Rolling Stones?
It's a mystery. I don't know what's gonna happen with the Rolling Stones. I mean, one is always very confident about the future. But what's actually gonna happen is a mystery.
Why is it a mystery?
'Cause anything can happen in life and quite frequently does. We don't have set plans. But I dare say the Rolling Stones will do more shows together. But I don't know exactly what framework the next tour in the United States would take, nor do I know what form the next Rolling Stones music will take. But I'm sure there will be Rolling Stones music and there will be Rolling Stones shows.
But the Stones do seem a lot more stable than, say, 10 years ago.
I think the Rolling Stones have always been mostly stable; they've got a terrific history, a long tradition. It's very steeped in all kind of things. The Rolling Stones are a very admired band, much copied and so on. And very flattering – it always is.
How do you feel about rock's staying power now?
I'm kind of surprised by the resurgence of it as a young force.
Why would you be surprised?
Well, because there seemed to be a period when it was rather flat. It could have become dinosaur music. It's still very similar music to the music in the '60s. It's got its own spin on things, but it's still very traditional. Maybe that's what makes the staying power work, because jazz went up such a difficult-to-understand alley when it went into bop; it lost a lot of mass audience. And rock hasn't really done that. I mean, it's kept its popular base by not only going into intellectual areas where it can't be followed by most people.
It stays with the beat.
Stays with that same beat, really. Rock has to absorb other rhythmic forms, because the underlying rhythm of music changes with fashion, and people like to move differently now than they moved 30 years ago, and the underlying rhythms have to be the ones that people want to dance to.
What about your own staying power?
I think it's a question of energy, really. I, personally, have a lot of energy, so I don't see it as an immediate problem.
How's your hearing?
My hearing's all right. But we worry about it because they play far too loud. Sometimes I use earplugs because it gets too loud on my left ear.
Why your left ear?
Because Keith's standing on my left. [Laughter.]
How would you sum up the last 30 years?
Ah. God. You fuck. I'm just not gonna do that one. I'm just totally unable to. I think you just have to end now.
This story is from the December 14th, 1995 issue of Rolling Stone.