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.
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