Mick Jagger's new album, Goddess in the Doorway, is his first solo record in eight years, since Wandering Spirit in 1993. What took him so long? "I've been doing the Rolling Stones – that's pretty much it," Jagger says in his Manhattan hotel suite the evening before his appearance with Keith Richards at Paul McCartney's Concert for New York City. "But after that very long tour for Bridges to Babylon, I thought, ‘This is the point where I should do another one.’ If the band had really wanted to work . . . " Jagger shrugs his shoulders. "Everybody was quite happy not to do anything."
On Goddess, Jagger surrounds himself with the best of friends – including Pete Townshend of the Who, Lenny Kravitz and Aerosmith guitarist Joe Perry – as well as new collaborators Rob Thomas of Matchbox Twenty and Wyclef Jean. But the album is a triumph of independence. Away from the automatic dynamics of the Stones, Jagger struts his matured strengths as a singer and writes about himself with unprecedented honesty. "I tried to let ideas flow," Jagger says of his lyrics, "so I wouldn't pull back from things l wouldn't say normally."
What do you get out of making solo records that you don't get out of the Stones?
People are always trying to get you to talk badly about the Rolling Stones. The Rolling Stones have a certain personality. It's a rock band. The Rolling Stones play Gershwin – it can be discussed, but it's very unlikely that it's donna happen. It's like being an actor. In the Rolling Stones, you're in the James Bond series. It's really cool and enormously successful. But you're expected to behave like James Bond all the time. If you want to do something else, you have to do it on your own.
How did you get started on the album?
I was writing songs at home, and I could record them with just a computer and a guitar. It felt free and easy. I'd have friends around. I could do it when the kids were there, although I'd kick them out of the room [grins].
But you have to be hard on yourself. Halfway through this, I thought I'd done all the writing. I'd play the songs to people, and they'd go, "Yeah, it's really good, but you've only got half a record." I'd go, "But what about all these other great things?" Well, they weren't that good. You can tell by people's reactions: "I gotta do more."
Do you feel that you've opened up as a writer? In "God Gave Me Everything," you're really telling us you haven't got it all – a notion many would find hard to believe.
No one has everything. Some people are luckier than others. That song is a bit ambivalent. Some of the songs were written quickly. You wonder, in the end, what they're really about.
The one that's really ambivalent is "Too Far Gone." I put a big disclaimer at the beginning about hating nostalgia ["I always hate nostalgia/Living in the past"], and all I'm doing is talking about the past.
Are you turning more reflective? Some of the album's best songs, like "Don't Call Me Up" and "Brand New Set of Rules," are ballads.
"As Tears Go By" is reflective. It's nothing new. I write so many ballads that I have to put them aside. More fast numbers – that's the dictum from Keith. The Stones record that has the most ballads is Tattoo You, which originally, in the pre-CD world, had an A side of rockers and a B side of ballads. Nice idea, but you can't do that anymore.
You co-wrote "Visions of Paradise" with Rob Thomas. What is it like writing with someone other than Keith?
You're in the room with the guy, and you don't really know him. But he's got something prepared. Maybe you like it, maybe you don't. Then something else comes up as you go along. Rob was very focused. His gig was to come up with a melody that's different from what I would have come up with.
I would never have written "Visions of Paradise" on my own. It's too pop for me. But I like it. It just worked out. I could have worked with Rob and three other people and not even mentioned it to you, because it wouldn't have gone anywhere. I tried to write a song with Lenny on my last solo album. All we did was get completely stoned and go out dancing. We didn't come up with a single idea. So we did "Use Me" [by Bill Withers] instead.
How did you pick your guest stars for the album? And how much of it was collaboration for art's sake vs. marketing value?
It's not like I'm in Los Angeles looking for the guitarist of the month. I had a list of people, and most of them I have a relationship with of some kind. Lenny I'd worked with before. I'd already met Rob. Pete's my neighbor in London. He kept saying, "I know what you're doing in the studio. I want to come down and play." Wyclef – I'd been to his concerts. I liked his breadth of musical knowledge, and he's got this Caribbean vibe that I can relate to. I wanted Missy Elliott to do a rap on "Hide Away," but she didn't turn up. We could never get a date together.
There is marketing value as well. But the thing about that Santana album [Supernatural] that people forget is that Carlos Santana is a guitar player, not a singer. What could be more natural than to have a ton of singers walking in and out of his record? For me, it's not the same, especially with singers. I have to make duets.
Did you write "Joy" as a duet for Bono?
No. I've known Bono since I can't remember. We've always had singsongs. There was one time when I sang "Satisfaction" – a hip-hop version – with Bono and [my daughter] Elizabeth at my birthday party, passing the mike. It was really funny.
When I'd done "Joy" – I hadn't finished all the vocals – I thought it would be great to do with him. U2 were playing in Cologne, so I took my little recording system to his hotel room, and we did it.
In a hotel room? It sounds like you're in church – band, choir and all.
It's hard to spoil those things. You imagine the way it should have been. But Pete was in the studio with me. He was there, right next to the incredibly loud amplifiers. He seems to be over that hearing problem [laughs].
You sing the opening lines in "Joy," about driving through the desert, looking for Buddha and seeing Jesus Christ. That's usually Bono's territory.
They were too good [laughs]. I wanted to do that.
So how spiritual are you? People tend to think of you as . . .
At least a rationalist.
I am. Of course, I have a spiritual side. Everyone has one. It's whether they're going to lock it up or not. Our lives are so busy that we never get any time to be, first, reflective, then afterward, to let some sort of spiritual light into your life. But there are moments in your life when that appears.
I've written about it before – touched on it in odd songs like "I Just Want to See His Face" and "Shine a Light" [both on 1972's Exile on Main Street]. "Joy" is more fleshed out. It is about the joy of creation, inspiring you to a love of God. [Pauses] Not that I want to explain my songs, really.
Do you still experience that joy in music? Onstage with the Stones?
It's not an every-night thing. It's in certain moments. Whether that's a religious moment is a matter of opinion. But it's akin to a religious moment, the same way a sexual act can be akin to it. It is a transcendent moment. You get the idea that there is another state of mind, even though you're not necessarily touching it.
Did September 11th cause you to reconsider your ideas about faith and fear?
Being a long way away, you take a slightly different view of it. If I'd been in New York, I'm sure I would have felt a lot differently: "Wow, I just escaped it." But I felt this awful shock, where you don't know what you're thinking. When you try and recall what you actually did at that moment, you can't recall it exactly.
So there was shock and revulsion. What we didn't get in England and France was the feeling that there could be another one in a minute. I don't want to sound cold. But because we were thousands of miles away, it wasn't like, "It's your turn next." I didn't feel fear for myself but for my daughter in New York.
Atom bombs: That's one of my fears. Maybe that comes from being brought up with the fear of the bomb, the age group that I am in. Which is a horrible psychological thing.
Does it feel strange to be putting out a record right now? You want people to pay attention to your work, but their attention is elsewhere.
Everyone has to get on with their jobs. You can't think everything is trivial except CNN. I know the news media have a job to do, but they wind people up unnecessarily. In England, the tabloids were vying to scare people the most. They'd have horrendous photos of People in bodysuits every day on the cover – people were terrified.
It is a difficult time. But we're living in this together. I won't get as many column inches as I might have. But that's not the idea of making records.
What future does rock & roll have in a new era of Patriotism? The music was born to question established order.
I don't think Bruce Springsteen was ever about questioning the establishment. I always saw Bruce Springsteen as very American, very patriotic. Look at the album covers. I don't put him down for that. I think he's a sweet guy, and I like a lot of his music. But even the questions he posed were part of the establishment by then. You had a president who refused to serve in Vietnam, something he questioned in "Born in the U.S.A." I see Bruce Springsteen as the archetypal working-class American establishment rock star, which is why he is so successful.
Were the Stones the archetypal middle-class British establishment rock stars?
We were very suburban, embodying rebellious suburban attitudes. And the Rolling Stones were more cynical, much less part of the establishment, although people were always saying we were establishment because of the money. But we don't have patriotism in England like you do in America. Patriotism like that went out the window with the First World War – when it was proved to be a load of bollocks.
Rock & roll is not a monolithic thing, any more than the cinema is. All these things can live in it – from the Beatles to Bruce Springsteen to Rage Against the Machine. Rock music is just a means of expression.
Do you have any solo tour plans?
I was going to do some shows, but I'm running out of time. I don't really have a band for this record. I'd have to form a band and rehearse.
What about Stones plans for next year?
I'm working on it now. It's one of my projects at the moment [grins]. I don't think we're going to do a whole new studio album. But what are we going to do? I really don't know. It's a whole year from now.
Is there a favorite song or record by another artist that knocked you out this year?
[Long Pause] There's a lot of CDs I played a lot: Missy Elliott, Macy Gray. I played the new Bob Dylan quite a lot. I like the tunes, and I think it's really funny. It's the antithesis of pop music.
Is pop music interesting to you now?
Outrageous personalities with a great tune and a different sound. I'm sure one will crop up soon. I'm very patient [laughs]. Everyone said, "You must hear the Ryan Adams record." I thought it was all right. It's very old-fashioned music. But it is appealing.
Pop music is the kind of thing you catch yourself whistling in the bath: "Oh, it's the Cher record! I'm whistling the Backstreet Boys! Oh, fuck!" Everyone does it, and it's cool, because no one's listening – hopefully.
What changes in music would you like to see next year? September 11th is bound to have an effect on what people think pop songs should say.
We're gonna get some terrible lyrics, though. People who don't have lyrical talent should stay away from that subject. It's not easy. That's not a no-brainer. Stick to moon-in-June for most people – that's my advice. You're going to need real language and real thoughts, not just pasted-on patriotism.
This story is from the December 6th, 2001 issue of Rolling Stone.