"They come in different ways, so many different ways," Mick Jagger declares with a melodramatic pleading in his voice, like he's being forced at knifepoint to divulge some great private secret. Which, in a sense, he is — how he and Keith Richards write songs together. Not the old shopworn shorthand about the birth of "Satisfaction" or "Honky Tonk Women," but how they really do it, from genesis to revelation.
"For instance, 'You Got Me Rocking,'" Jagger begins, picking for today's lesson a hard-boiled barroom boomer from the Rolling Stones' new album, Voodoo Lounge. "It started off as Keith playing the piano as sort of a slow, boogie-woogie blues. And the form was, like, just the same thing going round and round and round. You never knew whether you were singing the verse or the chorus. And it was very fluid, good fun and all that.
"But then, when we went to play it with the band, it was like 'Well, am I singing the verse here or what? What's going on? Is this a chorus? Do we need another part?' So we had to decide if we needed a bridge there, and if this was going to work. 'I want to know when I'm finished singing the verse! I've got to know!' Otherwise, it all sounded the same.
"'Ah, it doesn't matter,' Keith would say. 'Well, it matters to me!' And, of course, he's right. And I'm right. We're both right."
Jagger is warming up to his tale now, shimmying in his chair in the sun-dappled kitchen of his town house, on Manhattan's Upper West Side, as the rhythm of the story, and the song, heats up.
"So we transpose it from piano to guitar — I was playing the guitar, Keith is playing piano and singing. And then I started playing slide guitar, and it started to sound like Elmore James. And then back to something else.
"Finally I said, 'Keith, you've got to come off the piano and play guitar. I can't hear what's going on, there's too much racket!' Then the song had to take on the band thing, with everybody playing, so you start to codify it a bit, where the chorus is and so on. And it still doesn't have a lyric, and I'm still messing with the melody. Keith had a couple of them he was using when he played. If it's going to be a rock song, it has to have a definite chorus and melody.
"So," Jagger says with mock deathbed weariness, "I picked one.
"Maybe that's not how Keith remembers it," he concludes, with a playful poke at his alter ego, "but that's how I remember it."
Actually, Richards doesn't remember a whole lot about it. He's not much of a details man, anyway. What sticks in his mind is the vibe, the telepathic '65-vintage ripple that runs around the room whenever the Stones start playing together — even if, these days, it's only every three or four years.
"It's amazing to watch a song emerge from the barest little idea — the skinniest, scrawniest, barely visible idea — and watch these guys turn it into something," Richards says with genuine amazement in his Manhattan management office. "You can talk about it all you want, but you only know it when you start playing. And then you know it in a minute. I'm tuning up, Mick's getting ready, Charlie mopes in, 'OK, let's play such and such.' And before the intro is over, it's 'Yeah, this is going to be cool.'
"You know it in the first few bars. But it's not done by verbals. It's not an oral communication. It's body language, eye contact, the grinning, the little signals that go on between people."
In fact, Richards points out, when the Stones were making Voodoo Lounge, co-producer Don Was had standing orders to just let the tapes roll, no matter how much or how little seemed to be going on in the studio. "It might appear that nothing's happening," Richards notes emphatically, from years of experience, "but that's actually when it really happens."
In many respects, Voodoo Lounge is business as usual for the Rolling Stones. The album's mid-July release marks the halfway point in the band's now-standard two-year activity cycle: new record, a world tour that opens August 1 in Washington, D.C., hoopla to spare. Like 1989's Steel Wheels, the album was written mostly by Jagger and Richards at Eddy Grant's studio, on the Caribbean island of Barbados, rigorously rehearsed by the band over several months and cut in a comparative flash — in this case, a blitzo six weeks.
But Voodoo Lounge is actually an album of firsts. It is the Stones' first album under their new megapaycheck deal with Virgin Records, estimated at the time of signing to be worth more than $50 million. It is the band's first album to be recorded with a major outside producer, Was, since 1986's Dirty Work (done with Steve Lillywhite) and, before that, the turn-of-the-'70s studio reign of Jimmy Miller. And Voodoo Lounge is the first album the Stones have ever made without bassist Bill Wyman, who had talked a lot about leaving the band in recent years and who finally cut the cord for good at the end of 1992. With the recruitment of 32-year-old Darryl Jones, a jazz-funk journeyman who's played with both Miles Davis and Madonna, guitarist Ron Wood is now pleased to announce that — as he put it to Richards — "At least I'm not the new boy in the band anymore."
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