Still, your audience was certainly hip enough to know what was going on. Weren't you concerned about the influence you might have on them?
It was all in the open before you could even think about it. You found yourself defending it without meaning to. Still, I don't recall defending it as a thing that anyone else should do. I might have said something like "Well, it's up to me what I want to do," but that's different. I still consider that different. It's the freedom of choosing your own personal experience, and these questions of freedom – whether you wanted to take LSD or not go to Vietnam – were sort of major legal and philosophical points of the time. It still seems absurd to me now that anybody can actually be put in jail for smoking marijuana or even selling it. It's absurd. Certainly this became one of the major arguments of the time: "This is my body, and you can't legislate what I do with it." Which is true: you can't. You can't just pass laws and enforce them, as far as drugs are concerned. It doesn't work. It didn't work during Prohibition, and it doesn't work with cocaine.
Looking back, are you unhappy that the Stones became identified by so many people as standing for drug use?
Yeah, I think it's very bad. As I say, I don't remember ever proselytizing for it myself, though, of course, you were sort of put on the spot to defend what you did. And you didn't want to say, "Oh, well, I'll never do it again," because that was absurd. So you were seen as defying authority, and in a way, that was the only stance to be taken. I didn't see any other stance to take. What were we going to do? Community service? You know, they weren't offering community service – they were offering jail. So, yeah, you got identified with the drug thing and with being an outlaw.
But I think it became a tremendous bore to everyone in the Rolling Stones who ever got either arrested or involved with drugs. In Brian Jones's case it probably contributed to his death. So it was tremendously regrettable – especially the damage it did by persuading people how glamorous it all was. In reality, it was also detrimental to the work the band was doing. And it went on and on and on.
Did it ever feel as if the Rolling Stones might not survive that particular passage?
Oh, yeah. Several times. Because you had to spend so much time defending yourself. In a way it was like being Lenny Bruce: he was a wonderful comedian, but he spent so much time defending himself every time he said "fuck" that he was never funny anymore.
You might get different answers from different people in the band, but if I remember right, it was not the intention of the Rolling Stones to become drug-user outlaws. It was a real drawback as far as creativity went. And it went on until 1977, with Keith's bust in Toronto.
All those things affected the band and gave us this image of being like a real bunch of outlaw dope fiends – which was to a certain extent, I suppose, true. But it was also imposed, somewhat. Because I think the original intent was just to do what one did and not make an issue of it.
There were other ways, though, in which the Stones came to be seen as advocates of evil. One of the more famous examples is your song "Sympathy for the Devil," which some fans saw as a delightful outright alliance with Satan and all that he represents. I wondered, though, if you actually intended the song more as a comment on the nature of personal evil – you know, the idea that if there's any devil in this world, it's the devil that lives inside each of us. In other words, it isn't Satan who ruins the world, but you and me.
Well, I don't want to start explaining my old songs, because I think it's much more pleasurable for people to have their own interpretation of a song or novel or film or so on. I don't think authors want to go around pointing out what people have taken wrong, so I'm not going to do any explaining, except to say that your point of view seems a pretty valid one to me [laughs].
You've obviously been thinking about "Sympathy for the Devil," and you got it right. More or less. But if some people want to take these things literally – I mean, if they only want to look at them on one level – well, that's fine, you know. It's just schoolmarmy for me to say you've got to look underneath the surface. If people want to take it literally, they take it literally.
But was it ever troubling that some people saw the Stones as some sort of devil worshippers?
I thought it was a really odd thing, because it was only one song, after all. It wasn't like it was a whole album, with lots of signs on the back – you know, sort of occult signs. It was only one song, and people seemed to very much embrace the image so readily, which has carried all the way over to heavy-metal bands today. There's a huge following for all these hocus-pocus bands, so obviously the subject has a vast commercial potential. But I should say here, we did not set out to make such a commercially exploitable thing out of the idea.
Perhaps what made the topic so potent is that it hadn't been addressed that way in popular music before. Also, you didn't treat the idea as if it were hocus-pocus. You seemed to take your subject seriously.
Well, for the duration of the song. That's what those things are about. It's like acting in a movie: you try to act out the scene as believably as possible, whether you believe it or not. That's called good acting. You have to remember, when somebody writes a song, it's not entirely autobiographical. I suppose it's a natural assumption that when somebody sees a songwriter like, say, Lou Reed or myself talking directly to an audience, that we're somehow relating a personal experience or view. And while I think that personal experience is a wonderful thing to build a song on, I also like to embellish personal experience with imagination. Like most writers do. The thing is, people want to believe. If they believe it, then great. If you are writing a novel, and somebody believes that you know the subject, then it's all the better for you. Because that's what you're trying to achieve.
What if what they believe is something troubling – something that could have a damaging influence?
Well, you've got to be careful. If you're doing a song that says heroin is great . . . I can't remember what Lou Reed's "Heroin" is about, to be honest.
The song doesn't proselytize for heroin – it simply depicts what the drug is like. It's certainly not a celebration.
But you know what I mean. People don't listen to that. They go, "Yeah, heroin – great!" But "Sympathy for the Devil" was pretty . . . ah, well, it's just one song, as I said. Hell, you know, I never really did the subject to death. But I did have to back off a little, because I could see what was happening. It's an easily exploitable image, and people really went for it in a big way. And I backed off, because I didn't want to go down that way – you know, have people thinking that was my thing. I wanted to have other subjects and other roles, and you get typecast in there if you don't watch it. I mean, the Rolling Stones were very typecast from early on in a way, with all the things we've talked about. Myself, I was always typecast as rebellious and so on. It was very difficult to come out with any other image, or when you did, you were ignored by the media.
Another song that seemed to find the Stones siding with transgressors was "Street Fighting Man." In a period when bands like the Beatles were carefully aligning themselves with the nonviolent factions of the antiwar movement, the Stones seemed more inclined to consider the notion of violent revolution.
Just the opposite. I don't think violence is necessary in this society to bring about political change. I was never supportive of the Weathermen or anything like that I never believed that the violent course was necessary for our society. For other societies perhaps, but in ours, it's totally unnecessary. It's just morally reprehensible. And that's what I'm saying in that song, really. However romantic the notion of manning the barricades may seem . . . I mean, that romantic ideal actually brought down a government very close to here – the de Gaulle government in France. And in America, you had the rioting at the Democratic convention in the same year. So there was a lot of street violence going on, for very ill-defined reasons. I'm not quite sure what all that was really about, when you think about it now. I mean, the Vietnam War was somewhat a part of it, but was that the reason for the Paris riots? It's very hard to put your finger on what it was all about. It was a violent period. It didn't seem to have a lot of point to it. There was no great cause that was felt.
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