Well, as you say, in America we had the Vietnam War to oppose.
You had the war. But there were other things to revolt against, weren't there? When you actually look back on it, it's very hard to pin down what these causes were. Now maybe you'll get a lot of letters saying, "Mick Jagger doesn't remember. We were fighting for a lot of things – for the rights of minorities, to end poverty and so on." And that's all certainly worth fighting for. But it's got to be said: there were a lot of people who wanted violence for its own sake. And in every crowd, these people tended to be the most loudmouthed. You have to remember violence is the most exciting thing that ever happened to some people.
But this whole issue of violence seems indivisible from the Rolling Stones' image. In fact, to some people, it was synonymous with the band. You said it yourself, that violence is exciting for some people. Was it ever troubling to you that this was the image that many people had of the Stones? Or did it help energize your performances?
It's a . . . it's a very difficult question. I mean, I don't know what to say. [Pauses.] The best rock & roll music encapsulates a certain high energy – an angriness – whether on record or onstage. That is, rock & roll is only rock & roll if it's not safe. You know, one of the things I hate is what rock & roll has become in a lot of people's hands: a safe, viable vehicle for pop. Oh, it's inevitable, I suppose, but I don't like that sort of music. It's like, rock & roll – the best kind, that is, the real thing – is always brash. That's the reason for punk. I mean, what was punk about? Violence and energy – and that's really what rock & roll's all about.
And so it's inevitable that the audience is stirred by the anger they feel. That's probably one of the ideas. Now, if that anger spills out into the street, that's not funny for people. But if it's contained within a theater and a few chairs get broken, my opinion at the time – and my opinion now – is, well, so what?
But the truth is, I don't like to see people getting hurt. At early concerts we did, the police used to . . . I remember vividly the first time we played Memphis. Little girls would be standing up taking pictures, and the police would come down front and bang – these girls would get hit over the head with a billy club. And the same happened in Europe, in Germany and Holland – this gratuitous violence from the police or the bouncers or whoever they were, the people there with the muscle. And the audiences were often provoked by that more – that the authorities were creating these confrontations. Because otherwise, nothing much really happens at rock shows. I mean, you get a few kids onstage. But when they start to put huge flanks of police or private security in there, with the sole idea of showing how butch they are – the classic case being Altamont – then there's trouble.
Anyway, it's never been my intention to encourage people to get hurt. In fact, we used to always stop in the middle of a number if we saw someone getting hurt. I remember doing that many times. And yes, sometimes it got out of hand.
Well, it doesn't really happen anymore.
Perhaps the most famous instance of it getting out of hand, as you mentioned, was at Altamont. Over the years many people have asserted that the violence that occurred on that day was somehow a consequence of the dark imagery the band had been flirting with all along. Looking back, does that seem like a fair accusation?
It's not fair. It's ridiculous. I mean, to me that is the most ridiculous journalistic contrivance I ever heard. I disagreed with Jann Wenner at the time. I still disagree with him. I don't think he was at the concert. I don't think any of the writers who wrote about it so fully were ever there. Everyone who lived in San Francisco – including a lot of those people who wrote about Altamont – knew that a lot of concerts had gone on with all these same organizers, with the Hell's Angels. It had simply happened a lot in San Francisco. And it may sound like an excuse, but we believed – however naively – that this show could be organized by those San Francisco people who'd had experience with this sort of thing. It was just an established ritual, this concert-giving thing in the Bay Area. And just because it got out of hand, we got the blame. Well, I think that was passing the buck, because those writers who were there knew we didn't organize the concert. I mean, we did not organize it. Perhaps we should have – that's another question. In fact, that was one of the lessons well learned.
But at the time, I naively thought that these people in San Francisco were the most organized people, because at that time they had a lot going for them, a lot of respect. And I went along with it. If I'd known it was going to be what it was, obviously I wouldn't have done it. It was foolish of me to be so naive, but we were still living at the end of the "everyone's together and lovable" era, and San Francisco was supposed to be the center of it all. That's one of the reasons we did the concert there.
So I don't buy all that other bullshit. I mean, that's an excuse made by the people in San Francisco. And I don't like when they completely put the blame on us. Some of it, yeah. But not all of it.
In their recent books about the Rolling Stones, Philip Norman and Stanley Booth —
God bless them both.
Both authors have claimed that after Altamont, the Rolling Stones were never quite the same – that the group was never quite as willing to invoke violence in its music, or even face tough issues, except in largely superficial ways.
I don't know. I mean, it sounds really good in a book, you know, to have, like, this great claim: "And that was the end of the era." It's all so wonderfully convenient.
But, you know, it did teach me a lesson. The lesson is that you can't do a large show without, um, control.
But as to violence and so on . . . well, we did a song on the last album that's quite violent ["One Hit to the Body"], and I don't think . . . well, maybe. I mean, you can postulate all you want about what happened on that day. I don't know. I felt very upset. And I was very sad about the violence, the guy that died and the Hell's Angels behaving the way they did. It was awful. It was a horrible thing to go through. I hated it. And the audience had a hard time. It was a lesson that we all learned. It was a horrible experience – not so much for me as for the people that suffered. I had a pretty easy ride, you know – I was lucky. There's no doubt that it did leave . . . a regret. And it left things at a very low ebb at the end of what was otherwise a very successful tour – in fact, the first major arena tour.
So, I don't know – I'm not the one to make the judgment, except to say I think it's a bit convenient when you're writing a book. I mean, this notion of "the end of the Sixties" – it's just too good to be true. I mean, things aren't quite as simple as that. But it was . . . it was . . . an experience.
Let's move ahead a couple of years, to the time that you recorded Exile on Main Street – an album that many critics now regard as the Rolling Stones' finest work.
No. It's a wonderful record, but I wouldn't consider it the finest of the Rolling Stones' work. I think that Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed were better records. They're more compressed. You know, when you put a double album out, there's always going to be something that could have been left off and would have made it maybe better.
But, you know, Exile . . . its reputation just seems bigger now than it was back then. I remember it didn't really sell well at the time, and there was only one single off it. And we were still in this phase where we weren't really commercially minded; we weren't trying to exploit or wring dry the record like one would do now, with a lot of singles. I mean, we weren't really looking at the financial and commercial aspects of it.
But the truth is, it wasn't a huge success at the time. It wasn't even critically well received. I think if you go back and look at the reviews, you'll see I'm right. It mostly got very indifferent reviews. And I love it now when all these critics say it was the most wonderful thing, because it's a lot of those same guys who, at the time, said it was crap! Anyway, I think Exile lacked a bit of definition. I'm being supercritical, I know, but the record lacks a little focus.
But that's part of what seems to lend the record its force. It seems like a work of world-weariness – the work that results from a time of disillusion. In that sense, it also seems a bit of a definitive Seventies work.
Is it? I don't know what the Seventies is really all about. Spandex trousers, isn't it? And, you know, funny clothes? I think Exile was a hangover from the end of the Sixties.
Were the Seventies a harder time to be inspired?
Well, judging from the records, perhaps they were. I mean, at the time I felt I was just carrying on, but . . . well, it's a long way from Exile to "Angie." I don't think that one would've gone on Exile.
These days, if rumors are to be believed, you and Keith Richards no longer communicate amicably, and the Rolling Stones may be a thing of the past. Are you comfortable discussing what has happened to the group?
No, not really, because it only goes to fuel more troubles, and Keith gets real upset every time I say anything that's even nice or understanding. I mean, we've had a lot of ups and downs in the Rolling Stones, and this is one of them. I, for one, hope we will regroup.
Having said that, I think that one ought to be allowed to have one's artistic side apart from just being in the Rolling Stones. I love the Rolling Stones – I think it's wonderful, I think it's done a lot of wonderful things for music. But, you know, it cannot be, at my age and after spending all these years, the only thing in my life. If I want to record different kinds of songs or albums – whatever I want to do – I feel I have the right to be able to do that. And though I think the Rolling Stones is a wonderful band, it has its own style, its own history, both of which are very bounding factors. The history, style and the personnel – they're not really that changeable. Amenable to certain change, but after this time, perhaps not to a lot of change. And if I want to step outside of it, in any way I want, I feel I have the right to do so. Obviously, I should put the fact of what I want to do in front of everybody else. But I feel everyone else in the band also has the right to do it. I'm not the only person in the band.
But as I'm the lead singer in the band, I feel that they would resent that more than the fact of Charlie doing something, or Bill or Ronnie – all of whom have done many, many solo projects, and with a lot of help from me. I mean, Ronnie Wood I helped endlessly on his first album. I helped all these people, getting them their deals and helping them with their songs. And I feel I have the right to have my own individuality in whatever way I want – whether it's a movie, a video, an album, whatever. I think after twenty-three, twenty-four or however many years, I certainly have earned the right to express myself in another way.
I mean, if things are not going too well in that group of people, I feel I don't want to stand still and wait for the problems to go away and wait for everything to come around and for everyone to be in the right mood. Also, I don't particularly want to go on tour when things are not going well. I think it's a mistake. I learned a lesson from the Who being on the road when they were not getting on. I hated seeing it. It embarrassed me and made me feel sad. And I don't want to see the Rolling Stones like that – onstage and getting on badly. I don't see the point of it. When you're not getting along, don't push it in public. In a recording studio, fine. But I don't want to see that onstage. I think it's washing your dirty linen and so on.
Fifteen years ago, I could have just sat around and lived in the country and waited for a year, hoping it would blow over. Now I don't feel like that. Now I think, "Well, okay, I'll get on with my life." There are a lot of things going down, and it's not only between Keith and myself. Things don't always go well. Five people trying to get on, you know, there's always going to be a bit of friction. A certain amount of friction works well for you. But more than a certain amount – for me, I can't handle it.
Do you still have any fraternal sense for Keith?
Yeah, I feel . . . I respect him, and I feel a lot of affection for him, and I feel protective. He's the kind of person who . . . well, he has a certain vulnerability. He's had a lot of hard times. He's had a lot of good times [laughs]. We've had a lot of fun and a lot of heartache together. But, you know, I still say I'm able to just do things. And whatever I feel I want to do, the age I am, I've got to do it. I have much more I want to do. The Rolling Stones is just a straight-ahead rock & roll band.
Do you consider that a limitation?
Yes, it is limiting, but I like the limitation of that. That's fine. But there's another part to me I want to explore.
For years, though, the Rolling Stones seemed to define what rock & roll could be at its best. You know, "the World's Greatest Rock & Roll Band" and all that.
I never trumpeted us as such . . . though I did put up with it, I suppose.
So we shouldn't see this as the end of the Rolling Stones?
I think everyone in the Stones is going to benefit from the fact that we're all doing different things for a while. And it won't be quite so insidiously incestuous. Because, you know . . . this is where I get into dangerous ground, because I don't want to start inviting a whole bunch of crap. But the thing that was just a little bit off . . . there just wasn't quite the spark that there should've been, whatever the reasons or whoever was to blame. Obviously, there were faults on a lot of different sides.
It's just inevitable, I think. It's unhuman to expect otherwise. I mean, people have this obsession: they want you to be like you were in 1969. They want you to, because otherwise, their youth goes with you, you know? It's very selfish, but it's understandable.
This story is from the November 5, 1987 issue of Rolling Stone.
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