We've talked in the past about how you've met Bob Dylan and Paul McCartney here in the White House. Now you've met Mick Jagger. Tell us a bit about that.
The performances were terrific that night. But what was really fun about it was the rehearsal the day before. Part of what I really enjoy watching, any time I see these rehearsals, is how generous the big-name guys are with all the musicians involved. Once they get onstage, they don't have the entourage, all the trappings – they're just one more musician, and they're up there, practicing. I saw that when McCartney was here, I saw that when Stevie [Wonder] was here, Herbie Hancock. Mick was the same way. It was really nice to watch him just try to work through these numbers with the house band and a couple of guys who were with him who were obviously far less famous and about half his age, or maybe even less than half his age. But he was treating them with respect and caring about the music.
The next day, the evening of the performance, Mick gets up there and says, "Part of what makes this night special is I remember when me and the rest of the Stones traveled to Chess Records." They're in the middle of the South Side of Chicago, and they're probably the first Englishmen that most of these folks have ever met, like Howlin' Wolf and the rest of the crew at Chess and B.B. King, who was performing that night. Mick said how much he appreciated their generosity – teaching the Stones what they knew about music, even though these kids were like something arriving from another planet. The sense of him wanting to do that same thing, that it all comes full circle.
He told me that the night before, you came down to the rehearsal and hung out quite a bit. Yeah, I was down there for probably about 45 minutes. It was great fun, just watching them work through stuff. And he had unbelievable energy. I tell you, that guy, when he performed the next night, he was as energized as he's ever been.
Did you know you were going on to sing "Sweet Home Chicago" that night?
I was actually trying to avoid singing. The only problem with my Apollo performance is that everywhere I go now, somebody wants me to sing. My whole point is that the fewer the performances, the higher the ticket price, so you don't want to overdo it.
It must help to get a break, though, given how stressful and demanding the job is.
You generally don't hear in the press about what goes right, but you do hear it from the people who were impacted by it. I tell you, not a day passes where somewhere, somehow, I don't hear about something we've done that's really touched somebody directly. Somebody writes and says, "I'm 25 years old, and because of health care reform, I was able to stay on my parents' plan and ended up getting a checkup, and it turned out that I had a tumor and it was caught early, and I just want you to know that treatment is going well, and I really think this health care bill saved my life." Or you're in a rope line and somebody says, "I know you've been criticized because a lot of folks have had their homes foreclosed on, but your housing program actually helped me stay in my home, and it's made all the difference in the world."
There's an incredible generosity and recognition from people that these are tough times. It reminds you of what an incredible privilege it is to occupy this office. You're touching people on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes you don't even know it.
My hair is grayer, and obviously you get dinged up and bruised in this job. But my confidence in the American people is stronger than it was when I came into office, and my determination to do right by them and make sure that every morning, I wake up trying to figure out, "How do I improve their prospects?" That determination burns brighter than it did back in 2008.
This story is from the May 10th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.
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