Mick Jagger Remembers

In one of his most in-depth interviews ever, the Rolling Stones frontman looks back on 30 years in the world’s greatest rock & roll band

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Being interviewed is one of Mick Jagger‘s least favorite pastimes, a necessity that accompanies his career. A typical session with a journalist lasts 20 minutes. His life has been public for so long, he sees little need to explain or justify himself and has everything to be gained by holding on to what privacy he has – such as the privacy of his thinking – as well as the value of a little mystery.

Nonetheless, after a 25-year professional and personal friendship, during which Mick and I have often discussed the private affairs of his life and the band, I suggested doing a long interview. He agreed, and we proceeded on the basis of trust and familiarity.

This interview was conducted in three-to four-hour sessions in Palm Beach, Fla.; Montreal; and Cologne, Germany. We began in November of 1994 and finished in October of 1995 with a New York-to-London phone call. We did this throughout the Voodoo Lounge tour, a time when Jagger and the Stones were proceeding at a new level of assurance, maturity and status. The atmosphere and congeniality surrounding the band were exceptional, reflecting the upbeat confidence and ease that occurs when you are at the top of your game. I think Mick felt this, too, and thought this was a good time to go on the record, knowing I wanted to go back to the old days and start from there. Also, it was a long tour, and he seemed to enjoy the company whenever I came to do background reporting or the interview.

This is the most comprehensive interview Jagger has ever granted, and I decided at the outset to avoid the gossipy byways in favor of getting Mick to recall and interpret the most significant aspects of the group’s history and its music.

Mick is a difficult interview, not only because of his natural reserve and lack of interest in the past but also because he communicates as much with his elastic body gestures, great smile and expressive face as he does verbally: Half of what he says never makes it to the page. There is so much he doesn’t want to talk about and therefore says only with a knowing look; you know how distasteful or delightful a particular experience was for him, but that information remains at best a confidence between interviewer and interviewee… You’ve been told, and you’ve been had!

We entered into this as a collaboration, and despite his reluctance about being interviewed, I think he enjoyed the reminiscing and was happy to get some things on the record.

I certainly enjoyed it, as a longtime Stones fan and great admirer of Jagger’s talents, artistry and aplomb. I also had a pleasurable excuse to see more than half a dozen shows, in all kinds of circumstances, throughout the tour. It’s my opinion that the Stones are still the greatest rock & roll band in the world, and based on both the Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge world tours, I think they are also the greatest show on earth.

Herewith, the ringmaster.

~ J.S.W.

Nov. 7, 1995

When did you first realize you were a performer, that what you did onstage was affecting people?
When I was 18 or so. The Rolling Stones were just starting to play some clubs around London, and I realized I was getting a lot of girl action when normally I hadn’t gotten much. I was very unsophisticated then.

It was the attention of the girls that made you realize you were doing something onstage that was special?
You realize that these girls are going, either quietly or loudly, sort of crazy. And you’re going, “Well, this is good. You know, this is something else.” At that age you’re just so impressed, especially if you’ve been rather shy before.

There’s two parts of all this, at least. There’s this great fascination for music and this love of playing blues – not only blues, just rock & roll generally. There’s this great love of that.

But there’s this other thing that’s performing, which is something that children have or they haven’t got. In the slightly post-Edwardian, pre-television days, everybody had to do a turn at family gatherings. You might recite poetry, and Uncle What ever would play the piano and sing, and you all had something to do. And I was just one of those kids [who loved it].

I guess you just want some sort of gratification. You have to want some sort of approval. But it’s also just the love of actually doing it. Fun.

You were going to the London School of Economics and just getting started playing with the Stones. How did you decide which you were going to do?
Well, I started to do both, really. The Stones thing was weekends, and college was in the week. God, the Rolling Stones had so little work – it was like one gig a month. So it wasn’t really that difficult – we just couldn’t get any work.

How committed to the group were you then?
Well, I wasn’t totally committed; it was a good, fun thing to do, but Keith [Richards] and Brian [Jones] didn’t have anything else to do, so they wanted to rehearse all the time. I liked to rehearse once a week and do a show Saturday. The show that we did was three or four numbers, so there wasn’t a tremendous amount of rehearsal needed.

Were you torn about the decision to drop out of school?
It was very, very difficult because my parents obviously didn’t want me to do it. My father was furious with me, absolutely furious. I’m sure he wouldn’t have been so mad if I’d have volunteered to join the army. Anything but this. He couldn’t believe it. I agree with him: It wasn’t a viable career opportunity. It was totally stupid. But I didn’t really like being at college. It wasn’t like it was Oxford and had been the most wonderful time of my life. It was really a dull, boring course I was stuck on.

Tell me about meeting Keith.
I can’t remember when I didn’t know him. We lived one street away; his mother knew my mother, and we were at primary school together from [ages] 7 to 11. We used to play together, and we weren’t the closest friends, but we were friends.

Keith and I went to different schools when we were 11, but he went to a school which was really near where I used to live. But I always knew where he lived, because my mother would never lose contact with anybody, and she knew where they’d moved. I used to see him coming home from his school, which was less than a mile away from where I lived. And then – this is a true story – we met at the train station. And I had these rhythm & blues records, which were very prized possessions because they weren’t available in England then. And he said, “Oh, yeah, these are really interesting.” That kind of did it. That’s how it started, really.

We started to go to each other’s house and play these records. And then we started to go to other people’s houses to play other records. You know, it’s the time in your life when you’re almost stamp-collecting this stuff. I can’t quite remember how all this worked. Keith always played the guitar, from even when he was 5. And he was keen on country music, cowboys. But obviously at some point, Keith, he had this guitar with this electric-guitar pickup. And he played it for me. So I said, “Well, I sing, you know? And you play the guitar.” Very obvious stuff.

I used to play Saturday night shows with all these different little groups. If I could get a show, I would do it. I used to do mad things – you know, I used to go and do these shows and go on my knees and roll on the ground – when I was 15,16 years old. And my parents were extremely disapproving of it all. Because it was just not done. This was for very low-class people, remember. Rock & roll singers weren’t educated people.

What did you think was going on inside you at 15 years old that you wanted to go out and roll around on a stage?
I didn’t have any inhibitions. I saw Elvis and Gene Vincent, and I thought, “Well, I can do this.” And I liked doing it. It’s a real buzz, even in front of 20 people, to make a complete fool of yourself. But people seemed to like it. And the thing is, if people started throwing tomatoes at me, I wouldn’t have gone on with it. But they all liked it, and it always seemed to be a success, and people were shocked. I could see it in their faces.

Shocked by you?
Yeah. They could see it was a bit wild for what was going on at the time in these little places in the suburbs. Parents were not always very tolerant, but Keith’s mum was very tolerant of him playing. Keith was an only child, and she didn’t have a lot of other distractions, whereas my parents were like “Get on your homework.” It was a real hard time for me. So I used to go and play with Keith, and then we used to go and play with Dick Taylor [who was later in the Pretty Things]. His parents were very tolerant, so we used to go round to his house, where we could play louder.

What was it like to be such a success at such a young age?
It was very exciting. The first time we got our picture in the music paper called the Record Mirror – to be on the front page of this thing that probably sold about 20,000 copies – was so exciting, you couldn’t believe it. And this glowing review: There we were in this club in Richmond, being written up in these rather nice terms. And then to go from the music-oriented press to national press and national television, and everyone seeing you in the world of two television channels, and then being recognized by everyone from builders and people working in shops and so on. It goes to your head – very champagne feeling.

You became quite the pop aristocrat in swinging London.
Well, it’s quite a while until all that. But the earlier bit was even more exciting. The suits, the ties and getting ready for Thank Your Lucky Stars,the innocence and naiveté of it all, and famous photographers wanting to take your picture and being in Vogue. In England they were very ready for another band. It was funny, because the Beatles had only been around a year. Things happened so quickly. Then there were a lot of popular bands, and all these bands were from the North of England. Most people in England don’t live in the North, and people are snobby in England, so they wanted a band from the South. We were it.

Satisfaction In the ’60s

I recently listened to the very early albums, the first four or five you did, and they’re all pretty much the same. You were doing blues and covers, but one song stood out: “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back),” your first U.S. hit and your first composition together with Keith. It’s the first one that has the seeds of the modern Stones in it.
Keith was playing 12-string and singing harmonies into the same microphone as the 12-string. We recorded it in this tiny studio in the West End of London called Regent Sound, which was a demo studio. I think the whole of that album was recorded in there. But it’s very different from doing those R&B covers or Marvin Gaye covers and all that. There’s a definite feel about it. It’s a very pop song, as opposed to all the blues songs and the Motown covers, which everyone did at the time.

The first full album that really kind of jumps out is “Out of Our Heads.”
What’s on there? [Laughter] I have no idea. I’m awfully sorry.

“Cry to Me,” “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man,” “Play With Fire,” “I’m All Right,” That’s How Strong My Lore Is”…
Yeah. A lot of covers, still.

But it had a unity of sound to it.
Most of that was recorded in RCA Studios, in Hollywood, and the people working on it, the engineers, were much better. They knew how to get really good sounds. That really affects your performance, because you can hear the nuances, and that inspires you.

And your singing is different here for the first time. You sound like you’re singing more like soul music.
Yeah, well, it is obviously soul influenced, which was the goal at the time. Otis Redding and Solomon Burke. “Play With Fire” sounds amazing – when I heard it last. I mean, it’s a very in-your-face kind of sound and very clearly done. You can hear all the vocal stuff on it. And I’m playing the tambourines, the vocal line. You know, it’s very pretty.

Who wrote that?
Keith and me. I mean, it just came out.

A full collaboration?

That’s the first song you wrote that starts to address the lifestyle you were leading in England and, of course, class consciousness.
No one had really done that. The Beatles, to some extent, were doing it, though they weren’t really doing it at this period as much as they did later. The Kinks were kind of doing it – Ray Davies and I were in the same boat. One of the first things that, in that very naive way, you attempted to deal with were the kind of funny, swinging, London-type things that were going on. I didn’t even realize I was doing it at the time. But it became an interesting source for material. Songwriting had only dealt in cliches and borrowed stuff, you know, from previous records or ideas. “I want to hold your hand,” things like that. But these songs were really more from experience and then embroidered to make them more interesting.

Where does that come from in you? I mean, you’re writing about “Your mother, she’s an heiress/Owns a block in St. John’s Wood,”but she’s sleeping with the milkman, or something.
Yeah, yeah. Well, it was just kind of rich girls’ families – society as you saw it. It’s painted in this naive way in these songs.

But at the time to write about stuff like that must have been somewhat daring.
I don’t know if it was daring. It just hadn’t been done. Obviously there had been lyric writers that had written stuff much more interesting and sophisticated – say, Noel Coward, who I didn’t really know about. He was someone that your parents knew.

The lyricist who was really good at the time was Bob Dylan. Everyone looked up to him as being a kind of guru of lyrics. It’s hard to think of the absolute garbage that pop music really was at the time. And even if you lifted your game by a marginal amount, it really was a lot different from most everything else that had gone before in the 10 years previously.

A lot of it was perhaps not as good as we thought, but at the time it was fantastic. “Gates of Eden” and all these Mexican-type songs, even the nonsense ones: “Everybody Must Get Stoned” and “Like a Rolling Stone,” “Positively 4th Street.”

Then you did “December’s Children (and Everybody’s).” Does that title mean anything particular?
No. It was our manager’s [Andrew Loog Oldham] idea of hip, Beat poetry.

That record features “Get off My Cloud.”
That was Keith’s melody and my lyrics.

This is decidedly not a love song or “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Yeah. It’s a stop-bugging-me, post-teenage-alienation song. The grown-up world was a very ordered society in the early ’60s, and I was coming out of it. America was even more ordered than anywhere else. I found it was a very restrictive society in thought and behavior and dress.

Based on your coming to the States in ’64?
’64, ’65, yeah. And touring outside of New York. New York was wonderful and so on, and L.A. was also kind of interesting. But outside of that we found it the most repressive society, very prejudiced in every way. There was still segregation. And the attitudes were fantastically old-fashioned. Americans shocked me by their behavior and their narrow-mindedness.

It’s changed fantastically over the last 30 years. But so has everything else [laughs].

Is there anything more to say about “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” than has already been said on the record? Written sitting by a pool in Florida…
Keith didn’t want it to come out as a single.

Is there anything special to you about that song, looking back at it after all these years?
People get very blasé about their big hit. It was the song that really made the Rolling Stones, changed us from just another band into a huge, monster band. You always need one song. We weren’t American, and America was a big thing, and we always wanted to make it here. It was very impressive the way that song and the popularity of the band became a worldwide thing. You know, we went to playing Singapore. The Beatles really opened all that up. But to do that you needed the song; otherwise you were just a picture in the newspaper, and you had these little hits.

Was “Satisfaction” a great, classic piece of work?
Well, it’s a signature tune, really, rather than a great, classic painting, ’cause it’s only like one thing – a kind of signature that everyone knows.

Why? What are the ingredients?
It has a very catchy title. It has a very catchy guitar riff. It has a great guitar sound, which was original at that time. And it captures a spirit of the times, which is very important in those kind of songs.

Which was?
Which was alienation. Or it’s a bit more than that, maybe, but a kind of sexual alienation. Alienation‘s not quite the right word, but it’s one word that would do.

Isn’t that a stage of youth?
Yeah, it’s being in your 20s, isn’t it? Teenage guys can’t often formulate this stuff – when you’re that young.

Who wrote “Satisfaction”?
Well, Keith wrote the lick. I think he had this lyric, “I can’t get no satisfaction,” which, actually, is a line in a Chuck Berry song called “30 Days.”

Which is “I can’t get no satisfaction “?
“I can’t get no satisfaction from the judge.”

Did you know that when you wrote it?
No, I didn’t know it, but Keith might have heard it back then, because it’s not any way an English person would express it. I’m not saying that he purposely nicked anything, but we played those records a lot.

So it just could have stuck in the back of your head.
Yeah, that was just one little line. And then I wrote the rest of it. There was no melody, really.

When you play it today, how do you feel about it? You’ve got to play it every night.
Well, I try to do it as well as I can, and I do the verse softer, so I give it some sort of dynamic. I try to make it melodic. Maybe we shouldn’t really do it every night; I don’t know.

“As Tears Go By” was your first big, classic ballad. Who wrote that?
I wrote the lyrics, and Keith wrote the melody. But in some rock, you know, there’s no melody until the singer starts to sing it. Sometimes there’s a definite melody, but quite often it’s your job as the singer to invent the melody. I start with one melody, and I make it another melody, over the same chord sequence.

You wrote it when you were 21. What do you think of it now?
It’s a very melancholy song for a 21-year-old to write: “The evening of the day, watching children play….” It’s very dumb and naive, but it’s got a very sad sort of thing about it, almost like an older person might write. You know, it’s like a metaphor for being old: You’re watching children playing and realizing you’re not a child. It’s a relatively mature song considering the rest of the output at the time. And we didn’t think of doing it [initially], because the Rolling Stones were a butch blues group. But Marianne Faithfull’s version was already a big, proven hit song.

Why did you go and rerecord it? Because you had a particular affection for that song?
Well, it was already a hit, so, you know [laughs], and Andrew was a very simple, commercial kind of guy. A lot of this stuff is done for commercial reasons.

Were you surprised that something of this kind popped out of you at 21?
It was one of the first things I ever wrote. I see songwriting as having to do with experience, and the more you’ve experienced, the better it is. But it has to be tempered, and you just must let your imagination run.

You can’t just experience something and leave it at that. You’ve got to try and embroider, like, any land of writing. And that’s the fun part of it. You have this one experience looking out of a window, seeing children. Well, you might not have felt anything, but then you just let your mind drift and dream, and you imagine an older person doing that. You put yourself in their point of view, and you start to write other things, and all this is a very subconscious thing. Out of that comes a mature thought, out of a young person.

I was reading Pushkin, and his stories are autobiographical. But not totally, because he was never in Siberia – but his friends were, so he uses it. You use your own experience, and then you spice it up with your friends’ observations and your imagination.

The next record was Aftermath, which has “Paint It, Black,” “Under My Thumb” and “Stupid Girl.” Does that stand out in your mind at all?
That was a big landmark record for me. It’s the first time we wrote the whole record and finally laid to rest the ghost of having to do these very nice and interesting, no doubt, but still cover versions of old R&B songs – which we didn’t really feel we were doing justice, to be perfectly honest, particularly because we didn’t have the maturity. Plus, everyone was doing it.

[Aftermath] has a very wide spectrum of music styles: “Paint It, Black” was this kind of Turkish song; and there were also very bluesy things like “Goin’ Home”; and I remember some sort of ballads on there. It had a lot of good songs, it had a lot of different styles, and it was very well recorded. So it was, to my mind, a real marker.

Why does “Under My Thumb” work so well?
It’s got Brian playing these marimbas. That riff played on marimbas really makes it. Plus, the groove it gets in the end of the tune. It speeds up, actually. And it becomes this kind of groove tune at the end. It was never a single, but it was always a very well-known album track. And then it became a thing feminists fastened on.

Illegitimately, you think.
It’s a bit of a jokey number, really. It’s not really an anti-feminist song any more than any of the others.

It’s more caricaturish than it is about real women.
Yes, it’s a caricature, and it’s in reply to a girl who was a very pushy woman.

Somebody specific?
No, I don’t think so.

Also, on that same album you’ve got “Stupid Girl,” which is a really nasty song.
Yeah, it’s much nastier than “Under My Thumb.”

What was going on in your life when you were writing songs like “Stupid Girl”?
Obviously, I was having a bit of trouble. I wasn’t in a good relationship. Or I was in too many bad relationships. I had so many girlfriends at that point. None of them seemed to care they weren’t pleasing me very much. I was obviously in with the wrong group.

Your pain worked out well for the rest of us.
[Laughs] The pain I had to go through!

Then you did “Between the Buttons.” What do you think of that album?
Frank Zappa used to say he really liked it. It’s a good record, but it was unfortunately rather spoiled. We recorded it in London on four-track machines. We bounced it back to do overdubs so many times, we lost the sound of a lot of it.

Does that record mean a lot to you?
No. What’s on it?

It’s nice. “Connection” is really nice.

“Yesterday’s Papers.”
Yeah, the first song I ever wrote completely on my own for a Rolling Stones record. “My Obsession,” that’s a good one. They sounded so great, but then, later on, I was really disappointed with it. Isn’t “Ruby Tuesday” on there or something? I don’t think the rest of the songs are that brilliant. “Ruby Tuesday” is good. I think that’s a wonderful song.

It’s just a nice melody, really. And a lovely lyric. Neither of which I wrote, but I always enjoy singing it. But I agree with you about the rest of the songs – I don’t think they’re there. I don’t think I thought they were very good at the time, either.

You then did “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” What was going on here?
I probably started to take too many drugs.

What do you think about “Satanic Majesties” now?
Well, it’s not very good. It had interesting things on it, but I don’t think any of the songs are very good. It’s a bit like Between the Buttons. It’s a sound experience, really, rather than a song experience. There’s two good songs on it: “She’s a Rainbow,” which we didn’t do on the last tour, although we almost did, and “2000 Light Years From Home,” which we did do. The rest of them are nonsense.

I listened to it recently, and it sounds like Spinal Tap.
Really, I know.

Was it just you trying to be the Beatles?
I think we were just taking too much acid. We were just getting carried away, just thinking anything you did was fun and everyone should listen to it.

The whole thing, we were on acid. We were on acid doing the cover picture. I always remember doing that. It was like being at school, you know, sticking on the bits of colored paper and things. It was really silly. But we enjoyed it. [Laughs] Also, we did it to piss Andrew off, because he was such a pain in the neck. Because he didn’t understand it. The more we wanted to unload him, we decided to go on this path to alienate him.

Just to force him out?
Yeah. Without actually doing it legally, we forced him out. I mean, he wanted out anyway. We were so out of our minds.

After it came out and it was kind of a chunk record, how did you consider it?
A phase. A passing fancy.

You followed up with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.”
We did that one as a single, out of all the acid of Satanic Majesties.

What’s that song about? “Born in a crossfire hurricane…”
It’s about having a hard time and getting out. Just a metaphor for getting out of all the acid things.

And it did bring you back. You launch this golden era: Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main Street.

Let’s start with Beggars Banquet, a record that you could not have predicted from your earlier work. It had extraordinary power and sophistication, with songs like “Street Fighting Man,” “Salt of the Earth,” “Stray Cat Blues” and “Jig-Saw Puzzle.” What was going on in your life at this time?

What were you listening to and reading?
God, what was I doing? Who was I living with? It was all recorded in London, and I was living in this rented house in Chester Square. I was living with Marianne Faithfull. Was I still? Yeah. And I was just writing a lot, reading a lot. I was educating myself. I was reading a lot of poetry, I was reading a lot of philosophy. I was out and about. I was very social, always hanging out with [art-gallery owner] Robert Fraser’s group of people.

And I wasn’t taking so many drugs that it was messing up my creative processes. It was a very good period, 1968 – there was a good feeling in the air. It was a very creative period for everyone. There was a lot going on in the theater. Marianne was kind of involved with it, so I would go to the theater upstairs, hang out with the young directors of the time and the young filmmakers.

Let’s start with “Sympathy for the Devil.
I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong. Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song. And you can see it in this movie Godard shot called Sympathy for the Devil [originally titled One Plus One,] which is very fortuitous, because Godard wanted to do a film of us in the studio. I mean, it would never happen now, to get someone as interesting as Godard. And stuffy.

We just happened to be recording that song. We could have been recording “My Obsession.” But it was “Sympathy for the Devil,” and it became the track that we used.

You wrote that song.

So that’s a wholly Mick Jagger song.
Uh-huh. I mean, Keith suggested that we do it in another rhythm, so that’s how bands help you.

Were you trying to put out a specific philosophical message here? You know, you’re singing, “Just as every cop is a criminal and all the sinners saints”…
Yeah, there’s all these attractions of opposites and turning things upside down.

When you were writing it, did you conceive of it as this grand work?
I knew it was something good, ’cause I would just keep banging away at it until the fucking band recorded it.

There was resistance to it?
No, there wasn’t any resistance. It was just that I knew that I wanted to do it and get it down. And I hadn’t written a lot of songs on my own, so you have to teach it. When you write songs, you have to like them yourself first, but then you have to make everyone else like them, because you can force them to play it, but you can’t force them to like it. And if they like it, they’ll do a much better job than if they’re just playing ’cause they feel they’re obligated.

They get inspired.
And then you get inspired, and that’s what being in a band’s about rather than hiring people. But I knew it was a good song. You just have this feeling. It had its poetic beginning, and then it had historic references and then philosophical jottings and so on. It’s all very well to write that in verse, but to make it into a pop song is something different. Especially in England – you’re skewered on the altar of pop culture if you become pretentious.

The song has a very strong opening: “Please allow me to introduce myself.” And then it’s this Everyman figure in history who keeps appearing from the beginning of civilization.
Yeah, it’s a very long historical figure – the figures of evil and figures of good – so it is a tremendously long trail he’s made as personified in this piece.

What else makes this song so powerful?
It has a very hypnotic groove, a samba, which has a tremendous hypnotic power, rather like good dance music. It doesn’t speed up or slow down. It keeps this constant groove. Plus, the actual samba rhythm is a great one to sing on, but it’s also got some other suggestions in it, an undercurrent of being primitive – because it is a primitive African, South American, Afro-whatever-you-call-that rhythm. So to white people, it has a very sinister thing about it.

But forgetting the cultural colors, it is a very good vehicle for producing a powerful piece. It becomes less pretentious because it’s a very unpretentious groove. If it had been done as a ballad, it wouldn’t have been as good.

Obviously, Altamont gave it a whole other resonance.
Yeah, Altamont is much later than the song, isn’t it? I know what you’re saying, but I’m just stuck in my periods, because you were asking me what I was doing, and I was in my study in Chester Square.

After Altamont, did you shy away from performing that song?
Yeah, probably, for a bit.

It stigmatized the song in a way?
Yeah. Because it became so involved with [Altamont] – sort of journalistically and so on. There were other things going on with it apart from Altamont.

Was it the black-magic thing?
Yeah. And that’s not really what I meant. My whole thing of this song was not black magic and all this silly nonsense – like Megadeth or whatever else came afterward. It was different than that. We had played around with that imagery before – which is Satanic Majesties – but it wasn’t really put into words.

After the concert itself, when it became apparent that somebody got killed, how did you feel?
Well, awful. I mean, just awful. You feel a responsibility. How could it all have been so silly and wrong? But I didn’t think of these things that you guys thought of, you in the press: this great loss of innocence, this cathartic end of the era…. I didn’t think of any of that. That particular burden didn’t weigh on my mind. It was more how awful it was to have had this experience and how awful it was for someone to get killed and how sad it was for his family and how dreadfully the Hell’s Angels behaved.

Did it cause you to back off that kind of satanic imagery?
The satanic-imagery stuff was very overplayed [by journalists]. We didn’t want to really go down that road. And I felt that song was enough. You didn’t want to make a career out of it. But bands did that – Jimmy Page, for instance.

Big Aleister Crowley…
I knew lots of people that were into Aleister Crowley. What I’m saying is, it wasn’t what I meant by the song “Sympathy for the Devil.” If you read it, it’s not about black magic, per se.

On that same record you did “Street Fighting Man.” Tell me a bit about that.
It was a very strange time in France. But not only in France but also in America, because of the Vietnam War and these endless disruptions.

Did you write that song?
Yeah. I wrote a lot of the melody and all the words, and Keith and I sat around and made this wonderful track, with Dave Mason playing the shehani on it live.

The shehani?
It’s a kind of Indian reed instrument a bit like a primitive clarinet. It comes in at the end of the tune. It has a very wailing, strange sound.

It’s another of the classic songs. Why does it have such resonance today?
I don’t know if it does. I don’t know whether we should really play it. I was persuaded to put it in this tour because it seemed to fit in, but I’m not sure if it really has any resonance for the present day. I don’t really like it that much. I thought it was a very good thing at the time. There was all this violence going on. I mean, they almost toppled the government in France; DeGaulle went into this complete funk, as he had in the past, and he went and sort of locked himself in his house in the country. And so the government was almost inactive. And the French riot police were amazing.

Was this written in response to having seen what was going on with the students in Paris, a direct inspiration from seeing it on television?
Yeah, it was a direct inspiration, because by contrast, London was very quiet….

Sleepy London town?
Isn’t “No Expectations” on that record?

It’s got that wonderful steel guitar part.
That’s Brian playing. We were sitting around in a circle on the floor, singing and playing, recording with open mikes.

That was the last time I remember Brian really being totally involved in something that was really worth doing. He was there with everyone else. It’s funny how you remember – but that was the last moment I remember him doing that, because he had just lost interest in everything.

“Let It Bleed”?
Yeah. What’s on that? It was all recorded at the same time, these two records.

What do you mean? Those two records were recorded back to back?
Some of them were recorded on one and spilled over to the next.

It’s got “Midnight Rambler,” “Love in Vain,” “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” This seems to be one of the bleakest records that you made. The songs are very disturbing, and the scenery is ugly. Why this view of the world? The topics are rape, war, murder, addiction….
Well, it’s a very rough, very violent era. The Vietnam War. Violence on the screens, pillage and burning. And Vietnam was not war as we knew it in the conventional sense. The thing about Vietnam was that it wasn’t like World War II, and it wasn’t like Korea, and it wasn’t like the Gulf War. It was a real nasty war, and people didn’t like it. People objected, and people didn’t want to fight it. The people that were there weren’t doing well. There were these things used that were always used before, but no one knew about them – like napalm.

Are you saying the Vietnam War had a heavy influence on this record?
I think so. Even though I was living in America only part time, I was influenced. All those images were on television. Plus, the spill out onto campuses.

Who wrote “Midnight Rambler”?
That’s a song Keith and I really wrote together. We were on a holiday in Italy. In this very beautiful hill town, Positano, for a few nights. Why we should write such a dark song in this beautiful, sunny place, I really don’t know. We wrote everything there – the tempo changes, everything. And I’m playing the harmonica in these little cafes, and there’s Keith with the guitar.

“Gimmie Shelter”?
That’s a kind of end-of-the-world song, really. It’s apocalypse; the whole record’s like that.

Whose idea was it to do the Robert Johnson song “Lore in Vain”?
I don’t know. We changed the arrangement quite a lot from Robert Johnson’s. We put in extra chords that aren’t there on the Robert Johnson version. Made it more country. And that’s another strange song, because it’s very poignant. Robert Johnson was a wonderful lyric writer, and his songs are quite often about love, but they’re desolate.

“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”?
It’s a good song, even if I say so myself.

Why is that one so popular?
‘Cause it’s got a very sing-along chorus. And people can identify with it: No one gets what they always want. It’s got a very good melody. It’s got very good orchestral touches that Jack Nitzsche helped with. So it’s got all the ingredients.

Anything else you can think of on “Let It Bleed”?
I think it’s a good record. I’d put it as one of my favorites.

Partners for Life

What about your relationship with Keith? Does it bug you, having Keith as your primary musical partner? Does it bug you having a partner at all?
No, I think it’s essential. You don’t have to have a partner for everything you do. But having partners sometimes helps you and sometimes hinders you. You have good times and bad times with them. It’s just the nature of it.

People also like partnerships because they can identify with the drama of two people in partnership. They can feed off a partnership, and that keeps people entertained. Besides, if you have a successful partnership, it’s self-sustaining.

You have maybe the longest-running song-writing-performing partnership in our times. Why do you think you and Keith survived, unlike John Lennon and Paul McCartney?
That’s hard to make even a stab at, because I don’t know John and Paul well enough. I know them slightly, same as you, probably, and maybe you knew John better at the end. I can hazard a guess that they were both rather strong personalities, and both felt they were totally independent. They seemed to be very competitive over leadership of the band. The thing in leadership is, you can have times when one person is more at the center than the other, but there can’t be too much arguing about it all the time. Because if you’re always at loggerheads, you just have to go, “Ok, if I can’t have a say in this and this, then fuck it. What am I doing here?” So you sort of agree what your roles are. Whereas John and Paul felt they were too strong, and they wanted to be in charge. If there are 10 things, they both wanted to be in charge of nine of them. You’re not gonna make a relationship like that work, are you?

Why do you and Keith keep the joint-songwriting partnership?
We just agreed to do that, and that seemed the easiest way to do it. I think in the end it all balances out.

How was it when Keith was taking heroin all the time? How did you handle that?
I don’t find it easy to talk about other people’s drug problems. If he wants to talk about it, fine, he can talk about it all he wants. Elton John talks about his bulimia on television. But I don’t want to talk about his bulimia, and I don’t want to talk about Keith’s drug problems.

How did I handle it? Oh, with difficulty. It’s never easy. I don’t find it easy dealing with people with drug problems. It helps if you’re all taking drugs, all the same drugs. But anyone taking heroin is thinking about taking heroin more than they’re thinking about anything else. That’s the general rule about most drugs. If you’re really on some heavily addictive drug, you think about the drug, and everything else is secondary. You try and make everything work, but the drug comes first.

How did his drug use affect the band?
I think that people taking drugs occasionally are great. I think there’s nothing wrong with it. But if you do it the whole time, you don’t produce as good things as you could. It sounds like a puritanical statement, but it’s based on experience. You can produce many good things, but they take an awfully long time.

You obviously developed a certain relationship based on him as a drug addict, part of which was you running the band. So when he cleaned up, how did that affect the band? Drug addicts are basically incompetent to run anything.
Yeah, it’s all they can do to turn up. And people have different personalities when they’re drunk or take heroin, or whatever drugs. When Keith was taking heroin, it was very difficult to work. He still was creative, but it took a long time. And everyone else was taking drugs and drinking a tremendous amount, too. And it affected everyone in certain ways. But I’ve never really talked to Keith about this stuff. So I have no idea what he feels.

You never talked about the drug stuff with him?
No. So I’m always second-guessing. I tell you something, I probably read it in Rolling Stone.

What’s your relationship with him now?
We have a very good relationship at the moment. But it’s a different relationship to what we had when we were 5 and different to what we had when we were 20 and a different relationship than when we were 30. We see each other every day, talk to each other every day, play every day. But it’s not the same as when we were 20 and shared rooms.

Can we talk about Brian Jones for a second here?
Sure. The thing about Brian is that he was an extremely difficult person. You don’t really feel like talking bad about someone that’s had such a miserable time. But he did give everyone else an extremely miserable ride. Anyway, there was something very, very disturbed about him. He was very unhappy with life, very frustrated. He was very talented, but he was a very paranoid personality and not at all suited to be in show business [Laughs].

Hmm. Show business killed him?
Yeah. Well, he killed himself, but he should’ve been playing trad-jazz weekends and teaching in school; he probably would have been better off.

What was Brian’s contribution to the band?
Well, he had a huge contribution in the early days. He was very obsessed with it, which you always need.

Obsessed with the band?
Yeah, getting it going and its personality and how it should be. He was obsessed. Too obsessed for me. There’s a certain enthusiasm, and after that it becomes obsession. I go back to my thing about collecting: It’s nice to collect stamps, but if it becomes obsessive, and you start stealing for your stamps, it becomes too much. He was obsessed about the image of the band, and he was very exclusionary. He saw the Stones as a blues band based on Muddy Waters, Elmore James and that tradition.

I don’t think he really liked playing Chuck Berry songs. He was very purist. He was real middle class; he came from one of the most middle-class towns in England, Cheltenham, which was one of the most genteel towns in the most genteel area of England. So his whole outlook and upbringing was even worse in the gentility fashion than mine.

What started causing tensions in the group among Keith, you and him?
[Brian] was a very jealous person and didn’t read the right books about leadership [Laughs] And you can’t be jealous and be a leader. He was obsessed with the idea of being the leader of the band. You have to realize that everyone in a band is all more or less together, and everyone has their own niche, and some people lead in some ways, and some people lead in others. He never could understand that; he never got it, and he was kind of young. So he alienated people. And as I say, he was very narrow-minded in his view of music, and, really, Keith and I had been very catholic.

But did you take away the leadership of the band from him?
He had never had the leadership of the band to take away; if you’re the singer in the band, you always get more attention than anyone else. Brian got very jealous when I got attention. And then the main jealousy was because Keith and I started writing songs, and he wasn’t involved in that. To be honest, Brian had no talent for writing songs. None. I’ve never known a guy with less talent for songwriting.

What did he have talent for?
He was a guitar player, and he also diverted his talent on other instruments. His original instrument was the clarinet. So he played harmonica because he was familiar with wind instruments.

Did he give the band a sound?
Yes. He played the slide guitar at a time when no one really played it. He played in the style of Elmore James, and he had this very lyrical touch. He evolved into more of an experimental musician, but he lost touch with the guitar, and always as a musician you must have one thing you do well. He dabbled too much.

Does he deserve the kind of mythological status that he has among hard-core Stones fanatics?
Well, he was an integral part of the band, and he – for whatever it means – was a big part of it.

Can you describe your falling apart?
It happened gradually. He went from [being] an obsessive about the band to being rather an outsider. He’d turn up late to recording sessions, and he’d miss the odd gig every now and then. He let his health deteriorate because he drank too much and took drugs when they were new, hung out too much, stayed up too late, partied too much and didn’t concentrate on what he was doing. Let his talent slide.

Did you fire him, finally?

How was that?
Not pleasant. It’s never pleasant, firing people. But it had to be done because we felt we needed someone, and he wasn’t there. He wouldn’t come to the studio. He wouldn’t do anything. We felt we couldn’t go on. In fact, we came to a point where we couldn’t play live. We couldn’t hold our heads up and play because Brian was a total liability. He wasn’t playing well, wasn’t playing at all, couldn’t hold the guitar. It was pathetic. Of course, now I suppose we would have had him admitted to rehab clinics and so on, but those things, unfortunately, in those days were not the path. He tried lots of doctors, but they just gave him more pills.

Do you feel guilty somehow about it all?
No, I don’t really. I do feel that I behaved in a very childish way, but we were very young, and in some ways we picked on him. But, unfortunately, he made himself a target for it; he was very, very jealous, very difficult, very manipulative, and if you do that in this kind of a group of people, you get back as good as you give, to be honest. I wasn’t understanding enough about his drug addition. No one seemed to know much about drug addiction. Things like LSD were all new. No one knew the harm. People thought cocaine was good for you.

I’m going to quote you something Charlie told me: “Brian Jones had a death wish at a young age. Brian’s talent wasn’t up to it. He wasn’t up to leading a band. He was not a pleasant person to be around. And he was never there to help people to write a song. That’s when Mick lost his patience. We carried Brian Jones.”
That’s straight to the point, isn’t it? Whether he had a death wish or not, I don’t know. He was a very sad, pitiable figure at the end. He was a talented musician, but he let it go and proved to be a rather sad precursor to a lot of other people. Why this should be, I don’t know. I find it rather morbid, but it does keep happening, with people like Kurt Cobain. Why? Does this happen in accounting, too? Is this something that happens in every profession, it’s just that we don’t read about the accountants? I think the answer is, yes, it does happen in every profession – it’s just played out in public with people like Brian and Kurt Cobain.

How do you think Brian died? There’s been a lot of speculation.
Drowned in a pool. That other stuff is people trying to make money.

The Next Stone Age

After Brian died, you recorded what has to be considered another classic Stones album, Sticky Fingers. Was it strange making an album without Brian?
Oh, yeah. A whole new world, an era away from Beggars Banquet. We had Mick Taylor in the band, and we had a new record company. We’d been at Decca, and we’d been rather successful, but we didn’t get paid very much, and it was like being with strangers.

The cover of that album is a pair of jeans with a real zipper.
This was Andy Warhol’s idea.

There’s underwear on the back. Is that you?
No. It’s one of Andy’s … protégés is the polite word we used to use, I think.

All right. That’s the news in this interview. Why does “Brown Sugar” work like mad?
That’s a bit of a mystery, isn’t it? I wrote that song in Australia in the middle of a field. They were really odd circumstances. I was doing this movie, Ned Kelly, and my hand had got really damaged in this action sequence. So stupid. I was trying to rehabilitate my hand and had this new kind of electric guitar, and I was playing in the middle of the outback and wrote this tune.

But why it works? I mean, it’s a good groove and all that. I mean, the groove is slightly similar to Freddy Cannon, this rather obscure ’50s rock performer – “Tallahassee Lassie’ or something. Do you remember this? “She’s down in F-L-A.” Anyway, the groove of that – boom-boom-boom-boom-boom – is “going to a go-go” or whatever, but that’s the groove.

And you wrote it all?

This is one of your biggest hits, a great, classic, radio single, except the subject matter is slavery, interracial sex, eating pussy …
[Laughs] And drugs. That’s a double-entendre, just thrown in.

Brown sugar being heroin?
Brown sugar being heroin and –

And pussy?
That makes it … the whole mess thrown in. God knows what I’m on about on that song. It’s such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.

Were you surprised that it was such a success with all that stuff in it?
I didn’t think about it at the time. I never would write that song now.

I would probably censor myself. I’d think, “Oh God, I can’t. I’ve got to stop. I can’t just write raw like that.”

“Wild Horses.” Is that a Keith song?
Yeah, it was his melody. And he wrote the phrase “wild horses,” but I wrote the rest of [the lyrics].

It’s one of the prettiest.
I like the song. It’s an example of a pop song. Taking this cliché “wild horses,” which is awful, really, but making it work without sounding like a cliché when you’re doing it.

What about “Moonlight Mile”? That’s a song without Keith – that’s you and Mick Taylor.
Yeah, we recorded it in my house in the country, Stargroves. And we recorded a lot of stuff [there]: “Bitch,” stuff from Exile on Main Street.

At the same time? And then just divided the songs between records?
Yeah. It’s a good house to record in. And that’s also where the Who made an album. Led Zeppelin recorded one. But anyway, I remember Mick Taylor playing that song. Real dreamy kind of semi-Middle Eastern piece. Yeah, that’s a real pretty song – and a nice string arrangement.

You do “Dead Flowers” on this record. You put on this kind of loopy, country voice.
I love country music, but I find it very hard to take it seriously. I also think a lot of country music is sung with the tongue in cheek, so I do it tongue in cheek. The harmonic thing is very different from the blues. It doesn’t bend notes in the same way, so I suppose it’s very English, really. Even though it’s been very Americanized, it feels very close to me, to my roots, so to speak.