We hear a great deal of talk these days about how inventive and magical and bold the Sixties were. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear people speak of those times as if they were somehow better than any time that has come since. Do you share that perspective?
Every time is special, surely, unto itself. But to actually say it was better in 1964 or ’65 – I find that a bit strange. I mean, maybe it was a bit better, because you were, like, twenty years old back then, and you looked better, and you didn’t have any responsibilities. You splashed around the beach and didn’t have a mortgage and five children to look after. Given all that, it might appear better, though the truth may be that you were having a hard time back then, because you were strung out on too many acid trips or something. You forget about all that. I’m not talking about my own personal experience. I’m talking about people that actually, um, nostalgize. Is that a verb? It should be.
But yes, things were very different then than they are now. And they’re never going to be the same.
I mean, there are two views of the Sixties: one, that it was just a big hype; the other, that it was a wonderful – I hate to use the horrible word renaissance, but I suppose I can’t think of a better one – that it was a wonderful renaissance of artistic endeavor and thought. But the underside to it all, of course, was the war in Vietnam and various other colonial-type wars. Also, all the political unrest of the times, particularly in Europe. I realize that most people tend to think that all the political unrest took place in America, but I really think it was on a much smaller scale there than you realize. To be honest, I don’t think real political change ever took place at all in the United States. I mean, there were all the protest movements and so on, and I suppose there was some philosophical change, but in terms of deep political change, I don’t think it ever really happened.
That’s one of the ironies about all the current nostalgia for the Sixties: although we seem to believe that those times awakened our best ideals, I’m not convinced that we’ve carried them over to the present day with any lasting practical political or social impact.
Nor am I. On the other hand, one can’t ignore all the social undercurrents of the time – how people became more tolerant of certain kinds of ideas and looks, and how that tended to influence general social thought. For example, look at the changes in civil rights. It’s just tolerance of other people’s ideas and the way they look and think. Perhaps that was the one political change in the United States that really took hold. It may not be perfect, but in the area of different minority groups achieving the political weight they deserve – or in the acceptance of feminist thought – at least there’s been some improvement. But perhaps none of that alters the political power structure.
Looking back at the early and mid-Sixties, the political climate in both the United States and Britain seemed relatively liberal – at least, compared with the political climate in both countries today. Do you think that atmosphere helped contribute to the sort of cultural explosion that rock & roll became during that decade?
No, I don’t really think so. By the time the Labour party came into power in Britain in 1964, youth culture was already a fait accompli. That is, youth had already benefitted from the prosperous inflationary period of the early Sixties – that whole period of teenage consumerism that Colin MacInnes wrote about in books like Absolute Beginners. I mean, in the early Sixties the cult of youth was already well on its way. In Britain, youth was already largely economically independent, and it just got more that way as things went on. So when the Labour government came in, they had no choice but to run with youth culture as an idea, because they couldn’t afford to put it down. They wanted to be seen as trendy – all socialist governments want to be seen as trendy. They want to be seen as the friend of the young, because the young are the ones that are going to vote for them. You know, [former prime minister] Harold Wilson used to invite black singers to 10 Downing Street to try to look trendy.
Meanwhile, the government’s policy really was to stop all this going on, because youth culture was entrepreneurial – not really socialist at all. Also, much of what was going on in youth culture wasn’t really considered the nice thing to do.
At the time, it seemed that if there were any real leaders, they were artists like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. Did you ever feel that you and the Beatles were helping to break the culture open?
It was more a sense of sharing a joke that these people were taking it all so seriously.
To be honest, we never set out to make cultural changes, though as they were coming, one was dealing with them on a natural basis. We were making certain statements and so on, but I don’t recall actually intellectualizing those things – at least early on. Initially, I think the driving force was just to be famous, get lots of girls and earn a lot of money. That, and the idea of just getting our music across as best we could.
And I think that’s perhaps where that attitude of defiance really came from: those times when you’d come up against somebody who would say, “No, you can’t do that. You can’t go on television, you can’t do this.” But that had all been done before, really, back with Elvis on The Ed Sullivan Show and all that. What was happening with us wasn’t anything new.
But nobody had really talked about the idea of Elvis Presley wielding political power. By the mid-Sixties people were talking about artists like the Stones, Beatles and Bob Dylan as having genuine political and cultural consequence.
What I’m saying is, I don’t think any of us set out with a political conscience. I mean, I exclude Dylan, because he definitely had a political consciousness. And there might have been a seminal conscience in both our groups, but I think it really only applied itself to the actual mass culture at hand. You know, questions like “What do you think of people wearing their hair long?” or “What do you think about your clothes – aren’t they a bit scruffy?” That was the real thrust of it all at the beginning. I think it was more social than it was political. You know, you’d go into a restaurant without a tie and get thrown out. It was really pathetic.
But wasn’t there something implicitly defiant or contemptuous about the band’s stance? For example, that famous incident in which the band got arrested for pissing against a garage.
I didn’t take that as a social event. It was just bullshit, really. And I bet Andrew Loog Oldham [the Stones’ manager in the Sixties] paid ten quid to the garage man to ring the police [laughs]. That was the level it was on.
Yet with songs like “Satisfaction,” “Mother’s Little Helper” and “19th Nervous Breakdown,” it certainly seemed that the Rolling Stones had something of their own to say – something a bit tougher and more questioning than one was accustomed to hearing in typical songs of teenage love and unrest.
As you got older during that time, you know, you got a bit more mature. Still, you’ve got to remember that for every one song that took some serious social view – like, say, “Mother’s Little Helper” – there were loads of others that were just teenage bullshit. From the Stones, from the Beatles, from everyone. I mean, perhaps what we did in this period was to enlarge the subject material of popular music to include topics outside the typical “moon in June/I’ve got a new motorbike” teenage genre. We said you can write a song about anything you want. And that was really a big thing – it’s certainly one of the big legacies in the songwriting area that we left, along with other artists.
I guess what I’m saying is that very early on, the Stones – more than the Beatles, more than Dylan, more than anybody – were viewed as something akin to social outlaws. One manifestation of that image was the way in which the Stones were seen as adherents of illicit drugs.
Aldous Huxley and Timothy Leary were the real proselytizers of that. I don’t recall ever being a proselytizer myself. I don’t ever recall saying, “This is what I do, and you should do it, too.” I’m not saying I didn’t privately think it, but I never was one who went out and actively said anything about it. Actually, you kind of kept quiet about it, because it was like hip peer-group behavior that musicians and other artists had indulged in for decades. It wasn’t something that you wanted to spread outside. Just the opposite, because it was your little thing, and your little group of people did it. That was what made your group different, really, from the rest. You didn’t like the idea of everyone else doing it. It was just this thing for creative artists.
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.
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.