This year, the Rolling Stones crushed all doubt as to their might and will to rock with A Bigger Bang, their best studio album since 1981’s Tattoo You, and the start of a world tour already set to break the Stones’ own previous box-office records. Mick Jagger upped the ante with “Sweet Neo Con,” his Bigger Bang indictment of right-wing hypocrisy, set to a “Miss You”-Style strut and packed with unrestrained invective (“You call yourself a Christian/I think that you’re a hypocrite/You say you are a patriot/I think that you’re a crock of shit”). Jagger denied that “Sweet Neo Con” was specifically about President Bush, but the song was still a daring leap into politics for a songwriter whose last topical masterpiece, 1968’s “Street Fighting Man,” was actually explosive resignation (“What can a poor boy do/Except sing for a rock & roll band?”). “That is a completely different song for a different moment, another time,” Jagger says of the earlier hit, during tour rehearsals in the summer. “But this is another time, with other fears, other forebodings and very justifiable worries.” Speaking recently on a day off between shows, Jagger looked back at the commotion he and the Stones created with “Sweet Neo Con” and the mess of blues that still remains.
After the heat you took for “Sweet Neo Con,” do you feel vindicated by President Bush’s dive in the polls and the infighting among conservatives?
“Vindicated” is not the right word. When I started writing it, I felt things were going to turn. There was too much wrong thinking and bad execution. In the movie The Fog of War, Robert McNamara says, “You never know what’s going to happen.” You can go in with the best plan, the best troops, the best intentions, and it can all go wrong. If you don’t have the best plan, you have more going against you.
Then you wonder, what would we have said if everyone in Iraq had covered the troops in flowers and the country had become this wonderful democracy? But it was always a chancy geopolitical adventure. Maybe in the long, long run, there will be benefits. There are always two sides to this. It’s not going to be 100 percent bad. But you worry about the way it’s going to end in the short term: in the next twelve months, two years.
Did you have security concerns because of the song? Two years ago, Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder got death threats for wearing a Bush mask onstage.
There were a lot of people in our camp who were very nervous. They knew there would be a lot of criticism. But I kept saying, “This is a country that proclaims freedom of speech. You’ve got to be able to use that right. If you can’t, what’s it worth? Let’s see what it’s worth.”
In the end, people were not that critical [of “Sweet Neo Con”]. A lot of press people who talked about it hadn’t even heard it. We’ve come to another place, where Eddie Vedder and the Dixie Chicks got it worse. We’ve moved on.
The Stones made a million-dollar donation to the New Orleans relief effort after Hurricane Katrina. Were you shocked that this country, and its government, could let the city drown?
We would have stepped up anyway. Part of America and Western culture is that you don’t expect the government to do everything. Private money is a large percentage of relief. You don’t expect some hired hand to sort out all your problems. Obviously, you do expect the government to do certain things – military muscle and such.
The connection between Iraq and Katrina came into focus for me while I was watching TV. There was this guy – a regular guy with a small house, all destroyed – and he said, “Our army is in Iraq, helping Iraqis, and they should be here.” I thought, “Yes, there are only finite resources.” Then I realized what he meant: the National Guard, which is a very local thing. They are your neighbors and relations. And if they hadn’t been in Iraq, they could have come and pumped out his front room.
I think that has convinced a lot of America that questioning the war is not about patriotism; it’s about resources. When you have a crisis in your home, it comes starkly into focus. And I’m sure that was a guy who voted for Bush.
Are you disappointed by the sales of A Bigger Bang? The whole business of selling albums seems to be an endangered activity.
I don’t think it’s as serious as that. Has the album sold as many copies as I would like? No. You always want it to sell more. The way of selling albums has to be approached differently now. You need a lot of imagination. You also need a lot of money. But there’s no doubt that rock music has a much smaller share of the CD market – and the download and ring-tone markets.
What music has turned you on this year?
There are a lot of new records that I’ve bought, like the White Stripes, the Black Eyed Peas and Kanye West. I always listen to rock bands that are coming up, like the Arctic Monkeys. And I listen to a lot of Caribbean music. The calypso from Trinidad is very funny and political. They are not afraid to say what they think.
What are your hopes for 2006?
That we can extricate ourselves from the war in Iraq with dignity and some hope for Iraq itself. I’m sure that’s on many people’s minds, including George Bush’s. Personally, I’m going to be doing a lot of miles. We’re going to Asia and South America, which is a lot of miles for a few shows [Laughs].
The Stones are playing the Super Bowl halftime show. Is it weird that you’re considered more family entertainment than Janet Jackson‘s breast?
Of course, after Janet, you can’t do or say anything outré. But I don’t think the show is family entertainment. At the Super Bowl parties I used to go to, when I was living in New York, it was a lot of blokes getting completely pissed [laughs]. It seems the women and children are there to open the packets of crisps.
This story is from the December 29, 2005 issue of Rolling Stone.