Rolling Stones (Interview)
Some of my colleagues at the magazine wondered whether we should even bother talking to the Rolling Stones. I'd been offered separate audiences with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Exclusive Canadian access. But I'd interviewed them before, eight years ago. And what could possibly be said about them that hasn't been said already? However, after I returned from the Stones' inner sanctum these same colleagues were dying to know what it was like.
That's the basic disconnect of the Stones' mystique. Mick and Keith are the royal couple of rock. And like those other royals, they may seem irrelevant, but people have an insatiable curiosity to get close to them. Yes, the Stones are dismissed as dinosaurs. Too old, too rich, too corporate. Haven't had a hit in years. But they don't need one. They stand alone as the last great band from the first generation of rock, and the most successful touring act in the history of show business. After 40 years, they're still alive, still together. With Jagger and Richards both pushing 60, their longevity, once a joke, is becoming a feat. They're about to release Forty Licks, a double-CD answer to the Beatles' Anthology, with 36 hits and four new songs. And this week, as they launch a world tour in Boston, everyone wonders, yet again, if this could be the last time.
The interviews take place in midtown Toronto at the Masonic Temple, a stone monument that has served as a concert venue, Mike Bullard's CTV studio and, for a month of the summer, the Stones' rehearsal hall. I'm greeted by Tony King, who has handled Jagger for two decades. He's a slim, affable Englishman with cropped white hair who speaks with a campy inflection that's like a velour version of Jagger's. Upstairs the crew is checking a microphone, the sound of "two, two, two" booming through the sound system. "Gawd, I can't stand that," says King. "Why does it always have to be two? Can't they think of anything else to say?"
Down a basement corridor scrawled with graffiti from countless bands, I'm ushered into a theatrical dressing room with makeup mirrors and burgundy furniture. Jagger tells me to relax and offers a seat on the couch while he settles into an armchair, legs splayed open. Looking severely fit, he wears a baby blue fitted T-shirt and cream chinos. As I switch on the microphone, he sips a mug of coffee and nibbles a chocolate chip cookie. "I'm going to have to chew my way through this," he drawls, as if announcing something vaguely obscene. Later, when I play back the interview, much of it eludes transcription - the words, stripped of inflection, land flat on the page. But you can hear the sound of chocolate in his mouth.
Mick remains the Everest of celebrity interviews. What do you ask Mick Jagger? No matter how many questions you prepare, you can't help thinking he's heard them all. Once alone in the room with him, it's hard to get over his presence. The restless, adolescent body, the totemic face. And that voice, which keeps melting into ironic/erotic innuendo. But behind the indolent posture, Jagger deflects questions and deflates his own iconic image with a disarming wit. Interviewing him is like playing a brisk game of tennis with someone who keeps casually cutting off your shots at the net.
"So Mick ... or do I call you Sir Mick?"
"No, Mick is fine and daaandy," he says, bending his English accent into a Southern twang.
We talk about the attraction of Toronto, which has served as the Stones' summer base camp for three tours now. Aside from the cheap dollar and the patronage of Canadian tour promoter Michael Cohl, what keeps bringing them back? "I find Toronto a very congenial place to work," says Jagger. "It's not too small and not too big and not too isolated."
"You must feel at home here by now."
He laughs. "I still don't know my way around. You can put me on College Street and I wouldn't know where I was. I don't go out much. I wish I did. I read in the paper that I go out. Yeah, once a week. Cause I'm in here nearly all the time or at home. I've got children here." (He has six children, aged 3 to 32, with four women.)
Venturing a serious question, I ask if the Stones' legacy is now more important than new material - a polite way of suggesting their creative juices might have dried up. Jagger sighs. He points out that the band just recorded 30 new songs in Paris, only four of which will appear on Forty Licks. "But there's no point pretending the Rolling Stones is a new band. There's bits of you that would like to relive that. It's like being a novelist or a film actor. You think, 'Won't it be great when I burst on the scene with my new movie or novel,' instead of being a veteran of 15 movies and 25 novels, and with this one, it's 'Surprise me.' "
But the Stones have such a vast repertoire that they can surprise fans simply by digging up a buried treasure from their catalogue. And that's the idea behind the three-tier structure of the new tour. In some cities, the band will play a football stadium, a hockey arena and a theatre or ballroom - with the repertoire becoming more arcane as venues get smaller.
Bob Dylan has suggested that live performance, not recording, is the real art, and that you can't freeze songs on disc. When I suggest this to Jagger, he laughs. "Bob's always made an exaggeration of not trying to freeze them. But I went to see a concert of his once in Atlanta and it was only because the guys standing next to me were singing the songs that we knew which songs they were. You want to free things up for live performance but it's kind of good that it's recognizable."
The Stones, of course, thrive on recognition. With their cheeky red-tongue logo, they've created the most familiar brand in pop music. So I ask Jagger if the band has come to incarnate Andy Warhol's concept of pop art, by turning a brand into a burlesque franchise. Mick perks up. "Andy didn't design the tongue. Most people think he did, because it has pop-art overtones and Andy was interested in the idea of mass consumerist art. Nobody's actually asked me this before, so I've got to work it out ..."
There's a knock at the door. A crew member asks if it's OK for Beck to drop by in hour or so. Mick says sure, then he's off on a tangent about commercial replication in 18th-century painting. Trying to rein him back to the Stones, I ask, "Can you be on the cutting edge of art and part of the commercial establishment?"
"That was Andy's whole ethos, that the two things were not necessarily far apart. Everything in America is meant to be successful. You're not supposed to be out there not making money. The idea of the romantic artist in the garret was invented in the 19th century. Before that artists were striving to behave like aristocrats and hobnob with the richest people. If you didn't, you didn't get a commission."
Jagger's handler pokes his nose in. "We're almost coming to the end of a vaguely original thought," says Mick, who then goes on to talk about starving artists and the young Picasso. Enough about painting. I try to steer Jagger back to the present. "Is it possible," I ask, "to be a bad boy bohemian knight?"
"Well, there are many knights who have been bad," he muses. "What you're positing in this line of questioning - which I don't particularly mind because it's quite interesting - is the old-fashioned idea that you can only be good while you're unknown, and hopefully not having any money, and even better, slightly mentally ill. And a drug addict - always helpful. That makes you interesting. It doesn't necessarily make your work more interesting. It tends to drop off if you're older and a drug addict and don't work hard. Francis Bacon, for instance, would just repeat himself and get worse and worse.
"So," concludes Jagger, "your questions are really coming from that place: if you become too bourgeois and only want to live a comfortable life, can you be bothered to get up in the morning and write a song? That's a valid criticism. I don't think it applies to me. Because I love writing songs - whether they're good or not is another matter - and I love working really, really hard. In the last five years, I've been working like a dog."
Being rich, sane, healthy and hard-working didn't prevent Jagger from seeing his last solo album, Goddess in the Doorway, bomb. One of its cruelest critics was Keith Richards, who called it "dogshit in the doorway." But Jagger says he's sure Richards never even listened to the album. "Keith has his own personality and he likes to make his own noise," he says. "I think Keith feels it's mandatory to keep up his image by doing that. We have a pretty mature relationship. Otherwise we wouldn't be working almost every day together. We agree on just about everything."
Richards has also blasted his lead singer for accepting a knighthood.
"Wonder why?" asks Jagger, with an arched eyebrow and a dramatic pause. "I wonder why?"
That evening I meet Richards on the top floor of the Masonic Temple - a former Masons' council chamber, which looks like a miniature of the House of Lords, with facing rows of red-upholstered thrones. The hall serves as the Stones' lounge, with faux leopard-skin couches, incense, a dozen burning candles, and a video-game parlour next door. Keith arrives in character, his chaos of hair bound by a red bandanna, the steel manacle on his wrist, the skull ring glinting from fingers that are as gnarled as the woodwork in the room. The original rock 'n' roll pirate. In his hand is a cocktail the colour of Orange Crush that clinks like a piece of costume jewellery.
Keith is easy to talk to. You find yourself in the thick of a conversation before you know it. He slurs like a warped tape, but you wonder if it's become an act, if he's the Dean Martin of the drug generation. Because behind the air of incoherence is a wiry intelligence.
We waste no time getting to the issue of Mick's knighthood. "If Phil Collins is a Sir," he says, "Mick Jagger should be a Lord and not bother with this. It's a paltry honour really. It's also breaking ranks. And he got a good finger-wagging for that. He really screwed up. In my eyes, or for the Rolling Stones - even as a cold-blooded business - it's wrong for the image. He would have got brownie points for turning it down, and your credibility would be semi-restored."
But according to Mick, I report, you just attack him to maintain your image. "I'm trying to maintain his image." he says. "And it's a losing f------ing battle, pal. I always try to persuade him to lie low between gigs." But then Keith concedes, "When we work together there's a certain energy. I don't know if it's chemical or biological or biochemical ... We're still searching for the Rolling Stones in a way."
Asked whether you have to be poor, mad, addicted or desperate to be creative, Richards says, "There is a certain need for desperation. And a tendency to attempt things. That's Mick's problem, you know, 10 million dollars a pop, baby."
"Oh, the Venezuelan bitch - paternity suits and stuff, right?," he says, apparently conflating Jagger's affairs with Venezuelan heiress Vanessa Neumann and Brazilian Luciana Morad (the mother of his sixth child.) "That's what I mean about searching for new experiences. I suppose I did mine with heroin. It was an experiment that went on too long. I didn't want to be a star that much, and I could be private in public with that stuff. It's a tussle, an interesting fight. And if you come out the other end, you know things about yourself that you never would have learned otherwise."
Richards is the first to admit that his image carries a price. It's something "you drag around with you like a ball and chain," he admits. "You're a convicted felon. And you just become him, Keith Richards."
I ask him what he's drinking. He grins. "This is called a Nuclear Waste. Couple of ounces of vodka and orange soda. It's the foulest drink you could possibly imagine."
A few days later, it seems I'm the last person in the world to find out about the Stones' surprise concert at the Palais Royale Ballroom on Toronto's Lakeshore. I call everyone to get a ticket, and they all say: no media. Cutting my losses, I go to see Bob Dylan, who, bizarrely, is playing just down the Lakeshore from the Stones. I buy a cheap seat at the gate and stroll into the wail of Maggie's Farm under a blood-orange sky. From my seat at the back, I try to focus on Bob in a white cowboy hat doing cubist renderings of Tangled up in Blue and Masters of War. But it's like being at a party when you know there's a better one down the road. During Dylan's encore, against the siren guitars of All Along the Watchtower, I bolt for the exit and grab a cab.
Several hundred fans are milling around the Palais. I try to work the media thing at the door, to no avail. So I melt back into the crowd and wait to hear the first few numbers to bleed through the walls. Then, miraculously, I hear my name called and a friend pulls me inside. Moments later Jagger is onstage singing It's Only Rock 'n' Roll. Tearing through the vocals with carnivorous relish. That wide, wide mouth. Those circus lips. His jaw working constantly, devouring the crowd. "I could stick my hand in my heart and spill it all over the staaaaage."
In the sweat of a hot August night, Jagger strips down. The band dusts off its heirlooms. Torn and Frayed, Can't You Hear Me Rockin', Heart of Stone. Keith sings Happy and looks the part. Vamping through Stray Cat Blues - "I don't care if you're 15 years old, I don't want your I.D." - Mick slips the microphone in and out of the waistband of his black pants with practised sleight-of-hand. Then he's on fire with Jumpin' Jack Flash. I'm 30 feet away, being sucked into the vortex. Not watching any more. Just a fan.
Maclean's September 9, 2002