In 2001 I was asked by Mojo magazine to meet Mick Jagger. He was in a room of a London hotel overlooking Hyde Park, where of course The Rolling Stones had played more than 30 years before. He was promoting a solo album called Goddess In The Doorway, but I naturally tried to broaden our discussion. The magazine especially wanted some quotes from him on the great Stones albums Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers. They also wanted him to nominate a hero - he chose Chuck Berry - and explain his reasons. He is an affable interviewee, though adept at dismissing inconvenient subjects. I think he rather enjoys these little games of evasion. Whenever he dodged a question, his eyes twinkled merrily from somewhere deep inside the amazing crevices of his face.
For Mojo's purposes we sub-divided the interview to fit in several different issues. Here it is together, plus some unused material.
Paul Du Noyer: Would you like to nominate an all-time Hero?
Mick Jagger: Gawd, it’s hard to pick a hero of mine because they’re so disparate. There’s Buddy Holly, there was Muddy Waters… There was Elvis, I suppose, though he was so ghastly in other ways and you somehow knew it. Plus, he didn’t write, and the other people who were influential, say Chuck Berry, were all writers, who would inspire you to be a writer and influence your style. Chuck Berry was a very good inspiration because he was a writer and a performer and a guitar player. He doesn’t perhaps have the depth that you might say Muddy Waters had, or the purity – he could be trivial in some ways – but I guess when you’re a teenager that’s all right!
But he was very intelligently trivial, to give him his due.
Yes, he was. He is, one should say. He put a very wry twist on what was accepted for the teenage lyrics of the day, so that while it appeared they were teenage lyrics they were running on a few different levels. And he had a very good narrative ability, to tell these funny stories. Also he did the odd blues song, which I always liked. And he was very entertaining on stage in the early days.
What did you take from him?
For me it was Chuck the lyric writer first, and the stage performer next, and then the guitar player. He was a good player but his style was easy to copy, which is what you want when you’re learning – it’s a bit difficult to start off with B.B. King. And he had this very irreverent attitude.
Did he disappoint you later on?
I think your heroes always disappoint you in the end. It’s best never to meet them. I met him loads of times and always got on well. But I think Keith always thought of him as more of a hero than I did, and therefore was more disappointed with him when he was rather rude and overbearing. He was an oddly cheap character in some ways, very quirky. He never had a good band, he was always rude to everyone, he became too much of a parody of himself. He never even tried to write anything after a certain time.
I never met Elvis either, because John Lennon once told me he was a real disappointment. So I said I’d take his advice, because I’d already had it with Chuck Berry and I didn’t want it to happen again with Elvis. Though now, of course, I wish I had met Elvis, you know what I mean? You never think, Oh he’s gonna die soon, I’d better hurry up and meet him. Because in those days he wasn’t very old. If nothing else, you’d still be able to talk about it, wouldn’t you? It would be awful if I’d never met Chuck Berry, after listening to his things over all those years.
What would you recommend as an introduction to Chuck Berry?
Where to start? Buy all the records, a Greatest Hits. And watch Jazz On A Summer’s Day [directed by Bert Stern, in 1960], where you can see how he actually plays, and deals with the way that people perceived rock singers in the day when there was much more snobbery than there is now. These days we’re lucky, musicians are much more tolerant of each other’s style of music. In the old days, jazz people hated rock’n’roll. I can’t even start to tell you much they hated it. I guess they saw it as a threat, and they didn’t think that rock people had any technical ability, which a lot of the time was true, but it doesn’t really matter; classical musicians used to look down on jazz people, who didn’t have as much technical ability. Now musicians and critics alike are more prepared to appreciate lots of different music in one go. But in those days people like Chuck Berry, and blue singers generally, came in for a very patronising time.
Can we talk about the making of making of Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers…
Well, Exile On Main Street was made in more than one place. Some of it was made in my house in the country in England, and a lot of it was done in Keith’s rented house in the South of France. And some of it was done in Olympic Studios. Exile On Main Street was a sprawling project, it went on and on and on. And there was a real “party” atmosphere. I never thought it was ever going to get finished.
It coincided with you becoming a father and your having to leave the sessions quite a bit?
A little bit. Actually I don’t think I was a father then.
But due to become one?
Well, yeah, but I don’t think that was really the problem. [Laughs.] I think the problem was that everyone was getting just a little wacky. And we actually left England… the point of this was that we owed so much money to the tax authorities, and [he makes a reference here to their ex-manager Allen Klein], that we had to leave England at that point, and it was quite an uprooting, which is why it was called Exile On Main Street.
I may have to cut the Allen Klein quote.
Well I don’t think he’d mind me [repeats the reference]. I’m sure he’ll never read it anyway. [Laughs.]
Exile strikes many people as the Stones’ most satisfying album, yet it’s not stuffed with favourite Rolling Stones tracks.
The songs themselves are not really… I’m not saying they’re no good, but it’s funny… first of all there’s a lot of songs, so it’s hard to keep up the standard, so to speak. But when you actually come to do them, there’s a lot of songs that are really, like, not songs at all, like Casino Boogie. They’re really nicely played and everything, but there’s no hooks in them and there’s no memorable lyrics in them. Sweet Black Angel, these are very nice songs, but nobody’s ever gonna… It’s not my thing to get up and play them. Some of them I might do, Tumbling Dice is good, and Sweet Virginia is good. Then we had a revival of Shine A Light, and someone did a gospel cover of Just Wanna See His Face recently. I heard it in one of my local shops that I go in. But there’s not a list of outstanding songs, I think that’s what we’re saying. But somehow, as an album, it has a great mood.
Did you have a sense of that at the time?
I think you knew at the time. Some of the songs were recorded in sessions for the previous album, like Sweet Virginia.
For Sticky Fingers?
[He looks at the sleeve of my Sticky Fingers CD.] I can’t see the song titles on it. Do you have a song title list there? Brown Sugar and Wild Horses were done in Muscle Shoals, very influenced by the place. Geographically influenced.
The country element was now free of pastiche, being treated as another strand in the music, like the blues.
But it’s a style which is very easily parodied, isn’t it? It was like, we really like this style of music, but most of the people who do it are not hip. It’s country influenced, it’s of the country. Wild Horses is very much one of those. Dead Flowers is still in the parody world, to some extent, though I think it’s a very good country song. And some of the odd ones are great one-offs like Moonlight Mile, which we revived on the last tour. They were done in previous sessions for the record before this. [ie Let It Bleed]
Do you think it took a British band to achieve the best synthesis of American music?
We’re probably going to gloss over the achievements of some good American bands of the time, but maybe it’s because British bands had a good overall history of the thing – blues, country, rock, black music, jazz, whatever. Whereas, if you were from Memphis, you might be so heavily influenced by your local music that you couldn’t grapple with any other style. So, The Allman Brothers, from Georgia, you are the music of Georgia, you’re interpreting that music and it’s hard to step out of it. Whereas if you’re suburban, you actually are creating this synthesis. If you only had Cliff Richard coming before you, locally… It’s also that middle class knowledge, the sense of history and the desire to know everything, like how Slim Harpo’s harmonica licks work. Of course American bands did it, but English bands did it with a breadth of American music, and it eventually synthesised without them knowing it. That’s what happened to The Rolling Stones, who started off as “a blues band”, but a blues band who played Buddy Holly covers in their spare time. Once all that snobbery was thrown out the window, you could play Buddy Holly without anyone turning their noses up.
Because the other band who were very good at that synthesis were The Band, who were themselves largely outsiders.
They were Canadian, yeah. I always thought of them as a country band, first of all, though they had a very strange influence, I don’t really know where it all came from. They were very country, but in a sort of ancient way.
Almost 19th century country.
Exactly. If you think of their songs about the Civil War, it feels like a history lesson.
You’re the singer in what’s been called the greatest rock’n’roll band in world. Why make solo albums?
The quick answer is that I enjoy doing it. You get to a point in your life where you just want to do things you enjoy. I did a long stint on the road with The Rolling Stones. When I came off the Bridges To Babylon tour I thought, I just don’t feel like going into a studio with The Rolling Stones. Though The Rolling Stones is a great band – it’s part of me and I’m part of it – it’s sort of acquired a lot of baggage over the years, a lot of expectations and a lot of prejudices. So you feel as a writer and a singer that you want to break out of that format. Even though The Rolling Stones cover a wide spectrum of music, when you play with the same people you do tend to fall into a format, and it’s hard to cover all the bases you want. It’s a big committee: people expect a certain amount of rock tracks or whatever. And I wanted not to have so much of a committee. You think, I want to do this, like this, and I don’t really give a hoot what someone else thinks.
What was your general mood making it?
It covers a lot of emotions. There not one thing running through it. It reflects the year that I’ve just had, which is good, and there’s a lot of moods in there, from slightly introverted mysticism to comedy to love letters.
A common impression of you is that your moods range only from sardonically amused to mildly pissed off. You’re rarely seen outside of those parameters. But Goddess In The Doorway is an openly emotional record in places.
Yes, that’s right. It’s really a product of being more open-minded, and acknowledging that what you describe had been too much the case recently. Also, if you’re doing a solo album you’re asked to do more. You’re not reliant on anybody else for support, you’re not influenced, and you’re not shy of opening up. Whereas if you’re with a little gang, you’ve got your little codes and you don’t want to be too open. When you’re on your own you feel you can allow yourself that. “Self-indulgent” is the term often used in reviews of solo albums, and they can be. But you’re treading a fine line between being open and honest and stopping short of any maudlin sentiment.
Are you becoming more religious?
I like using religious themes in songs. There’s quite a few, whether they’re gospel things like the one on Exile [Just Wanna See His Face] or Sympathy For The Devil, or Saint Of Me on the last album. If it’s part of your life then it should be part of your expression. But it’s very hard to write a song about spirituality – as opposed to a car, for instance.
Joy, the track that features Bono, sounds like something he might sing himself.
That’s why I thought of him to be on it. I wrote it and thought this could be something he could do really well. He takes it on very quickly. And Pete Townshend plays on it too, and he’s another guy that’s spiritually inspired. I like Joy because it conveys the happiness in creation through gospel combined with rock, without being beholden to a gospel form. Making rock music into gospel is something I’ve never done before, I’ve always gone into gospel.
You also sing, in Hideaway, of a wish to disappear, to slip into anonymity. Are you perhaps in the wrong job?
That’s it, I am! It’s a much-worked theme in songs, isn’t it? Vanishing. But everyone wants to disappear sometimes. You can’t deal with it. You need to turn off the pressures of constant communication.
That’s what holidays are all about. That’s what they’re selling.
But if the fairy godmother waved her wand and suddenly nobody knew you were, how would you cope?
Well, that’s hypothetical. I still go to places where people haven’t got a clue who I am. I was wandering through a very small town in India where nobody knew me, then I turned a corner to look at some ancient ruin and there was a party of schoolteachers from Bombay. And so my three days of not being recognised in this remote place was suddenly shattered. It was a real jolt.
You have a song called Don’t Call Me Up, addressed to a former lover. Would that be about the person we’d assume it to be about?
Well it isn’t really about Jerry, I don’t know if she thinks it is. That’s the connection people might make, but it’s not an individual thing, it could strike a chord with other people’s situations. It certainly seems to strike a chord with women that I’ve played it to: “That’s just how I felt about him!” It’s really funny watching people connect like that. It was a song about a real person, but it’s not about Jerry.
You seem to have a lot of film projects going on.
The thing about film projects is, whereas you work on a music project and it will just happen, more or less, there’s not so much money, not so much of a committee, the problem with movies is that you have to have to have a lot of projects, because they come together, they fall apart, the rights revert to someone else, they get too expensive, all kinds of things. So instead of saying ‘My next film project is X’ they’re so amorphous that you have to have a ton of stuff going on. It’s like fishing, you know you’re going to catch a fish some time, but what kind, or how long it’s going to take, you really don’t know. And you may have to go home disappointed, to continue my really boring metaphor! So that’s why you hear about so many things. I always say to people, ‘Why do you have to announce these things, when they may never happen?’ I like to announce things when they’re ready to go, not when I’ve thought of them. It’s like, ‘I may record a song with Bryan Adams’: well, you may, but you may not. I may be making a movie about Che Guevara. You just hope one of them is going to come. It basically means the money is going to come, which means you can get a good script, or a good actor or director, and if any of those things fall out you won’t get the money and you won’t get the film made.
Enigma seems to be doing well.
It’s got very good reviews, more than most British films, which get rapped over the knuckles at home. It’s had a good weekend’s business and it’s a satisfying movie to watch, you can see it more than once.
Presumably it started for you when you read Robert Harris’s book.
Yes and no, I’d read stuff about Bletchley Park before, which had me primed for the Robert Harris book, if you will. And Tom Stoppard was very knowledgeable about the background of it all.
Are any other projects at a sufficiently advanced stage to mention?
I have two things which vaguely feature the music business, one is called The Long Play which I’ve written with Martin Scorcese, it’s an idea of mine, just how two guys in New York were brought up in the independent record business, what happens to them over 30 years, how the music industry changes, and how the world changes as seen through that microcosm of the music business. I hope very much that Martin Scorcese can direct it. And I wrote the other outline, for this film which is like The Prince and The Pauper, about a rock star who swops his job with a roadie, for a bet. It’s a common theme, and a comedy. Other than that, I’m trying to finance this film about Dylan and Caitlin Thomas, which is a bio pic, really, with a really interesting script. So we’ll see what happens.
There’s a song here, Everybody Getting High, which depicts the film world as a kind of human menagerie. A reflection of your impressions?
Ha! Well the rock business is pretty similar… Yeah, it’s my take on the film business, and their drug habits, God bless them. It’s good to have a new background to do observations on. It’s fascinating, the film world, but what is not particularly gratifying is how long most things take to get off the ground.