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.
Nov. 7, 1995
WENNER: It stays with the beat.
WENNER: When did you first realize you were a performer, that what you did onstage was affecting people?
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: It was the attention of the girls that made you realize you were doing something onstage that was special?
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: 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?
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: How committed to the group were you then?
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: Were you torn about the decision to drop out of school?
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: Tell me about meeting Keith.
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: 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?
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: Shocked by you?
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: What was it like to be such a success at such a young age?
JAGGER: 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.
WENNER: You became quite the pop aristocrat in swinging London.
JAGGER: 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.