Personal memories of interviewing The Rolling Stones
When The Rolling Stones hit the du Arena on Friday night, the four core members will fuse together to form a musical unit as tight-knit and intuitive as any in rock history. Offstage, however, they are four men with very distinct lives and personalities.
Mick Jagger lives up to his billing: an energetic man of parts, hard to pin down. In conversation he moves easily from matey Mockney – “Ello, ’ow are ya? Sweltering, innit? Sweltering!” – to imperious brand manager. “Bands are never a democracy. Much better to have a dictatorship.”
Get Jagger on to music, though, and he’s genuinely engaged, becoming slightly riled at the suggestion that he doesn’t give much away in his songs. “That’s rubbish. It’s all very revealing, so revealing I find it embarrassing.” He speaks with love and knowledge about Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons and country music, and with enthusiasm about younger acts he admires, such as Kings of Leon: “They have that kind of Texas weirdness that you don’t find in a lot of modern rock bands.”
He can also be funny, excusing the existence of countless Rolling Stones tribute bands “because we can’t be in two places at once, can we? We can’t be doing that big wedding in Northumberland while we’re down the O2”. And he’s not above laughing at himself. “My children go, ‘Wow, look at that shirt, dad!’ Like the one in the Dancing in the Street video. You look at it now and you think, I know it was done in 10 minutes but you could’ve done better than that.”
At 70, rock ’n’ roll no longer rules Jagger’s life. Father to seven children, ranging from 14 to 43, much of his time is taken up with film production. “I enjoy the buzz of performing,” he says. “Whether it’s a kitchen with 10 people or a stadium, it’s instant gratification. But I have other interests. It’s not like 1965 where you’re on some sort of train ride – you don’t have to do that, so you don’t.”
For Keith Richards, also 70, the need to perform seems more urgent. The Stones guitarist told me about having “white line fever” – for once, not a drug reference. “Touring becomes like an addiction,” he said. “There are loads of people out there who want to see what you do and you feel like doing it. It’s as simple as that.” You sense that, given the chance, he would like the Stones to play live more often.
Richards still refers to other musicians as “cats”, which is pleasingly on-message, but far from the slurring debauchee of legend, these days he’s switched on: articulate, polite, warm, the Stones’ heart to Jagger’s head. He’s amusingly self-deprecating about his own singing voice. “I get a lot of that flak, you know: ‘The Grizzle’, and all that crap.” He duly grizzled, then laughed. “Everybody has got a great voice, it’s just a matter of what to do with it.”
Richards’ foil is Ronnie Wood. With just under 40 years’ active service, the former Faces guitarist remains the Stones’ new boy. He shares Richards’ love of the road – and has persevered with his 1970s hairstyle – but seems less settled, admitting he sometimes struggles with life away from the band. “When you’re touring, everything is organised, it’s all regimented and that can be a comfort. When you come home it can be tricky.” Wood has recently gone through some well-documented personal issues: repeatedly trying to kick alcohol, splitting with his wife and remarrying, but there’s a sweet, easy humour to him. He gently plugged his son’s rock band to me, and talked about his love of painting.
Wood is a diehard rocker who clearly loves being a Stone, whereas the taciturn drummer Charlie Watts is detached from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. Jazz remains his first love. For Watts, 1964 was not the year in which the Stones released their debut album, but the year in which he “saw Sonny Rollins in New York, in the original Birdland club. It was amazing. I’d never seen anyone like him”. Later, when Rollins played on the Stones’ 1981 album Tattoo You, Watts was star-struck. “I’d sit there and think: ‘Bloody hell, what am I going to do here?’ I feel like an impostor in that whole world, it’s the highest company you can keep.” By comparison, he seems to regard The Rolling Stones, and rock music in general, as amusingly ephemeral.
Yet despite their differences, or perhaps because of them, the group have endured for more than half a century. “There are people who burn bright and fade quickly, and there are those who burn bright and keep it going,” Watts told me. “You have to admire that.” He was talking about Sonny Rollins. It probably wouldn’t have occurred to him that he could just as easily have been describing his own remarkable band.
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