Mick And Keith: What We've Learned (So Far)

We sat down with the Stones leading men to discuss a life well lived

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Their epic fiftieth anniversary celebrations include concerts, exhibitions, books, documentaries, a new compilation album and new songs. Mark Ellen met Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to talk about the past, the present and yes, the future of The Rolling Stones.

Why do you think The Rolling Stones have lasted so long?

Keith Richards: ’Cos we’re damn good and we genuinely love what we do. We do it for ourselves. And I don’t mean that money-wise — of course, you don’t mind getting paid — but that is not the driving force behind this band. Sometimes I wonder, “What do you really want to do, Keith?” You can sit at home, do a bit of painting or writing or whatever.

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But there’s a certain magnetic thing that says what I really want to do is play with Charlie Watts and Mick and Ronnie. That’s the force that’s indescribable. You put this bunch into a room with a couple of microphones and some instruments and something is going to come out. We’re forced to do this at gunpoint!

What’s the key dynamic when all of you are back in the same room  working together?

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KR: I think a lot of the energy is because we hadn’t been working together for some time. Let’s face it, five years off the road, I was getting antsy! So, Mick and I came up with a couple of songs.

At first I said, “Hey Mick, ‘Doom and Gloom’ is a kind of weird title for a 50-year celebration, you know?” But you know what the Stones are like, it’s always against the grain. But he came up with it and it’s a great track and a really quite “funny” song, actually — there are some great lyrics.

So we banged out a couple of tracks in the autumn in Paris, “Doom and Gloom” and “One More Shot”. I don’t think the Stones have ever cut a track so fast. It was like three takes and — boom! We were like looking at each other and going, “Got anything else?” It was amazingly quick.

The Stones are amazing that way, their chemistry and their energy when they get together. The hard bit with the Stones is getting them together. Once you’ve got them in a room, even after all these years, it’s an amazing feeling. You go, “There must be somebody else in the room!” There is this other entity that’s sort of driving things — whatever his name is!

What do you think the band represented when you started and what do you represent now?

Mick Jagger: When we first started, we were a blues band playing to college students on a lazy Tuesday and we represented something kind of new and fun. And then we played to the art school crowd and we were like a college band and we played blues - a little rhythm and blues and rock’n’roll as well, mostly blues.

But then, when we became more popular, we became something completely different, a teenybop band. We were like teen idols for teenybop people for a long time. And then we became a college band again. So we’ve been lots of things, you’re different things to different people.

I met some girls that used to follow us around England when they were 16 and they used to come to the shows and we’d sign autographs and I vaguely remember them as there’s these famous pictures of them in the Daily Mirror. And they came up to us at this photo exhibition we had a few weeks ago at Somerset House [in London] and they said, “Don’t you remember us?”

And I said, “Well, I kind of do remember you,” and we gave them our autographs again. So to them we were a sort of teenybop band. I don’t think they thought of us as rebellious or anything, we were just teenyboppers.

Attitudes have changed since you put out “scandalous” records like “Let’s Spend the Night Together”. How much do you think the Stones played a part in changing those attitudes?

MJ: I think the Stones were at the forefront of a more honest approach to popular music generally, I mean, more lyrically direct, reflecting what people were thinking then rather than the more saccharine music that was around at the time. We took our cues from the blues really, so all of that directness and the rather earthy subjects that we took on were a lot to do with things [like] the blues - and very influential writers like Bob Dylan and so on.

A lot of the image stuff is created, of course - mostly with your agreement - and you’re playing out the roles. But there was a lot of antagonism to The Rolling Stones in those days, which is almost impossible to fathom now. It’s very hard for anyone in, say, their twenties now to imagine why there would be even the slightest bit of fuss. It’s very hard to put yourself in that era - even for me to put myself in that era is very difficult.

So it’s very hard to comprehend why there was all this angst and so much fuss. Yeah, there was a few incidents and everything, but now behaviour is just so wide open and people just do all kinds of things. Then I suppose it was shocking.

Dean Martin once grudgingly introduced the Stones on a 1964 TV show saying “they’ve probably been picking the fleas off each other backstage”. Did that kind of treatment by the old guard spur you on?

KR: In a way, yes, I would say so. Dino’s a lovely bloke and a great lush and he can say anything he likes, it’s his show. But I wonder how many fleas he had to pick off, you know? ’Cos I would not knock a guy. I just found it a bit unprofessional. At this time, pretty much an amateur myself, we’d only just started. And, “Whaaaat? Thank you, Dino!” [Laughs] I screwed his daughter later, I don’t give a shit!

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Was there a time when you thought the Stones were defeated?

MJ: Not really, no. It’s not a football team!

KR: Never defeated but I did see the possibility of a very long [prison] stretch which only made me clean up my act. That was in Toronto in Canada where I realised that this experiment had been going on too long and it was time to close the laboratory. It was a well-deserved kick up the arse but that was the only time I saw any “doom and gloom”.

If you could have a word today with your 20-year-old self, what would you advise him?

MJ: “Keep going, you’ll be all right. You’re going to last, don’t worry about it!”

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KR: I’d say, “Don’t do that again!”

Describe a moment when you knew you’d made it.

MJ: Well, I thought we’d made it when we made our first single and it got in the lower reaches of the charts and I was over the moon — and that was “making it” as far as we were concerned. “Making it” was going on a concert tour of England and being at the bottom of the bill — almost. We’d definitely arrived. Before, we played in little 200-seater clubs with no one to come and watch us, so that was a huge, massive step up.

Was there ever a point when you thought this could last 50 years?

MJ: No, not really. It’s probably not a good thing to think that. It’s probably quite good that you didn’t think that.

Is there any part of The Rolling Stones that’s been misunderstood?

MJ: No, it’s all been raked over the coals far too much. I’m not here to put any of the records straight or anything.

The past is a territory which is lost and forgotten and everyone has very different views about what happened. And when they try and resuscitate their memories, everyone always give it a lot of twist, usually to their benefit. So, the basis of people’s memories is super-flawed. Everyone has a different tale to tell about what happened.

You know when they do those experiments when they show, like, a traffic accident in a film and they have 10 people who saw it sitting there and they have to give their version of what happened? It’s completely and utterly different each time from one person to another, so imagine that put into a whole life.

You’ve clashed with the authorities many times — been to jail, grilled by bishops on TV…

MJ: I love a grilled bishop! That’s how they should come, with a  bit of olive oil!

…what’s been the biggest collision with old-school values between the Stones and society?

MJ: Well, I suppose the whole kind of “drug bust” thing at Redlands was a bit of a stitch-up. The News of the World — now defunct — wasn’t owned by Rupert Murdoch then, but they were pretty ghastly people. And the police being involved with the News of the World, very similar to the recent allegations that came out [in the phone-hacking enquiry], how much the police were in their pocket and so on.

So they colluded to do this drug bust and then set this whole thing up and made it into some shocking outrage, and that we were a menace to society! It was really bent. It was a perfectly harmless weekend party, really — rather cultural, actually, a bit bohemian — but what do you expect?

There were many others behaving like that, I’m sure, all over the world. But it’s interesting that The Times newspaper defended us, which in those days was one of the pillars of the Establishment. It was the paper of record, which we don’t really have now, like The New York Times is in the US. So that was a rather odd sort of turnaround as you’d got the gutter press stirring it up and The Times coming to your aid and saying it was a storm in a teacup.

Mick, your relationship with Keith has been likened to a “marriage”. How’s married life at the moment?

MJ: People say the stupidest things and that’s one of the dumbest because it’s completely different from being married when you work with someone. I work with Keith and I’ve known him for a long time. A marriage is something completely different, having been in a marriage before. This is a working relationship. You always have difficult times with people you work with. Sometimes they can be really difficult and irascible and mind-bogglingly difficult but you have to try and get on and that’s what you try and do.

Keith, how’s married life with Mick?

KR: What do you expect after 50 years? You’ve got two very volatile guys who’ve been through a whole lot of stuff in their life and still somehow manage — when we look at each other eyeball-to-eyeball — we say, “You know what’s what, I know what’s what, let’s get on with it.” There’s something guiding us. Sometimes I despise the man, others, I love that man so much. It’s like your brother. I never had one, so he’s my brother. That’s the way it is, bless his heart. 

Do you think there’s any other rock’n’roll show comes close to the Stones?

KR: Oh man, I’ve seen Little Richard and Bo Diddley! That’s rock’n’roll, baby! And I was privileged enough to be there and work with these cats. I think any musician, no matter who it is — even Mozart — is dreaming of like being the guy who went before. You wanna play like that cat, you wanna be him. You want to get close to something that turns you on so much that you want to get near it and if you can, top it — well, that’s another thing. But to watch Chuck Berry in his prime, man, that’s rock’n’roll, baby!

Rolling Stones tours keep shattering records. Are there any records left to break?

KR: Never looked upon it that way. Other people say, “Oh you just broke this record or that record.” Records! I don’t want to break records, I want to make them! We don’t look upon it as achieving more. We’re just happy to be together and to be able to play together and there’s millions out there that want to hear it. And to me that’s astounding.

Teenagers seeing you now for the first time, what do you think they would make of the Stones?

KR: What is there in life? There’s the air you breathe and the food you eat… and then there’s The Rolling Stones. They’ve just been there forever, for them, from their point of view. The world wouldn’t be complete without The Rolling Stones!

And people who’ve been coming to see you for 50 years, how do they see the band?

KR: I think, bless their hearts, they’ve all given us a licence to be what they would love to be if everybody had the choice. So we are their unfulfilled wishes, maybe.

What are you planning for the 60th anniversary?

KR: Sixtieth — that’s a little while yet. These zeros keep zooming by — 30, 40, 50. I don’t really see any reason why there shouldn’t be a 60. Either that, or we croak on the job.

Read more from Esquire's What I've Learned Series:
Jack Nicholson
Keith Richards
Vincent Cassell

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