Wednesday 18 July 2018

Mick Jagger talks childhood, joining the Stones, being jailed for drugs, writing, and coming to Croke Park

In his only Irish newspaper interview ahead of the Croke Park concert on May 17, Mick Jagger tells our man about his youth - including his parents' reaction to his abandoning college for the Rolling Stones - being jailed for drugs, writing songs about heroin and inter-racial sex, the 1960s, the Vietnam war - and why 'Satisfaction' has endured

The Rolling Stones Kick off their Stones — No Filter tour in Europe with a gig in Croke Park in May. Photo: Dave Hogan
The Rolling Stones Kick off their Stones — No Filter tour in Europe with a gig in Croke Park in May. Photo: Dave Hogan
A young Mick Jagger
Jagger's current partner, ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick
Barry Egan

Barry Egan

In the 1970 cult classic Performance London gangster Chas (played by James Fox) looks up and down rock-star Turner (played by Mick Jagger) with undisguised contempt. He then sneers: "You'll look funny when you're 40."

At 74 years of age, Mick Jagger looks anything but funny. Still iconic. Still Jagger.

It seems like another lifetime ago that the young anti-Christ of the Rolling Stones - having been released from Brixton prison the previous night after his drug conviction was quashed by the courts - is ever-so-politely discussing morality on ITV's World in Action programme in July 1967.

"It's ancient history, really," he says now. "It does seem like another world..."

A young Mick Jagger
A young Mick Jagger

What made it all the more fascinating was that Jagger, very much seen as the cause of degenerative moral standards, was discussing morality with four eminent figures of the English establishment which Jagger was trying to overthrow: the Bishop of Woolwich, Dr John Robinson; Jesuit priest Father Corbishley, former Home Secretary Lord Stow Hill; and editor of The Times, William Rees-Mogg. It was like a scene from Monty Python (not least because Jagger's cut-glass accent was as plummy as the lofty grandees who were sitting opposite him in a country garden in Essex).

"It is, completely [Monty Python]," Jagger says all these years later. "You can't parody it. It is just a complete joke, really. And to think all that was taken seriously and that there was a fuss and bother!"

You could have gone to jail, I say.

"Well, I did go to jail, for a brief period. It wasn't very pleasant. Yeah, we could have been in jail. Keith got nine months and I got three months. You know, over nothing, really. And really a put-up job by the press as well, on top of it. It was kind of nasty," Jagger says referring to the fact that at 5:30pm on February 12, 1967, 20 police and various media alighted on Keith Richards's Sussex home like it was Sodom and Gomorrah (Jagger's girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull was naked, wrapped in a fur rug. Venus in fur indeed.)

The aforesaid Mr Rees-Mogg, as editor of The Times, robustly - and famously - attacked Jagger's custodial sentence with his editorial "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel" (a quotation from Alexander Pope's Epistle to Dr Arbuthnot from 1735.)

The trial, as Harper's Bazaar magazine put it, riveted England and became a flashpoint for the confrontation between establishment principles and those of the rising youth culture...

Jagger's current partner, ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick
Jagger's current partner, ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick

"It was a very odd time in English life," says Jagger now. "There was a very sharp divide and everything. And even though it was pretty meaningless, socially it [the trial] was a dividing point between one kind of liberal thinking and straight-down-the-road old-fashioned thinking and deference and the law and the letter of the law."

"You were moving into a different time. A lot of changes happened. But one of the biggest changes was what happened to Ireland in that period, if you think about it. Obviously it happened a little bit later. But whole changes did happen in this timeframe."

He was coming over here a lot then? Staying with various Guinnesses and assorted aristos at their stately homes...

"Yeah, I was going to Ireland. Obviously, it was a wonderful place to come and hang out. Dublin was beautiful. It was really a good time for me." 90,000 fans of the Rolling Stones are expecting a similarly good time when the band, one of the best live groups on terra firma since the 1960s (The Beatles were never much of a live band), play in Dublin on May 17.

"I'm looking forward to coming to Croke Park," Jagger gushes. "That should be fun. I've never played there."

I tell him I went as a kid to see the Stones at Slane Castle.

"I remember the last Slane gig very well, in 2007, and I remember the one before as well. I can't remember what year that was [July 1982]! It was a long time ago. I haven't played Dublin in ages. So it should be exciting."

When did Jagger first realise he was a performer and that what he did was affecting people?

"When I was about 14 or something. I used to sit in with rock bands. I wouldn't tell my parents what I was doing but I would go and sit in with these naff rock bands and do a couple of numbers and then go off and see how it went. It was like fun. So I did that. I could see I got a good reaction. I don't think I really knew anything of what I was doing. Of course not. But, yeah, that was my earliest start."

Did young Jagger do little turns at family gatherings as a child?

"Oh, yeah. Like in those days like before we had phones! Or tellies!" laughs Jagger who has eight children, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild. (The eighth child is with his current other half, ballerina Melanie Hamrick, half his age, whom Jagger met after his long-term partner, designer L'Wren Scott died tragically in March 2014.) "Everyone had to do something back then. You had to do a turn. You had to go round. You know, your auntie played the piano or whatever. And everybody had to do something. Or recite a poem. Or sing a song. Or do an imitation or a dance or something. Everyone had something."

What was Jagger's?

"I used to do lots of imitations. I did songs. Dances, you know, to anything," Jagger says, as I imagine him even as a young child perfecting the early stages of the famous Jagger finger point.

I enquire how his parents, PE teacher Basil Fanshawe Jagger and schoolteacher Eva Ensley Mary Scutts, reacted when young Jagger told them he was leaving the London School of Economics to be a prancing, narcissistic, androgynous Dionysian rock god with the world's most prodigious lips and wearing the filmiest women's blouses onstage...the lead singer with the anti-Beatles, the Rolling Stones?

"Not well!" His Satanic Majesty roars with laughter. "Not well!"

Your dad was furious, wasn't he, I say to Jagger.

"I think so, yeah, but I don't blame him! It really wasn't the end of the world because they told me that I could come back any time I wanted to," Jagger says, referring to his teachers at the London School of Economics and not his parents,

"So I didn't see the downside of it, really. But I think it was a bit of a shock, because being in a rock band wasn't really a career in those days. It was something you did if you were coming from a relatively poor background. It wasn't seen as a career, you know what I'm saying, in those days. Of course, people made careers out of showbusiness, obviously, but not really in that genre."

One of Jagger's - and the Rolling Stones' - greatest songs is about heroin, slavery, inter-racial sex, whipping... and cunnilingus.

What was going through his mind when he wrote Brown Sugar?

"Ha!" Jagger says emitting a huge ribcage-rattle of a laugh. "Oh, I don't know. I don't know! I really don't know. And I was in Australia when I wrote it. So you can add that on to the top of it, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. So I don't really know what was going through my mind. I was doing Ned Kelly," he says referring to the 1970 movie with him in the lead role. "I don't know what was going on in my head. It was pretty stream of consciousness stuff. That was the stream of consciousness of the day. You just let it run. All those songs are very hastily done and hastily recorded and so on. It reflected the times."

Did his father ever say to Jagger's mother: 'Eva, what have we reared? Is there anything he won't write about?'

"Hah! No, that's not what they said. I really don't know what they said about me but when they saw that's what I wanted to do they were very kind to me about it."

I experience the Jagger force-field first hand. Charismatic, smart, witty, he laughs a lot, out loud.

Sometimes at himself. Self-deprecation coupled with a mercurial intelligence, Jagger doesn't expect that his band - going more than 55 years - are still the sacred repository of anti-establishment values. He is warm and candid, yet still very much unknowable.

As Vanity Fair magazine once pointed out, Mick Jagger - the rock star in Platonic form - 'is over-exposed and yet remains hidden. Mystery is power. Distance is charisma. He's among the most famous people in the world, but who is he really? Does anyone know? Does even he know?' I throw a few questions at him in an attempt to find out. I quote him something that Keith Richards once said of him: "Mick clams up all the time. He keeps a lot inside. It was the way he was brought up, just being Mick Jagger, at 18 or 19, the star. It gives him a reason to protect the space that's left."

Is that him?

"What?" he splutters. "I have no idea. You know when you're onstage you're not really keeping it all inside. You are mostly showing it out. And that's what I do for a living." Jagger rarely does interviews (it took weeks of hounding his PR people to secure this exclusive for the Sindo). He doesn't do memoirs ("You don't want to end up like some old footballer in a pub, talking about how he made the cross in the Cup final in 1964.") He doesn't appear on the sofa opposite Graham Norton. Did he inherit that trait from his father?

"No. But I don't need to do those things. So why do things you don't need to? You know what I mean? I don't like doing unnecessary publicity. I'm quite happy to talk to you about my shows. I'm quite happy to talk to you about coming to Dublin, talk about Exile on Main Street.

"I'm a very outward person. I'm not at all shy. But I don't do all the rest of it," says Jagger, who was born in Dartford on July 26, 1943 (allegedly under the "crossfire hurricane" of Luftwaffe's bombers; when they couldn't reach London.

"People have this obsession," he once said. "They want you to be like you were in 1969. They want you to, because otherwise their youth goes with you, you know. It's very selfish, but it's understandable."

Be that as it may, the Rolling Stones' leading light seems wary at first that I am "trying to do a potted history!" Jagger wrote As Tears Go By when he was 22 years of age. It was about the melancholy of seeing young children play and being old. "You see," says Jagger who is not young any more, "as a writer you are not writing from your own [experience.] You have got to write from fiction."

You were reading Pushkin at the time, weren't you?

"Probably!" he laughs. "So, you don't always write from your own perspective. You write from an imaginary perspective. It gives you a bit more variety. If you only write from your own perspective, you have a limited resource there."

Sympathy for the Devil from 1968 is quite a grand statement of a song to write in the first-person narrative: there's World War II, the Nazis, the Russian revolution, the shooting of the Romanov family ("I stuck around St Petersburg when I saw it was a time for a change/Killed the Tsar and his ministers/Anastasia screamed in vain"), the assassination of John F Kennedy and Bobby, the putting to death of Jesus ("Made damn sure that Pilate washed his hands to seal his fate"). How did Jagger come to write it?

"I think that is a mish-mash between me reading Baudelaire and The Master and Margarita," Jagger says referring to Mikhail Bulgakov's novel - which his girlfriend at the time, Marianne Faithfull, gave him - about Satan arriving in Moscow in the 1930s, fresh from the crucifixion of Christ.

"I had a lot of that going on in my head. I don't think that I was able... not that I was trying to copy any of those people [Baudelaire and Bulgakov]. But I think that was all banging around in my head at the time. And that's what came out."

Would he write something similar now in a world where there are plenty of cases where "every cop is a criminal and every sinner a saint"?

"I am writing at the moment."

For the Stones or a solo album?

"I'm just writing. It is mostly for the Stones at the moment. I'm just writing. I don't really think about what I have written, much. I just keep ploughing forward, really."

As I plough backwards. How did Jagger feel in the aftermath of Altamont?

"I'm not going to go there," he says of the infamous Stones concert of December 6, 1969, at the speedway in northern California when a fan, Meredith Hunter, was stabbed to death by a Hells Angels security guard with a 7in knife while The Stones played Sympathy for the Devil. "That is just too long ago and too kind of weird. I'm having trouble with that..."

Was the Let It Bleed album inspired by Vietnam - a nasty war, children being napalmed?

"Yeah, I think so. You'll have to remind me what songs are on it though!" he laughs.

Gimme Shelter.

"Gimme Shelter was very much influenced by the violence in the US and the general uncertainty politically and so on."

I watched the 2012 documentary Crossfire Hurricane recently and it struck me how violent the times were. In the scene of the Stones coming off stage at Altamont you look so scared, I say to Jagger.

"Yeah. It was a very violent time. Very confusing and ever-changing. It was very difficult.

"There was a lot of outspoken songs and a lot of chat and a lot of polemics and stuff. It obviously reflects the times that you live in. But it was a very difficult time, there was no doubt about that."

In the mid-1970s, the Stones couldn't live in England and they couldn't get into America because of immigration issues (courtesy, perhaps, of Keith's difficulties with the law over his Class A proclivities). Was it a difficult time for Mick?

"That was quite problematic. We weren't living in England but we went there. Keith and I couldn't go to the US because we had visa problems. But in the end we sorted them out. It was just life's problems. 'How are we going to solve this?' So we did solve it. You get problems come to you like that in life and you solve them."

Before that, during the early-1970s recording of Exile on Main Street in the basement of Villa Nellcote in the south of France, Keith Richards was a full-blown heroin addict...

"If you say so!" Jagger laughs of his co-worker in the Stones, who he met on platform two of Dartford train station on October 17, 1961, and went on in July 12, 1962, to form a band that would go on to sell over 300 million records.

OK, I grimace. Jagger laughs for a few seconds at my nervousness at the surreal prospect of being sued by the death-defying human riff himself, Keith Richards.

You once said that you weren't suited to heavy drug behaviour...

"I don't understand what you are trying to say," he laughs. (Charles Shaar Murray once wrote that Jagger was more LSE - London School of Economics - than LSD.)

You don't strike me as someone who would be very patient with recording an album where there are lots of people hanging around being more out of it than the rock stars recording the album, I say.

"Yeah. It is not easy to do things in that kind of environment. But I mean, that was a long time ago, a different lifestyle. "It is not easy because not everybody wants to do the same things at the same time, and it is very difficult if you have got people with various addictions; and everyone has their problems. Deal with it!" he laughs.

"But still! We got it made in the end! And people still liked it! The proof of the pudding!" Mick Jagger says with more laughter. "How are we doing for time? I've got to run..." Jagger says and is off.

He remains the unbroken butterfly.

The Rolling Stones play Croke Park, Dublin, on May 17. A limited number of extra standing and seated tickets are being released for the Croke Park show. These extra tickets will go on sale on Monday at 9am from Ticketmaster.

THE GOLDEN AGE OF ROCK ' N' ROLL

How does Mick Jagger look back on golden age of the Rolling Stones' albums: Beggars Banquet in 1968, Let It Bleed in 1969, Sticky Fingers in 1971, and Exile On Main Street in 1972?

"I only look back on it when we want to play a song from those albums, and before we rehearse it, we might play the actual record. I don't really look back.

"I was kind of looking back on it when I did some of those documentary films. The Crossfire Hurricane film had a lot of Exile in it and then when I did the revamped Exile On Main Street album with some extra tracks I was forced," he laughs, "to go down memory lane and see what there was and how it was done and when and who was on it. So it reminded me of stuff. Now was a really interesting period, and a strange way of making records in a way."

Why has (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction endured so since it was released in 1965? Teenage sexual alienation/confusion and a great riff?

"You get these songs and everyone knows them. They just lodge in people's consciousness. And obviously they're big hits at the time. Then they just lodge in somewhere. And a lot of people liked them when you play them. I hope!"

I ask him does he still enjoy playing it. "Yeah. I mean, I usually do it at the end of the show. It comes as a kind of audience participation thing and I see if I can play with that. And I make the ending and draw it out, and make it into a tribute to Otis Redding. And whatever else I try and do with it," he laughs.

Does Jagger think, as many do, that Exile On Main Street is the best Stones album? "When it came out, people really didn't know what to make of it. They didn't go, 'Yeah, this is great'. They were a little bit nonplussed by it when it came out. So it was a bit of a slow-burn, that one. We still do a lot of songs from it."

Jagger once said the Let It Bleed album was more of a piece. Does he still think that?

"Yeah. I mean, the thing about Exile is: it is very much done in this house in the south of France and a lot of it isn't [it was finished in Los Angeles]. So when I went back and analysed it, it was done in two parts. It is not an album that is done in one place and one time kind of thing. A lot of the good songs are from an earlier period.

Yeah but it [Exile] is a great album. I'm not knocking it. All those three albums you mentioned - Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers - are all really good and they have all got good things on them and we still do songs from that period. We delve back in to see if there are things that we don't do that we could do. So there is good stuff..."

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