Mick Jagger: He Broke Records, Hearts And Taboos.
Now He's Broken The Age Barrier
MICK JAGGER: Hello. We haven't spoken in a while. So, what are we doing today?
DIMITRI EHRLICH: Let's talk about the first track on your new album [Goddess in the Doorway, Virgin], called "Visions of Paradise." What's your vision of paradise?
MJ: It's a tough one. You can't see paradise. The beauty you see in the world is just the reflection of what paradise is. It's not actually it.
DE: And what about your personal experience of bliss? Do you actually allow yourself to enjoy it, or does your mind jump to future problems?
MJ: You have to learn--sometimes with great difficulty--that those moments are wonderful without actually thinking, This is a wonderful moment. As soon as you think it, the moment's gone. You have to train yourself not to do that. I think those beautiful moments are the nearest thing to achieve.
DE: You have a track called "God Gave Me Everything" which, if taken literally, would probably drive a lot of people insane, because as you were just saying. it's not easy to deal with satisfaction. The word "ecstasy" comes from the Greek ekstasis, which I think means distraction. How are you when it comes to sitting still?
MI: [laughs] Terrible. That song was an attempt to be grateful for what you have, and not always be greedy for more things. It's a bit like what you were just talking about, the moments when you feel really happy--you used the word ecstatic, which is different, but when you're in a state that you want to go on forever. Whereas, the nearest most people get to ecstasy is in the sexual moment. That's why sexual ecstasy is used as a metaphor in some religions.
DE: One of your new songs, "Too Far Gone," is about the way the world has changed so quickly and how we can't turn back now. Did that song feel sort of prescient after the events of September 11?
MJ: Everything that you write, after a certain kind of jolting historic moment, always seems slightly different in hindsight. So yeah, that particular song does seem to have a different meaning now than it did when I wrote it.
DE: Somehow it seems as if a guillotine dropped that day.
MJ: Yeah, I think people felt--violated was a word that I heard used a lot. It's almost this horrific violation, a virginal violation almost, you know? It's like America was this safe place that you could retreat to, and that sort of changed. In some ways a lot of people talk about America as an adolescent society. I don't mean that in a pejorative way. It's just as a nation, it feels sometimes adolescent, and I think that that [September 11] experience is a sea change in the psyche of a nation.
DE: Does fear afflict you much personally? I know your daughter Elizabeth lives right near the World Trade Center.
MJ: Yeah, that makes you feel close to it, but when you actually think about it, the first week or two you were very scared, right? And then after you start analyzing it, you think the chances [of something like that happening again] are pretty low. I think the attitude in Europe is slightly different. We were bombed very heavily in the war and many cities in Europe were destroyed, and we lived with the legacy of that. It's just a different way we've been brought up, you know? But, of course, there's still fear and apprehension.
DE: Speaking of fear, it's often said that when people slow down enough to actually taste the fear that's driving us all, the first emotion we feel is a kind of sadness. Maybe that's because we've all been spinning around like whirling dervishes, so we feel sad that we've missed out by not slowing down enough to just be present. Does that resonate for you?
MJ: Yes, I think so, because in this busy life if you don't have these moments of repose, you can't have any enlightenment, small or large. It's very rare you're gonna have enlightenment when you're running around like a dervish, unless you're whirling in a cathedral. You need moments of repose to open yourself up to any kind of enlightenment. If you just wake up, grab your breakfast and run the rest of the day, and dance yourself silly until you collapse, you're probably not giving yourself any moment to let anything else in.
DE: How has the pressure to live up to your own legacy shifted for you?
MJ: It's hard to answer that. When you're really young, like say when you're playing football, you always trash everyone else out of competition. And as you get older, you get slightly more philosophical. I think it's the same if you're writing a collection of songs. You're really just trying to do that to your own satisfaction. I mean, there are times in your life when you just let things go because you can't be bothered or you're just a bit drunk or you think everything you do is wonderful. And then as you get older you think, Wait a minute, it isn't really wonderful. You get better at editing, you know?
DE: I once saw you guys play in a small club. You were doing "Miss You" and I just stood there feeling like I was almost hallucinating, trying to understand how these five skinny, degenerate-looking middle-aged British men were creating this sound just by moving their vocal chords and hands in a certain way. The room was possessed with the feeling. How in God's name do you account for that?
MJ: I don't know. It doesn't always happen every time we play, either. That's one of the interesting things about music: You do sometimes reach these odd moments where it kind of goes to the next level, beyond just playing the number. But sometimes it is just playing the number. You can't really expect it to always be a transcendent moment. And sometimes the moment goes a bit beyond that, and that's really one of the great things about being a musician. Why does that happen? You don't know. Everything has to be in place, everything has to be aligned, so to speak.
DE: I was nine years old when Andy Warhol's portraits of you were done, and my fifth-grade teacher went to a museum opening and brought me a postcard, and that sealed my fate. What was your friendship with Warhol like?
MJ: The thing about Andy was--it was about two things. It was about heavy, heavy socializing, and yet he didn't say very much [but he'd end up] getting it all down in his diary when he went home. And it was about him, collectively with the studio, doing all these paintings and establishing these images. It was always funny because you'd get there and there'd be lots of Elizabeth Taylors, and hundreds of Maos. You'd think, Oh great, that's this week's output. You didn't think anything much of it, that was what was happening, like you would go into a studio and hear someone do a song which would eventually be a classic, so to speak. But at the time, you'd just think, Yeah, OK, yeah.
DE: In that New York '70s scene, I always think of you hanging out with Peter Tosh and John Belushi. When John Lennon was living at the Dakota, were you friends with him and was he part of that social world, too?
MJ: Yes, he was. He liked to go out, and when he wasn't with Yoko he was going out a lot. We had a lot of really good times. And when he went back with her he sort of stayed in.
DE: He was like, "I can't play now.
MJ: "I can't play now," and I used to send notes up because I used to live in the building next door.
DE: Speaking of relationships, I once had this girlfriend say to me, "You can be a Mick Jagger if you want, but I will not be your Jerry Hall." To which I replied, "Ouch." [both laugh]
MJ: What a drag, boy. Whatever that means. Is it good or bad?
DE: Well, I think she was sort of saying if I want to keep dating 19-year-old Brazilian girls, she doesn't want to be on the sideline watching.
DE: If you had been there on the phone, how would you have defended me?
MJ: [laughs] I wouldn't have defended you! I would have said you shouldn't be doing that! You should be staying with her. So don't count on me, Dimitri. [laughs]
DE: OK, who was president of the United States when you lost count of how many women you've had sex with? I'm assuming it was either LBJ or Nixon--but if it was Kennedy, then we're in trouble!
MJ: I never counted, so there's no answer. But when I lost my virginity, it was Kennedy.
DE: When I met Keith [Richards], I told him, "Your music really changed my life." And he said [mocks British accent], "As long as it's for the better, darling. As long as it's for the better." Who has changed your life, for better or worse?
MJ: I suppose in a way I was seduced into this whole music shenanigans by blues singers. It's a very odd thing, to be seduced. But between Elvis Presley and Muddy Waters I was seduced into having a lifetime of music instead of a lifetime of I-know-not-what. So it's all their fault.
Dimitri Ehrlich is Interview's Music Editor at Large.
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