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Lone Stone: Mick Jagger's Solo Adventures
Re: Masters is a monthly interview column dedicated to exploring a veteran artist's body of work

Oct. 2, 2007

"I think you just learn as you go along," says Mick Jagger, "whether you're playing with the Rolling Stones or playing with other musicians." If it's a little hard for most of us to imagine that distinction, it only gets more difficult when you consider the "other musicians" with whom Jagger has worked: David Bowie, Bono, Peter Tosh and Pete Townshend, among many others.

These collaborations make up the core of a new collection titled "The Very Best of Mick Jagger" comprising 17 tracks taken from the music he has created away from the Stones through the years. In addition to selections from his four solo albums -- "She's the Boss" (1985), "Primitive Cool" (1987), "Wandering Spirit" (1993) and "Goddess in the Doorway" (2001) -- the compilation includes songs from several soundtracks, dating back to 1970's "Performance," plus various one-off singles and unissued recordings. Most newsworthy is a previously unreleased, broiling funk cover titled "Too Many Cooks (Spoil the Soup)." John Lennon produced this all-star session in 1973 during his infamous "Lost Weekend" phase in Los Angeles when the ex-Beatle caroused in local clubs between studio jams.

In a hotel suite high above midtown Manhattan, Jagger, 64, is dressed casually in a striped oxford shirt that's open at the collar and the cuffs, light-colored slacks, rainbow-striped socks and black sneakers. The Stones' marathon "A Bigger Bang" tour, which ran for more than two full years, wrapped up just a few weeks earlier, but Jagger looks remarkably fit and rested. He is in New York following a quick trip to Boston to check in on "The Women," a movie he is producing that stars Annette Bening, Meg Ryan and Debra Messing.

The "Very Best" compilation is a reminder that somehow, in addition to fronting the longest-running rock-'n'-roll show on earth, Jagger has also squeezed in a distinguished career of his own. He acknowledges that his solo albums haven't all been critical favorites but notes that some listeners find it hard to hear his voice away from the Stones; he recalls one French journalist who said he initially didn't like the solo work simply because he thought it meant the band was breaking up. "There is a lot of baggage," Jagger says, "but I think now, on this album, it's easier to listen to."

MSN Music: What do the solo projects allow you to do that you can't do in the context of the Rolling Stones?

Mick Jagger: First of all, I learn a lot. If you're recording with a band, you work up a lot of the material in the studio as you go along -- not that the working methods are the same for each Rolling Stones recording, but they tend to have a way of going, and you want to involve everyone. Whereas if you're doing records on your own, it's better to have a lot of the songs already written first, rehearse them with different people, and then it's much more down to you, to one person -- though not completely, of course.

How about as a songwriter?

I do write on my own, but it's nice to write with people, to have sounding boards and to do it different ways. Working with these writers, you learn an awful lot about how to make music, how to record music and how to write songs.

And having said all that, really in many ways it's the same thing, because when you've done all the music and all the musicians have gone home, you're still the singer, singing, usually on your own, to a track that you've recorded. It could be the Rolling Stones or the Men in the Moon, to be honest -- at that point, you're you, singing a song, and you just do it and that's your job.

What's different about working with these collaborators after working alongside Keith Richards for so many years?

Well, Keith and I don't always have the same way of writing songs. There's lots and lots of ways of doing it. Oftentimes, we put them down as Jagger-Richards, but we've written them on our own. Not all -- by all means, not all! But sometimes that's one way. And then sometimes I write the lyrics and Keith writes the melody, or I write the melody and he writes the lyrics, and all these permutations, all these different ways of doing it.

I do prefer to write with people I know already, because I find it really weird if someone would come in the room now, some famous person, and you go, "OK, here we are!" So it's much better to do it with someone that you know a bit socially.

And then you get into the process. I always ask songwriters, "How do you write? Do you write on piano, do you write on guitar?" Some people say, "I don't write on an instrument at all; I just sing things and people write them down," and I say, "Hmm, well, there you go." Keith likes to have a drummer, but more recently, we just do simple drum programs. On the last album, I played the drums myself because Charlie [Watts] wasn't well -- Keith found that really amusing -- but I got better as I went along.

What were some of the different approaches taken on these songs?

When I wrote with Lenny Kravitz, I turned up at his house -- I've known Lenny for ages -- and he had a track completely finished, but no lyrics and no melody. And that's not my favorite way of writing. I said to Lenny, "Jeez, I used to do this for Rolling Stones songs," where the track would get done, but there's nothing, no melody, and I hated that. So I said, I better go in the corner and write the rest of the song, which is quite important -- the lyrics and the melody, you know. It was just a lot of guitars, very nice groove, and you're like, "Yes? And then?"

Some people like to just sit down with acoustic guitars, like Dave Stewart. Dave likes to write the video while he writes the song, he likes to see it all visually, which is a really interesting way to do it. Don Was does that, too -- "What are you seeing?" Everything is visualized, so there's nothing left too vague.

Tell me about the session for "Too Many Cooks" with John Lennon.

During this time, which is like 1973, when I would go to Los Angeles, for work or whatever, John was there also, and we used to go on Sundays to the Record Plant. They used to donate [studio time] -- as if we couldn't afford it -- but they used to encourage musicians to come in on Sundays, when no one would work in L.A. much, and we would all jam.

I don't really know what real songs were done, but this one was an actual, real song that someone came up with. I think John had heard it on the radio and said, "Let's do this." So we got the record -- in the old-fashioned way we used to do -- got the record, wrote the lyrics down, the musicians learned the song in like 10 minutes, and I did two takes and that was it. It was really a great group of musicians on it. I remember someone saying at the time, "Oh, the bass is too busy," but now it sounds fantastic. It's Jack Bruce.

Is there more?

From those sessions? I have no idea. I'm sure the engineer has some of the tapes, because some were kept; some were lost.

There really was a special bond between the Beatles and the Stones, wasn't there? Turning up on each other's sessions, all the way back to them writing "I Wanna Be Your Man" for you. Now it seems like whenever two stars get together, it's kind of just for the photo op.

Yeah, there was a definite thing. I just remembered, which I'd completely forgotten, that when we did this song "We Love You" [released initially as a B-side, and included on 1967's "Their Satanic Majesties Request"], they sang on that session.

John and I didn't really play that much together when we used to hang out in New York, at his apartment at the Dakota, or when he used to come to my house in London. I think this is one of the few times we really played a lot. It was a good time -- John was going through some pretty crazy times, but he did some interesting things, as well. People think of it as John being particularly crazy, but he wasn't all the time. Around this time, there are also some pictures of John and I at the Oscars together, which was considerably more relaxed than it is now.

"Memo From Turner" is on this collection, which is taken from the movie "Performance." That was really your first time stepping out as Mick Jagger away from the band.

This is when I first met Ry Cooder, who was playing a lot of this slide guitar stuff. He taught Keith and myself to play in these different tunings, which we'd never done before. Well, Brian [Jones] had done some to play slide guitar, but I never had, and Keith never had really much. Ry played this kind of haunting slide guitar on the soundtrack, the use of which in movies became a sort of hackneyed cliché later on.

I had this one scene where I sang, kind of a proto-video thing. I wrote this song and we recorded it with various people -- I think it's Jim Capaldi playing drums, maybe Steve Winwood is on it, I can't remember who else. I was quite surprised when I listened to the thing being mastered at how good it sounded. I was expecting it to sound really dated, and actually the beat of it is very modern, the way the beat is broken up.

What do you remember about the sessions with this blues band, the Red Devils? The Sonny Boy Williamson song "Checkin' Up on My Baby" is on this album, but there was more recorded, right?

When we were making the "Wandering Spirit" record, I used to go and watch them on Mondays at this club in L.A., and I used to sit in with them sometimes. [Producer] Rick Rubin said we should go and do a record, and I said, "Jeez, while we're doing this record, we're going to do another one? Rick, you're a hard guy to work with!"

So he prepped the band and we went through the song list, and he said we'll do these familiar blues and these less-familiar blues. We did, I don't know how many, a dozen or more tracks. I just picked this one; I think it's representative of what we were doing at the time.

Did you consider releasing that as an album on its own?

I could have put it out. Ahmet [Ertegun, co-founder of Atlantic Records] wanted to put it out for ages, and I just left it for a while. I kept meaning to put it out, meaning to put it out ... whatever. So here we are, putting one song out!

Do you have a favorite from the solo albums?

They all have nice things on them. I wouldn't be putting them out if they didn't. They all have really good songs. I think that "Wandering Spirit" is probably the most consistent.

What do you think you took from these projects and brought back into your work with the Stones?

More or less all of it. I mean, everything. You always learn from the projects you do. You take the Stones into your other work, and you take the other work into the Stones -- and not only music. You take what you do in film back into music, and you take music into film, and so on. I think that doing these solo projects really helped me a lot in writing for the Rolling Stones, writing more easily and in more interesting ways. You just learn how to work better.

Alan Light is the former editor-in-chief of Spin, Vibe and Tracks magazines and a former senior writer at Rolling Stone. His writing has also appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, GQ and Entertainment Weekly. His book "The Skills to Pay the Bills: The Story of the Beastie Boys" was published in 2006. Alan is a two-time winner of the ASCAP-Deems Taylor Award for excellence in music writing.

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