||Afghanistan, Damien Hirst. His new solo album. Name your topic and Mick Jagger is eager to talk, says Robin Eggar. Just be sure not to ask him about his retirement plans
It was Halloween. Like the werewolf of London, his hair was perfect, long enough, layered just right and consistent in its colour. Mick Jagger was wearing a traditional tailored cotton shirt in light blue with thin yellow stripes — one cuff half turned up, revealing a string friendship bracelet. His face was as weatherworn and furrowed as one might expect in man of 58, yet he moved with the grace and energy of a much younger beast.
Jagger was in fine form, but then he usually is in interviews, especially when he is talking about his solo albums, the latest of which is out on Monday. (Perhaps because they don’t sell as well as the Rolling Stones’s, he feels he has to try harder.) However, he never actually says much, for he loves to control what people know about him. His memory is remarkable: in the short term, he forgets nothing, no matter how trivial, yet specific events from farther back are brushed aside with “I can’t remember exactly”. He has not lost his temper in public in living memory. Even in his lyrics, which can be oblique, he never reveals much.
So, it comes as something of a surprise to learn that for the past year Jagger has been followed by the documentary film-maker Kevin Macdonald. (Macdonald’s One Day in September, about the Palestinian terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics, won an Oscar in 2000.) “As I was making the record at home, I started by shooting everything myself, put the camera on a tripod or asked visitors to film whatever I was doing because it was so fascinating and interesting,” he laughs, deliberately puncturing his own vanity and making sure I get the irony. “Then I got a bit more professional and decided to make a proper film.”
Alan Yentob tried to convince Jagger to let the BBC make it, to which he replied: “Why should I give you my life and my film?” So it ended up a Jagged Films production, which will be shown on Channel 4 on November 22. “Of course I wanted to control it: that way you don’t have to pull punches. I’d have been very guarded over what I’d have said and let be shot if I had no control over it.”
The film, Being Mick, is not the history of his life,he says. “It is just about the last year, it is about the recording, making Enigma and whatever else was happening around me, looking after my kids and going on holiday.”
It’s no Tantrums and Tiaras. It is revealing, but more tantalising for what it doesn’t show. He certainly comes over as a far more accomplished and committed musician than his dilettante image. The flip and sarky public Jagger, doing his silly voices, is present throughout, but he exists alongside the doting dad who attends every sports day and proudly squires daughter Elizabeth to Elton’s summer bash and the Enigma premiere. Watching Jagger on screen with his son Gabriel, it’s easy to see why he needs to rush away to take the three-and-a-half-year-old trick-or-treating, while Mick and Jerry watchers will read volumes into the few scenes of them together. There is comedy, too, contrasting Lenny Kravitz’s rock star mansion in Miami, all inflatable crimson furniture and high-tech toys, with the antiques and oil paintings in Jagger’s Richmond home.
It’s the same with the new solo album, Goddess on the Doorway. He claims his intentions were “to make it direct so you could feel I am talking to you. So it is personal, and many of the songs are about real people and events”. But frustratingly, he will not be drawn on who he is writing about, except to deny Don’t Call Me Up is about Jerry (“I won’t say who it is about, the girl cannot be named”), while certain Hollywood stars (“There are clues in the lyrics,” he teases ) will not be happy about their depiction in Everybody Getting High.
The songs were primarily written on guitar, and many were recorded at his homes in LOndon and France. The lyrics, all of which he wrote, come in streams of consciousness, which he puts into verse the next day. “When writing I try to create a picture in my head,” he says. “People can only take so much abstraction. The track called Joy is about discovering God through nature, about seeking and salvation, but I thought nobody was going to be interested in that. So I get into the song by having the concrete imagery of driving into the desert, where you are not expecting to find the Buddha or Jesus Christ. Those are the lines I gave Bono to sing — which I thought very appropriate, given his mystical bent. We’re a party act together, Bono and me. The last time, we sang Satisfaction — a hip hop version.”
His near neighbour, Pete Townshend, contributes a raucous guitar solo to Gun, while Elizabeth and Georgia May Jagger sing backing vocals. God Gave Me Everything was written and produced with Kravitz, and the pop feel of Visions of Paradise came from writing with Matchbox 20’s Rob Thomas. The most interesting collaboration for Jagger was Hideaway, which was turned on its head by the former Fugee, Wyclef Jean. “He’s a really interesting producer — it would be great to write a song with him. I wanted him to change the beats, and he added a few little touches, changed the arrangements and brought out some parts of the song I’d glossed over. It’s hard for a writer to know where the edits are.”
But he has clear opinions about other people’s creations. His cultural tastes tend to the traditional. He is unconvinced by “the now established Young British Artists” and finds Damien Hirst “interesting enough, though doubts he will stand the test of time”. In the 1960s he bought Warhol paintings and more recently Ed Burra watercolours. “I haven’t bought that much lately as I haven’t been that interested,” he says, “though I bought a sketch of Andy (Warhol) by Fred Hughes recently. Fred used to work for Andy, and after he died they sold his things. I had to leave bids for tons of things — a drag as you never get them.”
He has an information-gathering side and by his own admission is “a frustrated schoolteacher”. His views on the current crisis in Afghanistan are based on history not emotion. He was in France on September 11, but his daughter Elizabeth was getting into a Manhattan cab when the planes hit. It took all day to learn that she was all right.
“Why are we involved in the politics of Islam anyway?” he says. “In the short term, we are involved because of a terrorist attack of ghastly proportions, which was a moral outrage, a really awful event. But underlying all that, we are involved in Middle East politics because of our way of life and our standard of living. Without oil we wouldn’t have any dealings with Saudi Arabia. I know it is stating the obvious, but people don’t want to look at the obvious.
We have been involved in this for over a hundred years now. We drew all these lines out of the Turkish empire, set up all these puppet regimes because we wanted to control the area without annexing it as formal empire. It’s funny how history repeats itself.”
He’s an avid reader of biographies and novels. He enjoyed Simon Schama’s Landscape and Memory, although he found his potted history of Britain very sketchy, and he has just finished Simon Sebag Montefiore’s biography of Potemkin, which he found “a rather wonderful book — the lifestyle and the court was so excessive while this empire-building was going on in the Crimea with fantastic aplomb”.
He will not be drawn on any obvious similarities between the courts of Imperial Russia and being on tour with the Rolling Stones. Next year the band will celebrate its 40th anniversary. “We are planning to do something next year but we’re not sure what and when.”
Always conscious of his image, Jagger asked fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld to do a photo session. “He’s good and he’s incredibly quick. Lots of photographers take all day to take two photos, and they are very painstaking and boring. Karl does lots of set-ups very quickly and he has fun,” he says, before musing that the best photos taken of him were the early David Bailey sessions and those that Warhol took and turned into lithographs. But he will not be tied to them as if they were historical artefacts. “They are me,” he says, but then adds: “That is how I was that day.”
“I always hate nostalgia/ Living in the past” he sings on Too Far Gone. Many of the lyrics on the new album touch on Jagger’s constant restlessness, his desire to distance himself from his own legend, coupled with a refusal to grow old. That is why he so enjoys producing movies, for he can control what they are and they have nothing to do with being a rock star. Yet his persona and behaviour is still rooted in what he once was.
“I try to live as much as I can in the present,” he admits, “not to trade too much on what I did in the 1960s.” Six years ago Jagger told me he was finally starting to mature. It was a short-lived development. In the past few years he has fathered a child with the Brazilian model Luciana Morad, formally split with Jerry Hall (although they live next door in Richmond and she is a permanent, if non-sexual, fixture in his life) and has enjoyed a series of high-profile dalliances with much younger women, including the model Sophie Dahl. In the documentary his daughter Jade asks him to visit, but adds: “Nobody younger than me please ... and nobody bigger.”
“I think I am very mature for my age. I have moments when I am very grown up,” he roars with laughter. “No one likes getting old, but enjoying life is not the exclusive prerogative of young people. That’s a very narrow view. I think it is wrong to behave as if you are 19 years old all the time, but it doesn’t mean I have to be boring, sit around, reminisce and dismiss modern life as some awful incursion into my reverie about what I did in the 1960s.”
Is this simply a raging against the dying of the light by an unreconstructed rock star? Or worse, is Jagger not in danger of following in Bill Wyman’s slippers? “There’s something of a difference between a 13-year-old schoolgirl and a young woman who is very mature for her age group,” he exclaims, rising for the bait before realising he’s being teased, and then riposting: “There is a lot of jealousy — mostly I imagine from journalists. I like to date girls, but I don’t have a system where they have to be of a certain age group. If you occasionally date a young girl, I think it’s very nice, but I don’t think one should do it all the time. I have values for relationships I’m in. I don’t believe marriage is the perfect state for all people. I have an ordinary bohemian, artistic attitude to love and marriage — one has a go at it, but it doesn’t always work out.”
So he is calming down? “I didn’t say that,” he snaps. “Don’t put words in my mouth. I think you should enjoy life as much as possible within your own limits. I like to go out dancing, but I feel very ill at ease in a club where everybody is 25 or under. I enjoy looking after my children, I enjoy staying in. That is not to say I don’t have my irresponsible moments. We all need to do that. It’s not just me. Our generation is a very interesting one, we have a lot more energy, and we are living a much fuller life than our parents did. A huge proportion of the population have had a very active physical life and experimented with a lot of things, and a lot of them still want to do that.”
Would he consider, then, being cryogenically frozen? “What a silly question!” He laughs. Then he pauses and gives the reason: “It doesn’t work.”