POP: Mick and Keith (and a bit of Charlie): Don Was produced the new Rolling Stones album, Voodoo Lounge. He compared notes with Mick Jagger in a conversation recorded in New York and ranging from Mozart to men in frocks

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How do you cope with being icons of popular culture? When you went on the Ed Sullivan show (in 1967), or maybe later when people started talking about a phase of 20th-century history as 'post Altamont' - do you become aware at that point that you are impacting on things?

Music's not only about music. It's about a whole bunch of other things - where it sits the year it came out; what else was happening that year; what were the haircuts, the fashion, the attitude. I think that's what people remember. They remember, if they go back that far, Keith's trousers, the kind of shoes people wore - Beetle crushers, drainpipe trousers, greasy hair. And then, of course, the music and the way they danced to it. It's all part of a sort of sub-culture. When I get asked, 'Do you remember wearing that T-shirt on the Ed Sullivan Show?', I do, because it's just part of it. People focus in on certain moments and make them into something. I take a lot of it with a really big pinch of salt because journalists just love to do this. It's their job. Who cares really that they do it, as long as you're aware of it. In the 1960s and early 1970s there was a lot of intellectual posing about popular culture. Before then, these things just happened. So, as soon as you start intellectualising it, you've come to another point. The first time was when there was serious music analysis of the Beatles. It had never happened before. No one had ever done it to Elvis like they did later on. From then it became analysis of popular culture, analysis of popular art and fashion. And from then on, it's never stopped.

It's very immediate now, too. Shakespeare didn't live long enough to hear all the criticism of his work. But you'll find out within two months what everybody thinks about your new record.

Yeah, but I'm sure they told Shakespeare that they thought it was a deep play pretty quickly. And I'm sure he knew if it was a hit or a miss pretty quickly. What he couldn't know is the longevity of it. As far as I see, popular culture is not long lived almost by definition.

Do you remember you wore a dress at Hyde Park?

I didn't really think about that at the time. It was just a frock.

Without wishing to dwell on this, do you understand the impact you've had on a whole generation?

Yeah, I understand it. I mean, I think I understand it because I've talked to people who can express it very eloquently. And I've read people's university papers that they've sent me, their theses on popular culture and so on. But it's not my function to be a critic and analyse that. I'm very interested in social history, but I'm not a social historian. I detest mythomaniacs, in this business and throughout popular culture, who take themselves too seriously. Because I don't think it helps their work to be mythomaniacs. And there's a lot of them about. And they're so boring.

You were talking about the spontaneity of things coming to you when you're writing. How does that work in a collaborative setting? Specifically, for you and Keith.

It could be half-done, like 'Baby Break it Down' or 'Sparks Will Fly' on the new album, and I'll embellish it and flesh out the idea. I quite enjoy doing that. I've done that for years. I do that for other people sometimes, just for fun, because I usually find it relatively easy to do. The other thing is just starting completely from scratch. Keith might just be sitting there playing something, just doodling, and you say, 'That's really good'. Collaboration has a lot to do with picking up on things. But just one piece - however great it is - is not enough for a song. Songs need three pieces. Sometimes they even need four pieces. And sometimes I feel like a broken record when I say to Keith 'Yeah, that's great, but we need another piece and then we need another piece.'

But take a song like 'I Go Wild', which, as far as I can tell, is really your song. Is it still collaborative in the sense that at some point Keith is going to have to pass judgment on it and add his two cents' worth to it? Do you hear Keith in your head?

Sometimes you do. But sometimes you don't think about that. When I wrote 'Blinded by Rainbows' I didn't think of any of that. With 'I Go Wild' I was sitting with Charlie and we just started on this groove. I didn't think until later how Keith would fit in on it. But I knew he could. And I just knew that when he played on it, it would be better than when I was just doing it on my own.

I noticed on your solo records, and on Keith's solo records, there's a wider range, in the sense of things that you would never associate with the Rolling Stones. There's obviously a line of derivation from who you are, but somehow the set becomes smaller when it's done for the Rolling Stones.

Well, on this record, I try to make it as wide as possible, so as not to make it like a sort of generic Rolling Stones narrowness. Keith and I talked about that. We said, 'Well, we're obviously gonna do things that are not what you'd associate with a Rolling Stones record, but we're not gonna throw the other things out of the window just because they're a little bit odd.'

It strikes me that people could listen to this record and find linkage to earlier periods in certain songs, but also find that there's forward motion; that it's still a creative enterprise.

Well, I hope it is. I get very worried about things being too much a repeat of something else because I feel that it's just a pointless thing to do. And there's one or two tracks on the record that I think are really good, but I think they're just a bit repetitious. Someone else may totally disagree with me because they may never have even heard the original, done like 25 years ago. It was a pretty stupid idea of mine to say that you can only do a musical idea once. I mean, Mozart repeated himself]

You're really the only band that's been around long enough to deal with the issue of how you can be 50 years old and write rock 'n' roll songs that pertain to your life.

I think it's a mistake to think that I'm the only songwriter of 50 years old writing popular songs. It's not true. There are others. Carole King was writing songs when I was still in school. And having hits with them. She's not going out touring the world and that, but she's still doing it. But of course, most people writing in rock and roll are very much younger. But I don't really think about that very much. I first wrote songs that were penned in the blues idiom. And most of the writers I learned from were blues writers - John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Sonny Boy Williamson, Howlin' Wolf, Willie Dixon. And they were all in their forties when those songs were written. People were kind of surprised sometimes by the lyrical directness I used - the sexual situations. But really, all that was straight from blues and rhythm 'n' blues songs. And, as I say, a lot of those guys were not particularly young. You've got an hour on this record, say. So you've got time to express immaturity; you have time to express maturity. And everything in between and social comment and silly songs about girls that really say they're about cars. You have all that.

Let's talk about the cumulative effect of 30 years of live performance. It's evident that there's this intuitive interplay between the musicians that, in my opinion, Pearl Jam, fine band that they are, they're just too young; they haven't played together long enough to achieve that level of communicative, intuitive playing.

It's experience. That's why it's good to keep playing with someone like Charlie. He just kind of knows what I'm going to do next and I kind of know what he's going to do before he does it. It's to do with interplay and dance, really. And you see that between Keith and Charlie too. I've never played with a drummer quite like him. He's a swing drummer. Rock'n'roll was a dirty word to him, I should think, when he was growing up.

You've managed to make a Rolling Stones record without Bill Wyman being there. Could you conceive that you could make one without Charlie being the drummer? He's an extremely musical drummer. The band tend to take their cues off what's going on with his high-hat and his cymbals.

It wouldn't be the same band. I mean, Jim Keltner plays a little bit like Charlie. But like you said, Charlie's unique.

If I was looking for a link between this and the best Rolling Stones records, I see that there's a great deal of collaboration between you and Keith on this record.

It was in the writing. I mean, from the beginning.

But even in the performance. I think of something like 'Sweethearts Together', where the two of you were like a foot apart with two microphones facing each other, singing like the Everly Brothers. And I know that people who were in control room at the time, who'd been with you for a long time, were like, 'I can't believe this is happening.' I think that's an important part of this record.

I think that's one of your goals, to get everyone working together as much as possible, especially Keith and myself. And it's always hard to do because you've got your own way of doing things. So I think, yeah, it was pretty collaborative from the start of the writing, which was kind of always difficult to do before. we seem to have gotten into it, spending a lot of time on the writing together.

I saw CNN the other night: 'Can they still roll?'

Can they rock? Can they roll? Hopefully.

(Photographs omitted)

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