He’s been asked the question a million times, but the man who once sang, “What a drag it is, getting old,” is surprisingly good-natured when he answers it yet again.
“I don’t know anyone who’s 68 and retired,” Mick Jagger says, relaxing into his plush upholstered chair at London’s luxurious Dorchester Hotel. “People don’t do that any more. It wouldn’t even occur to me. If I was unable to sing the high notes, and everyone was staying up too late drinking martinis, then maybe. But if you think of yourself as a musician first, if you feel you’re still at the top of your game, you don’t stop to think about how old you are.”
The indefatigable Jagger is back – not with the Rolling Stones, for now, but with SuperHeavy, a so-called supergroup consisting of himself, the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart, British soul singer Joss Stone, Bob Marley’s youngest son Damian and Slumdog Millionaire composer A.R. Rahman. And when he appears in the video for SuperHeavy’s first single, Miracle Worker, it’s in a flaming hot-pink tapered suit designed to defy the cynics, dancing like such a jerky marionette you fear for his spine.
He has to contend with more than the popular resistance to rock stars aging disgracefully. Last fall, Keith Richards published a frank if mean-spirited memoir that excoriated Jagger for crimes of the ego, capping it off with the taunt that his erstwhile friend has a “tiny todger.” But Jagger hasn’t been licking his wounds. Since the publication, he’s been on Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s mega-yacht in the Mediterranean and studios in Turkey, Jamaica, India and Los Angeles, forging the eponymously titled SuperHeavy album, which was released last week.
“Mick’s singing great, in some ways better than ever,” says Stewart, who sports shades indoors and a tattoo of SuperHeavy’s tiger-head logo, designed by Obama’s Hope poster artist Shepard Fairey, on his forearm. “He’s like jazz and blues players, who as they get older realize they don’t have to play so many notes, they just know the exact notes to play. Watching him work with those other musicians, seeing him home in on his sections, is like watching a master painter or cinematographer.”
Stewart produced Jagger’s much ignored 1987 solo album, Primitive Cool. But if that one was insipid, this one is bursting at the seams with energy and ideas from a highly amped band pulsing with beats from around the planet.
“I’ve never been a fan of world music,” Stewart says. “To me it’s like knitting yogurt sweaters, you know? But one night at my home in Jamaica, I heard all these different sounds coming from huge sound systems in the hills – reggae, rock, blues – and I thought, that’s what I want to do, bring them all together in one mad-alchemist-type experiment.”
“It’s an experiment in soundscapes,” Jagger explains. “Everyone has their own little corner and their spotlight, but when all those people coalesce into one, though I say so myself, I think it really comes off.”
The musicians were not all strangers to one another. Stewart and Jagger produced and performed the soundtrack to the 2004 remake of Alfie, which featured Joss Stone. Meanwhile, all five SuperHeavy members have a track record of collaborating with other artists, ranging from Justin Timberlake to Nas to Deepa Mehta. So, far from being a set of isolated ego trips, the album sounds both exuberant and genuinely collaborative.
Jagger, Marley and Stone complement each others’ vocal range, and Stone’s pairing with Jagger is arguably the most exciting since he sang with Merry Clayton on Gimme Shelter. Over all, it reminds you how once upon a time Jagger and Richards, belting out songs together and sharing that bottle of bourbon, created the iconic rock image of the party at the mike.
To ensure something close to a musical democracy, Stewart and Jagger shelved songs they’d already written before jamming with the new group in the studio.
“Then we just hit the ground running,” says Stewart. “We wrote 22 songs in the first six days!”
Having recorded the hit (You Gotta Walk And) Don’t Look Back with Peter Tosh in 1978, this is the second generation of reggae artists Jagger’s teamed up with. How is this one different? “Peter was more of a singer while Damian does more toasting,” he says with a serious face at first, and then creases it up in that famous way of his, all teeth and lips. “But this time round I’d go in the ganja room at the end of the day, not the beginning.”
As for the album itself, Jagger says, “Damian’s arcane raps contain a lot of political and social messages as well as a lot of humour, while A.R.’s songs are mainly spiritual. Some of the songs are personal and wistful, and some are more overtly political or social in their context.”
But if the public likes the album enough, there will be another, plus a tour that threatens to eclipse the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary next year, an event that seems likely only to be celebrated if the lawyers can cut through the acrimony.
Of course, if nothing pans out, he always has his senior’s bus pass.
Special to The Globe and Mail