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The Rolling Stones in a portrait by Helmut Newton.
The Rolling Stones in a portrait by Helmut Newton.

Music

Mick and Keith, 50 years on Add to ...

Mick Jagger is checking Wikipedia. Now there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write. Mick and I are chatting on the phone – as one does – from opposite sides of London, while the night draws in. In other words, it’s 4 p.m.

He’s in his pad and I’m in mine, though I imagine his view is somewhat more salubrious. He’s probably not staring across the way at a naked neighbour of indeterminate sex washing compulsively for 45 minutes – he probably got enough of that in Swinging Chelsea circa 1965.

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Anyway. We’ve been discussing the Rolling Stones’ 1978 record Some Girls, which is being brought out this week with 12 previously unreleased tracks and the 10 original songs remastered. It is a rich field of inquiry. Just how messed up was Keith Richards during the sessions? Are they still friends today, 50 years after that fateful meeting on a suburban London train platform? (Oooh, that one’s tricky). And if there were no other musicians besides the Stones and their two regular piano players in the Paris studio during the recording of Some Girls, who provided the delicious saxophone solo?

“That’s right, there was a saxophone solo,” Mick says (I’ve been calling them Mick and Keith in my head for 30 years, I can’t change that now). “What song was that?”

Miss You,” I say, wondering how he could possibly not know that, and then thinking – I can’t remember what I did 33 years ago, and my brain was child-sized and drug-free, which is not something any of the Rolling Stones could claim at the time.

“Hmmm,” he says, and we get back to the perennially fascinating subject of the messed-upedness of 1970s-era Keith, and whether Mick was expected to be the sober centre of the storm. “Certainly not sober,” he says, with the delightful, camp giggle familiar to anyone who’s wasted their lives watching Rolling Stones documentaries (Guilty!). “That would have been a misnomer at the time. Relatively sober, maybe.”

Then he stops and says, “Mel Collins,” which is the oddest non sequitur ever, and even stranger coming from Mick Jagger. “Mel Collins,” he continues in the plummy tones of a BBC announcer, “ ‘born in the Isle of Man, is a British saxophonist and flautist.’ He’s the one who played on Miss You. I just Wikipedia’d it.”

How odd it would be to check the facts of one’s life on Wikipedia. But then Sir Mick, who turned 68 this summer, has spent a half-century in the public eye, his every movement, girlfriend, and feud with his songwriting partner and Glimmer Twin, Keith Richards, obsessively detailed.

During the recording of Some Girls, with Keith facing trial in Toronto for possessing heroin, it seemed the band might be on the verge of breaking up. Though the truth is, the Stones might be closer to breaking up now, thanks to some injudicious remarks Keith made about Mick in his recent autobiography, Life. The phrase “tiny todger” may ring a bell. But more on that fractious relationship in a moment.

“The band’s always been under threat! What else is new?” This is Keith Richards over the phone from New York, and he punctuates his observation with a rheumy laugh that many have tried to describe (wizened lung rattling around in an empty bourbon bottle? Layers of nicotine being scraped from a windpipe with a cat’s tongue?).

Still, it was a particularly precarious moment: Richards was not yet a best-selling, award-winning author and national treasure ( Life recently won the Mailer Prize for Distinguished Biography, which was presented to him by one of his fans, Bill Clinton). As he describes in Life, he spent part of the Some Girls sessions strung out in the bathroom, having failed to kick his heroin habit. He fell asleep under a piano one night and woke to find the next occupants of the studio, the Parisian police force’s brass band, playing La Marseillaise above his head. He was, at this point, using toy doctors’ kits from FAO Schwarz as a source of plastic syringes (he had his own needles).

“It didn’t interfere with what I was doing,” Keith says of his addiction. “I had a feeling that I was right, even though I was in the wrong. Jymmwahmn?” (Translation from Keefese: Do you know what I mean?)

He felt he’d been set up in Toronto, that he was a high-profile scalp to be taken. At the same time, he acknowledges that the judge’s innovative ruling – he was to play a concert to benefit the blind in Oshawa, Ont. – put him on the path to salvation. When I tell him that my brothers attended the concert, he pauses for a minute and, sounding genuinely moved, says: “Oh, that really warms my heart.”

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