Almost 50 years ago, the Rolling Stones dedicated a free concert at London’s Hyde Park to the memory of founding member Brian Jones. The guitarist had drowned in his swimming pool two days prior, weeks after his exit from the band. The Stones decided to carry on with the concert, with Jagger quoting from Percy Shelley’s epic poem Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats as a eulogy for Jones. "Peace, peace, he is not dead,” the singer recited, as bunches of white butterflies fluttered free from cardboard boxes. “He doth not sleep.”
Two months after undergoing what was described as a “minimally invasive” heart valve replacement procedure, the 75-year-old Jagger doth not snooze either. On the phone from London, the upbeat singer told The Globe and Mail in a Canadian print exclusive interview that he’s doing “very well, thank you.” Taking a day off from rehearsing for the Stones’ upcoming No Filter tour of North America, which includes a festival-like show north of Toronto at Burl’s Creek Event Grounds on June 29, the son of a gym teacher was watching a French Open tennis semi-final and a World Cup cricket match between England and Bangladesh.
He recalled the July 5, 1969 Hyde Park show fondly. “In my life, it’s a really landmark event. It was quite a beautiful afternoon in some ways.”
Jagger’s recent heath issues caused the delay of most of the since-rescheduled No Filter dates.
For his interview with The Globe, Jagger avoided specifics on the heart operation. He recently released a pair of post-procedure videos – one of him vigorously dancing; the other, enthusiastically rocking out on an amplified Fender Stratocaster – on social media, so as to broadcast, in the old Kremlin propaganda tradition, his vitality.
Jagger was just as reluctant to provide details of what songs the band is rehearsing. “We’ve been doing a few deep cuts,” he said. “We’ll see.”
It is a source of frustration for some long-time fans that the Stones today stick to a fairly rigid set list that includes some of the same warhorse material they played 50 years ago. Why not a chestnut from the catalogue? Something like the vamping funk of Slave, off 1981’s Tattoo You, perhaps.
“I like that track,” Jagger conceded. “But it’s more or less an instrumental. I only get one line. It would give me a holiday,” he explained, laughing, “which is nice for me.”
It’s a funny thing, balancing well-known songs with the less famous ones. The upcoming comedy film Yesterday imagines a world in which only one person, a musician, has any memory of the Beatles. With that in mind, what if Jagger arrived in a universe ignorant of Stones music? Which of their songs would he present first to people unaware of the band’s canon?
“That’s a hard one,” he replied, mulling the question over. “I guess I’d have to play them Satisfaction. Then you’d play them You Can’t Always Get What You Want and then Honky Tonk Women and then Miss You. But I don’t know, really.”
On the subject of song catalogues and rock-music biopics, Jagger said he’d seen the Freddie Mercury story Bohemian Rhapsody but not the Elton John bio-musical Rocketman. “It’s a lot of fiction, isn’t it?” he suggested. “These films are a version of the truth.”
Asked if he was interested in presenting his own truth, either in biopic form or an autobiography, the rocker was succinct: “Not really, no.”
What about writer Stanley Booth, with his classic book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones; did he get it right?
“He was out of his mind, quite obviously,” Jagger answered. “It’s very entertaining, but I wouldn’t say it was true. It’s just his crazy point of view of being on our tour and being completely out of his box.”
Booth’s book chronicles the Stones’ escapades of 1969, a year that ended with a disastrous concert at Altamont Speedway in Northern California (where a spectator was killed by a member of the Hell’s Angels) and the release of the album Let it Bleed. The summer had begun at Hyde Park, with the butterflies and the poetic requiem for a fallen Stone.
“Flowers, ruins, statues, music, words, are weak,” read Jagger, conspicuously dressed in a white smock, gloriously ruffled at the wrists and collar. "The glory they transfuse with fitting truth to speak.”
The truth that nobody likes to talk about is that the Stones’s performance that beatific day was ragged, and that many of the butterflies had suffocated from being enclosed too long. The concert ended with a satanic song about someone who’d “been around for a long, long year.” A half-century later, whatever deal the Stones and a stitched-up Jagger may have made with the devil seems to remain intact.
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