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.
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."
This traumatic episode led to one of the band's best records, a ferocious, stripped-down effort that soaked up all that was new and exciting in music, including disco and reggae and punk, and yielded hits like Miss You and Beast of Burden. Richards' autobiographical song about his Canadian misadventure, Before They Make Me Run, was as problematic as its subject matter ("I'm going to find my way to heaven, 'cause I did my time in hell"). It took 10 days to get it right, he says, "and wore out two engineers."
Recorded in the cold suburbs of Paris, Some Girls reeked of New York's hot, seedy 1970s glamour. "New York was fantastic," says Jagger, who was no stranger to the silver-painted, debs-on-horseback, anything-goes decadence of Studio 54. "Well, it was fun for some people. I'm not sure it was fun for everyone. For regular families it was a very difficult time. The city was in a terrible financial mess, the services didn't work, the garbage didn't get picked up. … But out of this Third World city came this great ferment of music and art." The rock star disappears briefly, to be replaced by the canny businessman: "There were Warhol silkscreens going for a few thousand bucks!"
For Richards, the great challenge came from punk, which had dismissed bands like the Stones as aging, bloated irrelevancies. "We did feel this new generation of punks was catching up, their energy was catching on with their own generation. The only trouble with the punks is" – the wheezing laugh again, which makes me hope there's a defibrillator handy in New York – "they couldn't play."
The one 1970s movement the Stones never showed much interest in was feminism, and the newly reissued Some Girls includes, in the title track, one of their most misogynistic and borderline racist songs, a lament about various women around the world and their greedy, greedy demands on the poor rock stars. Interestingly, the controversial original lyrics about "black girls" remain intact: "Really?" says Mick when I tell him this. "I didn't know that. I thought that had been changed years ago."
At this point, I'm feeling like the late, great Brian Linehan, the Canadian celebrity interviewer who terrified his guests with his minute knowledge of their histories. In for a penny, in for a pound. Does he know that the BBC pinpointed Jagger and Richards' fateful teenaged meeting (they'd also known each other as children) to October, 1961? So it's their golden anniversary. "Really?" he says again. Since their relationship has often been described as a marriage – less Ma and Pa Walton, more George and Martha from Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? – what would he get Keith as a golden anniversary present?
"A new guitar," Mick says promptly. "When I met him he had this funny semi-acoustic one, you pushed the pick-ups up and down to get different sounds, instead of switching them. I'd never seen anything like it. So in memory of that, a new guitar I should think."
Same question for Keith, and after he dryly notes, "the BBC should know, I didn't keep a diary," his response is both warmer and more telling. As an anniversary present, he would give Mick "all the praise in the damn world." Without prompting, he adds, "I understand all this about Mick and me, but you don't have a collaboration that's gone on this long without fights, without feuding. The fact that it goes on, whatever happens, there's something more behind it. I love to work with the man. If only he'd do as he's told." An even longer laugh, this one like a pulmonary earthquake. "I'm sure he'd say the same thing about me."
Well, no. Earlier, when I ask Mick how the relationship is these days, he positively trills, "I can't speak about anything in my relationships or my personal liiiifffe!" They remind me of those ancient couples you read about, who both refuse to leave the communal apartment and won't speak to each other, but complain about the relationship to everyone else in sight.
Does this bode well for fans who desperately want to see the band on tour for their 50th anniversary? Perhaps not. After not playing together for a few years, Keith says the first step is to get the four remaining Stones in one place, instruments in hand. "I'm hoping to get the boys together. We've got to play together, just to find out." This time he doesn't laugh, perhaps because the subject is too close to his heart: "I'd like to see us back on the road again, so this is a start."