"I don’t do sniping. I told you that. So you can’t get me to do it."
——Mick Jagger
An exclusive HITS dialogue with Mick Jagger & Keith Richards

In conversation, Rolling Stones founders Mick Jagger and Keith Richards couldn’t be more different. Jagger is diplomatic, political, professional, making sure he doesn’t offend a single potential Stones buyer, and filled with bonhomie, but chilled to the bone and easily bored. On the other hand, Richards is exactly how you see him, cigarette cocked between his lips, leaning up against Ronnie Wood, truly the salt of the earth, ready to say anything about anybody, listening and responding, giving you all the time you need, a real person.

A study in contrasts, Jagger and Richards are rock’s greatest living duo—the heart and soul of the Rolling Stones for going on four decades now. They’re celebrating the milestone with a number of high-profile projects, including the Oct. 1 release of their own greatest-hits answer to the Beatles1, Virgin/EMI’s Forty Licks. The set also features four new songs recorded with producer Don Was in Paris, including the first single, the aptly named "Don’t Stop." In addition, Allen Klein’s ABKCO has just re-released the band’s entire pre-Sticky Fingers catalog—22 albums in all—in SuperAudio CD that have old fans raving at the meticulous re-mastering, which makes the discs sound like they were recorded yesterday.

Mick and Keith were in Toronto, where they recently played a warm-up gig at the Palais Royale prior to the launch of their massive Licks tour, which got underway this week (9/3) at Boston’s Fleet Center. They were hoodwinked into spending some valuable phone time with HITS’ stalker Roy "Well You Heard About the Midnight Tummler" Trakin.

Part 1: Mick Jagger

The Toronto warm-up show sounded fantastic.
 Mick Jagger: It was good fun. Some bits were better than others. [Laughs] It went really good.

The set list was pretty interesting. Is it close to what we can expect on the tour?
I don’t know what we’re going to do. It depends on the place we’re playing, the town we’re in.

So there’ll be different sets depending on the size of the venue in each city.
That’s the way I see it, really. In the cities where we’re doing three venues, I see the theaters as much more the place to do songs that aren’t perhaps so well-known.

For the real fans.
It’s not so much that they’re more real; they’re no more real than anyone else. It’s just easier in a small place to play what you like. You can hear better. It’s just more suited to experimentation. It’s not so much of a show as a musical performance. The bigger it gets, the more of a spectacle it is. In an arena like the Garden, you have to strike a good balance between well-known material and something that’s not quite as popular. And in a very, very big stadium, I think you have to veer towards the well-known. I think that’s what works. You don’t want to play too many mystery numbers in a stadium.

So you’ve been in Toronto this whole time?
Yup. Just playing, doing a whole bunch of songs. Last 10 days, we’ve been trying to narrow things down a bit. Getting the set lists together. [Laughs] It sounds good.

Is playing together like riding a bicycle for you guys at this point? Do you just jump back on and start peddling?
Some of it feels like that. But we had quite a lot of things to work out. If you’re only going to do 22 songs, then it would be easy. But if you’re trying to get a repertoire of, say, maybe 60-70 songs, that’s quite a lot to remember. And there’s a lot to go wrong.

Is it still as much fun for you as it’s always been?
It was good to do the show the other night. It gives you a more realistic feel. Otherwise, you’re stuck in a rehearsal room. Once it gets outside of there, it becomes much more real and more fun. You get feedback from an audience as to how they like one number over another. I mean, that’s what you’re doing. You’re not doing it in isolation.

I noticed in the Toronto set list some chestnuts you really haven’t played for awhile, like "Heart of Stone."
I can’t remember when we played that one last. Years ago. Sounds a bit different now.

How did you go about putting together this greatest hits record?
First thing I wanted it to be was the most famous songs from the beginning to the present-day. Then I just threw in a few more favorites that maybe weren’t singles, but songs that have been played alot and people have always liked. And then, we wanted to put some new songs in, so we went to Paris to record. We ended up with four new songs and a whole lot more material we’ll work on later.

Why did you decide to put out a best-of record at this point rather than a whole new album?
I thought it was good to put together this package, which had never been done. I’d hoped to put it together for a while, but I was ready to forget it, basically. But it seemed like a great time to get a whole overview of everything from early ‘60s to present-day.

You and Keith appear to be in mid-tour form with some of the exchanges going on between you about the solo album and your knighthood.
I don’t do sniping.

When are you getting knighted?
I haven’t heard anything about it since I got the first letter.

Keith said you shouldn’t have settled for just a knighthood.
I don’t do sniping. I told you that. So you can’t get me to do it.

I was just curious about your take on being knighted.
It’s a very nice thing to have. I mean, it’s nice to be asked [laughs]. But it’s something you should wear lightly. Understand what I mean? You shouldn’t make a big deal about it. You shouldn’t ram it down people’s throats…or put on airs or graces. You should just accept it as a nice compliment.

Were you disappointed in the sales performance of your last solo album, Goddess in the Doorway?
Well, I think we did pretty well. We sold well over a million worldwide. We had a record company that was self-destructing in the United States. Which is still in the process of picking its pieces up. [Laughs] I know because I’m still on it. Outside the U.S., we did quite well. We did Top Five in Europe, which I think is good. In a lot of territories, we did as much as Bridges to Babylon. In America, two-thirds of the company was fired the day the record came out. [Laughs] It wasn’t very good timing.

What’s your take on the current disputes between artists and labels here in the States?
There’s always been trouble, ever since year one. We used to have tremendous rows with our first record company [Decca], who were completely hopeless. They just didn’t get it. One of the problems is, record companies cut costs. I’m not a great expert on this; I’m just kind of guessing. But as they cut costs, they employ fewer people that really have any rapport with artists at all. And people end up with lots of different jobs to do that they’re not necessarily suited for, but are only too happy to do. I think that communication just gets completely broken down. Virgin was in a process of complete reorganization. They couldn’t manage to sell the company, so what were they going to do next? And you get caught in the middle of that, even though it has nothing to do with you, to be perfectly honest. If you’re caught in that, you can say they didn’t promote the record properly. Trouble is, those people are more worried about keeping their jobs than promoting your record.

You may be one of the few bands with enough brand recognition to do break away from the major-label system.
I think that’s definitely something to think about in the future. We all know the music business has shifted a lot. Music’s evolving into lots of other formats. It’s in a different place. I’m sure it’s still exciting for some people, but putting out CDs doesn’t seem to be quite the event it used to be… for various reasons. Wouldn’t you agree? One has to reconsider the whole thing of recorded music and its distribution, but everybody is starting to.

So far, there hasn’t been too much talk about this being the last Stones tour.
I think people have just gotten fed up asking. I mean, I have had that question. I always give the same boring answer, which is just sort of existential. Without even starting the tour, we could all get killed in a bus. You never know what’s going to happen. You can’t tell the future.

I just read your former manager Andrew Loog Oldham claims in his autobiography he once slept in the same bed with you.
I can’t talk about my affairs from 50 years ago or something. This is a music magazine, isn’t it?

What about your own autobiography? Haven’t you been working on that for years?
That was 15 years ago. That’s really old hat. I don’t wanna go there. Are we almost finished now? Thank you very much. It was nice talking to you.

For Part 2 with Keith Richards, click here.

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