Are The Rolling Stones More Than Just a Rock Band?

Rich Cohen, who covered the band for Rolling Stone in 1994, documents the Stones' historical and cultural importance in a new biography.

Author Rich Cohen grew up in Chicago and has been a Rolling Stones fan from the moment he heard “Honky Tonk Women” playing on the stereo in his brother’s room when he was a kid in the ’70s. While the song was playing, he also noticed a poster of the band members in the same room that really spoke to him. Years later, Cohen wrote of that song’s impact on him during that period: “The cowbell that opens the song was like a muezzin call, ushering me in to a new life. I became a rock n roll monotheist. For years, there was just one band, the Rolling Stones. Their music suggested a world of drugs and liquor and all manner of sin that I looked forward to trying myself”.

Almost two decades later, a 26-year-old Cohen ended up covering and traveling with the Rolling Stones during their Voodoo Lounge tour while on an assignment for Rolling Stone. Cohen’s fly-on-the-wall reporting and perspective on the onstage and backstage lives of the band members is one key part of his latest book, The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones, which could be considered both a biography and critical analysis of the “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”.

The book starts from the group’s early years, including the often-told meeting between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on a train station in 1961, and goes through their hit-making period, culminating in the iconic anthem “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” before touching on the golden run of late ’60s and early ’70s classic albums Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St.. Drawing from his previous reporting and interviews with the band’s acquaintances and former associates, Cohen’s The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones delves deep into the unique personal and working dynamic between Jagger and Richards; the tumultuous life of co-founder Brian Jones, who died tragically in 1969; and the major highlights of their career, both good (touring America in the early ’60s and recording Exile on Main St.) and bad (the drug raid at Redlands and the dark cloud surrounding Altamont).

True, there have been numerous books about the Rolling Stones, but Cohen’s tome telling of the group’s storied history goes beyond mere cinematic and entertaining terms by painting their importance on a broader social and cultural perspective that most of us probably don’t realize or take for granted. For those of us who were born after the ’60s, the group’s music has been an inescapable soundtrack of our lives (whether it’s on the radio, in TV commercials, in movies, and during sporting events).

In addition to The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones (whose title is taken from a remark Keith Richards once made to the author), Cohen is a co-creator of the recent HBO series Vinyl, alongside Mick Jagger, Martin Scorsese and Terence Winter; he has also written for outlets such as Vanity Fair and The New York Times. In this edited interview, Cohen tells PopMatters about writing the book, the personas of Jagger and Richards, what he considers the last great Stones album, and why his tale really closes with the early ’70s.

What did you wanted to do differently with your work compared to the other books about the Rolling Stones?

I thought that I could sort of stand back and tell the whole story with a big perspective in a way that hadn’t really been done. There kept being new books, yet there were no books that really nailed it except for Chet [Flippo’s] book [On the Road With the Rolling Stones: Twenty Years of Lipstick, Handcuffs, and Chemicals]. The idea of coming in and writing the big history of the Rolling Stones [from the era] — I don’t think it’s truly been done. It’s amazing because there have been dozens of books about the Rolling Stones and it’s never been done. It’s hiding in plain sight.

That’s something with the [Chicago] Bears book I wrote [Monsters, from 2013] … that team is like the 1969 Mets or the 1927 Yankees. They’ve been written about a gazillion times, but there never had been a book that really nailed what it meant, not just how the team was put together and what the record was, but also how it felt and what it meant for the city, and what it meant for the history of the city. There hasn’t been a great, great Rolling Stones book, which told the entire history of Rolling Stones … I thought, I can do that.

You really put the Stones’ place in history in a broader historical and cultural context, aside from the music.

If “Satisfaction” comes out in 1966, and you’re a 60-year-old guy, what year where you born? 1906. When the US gets into World War I, you’re 12-years-old and you’re completely aware of that. So you’ve seen World War I and the trenches — and then [comes] the Great Depression, F.D.R., Hitler, World War II, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and the nuclear bomb. If you come to “Satisfaction” that way, it’ll feel completely different compared to if you’re a boy in 1968 and you come out of the other side.

That’s what I try to do: step back and think, Who’s around in 1966? There are millions and millions of people with an entirely different sensibility, almost a Victorian sensibility because they were born and grew up before the First World War and then a song like “Satisfaction” would be unbelievably shocking. And now it doesn’t shock us at all anymore. But you have to take account of that shock because that’s what rock ‘n’ roll did to the world.

You went from seeing the Stones in 1989 for the Steel Wheels tour in New Orleans as a fan to covering them for Rolling Stone. Did you have any preconceived expectations of the band going into your assignment, and did those expectations change afterwards?

One of the things I thought was that Mick and Keith were the way they were on the poster: Keith is playing the guitar and Mick’s got his arm around his shoulder. They’re like Butch and Sundance; they’re best friends, they’re the Glimmer Twins. And then you get there and discover that they’re in rival camps and rival entourages. They don’t deal with each other. So many of the songs I felt were about — like “Waiting on a Friend” [with the lines, “I’m not waiting on a lady / I’m just waiting on a friend”].

When you get there, of course they’re not 22-year-old guys sitting on a stoop on St. Mark’s Place [like in the “Waiting on a Friend” video]; they’re like 50-year-olds on a huge giant rock ‘n’ roll tour … in their rival camps living in completely different existences and coming in contact with each other only on stage. And that was a big surprise. What I figured out later was that everything on TV is TV. Everything is a show. I still believe that Andy Kaufman was honestly slapped around by Jerry Lawler on The David Letterman Show. The idea that it was a set-up and it was an act — my body rejected it.

Why do you think the Stones warmed up to you as you were reporting on them?

It’s not something that I was doing consciously. I think it was because I have much older siblings and I was always hanging around their friends. My parents were always out of town — I was kind of alone when I was a kid. I would always hang around kids who were ten years older than me, and I learned how to be there without being annoying, as well as how to occasionally say something surprising and funny. My whole life was hanging out with my brother and sister’s friends. You kind of figure out how to get along and for the older kids to like you and take you as kind of a mascot. Once you drink and hang out with them, it was cool.

Hanging out with the Stones was similar to that, it was the same thing but on a much higher level. Keith said early, “Charlie really likes you”, for whatever reason, because I talked to Charlie about all these blues clubs that they liked. Even though I was very young, I had been to all of them. I went to them when I was a kid in Chicago because, to be honest, you went there because those were the places that served alcohol when you’re 15-years-old, and then you got completely into the music.

Is it true that Mick comes across as being this calculating, jet-setting playboy, while Keith is the genuine, passionate rocker, or is their relationship more complicated than that?

It’s more complex than that. I think that Mick is also a genuine rock ‘n’ roller; he’s a great musician, and Keith would say that, too. But the fact is that things got crazy in the late ’60s and early ’70s. Keith got majorly addicted to heroin and it’s romanticized. Somebody had to emerge and play the adult and keep the thing on track, and Mick had the ability to do that and was sharp enough that he never let himself go in that way or even have the inclination to do it.

It’s like if you’re at a party and everybody’s drunk, and you stay sober and drive everybody home. Some people will think you’re no fun, when, in fact, maybe you didn’t want to get completely fucked up and somebody had to make sure everyone doesn’t die. That was a role that was forced upon you, and that’s what happened to Mick. He had the ability to do that and keep an eye out. Mick was straight because Keith was fucked up. If you go back and read the whole history, there’s so many occasions on which Mick saved Keith.

When they tried out for Brian Jones’ blues group [in the early years of the Stones], there were already guys in that band and they didn’t want Keith in the band because they didn’t his tastes in music. They were more an authentic blues band and Keith was into Chuck Berry, which was pop. And Jagger said, “I don’t go in without Keith.” So he’s done that a lot.

It seems like Brian Jones, who died at the age of 27 in 1969, remains sort of forgotten in the Rolling Stones story, given the fact that he pretty much started the band. He and other people linked to the band have been rather discarded.

Absolutely. They were ruthless. If you go back and look at their history, there are causalities all along the way. And that’s in the music, too. That’s what makes them a great rock ‘n’ roll band — they’re nasty. That is why they survived.

I don’t think it was so much Mick intentionally taking control from [Brian]; I think it was gonna happened because Jagger’s the singer. And Jagger became a star, and Jones couldn’t deal with it and he started to go nuts. He acted out. To me, the key moment was when Jagger and Richards emerged as songwriters … and at that point, Brian could’ve gone, “This isn’t what I wanted. I wanted a blues band. I quit”. But he liked being a rock star and he liked the money and the drugs. That was a compromise on his part and he stayed. Then “Satisfaction” became so big and he was kind of left behind. Then Anita Pallenberg leaves Brian and ends up with Keith.

In addition to that, he was an early user of LSD. He was probably full of insecurities and the drugs worked on his brain in a really dangerous way. You put all that together and he couldn’t even tour with the fellas because he was being prosecuted for drugs. And the Stones continued on without him, bigger and better than ever.

With the exceptions of your reporting from the 1994 tour, the book effectively ends with the Exile on Main St. era. Why end at that point rather than covering the rest of the ’70s through the present day?

This is how I thought of it structurally: Exile on Main St. becomes the afterword, and everything after that is postscript. When I signed up for the book, I thought I’d tell the whole thing. But when I stepped back and thought about the Stones at a distance, [I saw] the Stones as a developing concern more interested in the future than the past in a way effectively ended at Altamont, and for good reason. The Stones had been set up as the anti-Beatles for commercial reasons (because the Beatles already existed and they couldn’t be the Beatles, so they became the opposite of the Beatles). That spoke for everything that came after in terms of their songwriting and their identity.

They pushed further and further and they became Satanic: “Play With Fire”, “Paint It Black”, “Sympathy for the Devil”, Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger, devil worship. It’s all really kind of bullshit — I think it was just a marketing thing. They were playing with it further and further, all of which led to Altamont, where they had Hells Angels [bodyguarding them], which makes kind of a poetic sense (to be guarded by Hells Angels if you are Satan). And then the whole thing blows up. I always say it was like Jagger throws a big costume party and he comes dressed as the devil, and the actual devil showed up.

At that point, Jagger had to step out of his identity and his character and just be Michael Jagger from Dartford, England, to reign the situation in. The Stones revealed their limit, they revealed what they were not, and they revealed what they were: a really a great band, not the devil or some movement to liberate people. At that point, they kind of lost something. That’s why the ’70s become the ’70s for them. Though the music is great, the idea their other journey to some other thing is gone. The message died, so I step back and I’m like, What’s the story of the Rolling Stones?

It really goes from the moment Brian Jones hears Elmore James on Alexis Korner’s turntable, and it ends when that kid [Meredith Hunter] is killed at Altamont. To me, that’s the lifespan of the Rolling Stones. Their back story is prelude and everything after that is postscript.

You also write that the band’s Some Girls album from 1978 was pretty much the last great Stones album.

When I was a kid, if you would’ve asked me what was the last great rolling Stones album, I would have said Tattoo You (1981) because that has a great single [“Start Me Up”] and almost every song on it is great, and it has a unifying sound. But when I got older, I found out by that point Richards and Jagger were no longer working together. Their producer, Chris Kimsey, had to go back and find outtakes from many previous sessions going back to the late ’60s. “Start Me Up” was an outtake from Goats Head Soup (1973), probably recorded as a reggae song because they were influenced by reggae then, and they cleaned it up and released it as a single.

They were so great that their scraps had been put together to make one more great album, But it wasn’t a living thing; the last living thing was Some Girls because Jagger and Richards were still working together and they were being challenged by bands like the Clash and the Sex Pistols and they also had this tremendous outside influence of punk and disco. All of that stuff comes into the sessions and they turned out that great record.

Nowadays, is the relationship between Mick and Keith more a marriage of convenience since their blow-up in the ’80s?

Basically Jagger just got sick of [Richards’] problem, his whole thing … and he needed a break for freedom and went out on a solo career [during the ’80s]. He came up short; it didn’t work. Basically, he found out that the world didn’t want Mick Jagger [or] Keith Richards [solo]. They wanted Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, not only for the music but because of the fantasy of the friendship. So they came back together after the realization of their own limits again … not for Keith so much because Keith never wanted to play apart. It’s like a marriage of convenience, maybe, but more after you realize that you can’t have everything you want. There’s so much audience, so much money, and so much fame for the Rolling Stones that it’s almost impossible to resist.

What do you hope people will come away with from your book?

Part of thing about the Rolling Stones is the whole thing is premised on the idea that they’re the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band — and they’re my favorite rock band and I love their music so much. If you’re over 35, you grew up with these songs and heard them so much. You hear them at Donald Trump campaign rallies and between whistles at a hockey game. What makes them so great is impossible to hear.

Somebody wrote an essay once that you can’t really see the Grand Canyon — the only way to see the Grand Canyon is somehow you came upon it by accident. I feel that way about the Rolling Stones. My goal, in addition to telling a story about rock ‘n’ roll, was to make it so you can hear these songs. So whenever somebody tells me, “I read your book, and I listened to every song on Spotify”, I’m like, “That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want.”