Rock stardom may not offer much in the way of rules of conduct, but there are some things we just don't expect our pop idols to do. We don't, for example, expect to see them hanging out with anything less than glamorous young supermodels. Nor do we expect them to set up their amps or tune their guitars; that's what the roadies do. And when it comes time to do phone interviews, we definitely don't expect them to do the dialing themselves.
So when the phone rang at the appointed hour one afternoon in January, what I expected was some handler telling me to "hold please, for Mr. Jagger." Instead, what I heard was a surprisingly friendly and shockingly familiar voice saying, "Hi, it's Mick Jagger here."
"Here" for Jagger is his house in the West Indies (where would you expect a rock star to have his winter home? Brooklyn?). "I'm going to go back to London in a weekend," he adds, as if there were a chance I'd run into him on the plane, "but I'm in the West Indies now."
Not that he called to offer a travel update. No, what brings Jagger to the phone is "Wandering Spirit," his third and latest solo album. Admittedly, it's unusual to find a star of his stature spending time on phone interviews; normally, they speak only to MTV, Rolling Stone, and a handful of national magazines.
But Jagger's solo career, frankly, hasn't been all that exceptional. Although his first album, "She's the Boss," sold decently, his second effort, "Primitive Cool," failed even to crack the Billboard Top 40. And no wonder. Neither album sounded much like the sort of thing Jagger does with the Stones, tending instead toward high-concept dance grooves and arty experimentation.
"Wandering Spirit," on the other hand, finds the singer working with material much closer to his musical roots. It's not strictly a Stones-style album, but it's close enough that even Jagger finds it difficult to pinpoint why.
"The record has some tracks that sound a bit like the Stones," he allows. "I don't think they all do; only maybe two or three, you could say, are a bit Stones-y. It's just different played than the previous solo albums I've done. I don't really think it's Stones-y, but I wouldn't want to describe it, either. It's difficult."
There are some songs, of course, that strike him as being utterly unlike what he'd do with the Stones -- even if the distinction would be lost on most listeners. For instance, there's "Evening Gown," a country number that, to the casual fan, would seem totally of a piece with Stones songs like "No Expectations" or "Sweet Virginia."
Jagger, however, doesn't hear it that way. "It's a bit tighter than I play with the Stones," he says. "I wanted to play it a bit straighter, you know? The country songs I've done with the Stones have been really loose, because they've been played maybe almost on a one- or two-time basis -- very quickly done, the country songs. Which is a good thing, as long as they come off that way. But I haven't done any country songs for a long while."
Why did he decide to do a country song now? Jagger seems to credit the decision to his producer, Rick Rubin. True, Rubin's track record, which includes production for such non-country acts as L. L. Cool J, Slayer and the Red Hot Chili Peppers, makes him an unlikely source for such inspiration, but Jagger says that content matters far more to Rubin than style.
"He's very strong on material, Rick," says the singer. "I mean, he knows what he likes, let's put it like that. Which is good. Because if you write songs -- and I've been writing songs for a long time -- you always think you know best. You can write 30 songs, and do the 10 wrong ones [because] you tend to think they're all wonderful.
"Songs -- that's the basic raw material. So that's a very important role for the producer, to choose songs and work them out, and then be prepared to throw them out if they're no good."
Fortunately for him, Jagger didn't have to toss away too many finished tracks. "We took away before we recorded," he explains. "We'd get halfway through recording a song, and say, 'This is not going to work.' So we didn't finish it. But we did a lot of the editing before, which is better, really."
Unsurprisingly, Jagger believes strongly in the virtues of pre-production and rehearsal. "Especially if you're working with musicians you don't really know so well," he says. But he tries not to overdo it. "Otherwise it sounds a little too pat and professional, you know? You get really super players, and they come in and do a great job. And then at the end of it, you go, 'Well, I don't know what's wrong with it, but I don't really like it.' "
A sense of excitement
Not to worry -- nothing on "Wandering Spirit" comes across as being too pat or professional. If anything, the best moments manage to convey a sense of excitement and experimentation.
Take the way he remakes the James Brown oldie, "Think," as an example. "Nobody actually does his songs very much," says Jagger. "I've always liked that tune, but I always did it in the way that James Brown did it on the 'Live at the Apollo' record. So it was kind of fun to do it, to throw all that out the window. We said, 'Let's do sort of a heavier rock version.' We didn't know if it was going to work until we tried it. But it's great to throw all that out the window and just do it in a completely different way."
Perhaps the album's most unexpected pleasure, though, is Jagger's version of a traditional tune called "Handsome Molly." Says Jagger: "It's a song that I've known for a long time. I heard it done by Mike Seeger on an album of Appalachian folk music. But that was a very long time ago. I don't even have the record anymore, and I probably, if I listened to it now, would say, 'Well, that's nothing like Mike Seeger's.' "
How did it end up on the album? "I used to do [it] sometimes unaccompanied at parties and so on," he says. "Like in Ireland, people will say after a party that everyone has to sing a song or recite poetry or something. Quite often I would do that song.
"Rick Rubin was saying, 'Well, we've done a country piece; maybe we should have like a real more old-fashioned piece.' I said, 'Well, I do this song, "Handsome Molly," ' so I just did it. People seem to kind of like it -- I'm slightly surprised."
He shouldn't be. Not only is it a lovely song, but Jagger's performance is so unadorned and honest that it seems a more personal moment than most of what turns up on albums these days. "It is more intimate," he agrees. "It's just one person and a violin done in a small room. It's a different kind of approach to music.
"But I think that in some ways, the whole album is more intimate," he adds. "Listening to it as a piece, it's a lot more intimate than some of the stuff I've been doing recently."
How -- or even if -- that intimacy will carry over into the next Rolling Stones album is hard to say. Jagger certainly doesn't pretend to know; indeed, he's not even sure at this point when, exactly, he and Keith Richards are to begin writing songs, only that it should be soon.
And then there's the matter of finding a replacement for Bill Wyman, the Stones' recently retired bass player. "That's something I'm going to have to address very soon," says Jagger, sounding anything but eager. "We have to get it to a short list and do auditions and so on. It could go on forever, but it can't."
Nor can the interview. After about 20 minutes have passed, Jagger asks "So how are we doing here?" -- the universal signal for "Your time is up" -- and then signs off. He's said his piece, and the wheels of publicity have turned yet another notch.