The Rumpus Interview with Rich Cohen
Rich Cohen gets up close and personal with the world’s greatest (okay, arguably) rock band, the Rolling Stones, in his new book, The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones. Cohen’s book is a map of the long and continuing saga of the Stones, much of it gleaned from his travels with the band. His candid account is a portrait of one of the most vivid soundtracks of our time. Cohen’s past books have covered a diverse territory ranging from Jewish gangsters, the 1986 Super Bowl, his grandfather’s invention of Sweet and Low, the Banana King of United Fruit, and an acclaimed memoir.
Cohen is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone as well as co-creator of the HBO series Vinyl.
I recently talked on the phone with Cohen about his latest work. We covered the big topics such as why Keith Richards is still alive, the downside of artistic freedom, and the family values aspect of sticking together to write the big songs. Shortly after this interview, Mick Jagger became a great grandfather. The Stones are going to outlive us all. Just wait and see.
The Rumpus: I was struck by what you wrote about bands reaching stardom and how that is often the point where they “sell out” when a band goes from intimate gatherings to anonymous stadium-sized concerts. How difficult is it for a band to retain some integrity at that point and how much do you think the Stones retained once they went super nova?
Rich Cohen: I think that most of us do things with an idea that they probably won’t work, we probably won’t become famous rock stars. So you take what you can get when you can get it. Having a vision is tough and sticking to that vision is next to impossible because when your shot comes, you should probably take it which means compromise of some of the old values because who knows if you will ever get another chance. So it’s not a matter of staying true to a vision as much as remembering that vision. And getting back to it when you can. Keith Richards said as much to me when we talked about the Stones’s teeny bopper phase as something a band had to get through to get to the other side the side where they can get back to their music and play. The thing about selling out that people never mention is this: you actually have to have something valuable to sell before you can sell out. And you don’t lose that just because you start drawing fans.
Rumpus: On the plus side of reaching the “selling out” phase a band can be free to do what they want and disregard the style which brought them success. Such as when Springsteen did Nebraska when his label probably wanted him to do another Born to Run album. Do you think that is hurtful to a band in the long run?
Cohen: I think everyone wants to be successful and free to do what they want. They don’t want to fail. But in one way, being free, being able to do what you want, puts more pressure on you. If you fail, that’s on you.
Rumpus: This whole idea of abandoning your fan base fascinated me. I am thinking of writers too, such as Joshua Ferris who went out of his way not to write another version of his successful first book, Then We Came to the End. He didn’t want to do the same thing over and over again.
Cohen: A band is a little but different than writers. When I interviewed Clive Davis he talked about picking songs, he wanted to pick the songs but then Barry Manilow wanted to pick the songs. He made a deal with Manilow and let him pick the songs but Clive wanted to pick one song for each album and those usually turned out to be the singles. At least that is how I remember it. I forget what the album was but Clive insisted he sing “I Write the Songs,” which is funny considering our subject matter but it became one of his biggest hits. But for a writer it’s different; when you agree to write a book, you don’t know what that book’s going to be. It’s a proposal. And you have no idea what it is going to be until you start writing it. You only figure out what it’s going to be by writing it.
Rumpus: You might have an idea for what book you want to write but it is as if the book has a mind of its own and chooses its own direction.
Cohen: You write a vague proposal because you don’t know what it’s going to be. So in a way, everyone’s taking a risk.
Rumpus: The vaguer your proposal the more elbow room you give yourself?
Cohen: I guess but if you wrote one of those other kinds of proposals, the long detailed ones, you’d end up doing the same thing; everything changes when you write it. It’s like that Mike Tyson thing—you gotta keep fighting till you get punched in the face.
Rumpus: I was thinking of all the phases Picasso went through and how Japanese painters of the 19th century often changed their identities.
Cohen: I think it depends on your personality. I mean if you are the kind of person who can write books, make records, or whatever, and they struggle to find an audience but you don’t give a shit because you know they’re good. And you keep doing that, well that’s great. That’s the kind of personality I admire. But that’s not how most people are. If you write a book you want people to read it and you might be free to write your own kind of book but if it doesn’t work you get really bummed. Even Melville wasn’t happy when his books failed.
Rumpus: You talk in your book about how Some Girls was probably the last great album by the Stones and that was because the friendships in the band broke up at that point. They were at a zenith where they could do whatever they wanted to and they did by doing solo work with limited success. But with the friendship gone, so was the music.
Cohen: For me it was really looking at how they wrote songs during their best periods. They usually wrote their material in the studio with mostly Mick and Keith but it wasn’t just Mick and Keith. It reminded me of how the Duke Ellington Band worked. Duke Ellington took credit for those songs but everyone contributed. Which became an issue for some people; they felt like they didn’t get credit. But with the Stones, they’d go on a hunt for a song. They’d spend days and weeks goofing with a song, changing it, adding stuff, until they came up with a song and the song went through all these different incarnations. So a song like “Sympathy for the Devil” starts out almost like a Bob Dylan folk song and you can watch it in the Jean Luc Goddard movie as different people try different things, they pick up the speed. It slowly develops over a period of days and days.
So, what’s required for that song? Well, of course there is the idea and the band but it’s the time together, playing together, hanging out together and sleeping in the studio together. Then waking up and being able to play immediately because you’re all there. Now what happened with the Stones later on was there was no time together. They wouldn’t work together in the studio. Now I’m not a Beatles expert but Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison used to go off and write their songs on their own. Lennon and McCartney shared the credit but they basically wrote the songs individually and came in and recorded them. I heard that that rule was that everyone had to come with at least one song. But the Stones were not like that. They came in with some ideas but they really wrote their songs in the studio, like the Duke Ellington band. So if you remove that formula then the process has to change and they are going to write their songs on their own. Sometimes you get a good song that way but that’s not how they did their best work. So once they stopped hanging out that way, they stopped writing those kinds of songs. That’s my theory.
Rumpus: That was one of the fascinating things I learned from your book, how Mick and Keith shared the song writing chores. I always thought it was Keith who was pulling the load but it was a real team effort, not just with the two of them but with the entire band.
Cohen: I don’t know if I dispelled it in anyway but Keith is so likable and is what a rock musician should be like to many people so they assume he did most of the work.
Rumpus: I can see that.
Cohen: Musically it’s a complete collaboration and Keith says that. Mick wrote those songs just as much as Keith did. But sometimes Mick wrote the bulk of a song. I think You Can’t Always Get What You Want is mostly Mick’s song. For whatever reason, Mick doesn’t get the writing credit he deserves.
Rumpus: In retrospect, listening to the Beatles, you can almost always figure out who wrote what and how much who wrote of each.
Cohen: But with the Rolling Stones you’re almost always wrong.
Rumpus: True, they are a tougher nut to crack. Too tightly interwoven. I wanted to ask you about Marianne Faithfull; do you think she got the writing credit she deserved?
Cohen: I am not a complete expert in what she wrote but I think the only song she really wrote was “Sister Morphine” which was her own story and I think at one point she said that she thought she had been ripped off but she was told later that the rights weren’t given to her to protect her rights; there was a whole issue about it but if you talk to her now she says she doesn’t feel as though she was ripped off. But that’s the only song I know of that I think is really hers.
Rumpus: I thought the Sticky Fingers era had some songs that didn’t fit the regular Stones genre and I always attributed it to Marianne.
Cohen: Even from the very beginning they had to figure how to write a Rolling Stones song. In the first batch of songs they wrote was As Tears Go By and it was given to Marianne Faithfull to record by Andrew Loog Oldham who was her agent or manager at the time because it didn’t sound like a Stones song. The Stones played blues; they did Chicago blues. They had to write songs that sounded more bluesy.
Rumpus: With the Rolling Stones, are we witnessing the first full-length life span of a rock n’ roll band? This seems like uncharted territory.
Cohen: They are from the second wave of rock n’ roll and in the beginning everyone thought it was a fad and would die or be around for one cycle, say three to five years. And then something else would come in its wake and all these guys who were sort of like business men who had this funny thing happen to them while they were kids and didn’t think music was going to be their life. And that’s why you get guys like Dick Taylor who’d been in the Stones originally, who leave the band and go back to school. I always think of that Rod Stewart song “Maggie May,” with that line, “you know it’s late September and I really should be back in school.” I always thought that was about rock n’ roll. So of course the Rolling Stones have the most longevity because they are from the early beginnings and the idea was that it was something for young men and once you got older you just didn’t do it anymore. Like you didn’t skateboard anymore or ride dirt bikes anymore. But of course now older guys do those things. So basically the baby boomers took their childhood hobbies and made them occupations. Which probably explains everything good and bad about our country.
Rumpus: Really, the only examples we have are old blues singers.
Cohen: Those are the examples they took.
Rumpus: They are writing the rock-band version of Growing Old for Dummies.
Cohen: When I first interviewed them they were fifty; they were saying no one has taken it this far, we are sort of creating this new thing. You can look at descriptions of Muddy Waters when he was young; he was a very physical performer. He would get out in the crowd, crawl around on his hands and knees and do all this physical stuff. And then as he got older, he changed the way he performed and he would sit in a chair and play. It’s like an athlete changing their game as they get older; they can’t do what they used to do. Mick Jagger is different—he still continues to perform like he’s twenty-five. And that is unusual.
Rumpus: It hasn’t become embarrassing yet.
Cohen: It’s interesting, because if you look at Mick Jagger at the beginning, he didn’t perform like that. At the very beginning of his career he stood behind the microphone and sang and he would do little things like with his eyes and with his hips that you could see on TV. The famous story is that he performed on the T.A.M.I. Show and he sees James Brown and his band which made a mark on Mick and I guess that’s partly true. I think the reason everything is so exaggerated and oversized is that they learned how to play stadiums. In stadiums you have to do big gestures or they aren’t seen by two-thirds of the crowd. So that’s why he’s running, that’s why there is the cherry picker; he’s trying to play to the whole crowd.
I remember something else from an interview with Clive Davis. He takes credit for this and who knows if it’s true but Clive worked with Springsteen when he was young and he said Springsteen just stood there and didn’t move. Clive said to Springsteen, “Look, you can do that in a little club, but in a big room you gotta move around.” And he said the next time he saw Springsteen he was Springsteen. I’m not saying that this is true but leave it as an example of what Mick Jagger does is built for eighty-thousand people watching him.
Rumpus: Bob Dylan has certainly stuck to his guns. Through all the years he seems never to have found the need to move around.
Cohen: He’s talked about it. I saw him in an interview where he said thought all that running around was undignified.
Rumpus: [Laughs] I really can’t see him doing it.
Cohen: Well that’s it then. So you do what your physical limitations allow and make it into a moral stance.
Rumpus: I think his instincts were right on this.
Cohen: Who was he looking at? He wasn’t looking at James Brown; he was looking at Woody Guthrie. It was totally about the message so he was a different model.
Rumpus: I’m thinking about the Internet now and how it has changed the music industry. I think you and I are about the same age. I remember in my youth, people waiting for record stores to open so they could get whatever new album they were waiting for. Music was everything then. How do you think online technology has transformed the energy of the current rock n’ roll scene?
Cohen: The Rolling Stones started out as guys collecting records and that was driven by scarcity, far more scarcity than we had. It was after WWII and there still weren’t a lot of records as there were still rations on vinyl. The reason Chess recorded the music they did was because during the Depression there wasn’t a market for it and during the war there was the ration; it was seen as the bottom of the market and only rarely was the high-end classical music recorded so there was a real scarcity in those records. Hunting and collecting those records took intense deep focus and concentration and taught them about music and gave them their mission and ultimately, not being able to find the records they wanted they had to learn how to play the songs if they wanted to hear them.
Rumpus: I feel sorry for kids who didn’t grow up with vinyl. Do I sound like an old fart?
Cohen: It’s like a collectable, not like a real thing. Like people driving around in a 67 Mustang. It’s neat but it’s not the current car on the road. But the good thing about technology is that you can track it down, listen to music you never even knew existed. My first book, about Jewish gangsters, to report it, I had to go to municipal archives and spend an entire summer going through actual files, but on the other hand, that whole period was really intense and made the articles very real and physical, made me deeply, deeply think about them. So its one of those things where there’s good and bad. It’s a trade off.
Rumpus: Let’s go back to the blues. What attraction do you think, say, the Delta Blues had on the working class youth of the UK?
Cohen: It’s great music. Secondly, they were all into rock n’ roll and rock had this fallow period where it seemed very unauthentic, fake, marketed, and packaged. And suddenly they heard this other music which wasn’t rock n’ roll but sounded close to rock n’ roll. They heard it on Armed Forces Radio and it was the opposite of all the things that were bad with rock n’ roll. It was authentic, it was raw, and as far as playing it goes, it wasn’t so much about skill and training, it was just about expression and power and it was easy. It was basically a low bar of entry. You can learn how to play a lot of it pretty fast. And of course it spoke a lot to the conditions at the time which was Britain after WWII—all the damage was being repaired, rationing continued into the fifties, the empire was being dismantled, the country was broke. Everyone I talked to who lived in that time said it was “black and white” and then this music comes in and there’s color.
Rumpus: Reminds me a little of when the Beatles came to the US right after JFK’s assassination. At that moment the country was ready to stop mourning and go full tilt into Beatlemania.
Cohen: It was like Monty Python, and now for something completely different.
Rumpus: I was fascinated by what you wrote about the interplay between the Beatles and the Stones. Were the Stones a reaction to the Beatles? Could they have existed without them?
Cohen: I think they were both created by the forces we’ve been talking about. It just so happens that the Beatles were a little bit earlier and more proficient. They came from a smaller, more contained music scene which is probably a better place to come from. The Stones were just about ready to break through and they got scooped. The Stones were set to be the Stones and weren’t influenced by the Beatles except that they showed that there was real money here. So suddenly every record label wanted to have their own Beatles and musicians that no one was interested in before were in demand because everyone was looking for the next Beatles. That’s how they got their record contract; they went in and said, “We are going to be the next Beatles.” And there was Decca Records who turned down the Beatles and were the laughing stock because of it and you don’t want to be the guy who turned down the Beatles and the Stones. After a little while they realized that the Beatles niche was completely filled by the Beatles but there were other niches that were open. And that was everything the Beatles were not servicing—the darkness, the nastiness, the kind of roughness you get later on in punk rock that became the niche the Stones filled and they were marketed as the anti-Beatles.
Rumpus: What was the first band you ever saw live?
Cohen: Actually the first band I saw was Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes. I went to New Orleans to visit my sister who was in college. I was maybe ten or eleven years old and she played in the uptown theater; it was amazing. It’s a little theater they just reopened a couple of years ago right on the edge of the French quarter.
Rumpus: That’s a good start.
Cohen: Right after that I saw Springsteen on The River tour and right after that I saw the Stones. Tattoo You.
Rumpus: Having grown up as a Stones fan, how did your perception of them change after your professional association with them?
Cohen: I was surprised about the extent that Mick and Keith were not hanging out together. I was a big Letterman fan and when I was older someone told me those stories of Letterman were all scripted, the stories he told when he didn’t have guests on? When someone told me they were all scripted I was shocked. It bothered me. Because that’s not how I wanted the world to be. It was a similar thing with the Stones, when you realize these guys aren’t hanging out together, which really shouldn’t be a surprise. They’re fifty years old and have their own lives. Then it seemed to me that all that leaning on each other on stage, singing at each other, was acting. Now, we were talking about why the blues, about how they were authentic. And now here right at the center on stage was something I recognized as not authentic, like Letterman not leaving anything to chance in case he didn’t have anything interesting to say. But it shocked me and disturbed me.
Rumpus: When Jerry Stahl told me he wrote all those Forum letters for Penthouse? Same thing. I was crushed. Thought they were real.
Cohen: I still have the ability to be shocked at crap like that. I’m forty-eight and I’ve met all these different people but still with something like that, I’m like WHAT? That wasn’t real? I still go to the circus and think the man that comes out of the stands drunk and can suddenly jump on a horse—that he really isn’t really a drunk but a great rider? It’s hard.
Rumpus: It’s the worst kind of shock.
Cohen: It is.
Rumpus: I don’t think this was mentioned in your book but I want to indulge my own curiosity and ask about the Robert Frank movie he made of the Stones, Cocksucker Blues. Why did they have it repressed?
Cohen: You’d have to research it, I’m not a Cocksucker Blues expert and believe me, there are such. But the way I understood, the Stones hired Robert Frank, which by the way demonstrates the brilliance of Jagger because he recognized really talented people and was able to pull them in and get the best out of them for the glory of the band. So he hired Robert Frank to make this documentary which would be owned by the Rolling Stones, they are the producers. It’s a job for hire. The movie came out and was so disturbingly raunchy from the title on down to the rest of it, they just never wanted it released. There are bits of it all over the Internet. If you watch all the pieces here and there and there you can almost actually piece together the whole thing. But someday, it will be released in its entirety. For whatever reason, America’s still not ready.
Rumpus: The Rolling Stones are really an intellectual band. They know their musical history and read literature, same as the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. Are there bands like that anymore?
Cohen: There might be but I don’t know. I have no idea. The thing about rock n’ roll during the time of those bands was that it was avant-garde. That’s why you have Vaclav Havel who was completely influenced by rock n’ roll and the Velvet Underground and all that. And that Stones were a part of that broader, intellectual, generational movement and they saw themselves as the voice of part of it, part of the avant-garde, and that’s why what the records say is so important. And that turned out to be one of those things that didn’t lead anywhere, or not to be true. There was a greater disillusionment. So after awhile bands stopped doing that because it was uncool. Even for the Stones it became uncool. That’s why they wrote the song “It’s Only Rock n’ Roll.”
Rumpus: I read somewhere where Keith said if he couldn’t be a musician he’d be a librarian.
Cohen: That’s funny because the first time I interviewed him I asked him what he’d been reading and he said Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, 1776).
Rumpus: That’s quite an undertaking. Several volumes of archaic prose which can bend your mind.
Cohen: I thought man, this guy is really smart but I talked to someone at Rolling Stone who interviewed him twenty years earlier and asked the same question and said, “He was reading Gibbon then!” And I said, “Fuck, Gibbon is long! Ten thousand pages long!”
Rumpus: I remember back in the 80s when Richard Hell was reading Nabokov’s Ada which is a tough one not many finish. I wonder if he did.
Cohen: “Sympathy for the Devil” comes from Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Marianne Faithfull said she left a copy around the apartment and Mick picked it up and wrote the song. Mick knows a lot about literature and fine arts. When he wanted that tongue logo he went to an art school and had a student design it.
Rumpus: He wears many hats.
Cohen: “Sympathy for the Devil” is like The Master and Margarita playing the anti-Beatles to the extreme. That’s why it’s so interesting; it has good from the Beatles, evil from the Stones. And then he’s playing with some old ideas from the blues, like I sold my soul for rock n’ roll. He’s singing from the view point of the devil but there’s a lot of self portrait so when he sings about a man of wealth and taste he’s talking about himself. In the very beginning he had his picture taken by Cecil Beaton.
Rumpus: They always seemed one step ahead of everybody and had their finger on the cultural pulse.
Cohen: Okay, so anybody who’s involved in any kind of art is stealing. Some call it influence. There’s a quote somewhere that says “you can’t steal a gift,” that’s what I always think of. So the thing with the Stones is that they just stole better shit. They had the best taste. There is a scene I write about where Jagger is playing Jimmy Reed for Lennon and Lennon said it was crap. Jagger was shaken. Here was someone with a stronger opinion than he had who said something he loved was crap.
Rumpus: I agree with Mick. I like Jimmy Reed.
Cohen: You know how it is when you come across someone with such a strong opinion that they state it like a fact.
Rumpus: He was probably expecting him to confirm his opinion.
Cohen: He doesn’t even say, you know, I don’t really like him. He says IT’S CRAP!
Rumpus: When I read about a current musician reading a book I am a bit surprised.
Cohen: In society as a whole, books have become less central. Which is a bummer if you are a writer. Fewer people read books. I mean they went to school, they had to read, they got out of school and they are smart people with big jobs. They read crap on their phone. It’s scary.
Rumpus: I think there will always be book people though.
Cohen: My point is not there aren’t any book people; it’s that everyone used to be a book person. And that’s just because there are so many ways to consume. You couldn’t go to a movie every night.
Rumpus: Let’s move on to Altamont, can’t forget that. You quote David Crosby in your book that the “Stones turned a party into an ego game.” What really went down? Why such a cloud of evil?
Cohen: The Hells Angels completely fucked up. They had a crowd that was ripe for their prey. That’s it. The guy that got killed had a gun and was waving it around. I’m not defending the Angels but that’s why they were acquitted. The victim wasn’t that great a guy apparently. He was a drug dealer and gang member and had a white girlfriend which the Angels hated because they’re racist. The guy went back to his car and got a gun. He came back, got up close to the stage, and became caught up in some of the fighting and was quickly in way over his head. He started to run, the Angels chased him, and in a moment of panic he pulled out his gun.
Rumpus: Speaking of murder, do you think Brian Jones was murdered?
Cohen: No. Who would murder him? If anything he was negligent. He was incredibly depressed and he had good reason to be. He’d just lost control of a band he started which was moving on without him. He was taking a lot of drugs of course and drinking every night and soaking in his pool. Then one night, he just fell asleep or passed out and drowned.
Rumpus: I wondered as they had reopened the case. Something about construction workers messing with him.
Cohen: He had some underlying issues. I think after he took a few tabs of LSD it unleashed his demons.
Rumpus: What could have been done to help him at the time?
Cohen: Not enabling him. There were clinics he could have gone to. The Stones simply dumped him but I am not blaming them. It was a consequence that could have made him rethink his life. But didn’t. Not in time.
Rumpus: How long is Keith going to live?
Cohen: I think forever. He’s going to play so long that someone is going to have to come along and say, “hey, you guys died three years ago.”
Rumpus: You talk in your book about how close he was to dying when he kicked dope.
Cohen: He had so many people looking after him, sliding next to him, bringing him to a clinic. Brian Jones didn’t have people looking after him. He had hangers on who didn’t give a shit about him but if he had some who cared about him he could have survived. And apparently Keith has a strong physical constitution. Jimi Hendrix was alone that one night and it cost him. Keith had people around who loved him.
Rumpus: May he outlive us all.
Author photograph © Pascal Perich.