When: February 28, 1990
Where: Mick wanted to meet at the famed Cat & Fiddle Restaurant & Pub in the heart of Hollywood, a longtime watering hole for visiting Englishmen with a thirst for ye olde Guinness Stout and a hankering for some bangers and mash. Taylor was soft spoken and still in possession of those boyish good looks. He demonstrated no reticence in speaking about his life and times with The Rolling Stones.
What: Michael Kevin Taylor was in Los Angeles and of course I wanted to talk to him. His five albums with John Mayall's Bluesbreakers cemented his rep as one of the finest blues players in England. Crusade, the first album with the legendary bandleader, was recorded before he even turned 18. And I thought his work with The Stones represented some of the greatest music they'd ever recorded.
The interview here occurred some 23 years after Mick Taylor joined Mayall's band (with whom he recorded five albums) and 21 years after becoming a member of The Rolling Stones. The band, in 1969, was about to embark on yet another American tour. Brian Jones had been convicted earlier on a drug usage charge and this prevented him from obtaining the necessary work visa to play music in the US. When this heavy baggage was loaded on top of Brian's emotional problems, it appeared most unlikely that he'd ever be capable of undertaking the rigors of a full-bore tour even if he could negotiate a work visa.
Jones was fired in early June 1969 (less than a month later, on July 3, he would be found dead in a swimming pool). Mick phoned Mayall for referrals, John suggested Taylor, and on June 10, 1969, the 21-year old guitarist joined The Stones. Actually, when he was first invited down to a session, he thought Mick simply wanted to hire him to record some guitar parts on an already-existing recording. He immediately recognized he was being auditioned and ended up overdubbing guitar on "Live With Me" and "Country Honk" from the forthcoming Let It Bleed record.
Mick and Keith were knocked out by his virtuosity and at session's end, declaimed, "See you tomorrow." The ensuing work represented the most enduring and resonating music the band would ever make. His tenure included: Let It Bleed; Get Yer Ya Ya's Out; Sticky Fingers; Exile On Main Street; Goat's Head Soup; and It's Only Rock N' Roll. Taylor's lyrical and deftly executed phrases provided a sort of glassy and flowing texture and when dropped in the middle of Keith's broken-bottle and edgy rhythm strums, the contrast resulted in some very classic tandem tones.
Mick quit the band in 1975, feeling conspicuously undervalued and under appreciated. Never given, what he felt, were adequate [read: none] writing credits on several songs and realizing he'd never be able to mature as a songwriter/artist while under the thumbs of Jagger and Richards, he went out on his own. Four years would elapse before the guitarist began assembling the pieces of his own solo career; 1979's self-titled debut revealed glimpses of pure artistry but a morphing musical climate all but dropkicked it into obscurity.
A spate of session work ensued including Alvin Lee, a reuniting with Mayall, and Bob Dylan. Then, eleven years after the issue of Mick Taylor, the musician released the live Stranger In This Town. That album would be released several months after this conversation took place.
One of the overriding memories of this interview was Taylor's melancholy mien. Though his demeanor was upbeat and confident, feeling good about his recent work and the upcoming album, everything seemed to be strained through a tunnel of sadness and regret. In his eyes was the haunted expression of a musician who had probably muttered the mantra, "What could have been" a million times. I had encountered these same emotions when I'd interviewed Pete Best, the original drummer for The Beatles. Pete had been fired from the band in June 1962 because producer George Martin didn't think he was a proficient enough musician. Adding to the nightmare was John and Paul's inability and cowardice - to confront Pete personally. Manager Brian Epstein was ultimately enlisted to carry out the nasty task.
That terrible moment coursed through Pete's veins like a poison that does not kill you but never leaves you a second's respite. And that's exactly the elixir that flowed through Mick Taylor's system. It was a little different with the guitarist since he quit the band. But still, how do you live down that day, the day when you walked out on the Rolling Stones?
In the same way that Paul McCartney and John Lennon dismissed Pete Best with barely a look backward, so too were Mick Jagger and Keith Richards contemptuous of Taylor's history with the band. Jagger simply wrote off Mick's departure by saying, "He wanted to have a solo career." And Keith, in backhanded fashion, explained to Guitar World, "Mick Taylor is a great guitarist, but he found out the hard way, that that's all he is."
Certainly, this observation about Taylor is completely personal. In fact, following his departure, the Hertfordshire native teamed up with his old bandmembers on several occasions. Mick would show up on Talk Is Cheap, Richards' debut solo album, laying down guitar on "I Could Have Stood You Up." On December 14, 1981, the guitarist appeared on stage at a Stones concert at the Kemper Arena in Kansas City. Five years later, at a Jagger solo concert in New York City, Mick and Keith joined the singer for versions of "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" and "Key To The Highway." Taylor lent his handy-work to Bill Wyman's solo project, The Rhythm Kings, during the early 1990s.
So, it's entirely possible that my take on Mick Taylor is completely wrong. That he is absolutely happy with his career and his life and that he has fulfilled every musical wish and desire. All I know is, if I was in the biggest band in the world and I quit, could I ever get beyond that?
Playing in The Rolling Stones puts you in what is arguably the most exclusive fraternity of all time. Was it the realization of a dream for you?
People say to me that I've already been there, I've already done it all. I have been part of the most successful rock and roll band there ever was and ever will be but as an individual, I don't feel I've achieved the kind of personal success I would like to have achieved. To me, music is a life long career; it's not just being part of a successful rock and roll band and making millions of dollars. One of the reasons I found it so easy to leave The Rolling Stones was I never considered it to be the pinnacle, the nadir of my career. It was just part of my career, a very important part, a very important steppingstone towards other things. I was very young when I was with The Rolling Stones and it helped me grow as an individual, I became more aware of myself as a human being, and eventually I decided that I should quit for various reasons. Professional and personal. And it's really only in the last three years that I feel focused on my music and my career and I feel I'm heading in the right direction which to me is being a complete rhythm and blues performer, singing and playing guitar, and taking my music to as wide an audience as possible.
Is that the part that wasn't fulfilled for you? The writing and composing?
Well, it couldn't possibly be fulfilled because The Rolling Stones is Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and the songs they write. There's a song called Separately' that I wrote with Keith Richards that's available on bootleg albums as an instrumental because that's what it was. He probably doesn't even remember because this was at four o'clock in the morning in the basement of this villa in the South of France where we were supposed to be recording these tracks for Exile On Main Street. I think we must have taken a break or something because it was just Keith and me sitting around with two acoustic guitars and Nicky Hopkins was playing piano and Jimmy Miller was playing percussion and we ended up with this very lovely kind of Latin American thing. But I never physically tried to sit down with Mick or Keith and try to write any other songs. There are a few things, to be blunt about it, I should have gotten credit for; I should have got a writing credit for Time Waits For No One' and especially for Moonlight Mile' and Sway.' And Can't You Hear Me Knocking.' But I didn't and that's one of the reasons I left; I felt pretty bitter about that at the time.
Now if I'd just been content to be a side man and make a lot of money, I'd have stayed where I was; but I wasn't content. There's always something more I wanted to express, more I wanted to do. I went through a few years, which were kind of a bit of a wasteland, where I lost my sense of direction and my spiritual needs completely.
After the Stones?
After the Stones, yeah. But I feel I'm on the right track now and playing the kind of music I do best which is rhythm and blues and as far as my guitar playing is concerned, I just feel it's getting better and better.
Absolutely, it gets better. One of the main reasons being I'm singing and I think if you're playing blues music, you have to sing because it's like a call and response thing. Regardless of how my voice sounds, whether it's good or bad, I found my own voice but more than that, it's helped me re-define my own guitar style. When you're actually singing the blues yourself, in between the vocal phrases you're answering your voice with your own guitar and it becomes a much more personal, expressive thing.
"I have been part of the most successful rock and roll band but as an individual, I don't feel I've achieved the kind of personal success I would like to have achieved."
When you did the Mick Taylor solo album, did you consider yourself a true singer?
When I did my solo album, I wasn't a real singer. I mean, okay, I was capable of writing a few songs and I think the songs themselves are good, but until you go on the road and perform live you can't possibly make a good studio album. So, in terms of singing on that album, it was very amateurish because I just didn't have the experience. Some of the instrumental stuff captured who I was and there's a song called Broken Hands' which is a good rock and roll song and Leather Jacket' was good but on a lot of the other stuff I tried to play all the instruments myself and I also took on the added burden and responsibility of producing it. Which for a performer is a crazy thing to do, especially a self-indulgent performer like me because you do a solo and you think, Well, no, I can do a better one.' And if you're in control of producing it, you will allow yourself to do that. Whereas an intelligent, sensitive producer that just wants to bring out the best in you will say, OK, that's enough, let's move on.'
Have you given any thought to your next album?
I'm doing a live album that will be out on May 2nd on Maze Records (this will be the Stranger In This Town record; the previous day, Taylor's publicist had played me several cuts from the album). I wanted to come out with something now because it's been ten years since my last solo LP. It kind of captures the essence of where I am right now; it's a good record and I'm very proud of it.
Goin' South' has a very sort of Latin feel about it.
That was taken directly from cassette, from a board mix, in a tiny club in Sweden, and transferred to tape. That influence comes from love of Latin American and Brazilian music. And on my first album, I did Spanish' which has a Latin feel. I've always liked South American music and it does creep into my music.
You can even hear that sort of Latin feel in Can't You Hear Me Knocking.' Isn't that right? That was amazing
Was that really a jam?
It was spontaneous. We didn't sit down and decide to do that; we just went into this riff at the end of the recording of Can't You Hear Me Knocking' and somebody must have motioned to Jimmy Miller who was producing the record (to) leave the tape rolling. He left the tape rolling and we captured what I think is a great instrumental performance from everybody; from Bobby Keys and from me and Nicky Hopkins and everybody.
There's that beautiful segue from the major chord to the minor where that instrumental section begins.
That's right, yeah, it does, yeah.
Is there any part of you that wishes you had never joined the Stones? That all those years spent playing with them would disappear?
Oh, no, I never even thought of such a thing. But the fact is, it did. I am getting kind of tired as being labeled a former Rolling Stone but that's inevitable because I've come out with so little product since I left the Rolling Stones. That's one of the reasons for wanting to put this live album together as quickly as possible.
Were you not writing after The Stones? Why haven't you done more composing?
I didn't have any inspiration and a lack of direction, too. The thing that I did immediately after the Stones was put a band together with Jack Bruce but I didn't know Jack Bruce as a person. So I imagined we'd put some kind of group together that would actually not only be good but have some kind of future. But it didn't work out that way; for Jack, it was just a temporary transitional phase. It lasted about six months; we did a European tour (April 22-May 19, 1975) and I think there are a couple of tracks we actually recorded in the studio but they've never been released (subsequently, several Taylor/Bruce recordings were made available including an Old Grey Whistle Test performance from June 6, 1975 and a Manchester, England tour date from June 1, 1975 released on May 2003).
If you didn't even know Jack Bruce, how did you come to form a band with him?
Umm, I didn't leave the Rolling Stones to form a group with Jack Bruce. I left the Rolling Stones and a guy named Andy Johns, a guy who worked with the Stones and brother of Glyn Johns, was a close personal friend of Jack Bruce. And he (Andy) said, Look, Jack wants to put a band together, he's looking for a guitar player, perhaps you guys should get together?' So we did; we did a five or six-week European tour which was quite good actually but there was no long term future in it at all and so it collapsed and fell apart.
It could have been a fusion kind of thing because, like I said, we never stayed together long enough to write any original music. So what we ended up doing was playing a selection of selection of songs from Jack Bruce's two solo albums, three solo albums actually: Songs For A Tailor; Harmony Row; and Out Of The Storm (Jack actually recorded an album after Songs For A Tailor called Things We Like). And a couple of songs he did with Cream we used to play (like) Sunshine Of Your Love.'
There was all the potential with you and Jack to have come up with some really interesting music.
Yeah, that's what I thought; it could be very creative and be very appealing to lots of people. But the reality was I just left the Rolling Stones, I wasn't really sure what I wanted to do next and Jack Bruce was going through a bad period professionally and personally
"To me, music is a life long career; it's not just being part of a successful rock and roll band and making millions of dollars."
Besides the Jack Bruce project and your first solo album in 1979, were you involved in any other projects?
I did quite a few sessions; Gong, the European band. The drummer was a guy called Pierre Moerlen and he actually ended up playing drums on my solo album. I did two albums with them [Expresso; Gazeuse!] and Allan Holdsworth was the guitarist. It was a period for me that was very uncreative, very unproductive and I was a bit lazy as well. It wasn't as if I needed to work, I had money.
Is the world ready for Mick Taylor as a solo artist?
I hope so; I'm ready. The live album, I'm very pleased with it, and I'm hoping it's a stepping-stone to a studio album on a major label. I finally put something out there that I'm very proud of and I like and it could do real well. It's a good blues album but one never knows in this business. I just don't know
Strangely, though Mick states he was uncertain of the reception of the live album, he followed this with another live release, 1991's Too Hot For Snakes. Most artists/bands rarely record one live album during a career but here the guitarist issued two live albums in a row. Neither recording was particularly well received. He returned to England [from America], involved himself in various session work and live dates, and in 1995 put out yet another live record, Live At The 14 Below.
From this point forward, Mick's career has really been just a series of tours, sessions, and one-off performances and guest spots. Another solo album, A Stone's Throw, came out in 1998, and while his playing has always been earmarked with undertones of grace and bravado, there is little in his own catalog of works that might compare with the classic riffs recorded while with Mayall and the Stones.
He teamed up with Pink Floyd/Thin Lizzy guitarist Snowy White and bassist Kuma Harada for a series of ongoing projects. In 2000, Mick entered the Stones fold once again when he rejoined Bill Wyman's Rhythm Kings for selected tours and recording dates. In this same year, Taylor appeared on Carla Olson's self-titled album and would continue to record and tour with her for years. Keyboard whiz Max Middleton was another player with whom he had developed a relationship and this duo would tour and record together until this very day.
Taylor kept alive his association with John Mayall and in 2001, and even more recently, has toured and recorded with his former bandleader. Other projects in '01 involved work with Dick Heckstall-Smith, Al Kooper, Todd Sharpville.
Various activities in 2002 included the recording of a CD by artist Adam Bomb, produced by the legendary Jack Douglas and finding Stones' stablemate Nicky Hopkins in tow. A CD with Billy Preston brought the guitarist together with old friend, engineer Andy Johns. Curiously, Johns recorded these live dates using the Rolling Stones Mobile Unit. There were also live shows with studio hotshot Waddy Wachtel and another CD with keyboardist Barry Goldberg.
2003 would see the release of another solo album titled Shadow Man, an accurate if auspicious title. This same year would see him working with the Dead Elvi, Barrelhouse Blues Orchestra, Peter Karp, and Mayall. He continues to tour with the likes of Barry McCabe, Terry Reid, and appears in a six-string mobile show dubbed the Guitar Heroes Festival with the likes of Eric Sardinas, Marc Ford, and assorted other players.
Interview by Steven Rosen
"I never physically tried to sit down with Mick or Keith and try to write any other songs."