Back in the 1990s at all of twenty-six years old, Glencoe native Rich Cohen traveled with a Rolling Stones’ tour as a journalist.
“For me, it was like falling into the diorama,” he writes in “The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones” (Spiegel & Grau; $30), a book looking at the entire history of the band and dotted with his insider insights. “Just like that, I was on the other side of the glass with Mick, Charlie, Keith, and Ronnie, in the hotel rooms, on the airplane, watching the band play from the wings, even from the stage itself.”
The co-creator of the HBO show “Vinyl,” who also penned the book “Monsters” about the 1985 Chicago Bears, spoke with Chicagoly about the excitement of covering the world’s greatest band, getting to know Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and how he thinks the Stones will end, among other topics.
Chicagoly: To accompany the Rolling Stones on tour at age twenty-six must have seemed like an assignment sent from heaven. How did you react when you found out, and how did you prepare?
Rich Cohen: At the time I was focused on becoming a writer, trying to be taken seriously, et cetera. So on the outside I remained calm and cool, but, on the inside, I was roaring. A friend of mine came up with the perfect metaphor for this feeling: I was a car parked in neutral with the gas pedal pressed to the floor. It was a kind of dream, and I believe, after being cool in the offices of Rolling Stone, I went to the Corner Bistro and started drinking boilermakers and bragging.
How hard was it to get close to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards? In what ways did both of them surprise you?
It’s very high school. If you hang around and act cool, you will eventually be taken as cool, and, at that point, the world opens to you. I was around long enough, in other words, that Mick and Keith and everyone else on the tour simply had to go on with their lives. Jagger, of course, is the world’s biggest rock star. He is Elvis and Michael Jackson. You can never get close to him. … Keith, however, … people love him because he is easy to get to know and seems accepting. Keith Richards will not judge you, because whatever you’ve done, he’s done worse.
How will the Stones end?
I think deep down, and maybe not always so deep down, they have in mind, as a model, the great Chicago bluesman Muddy Waters, say, who played and played and played, ending up in a chair, hacking at the old tunes, discovering new resonances, the rock ’n’ roll that only the old and infirm can give us. In other words, I think they keep going until death takes them. When only one remains, that one will be playing “Satisfaction.” Jagger may have to tone down the dancing as he approaches eighty. Then again, maybe not.
Why was it important for you to write this twenty years later?
It’s just the greatest story I have ever been part of: the music, these guys, how it makes you feel at a party, and how it makes you feel when you are feeling sorry for yourself and alone, how it can save you, but it’s also about this entire period of history, this epoch. It took me twenty years to understand what the hell had happened well enough to write it.
What has been challenging helping to create “Vinyl”?
Getting anything onto TV is like getting a rich man into heaven. It’s really hard and takes a long time, and all kind of stuff shifts in the course of the flight. … You want to stay true to the history of that moment, and “Vinyl” is based on real people, real stories, but you also have to dramatize, tell a story. The show is set in the early seventies, and you can get into that, but it’s important to remember that the people back then were just like the people now—only in different clothes.
What has the feedback been from “Monsters,” your history of the 1985 Chicago Bears?
Because of that book, people think I actually understand football, whereas, in truth, I understand nothing. That’s the key to all of this for me—start by understanding you understand nothing.
Is it more fun hanging out with famous rock stars or jocks?
It’s a different kind of fun. It’s like who do you love more, your mother or your father. If you are lucky, or unlucky, it’s a question you can’t answer. For me, that’s like the Bears vs. the Stones.
Who are some of your favorite authors and why?
Ernest Hemingway because he never forgets to tell you how things taste. Shirley Hazzard because no one has ever written better. Joseph Mitchell because he speaks to the nature of my condition. James Baldwin because no one has ever written better about music and what it does to the innards of a person. Janet Malcolm because she is as clear as cold water. Ian Frazier because he turns the everyday vernacular of my childhood, the Midwest in the seventies, into poetry.
What’s your next book?
I’m working on a book with Maria Sharapova. It’s been a phenomenal experience.←