Reviewed: A Prince Among the Stones by Prince Rupert Loewenstein

His satanic Majesty: the man who managed the Rolling Stones' money.

A Prince Among the Stones: That Business with the Rolling Stones and Other Adventures
Prince Rupert Loewenstein
Bloomsbury, 272pp, £20

One of the best things about being in the Rolling Stones was that you got to go out with posh girls. Marianne Faithfull had roots in the Habsburg dynasty. Anita Pallenberg was the daughter of an artist in Rome and spoke four languages. “The younger members of the aristocracy discovered a new career by dropping out,” writes Prince Rupert Loewenstein.

The 25-year-old Mick Jagger, concerned that the Stones still weren’t seeing a decent profit from their music in 1968, decided to get a member of the Establishment to manage his money. He chose a 35-year-old banker descended from Bavarian aristocrats, whose ancestors had been involved in repelling the Huns. Prince Rupert had never heard of the Rolling Stones: he devotes the epilogue of his book to exploring why, to this day, he doesn’t like their music. “It is comfort food . . . But it moves millions. Why?”

This is one of the funniest rock books I’ve read, fuelled, in the way only an aristocrat’s memoir could be, by a sense of cheery entitlement and the random pursuit of amusement for its own sake. “I found shopping for New York lawyers to be hilarious,” he recalls. Getting the band out of their contract with the slippery Alan Klein (whose clients included the Beatles) is likened to a game of chess.

Under Loewenstein’s care, the Stones became the most profitable rock act in the world. He was quite literally responsible for their “exile” (as in Exile on Main St): he got them out of the UK and into the Villa Nellcôte in the south of France, paying a negotiated income tax to the Alpes-Maritimes authorities. Everything you have come to associate with the “rock aristocracy” – the suits of armour, the Tatler society pages and compulsive gift-aiding – it all starts here.

The prince got into banking in the first place because his family had lost all its money. In one of the engrossing passages about his childhood, he describes his mother disposing of an emerald necklace out of the window; when he is 14, she sends him off to sell a Balthus painting for £40 and spends the money on lunch. Faced with any display of rock-star excess, he’d seen much worse at home.

Characters from the new and old worlds collide with farcical consequences. Loewenstein uses a lot of deadpan reported speech: one of the finest society ladies of New Orleans leaves a Stones concert after half an hour, saying, “They are five ugly and pointless young men and I loathe their music.”

Loewenstein may share her feelings on the band’s output but manifests a strong affection for the individuals. He is “Mick’s man” but remarks, “Keith is, in a way, the most intelligent mind . . . His aura to me was that of a generation of circus folk . . . entertainers but also with something of the pilgrim.” Of the relationship between the pair, he makes the kind of psychological observations rock journalists never quite understand: their rifts amount to “a form of divorce, enormously complicated by being between two men each fighting to prove his sexual dominance”. Relations generally worsen, he observes, when Mick and Keith are not playing enough music together. When they turn up drunk to a near-disastrous meeting with CBS, he notes that at least they’re “enjoying that old antiauthority, band of brothers spark again”.

Loewenstein’s greatest impact on the Stones can be seen in the 1970s and beyond, when he transformed their tours into highly profitable juggernauts. He cleaned up mercilessly on complimentary tickets, scalpers and corrupt promoters, audited the cost of their entourage to the last penny and developed a precise hierarchy backstage to cut down on freeloaders – it was “just like a court: rivals, whispering, grades of status granting access, with others being used to fetch and carry”. He copyrighted their tongue logo, licensed “Satisfaction” for a Snickers ad and “Start Me Up” to Microsoft Windows; and the Stones became the first band to have an entire tour sponsored by one company (General Electric). He claims that, if he met with resistance from them, he’d reply, “What do you care? You’re selling a business product.”

The prince parted ways with the band in 2008, when they rejected his plans for a “takeover” of the Rolling Stones by an unnamed organisation “on the fringes of the entertainment industry”. The proposed deal would have brought them a big pile of cash and allowed them, as Loewenstein puts it, “to come into harbour”: now 75, he was worried about their future – Keith had fallen off a palm tree, then a ladder, while Mick, his insurer advised him, “ought to be put on the Pavarotti pile” (ie, only covered for three performances at a time). After 40 years of saying “yes”, the Stones said “no” to Loewenstein’s proposal – perhaps simply because he was imagining the day when they’d have to stop.

The Rolling Stones in London in 1964. Photograph: Getty Images

Kate Mossman is the New Statesman's arts editor and pop critic.

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Intervention Trap

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism