HarperCollins, 640pp, £20
At some point in the late 1980s, Keith Richards got a series of strange phone calls from Mick Jagger. “Mick would ring and say, ‘What did we do in August of 1966, man?’” he told Word magazine. “I said, ‘You’re writing a book, aren’t you! Otherwise you would never be calling me with such mundane questions!’”
For some reason, Mick’s book never emerged. Keith’s did – Life (2010), a zillion-selling, firstperson rock’n’roll fairy tale crammed with cartoon reminiscences, such as the time he got revenge on Mick for having an affair with Anita Pallenberg by sleeping with Marianne Faithfull, escaping out of her window and accidentally leaving his socks behind. Rock’n’roll yarns do not always stand up to forensic scrutiny. Philip Norman reveals that Faithfull was holed up in Ireland and heavily pregnant at the time of the alleged rogering, so Richards was possibly, “as with other things in his book, just making it up”.
Norman is the author of Shout! The True Story of the Beatles, the first great work of Fabs scholarship, and John Lennon: the Life, as well as an acclaimed Rolling Stones biography. In Mick Jagger, he views his solo subject in vivid close up, fascinated by his voice, his clothes, his “little rib cage and hairless flesh, the prodigious lips in profile, gaping open like some scarletdaubed volcano”. Jagger would not be interviewed for the book: “He sees no percentage in telling the truth or having it told,” Norman suggests. “The millions are all in the mythology. And the millions always come first.”
Somewhere down the line, the collective consciousness decided that while “Keef” is a crazy firebrand freewheeling dangerously along the arc of his career, Mick is calculating, moneygrubbing, ruthless and cold. Here was a man who seemed at one remove from the madness and decadence he created, who could take any amount of drugs but would never get hooked and who once met Jim Morrison and said he was “boring”.
It’s Jagger’s intelligence that interests Norman most, how skilfully he positioned himself on the social and political backdrop of the 1960s, how lightly he wore the mantle of “hero of the counterculture”. Mick was courted by Harold Wilson, who “had a passion for gimmickry scarcely rivalled by New Labour” and hoped he might stand for parliament. He was pursued by Tom Driberg MP, a “predatory homosexual” who took him for lunch at the Gay Hussar in London’s Soho and visited him at home with Allen Ginsberg.
Jagger wriggled out of an invitation to march alongside Vanessa Redgrave at the Grosvenor Square demonstrations of 1968 – but he was there and the experience inspired “Street Fighting Man”, the lyrics of which were reprinted in Tariq Ali’s underground magazine Black Dwarf. Yet the words were a masterpiece of compromise, Norman notes, with their copout chorus: “Well, what can a poor boy do/Except to sing for a rock’n’roll band . . .”
He is keen to reassess Jagger’s skill as a lyricist, citing the whirlwind epic “Sympathy for the Devil”, in which Mick crams all the evils of history into 50 or so lines with an economy worthy of Bob Dylan. The song would forever be associated with the Stones’ grim performance at San Francisco’s Altamont festival in December 1969, where the 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was killed by their Hell’s Angels “security men” a few feet from the stage. Norman’s 14-page, blow-by-blow reconstruction of events is gripping and you’re drawn back to the footage on YouTube, watching Jagger’s face as the scale of the dark mess dawns on him: “Don’t push around, now . . . Keith, Keith – will you cool it? I’ll try and stop it. Is there anyone there that’s hurt?” Norman argues that the Grateful Dead were to blame for the festival’s atrocious organisation and for “hiring” Angels and he praises Jagger for finishing the gig when he’d already been punched in the face.
Elsewhere, Mick’s robotic ability to go “on with the show” just seems chilling. It’s hard to believe that, hours after Brian Jones was found dead, he went ahead with a Top of the Pops appearance and then attended a ball at the home of Prince Rupert Lowenstein. Or that, five days later, after rushing Faithfull to hospital in Sydney following her suicide attempt, he went straight to a scheduled press conference for his new film Ned Kelly and “greeted [the journalists] with a raucous cockney ‘Ma-a-w-nin’ as if he hadn’t a care in the world”.
Norman may not have made Jagger more likeable but, in exploring his complexity and mind-boggling strength of character, this book re-examines the notion of what it takes to be a true “rock star”. Forget the addictive personalities, loveable rogues and walking disasters. As the rock critic Nick Kent said recently, “If Richards was the leader of the Stones right now they’d be the Pretty Things, playing to 2,000 people a night instead of 100,000.”
Kate Mossman is the NS’s pop critic.