Cast the first Stone

<strong>Sway</strong>

Zachary Lazar

<em>Jonathan Cape, 272pp, £11.99</em>

Mick Jagger has a face as lined as Auden's balls. He also has a K - like Noë Coward, Harry Lauder, Charlie Chaplin before him, though they didn't get theirs at the behest of Princess Margaret. It is astonishing to recall, after almost four decades of thudding auto-plagiarism and social alpinism, that this new Establishment figure was once - not without cause - reckoned dangerous and corrupt. The very fact that he has become a bastion of that Establishment shows that the generation which held power in the 1960s was absolutely right to be worried about the survival of its own values.

But neither Jagger nor Keith Richards - today, apparently, a totter in retirement at his mobile home in Leysdown - was as dangerous and corrupt as Brian Jones. He may be stone dead, but he is for ever 27, rather than pretending to be 27. So he remains the most enduringly perfect Stone, which is to say the most enduringly perfect monument to excess, arrogant amorality, selfishness, hedonism, narcissism in velvet, irresponsibility and diving far, far too deep.

Zachary Lazar's preoccupations in this novel are manipulation, the theft of self. He conceives of Jagger and Richards as being vampyric upon Jones, who ends up as a piece of drugged carrion, so far gone that his instinct for survival has dissipated and that drowning, or being drowned, is just another misadventure in a life devoted to misadventure. Richards steals his girlfriend. Jagger steals everything else. Jones was famously the model for Turner, Jagger's character in Performance. Lazar has Jones as more than that. Here he is the model for the entire persona Jagger adopted at the time the Stones were at their most potently disconcerting. Jagger takes Jones's band, his posture, his slimy urbanity, his campness, his androgyny. Jones is the principal boy from hell, Lucifer with a pageboy hairdo.

Jagger, having observed him and having sucked the life from him, casts him off and then merely does a turn as Lucifer. But what a turn! Of course it was all sentimental Crowleyism, pasteboard voodoo, a coyly audacious flirtation with the "black arts", a supreme vaudevillian's dance with the devil. Yet it was both theatrical and hieratic, a corny sideshow and a half-remembered rite, pantomime and blowsy liturgy. It invoked religion in the old dionysiac way. And in the rather less old Nuremberg way: Mark Fisher's designs for the Stones shows owe everything to Albert Speer's fine example.

Through the figures of the bitchy film-maker Kenneth Anger and his sometime catamite Bobby Beausoleil, Lazar tries to link Jagger to Charles Manson, high pretence to terrible actuality. This is dodgily tenuous. Anger attempted, unsuccessfully, to persuade Jagger to perform in Lucifer Rising. Jagger did, however, write the score for Invocation of My Demon Brother, whose cast included Beausoleil. After fleeing Anger in San Francisco, Beausoleil became a member of Manson's "family"and is now, at the age of 60, in the 38th year of a life sentence. His prison band provided the score for Lucifer Rising. Lazar's Beausoleil is pretty and malleable: like Jones, he is exploitable, there to be used.

Sway's personae are instantly identifiable figures of electronic legend. They are endlessly mediated, hyped, publicised, gossiped about. Lazar proceeds from the assumption that they are vessels that we fill as we will. So he shuns all but the most oblique essays in "characterisation". The people (an approximate word) who haunt his pages are little more, but names, faces and reputations we all know. Now and again Lazar's empathetic reconstructions attain a psychologically astute solidity and we are vouchsafed a glimpse of the worlds the protagonists dreamed and then cocooned themselves in.

However, reimagining the actual when it has already been so sedulously pored over is fraught with problems, the greatest of which is that the reader is liable to be as familiar with the material as the writer who is grappling with mercury from the common pot and who is, in this case, inhibited by the sheer overabundance of fact and quasi-fact. Sway is weighed down by it all. Lazar has given himself little space in which to invent. And, besides, what is there to further invent about such patently invented lives whose distendedly caricatural qualities beg for the sobriety of reportorial documentary?

Books about the Stones are so numerous that they constitute a dire genre. Many are clamorous hackworks. Sway isn't. But in his anxiety to avoid sensationalism (and, no doubt, legal action) Lazar embraces sobriety while denying himself the chance to claim his work is documentary. The brief bibliography incidentally omits Gary Lachman's Turn Off Your Mind, which depicts the late-Sixties subcultural craze for the occult with graphic precision and without the whiff of Creative Writing Workshops.

This article first appeared in the 12 May 2008 issue of the New Statesman, 1968 The year that changed everything