Sunday, August 2, 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Mick Jagger



As one of the most famous frontmen in this history of music, Mick Jagger has been the face (lips?) and voice of the most popular and longest-lived rock and roll band in the world. His voice, his stage presence, his dance moves and mannerisms in concert, and his raucous and raunchy private life are the stuff of legend and usually the first things anyone thinks of when they hear his name. However, perception is not always reality and for such a high-profile and famous public figure, let alone one who has been in the public eye for half a century and counting, Mick Jagger is also one of the most enigmatic, mysterious, and least understood figures to have come out of the 1960s rock music scene. Unlike his more forthcoming and open childhood friend and songwriting partner Keith Richards, Mick seems to be one for whom the expression "playing it close to the vest" was seemingly invented. Because of this, there haven't been too many in-depth looks at Mick's life before Philip Norman took a stab at it with his 2012 book, which is the subject of this review. 


Philip Norman is a well known writer and biographer, perhaps most famously known for his divisive early 1980s Beatles biography Shout! Norman famously took an almost hero-worshipping pro-John Lennon stance in that book and so incensed the other three Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, that Paul has since referred to the book as Shit! and refers to the author was "Norma Philips." Norman subsequently wrote what was to be the authorized biography on Lennon, entitled John Lennon: A Life, with full cooperation from Yoko Ono until the very end when she withdrew her stamp of approval. Norman published it anyway and it has since become a definitive look at Lennon. (As an aside, I've read both of those books and intend to re-read them and review them for this site at a later date.) He is also in the process of writing a comprehensive biography of McCartney, who has since softened his stance and, while not authorizing the book, has given permission to his friends and family to talk with Norman if they so choose (this book is due out in 2016 and will be reviewed here). Getting back to Mick Jagger, having read Shout! (which I'm not crazy about) and the Lennon book (which is quite good), I'd been meaning to read his Jagger book for a while but hadn't gotten around to getting a copy. Luckily, a few weeks ago I was browsing in a local bookstore and saw a copy on the discount shelf for a mere $6...a deal too good to pass up! It's a hefty tome, weighing in at 600+ pages. In his introduction, Norman describes the process he used in researching his previous biographies on the Beatles and Lennon, and described how he had hoped to get authorization from Mick in the same way he did for the Lennon book. His requests were rebuffed, although he was able to add a lot of firsthand material from friends and family of Jagger's to supplement his research.



The book begins with young Michael Phillip Jagger's birth and childhood in the suburbia of Dartford, Kent. Young Mike (as he was known for all of his childhood) was born into a solidly upper middle class upbringing by parents Joe and Eva. Mike and younger brother Chris were raised in a strict but affectionate household where Joe, a physical education teacher, emphasized clean living and physical fitness.  As a student, Mike did very well in his classes and was unconventionally attractive to his female classmates, while his chameleon-like ability to adapt his personality and even accent to particular situations meant he passed through his schooldays relatively unscathed, earning him the nickname of the "Indian Rubber Boy" from his peers. Like so many his age, he was bitten by the music bug although in his case, he had no interest in playing an instrument...rather, he wanted to be a singer. While building up his blues and R&B record collection, he reconnected with an old grammar school friend whom he hadn't seen in years: Keith Richards. Mike was by now attending the prestigious London School of Economics, while Keith was at Sidcup Art College. They started playing together and eventually came across Ian Stewart and Brian Jones, forming the band that would become the Rolling Stones. Adding Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts to the line-up finalized the roster. Steady gigging saw them build a devoted following on the London club circuit, and bringing Andrew Oldham on as their manager in early 1963 set them on their way to stardom.

Where the book first gets interesting is in how it lays out Oldham's  calculated plan to take Mike Jagger, rechristen him Mick, and present a persona to the media that was completely at odds with what Jagger was really like. The careful, cautious, intelligent, always-in-control Mick was reshaped such that he became the symbol of everything wrong with the younger generation, at least in the eyes of the establishment. While his bandmates Keith and Brian brought a lot of the troubles they got into with drugs and (in Brian's case) women onto themselves, Mick was viewed much the same way by the public even though he was never more than a casual dabbler in drugs or alcohol. Indeed, the only area where he was in any manner scandalous in his personal life was in regards to his relationships with women. Norman's main thesis is that Mick is the sole purveyor/sufferer of what he (Norman) has dubbed the Tyranny of Cool; that is, everything Mick does or says is all in the spirit of affecting that he is too cool, too unaffected, too above it all. Beyond this, the dichotomy between the public persona of one who is too blase to give a damn versus the private man who is actually very emotional, generous, and sensitive is a seam that Norman mines throughout the course of the book. The constant harping on this, though, gives the impression that Norman has a bit of an agenda with Mick, which given his previous experiences with the Beatles and McCartney in particular, isn't hard to imagine. It seems even more clear that this could be the case when he reveals he was on the shortlist to ghostwrite Mick's aborted 1983 autobiography but was passed over in favor of a relatively unknown, younger journalist. In any event, the book traces Mick's life and career from birth through the exhilarating 1960s (including an in-depth focus on the infamous Redlands bust of 1967 and its fallout) and into the 1970s. However, the book seems to lose steam after getting through the turbulent late 1970s/early 1980s era, Mick and Keith's feud, and the Stones split in 1986. Once the band reconvened in the late 1980s, the book seems to rush through its final 100 pages to bring the story to the present (that is 2012, when the book was published). While it's true that the Stones' activity has been sporadic at best from the mid-1990s onward, this book isn't a Stones biography...it's a Mick biography and as such could have easily gone more in depth with regards to his life during the past decade or two. As a side note but worth mentioning, Norman does show real sympathy, almost to the ultimate detriment of Mick, for the "second-rank Stones" (as he calls them) Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood. Also, in fairness, he goes out of his way to dispel many myths that have sprung up around Mick, such as his flippancy at Altamont (he was actually quite instrumental in preserving the small amount of order in the crowd), his feelings during Brian Jones' death (he was devastated), and the behind-the-scenes charity work he's done over the years (hidden from public view at Mick's behest, another casualty of the Tyranny of Cool).



While I did enjoy the book and found it to be on the whole informative and interesting, I do have several criticisms of it. The first is that it's not long enough. Yes, it comes in at exactly 600 pages (not counting the index), but the first 500 pages only bring us up to 1985 or so. From there, the final 100 pages cover the next twenty years at breakneck pace, leading to the end of the book feeling a bit unresolved. If Norman was to pay enough attention to Mick's life in these later years as he did in the earlier parts, he probably should have made the book at least another 50-100 pages longer.  The second criticism is that he very subtly comes across as having an agenda...he's certainly a fan of Mick Jagger, lead singer of the Rolling Stones, although even here he makes constant snide remarks to how Mick enunciates while he sings (there are MANY phonetically written jibes, such as "ah cayn't get naw satis-fac-shyun!"). There are the constant digs at Mick's Tyranny of Cool (some of them justified, such as several callous remarks Mick has made regarding his wives/girlfriends and even his children). Norman even manages to take a few swipes at Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, echoing his treatment of them in Shout, and this isn't even a Beatles book! While he seems to admire Keith's willingness to stay true to the Stones' blues and R&B roots, as well as his determination to finally kick his debilitating drug habit in the late 1970s, he also takes swipes at him for his attire and appearance, how he's aged compared to Mick, and even many of the things claimed in his own memoir, Life. Staying on the subject of Mick and Keith, Norman does do a nice job juxtaposing the two and showing that they were very different personalities from the very beginning. Keith was a working class boy raised in a loving extended family, shy and introverted, and for the most part a monogamous partner and husband throughout his adult life, almost always treating women with respect. He had no class aspirations and lived for the music and the band, remained a rebel at heart (however much it's waned in his old age), and has always been 100% genuine. By contrast, Mick's public persona projects whatever he wants it to based on his situation and suroundings. His accent varies between his normal Kent accent, faux-Cockney (ie Mockney), the affected airs of the upper crust, and everything in between. From the first flush of the Stones' fame in the early 1960s he had an almost insatiable desire to break into the ranks of high society, preferring to hobnob with movie starts, royalty, politicians, and the artistic elite, again showing a marked contrast to Keith. The biggest wedge between them in this regard was Mick's eagerness to accept a knighthood in the early 2000s, something Keith not only doesn't want but has actively said he would turn down if it were ever even offered. It all goes toward showing that the outlaw persona Mick has had since the 1960s was more to do with Oldham's PR engineering and guilt by association with Keith and Brian Jones' actual recklessness than any innate quality. The only area in which Mick is truly deserving of his reputation (apart from his parsimony) is in his treatment of women. Until his most recent long-term relationship with designer L'Wren Scott (who tragically committed suicide in 2014), Mick had no qualms about sleeping with whoever he wanted, whenever and wherever he wanted, regardless of his domestic situation. This led to break-ups with fiancee Chrissie Shrimpton in 1966, girlfriend Marianne Faithfull in 1970, and divorces from first wife Bianca in 1978 and second wife Jerry Hall in 1999. He has sired seven children by four different women (1 with Marsha Hunt, 1 with Bianca, 4 with Jerry Hall, and 1 with Luciana Morad), although to his credit he is, by all accounts, a caring and attentive father. However, it's hard not to be more than slightly repulsed by his attitude toward monogamy and the women whose hearts he broke with his reckless, selfish behavior. All of that being said, I felt the book tended to focus far too much Mick's relationships, especially during the second half of the book. While they're obviously an integral part of his life story and worthy of mention, Norman started to draw so much on sources and interviews with Chrissie Shrimpton, Marianne Faithfull, and especially Jerry Hall that at times the book came across more as a tell-all of Mick's spurned lovers than an comprehensive biography.



The portrait of Mick Jagger painted by this book is actually quite close to the perception more studied Stones fans (reinforced by Keith's jibes over the years) have of him: a talented and superb entertainer who is also quite miserly, runs the Stones' business affairs with an iron grip and an eye always on the bottom line, and an international jet setter who prefers to affect an air of the "common man" while in reality moving in rarefied circles. His persona as the original bad boy of rock and roll is almost completely at odds with the truth, and that's something the author takes great pains to emphasize. The Tyranny of Cool, while a bit tiresome by book's end, is quite apropos in many instances, not least of which is Mick's constant rewriting of his past and his claims to "not remember" events, no matter how inconsequential or even monumental; his claims to not remember anything of the Redlands bust, for example, beggars belief. Rather, it's a testament to the man who never lets anyone get to close and who, strangely among his generation of musicians, never (or hardly ever) injected any of his personal life into his music. Lennon, McCartney, Dylan, Townshend, Davies, Morrison...all of them (and more) put themselves into their music, but Jagger remained aloof from his; apart from a few morsels here and there ("Wild Horses," "Some Girls," etc) there wasn't much, and what we did get was never more than a few words or lines sprinkled througout various songs over the decades songs. Mick is a complicated figure and while this isn't the perfect book, it's probably the most in-depth and comprehensive Jagger biography out there and worth a read for serious Stones fans or anyone interested in learning what Mick is like behind the public facade.


MY RATING: 7/10

2 comments:

  1. I like the Stones ever so often, but my taste for them has waned over the years. I'm not sure why. Could be I just listened to them too much in the past, and have moved on to other type music, and I think part of it is that my taste in music has changed, gotten a bit more complex? or refined? (well I'd like to think so).

    They were perfect for my teenage, rebellious years though. But as I got older that bad boy persona, particularly as they got older too sort of turned me off. Maybe that too was all part of their image--drinking a liter of whiskey, a cig always burning between their fingers, no less the drugs, turned me off rather than had any other reaction to them. I'm surprised any of them are still alive today at times. And maybe too there's something to that media machine mentality, like Alice Cooper has referred to--anything that gets into the news is free publicity. Still as I got older, I preferred the Beatles' more positive messages and at least "perceived" public images over the Stones.

    I will give it to Mick and the Stones, however, they weren't just lucky. They had tons of talent and Mick is as good a front man and singer as they come. The guy moves around enough in concert as much as any athlete.

    Watched a good documentary on the Eagles over the weekend: History of the Eagles. I didn't know Don Henley was from Linden, Tx. Overall it is worth a watch if you enjoyed their music some.

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    1. Good point on the Stones...they definitely were darker, edgier, and more dangerous than the Beatles (whose positive message, like you, I really REALLY dig). You bring up a good point, too...the Stones (ie Keith, mainly, with Brian and later Ron Wood) image as wasted outlaws seemed a bit lame once they hit their 40s in the late 1970s/early 1980s...around the same time they became more corporate than anything they rebelled against in the old days. Of course, the always-bottom-line-concerned Mick led the charge in this way...not exactly the countercultural rebel persona Oldham created for him out of thin air in the 1960s!

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