Who is Mick Jagger, and how has he kept the world spellbound for almost 50 years? Let Philip Norman count the ways. Jagger and the Rolling Stones have left “all competition far behind [in] the longevity sweepstakes,” and “remain role models for every band that makes it.” Jagger himself is “inimitable,” the man who, “more than anyone, invented the concept of the ‘rock star’ as opposed to mere singer within a band—the figure set apart from his fellow musicians… who could first unleash, then invade and control the myriad fantasies of enormous crowds.” (By comparison, Keith Richards “is a uniquely talented guitarist” but “belongs in a troubadour tradition,” whereas Jagger “founded a new species and gave it a language that could never be improved on.”) And that isn’t all. “His status as a sexual icon is comparable only to Rudolph ‘the Sheik’ Valentino,” though his erotic fantasy essence is closer to that of “great ballet dancers, like Nijinsky and Nureyev, whose seeming feyness was belied by their lustful eyeballing of the ballerinas and overstuffed, straining codpieces.” If only Jagger could cook.
This is how someone writes about a prospective subject when he’s pitching, trying to persuade a prospective publisher that the resulting book will be both an epic portrait of a one-of-a-kind historical figure and a hot, trashy read. Biographers who’ve gotten to know subjects well enough to describe them and their achievements on some kind of human scale don’t generally spray the party foam around quite so thickly. Norman is a good writer, and a solid reporter who does his homework. And he didn’t pick this subject at random a year away from deadline. As he notes in the introduction, he first met Jagger, and discovered what a spectacularly unforthcoming interview subject he can be, in 1965, and their “paths crossed again from time to time” when Norman was working as a pop-music journalist in the 1970s.
That phase of Norman’s career reached a pinnacle in 1981, when he published the superb Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation. Three years later, he plowed all those years of Stones-watching into another band biography, Symphony For The Devil: The Rolling Stones Story. He’s also written biographies of Buddy Holly and Elton John, but he returned to Shout!’s basic material a few years ago for a thick biography of John Lennon. It must have seemed a no-brainer to follow that one up with a solo book about the leader of the other biggest rock band of the ’60s, especially since Norman had already done the spadework. But maybe the real reason Norman goes so far overboard in talking up Jagger’s magnetic fascination is that, after decades on the case, he’s trying to convince himself that Sir Mick is worth the bother.
Norman duly records his lack of surprise that Jagger himself declined the chance to be interviewed for the book; it’s especially unsurprising given that Jagger contracted to produce an autobiography back in the early 1980s and wound up having to return the advance, after what he turned in was pronounced unreadably boring. The most straightforward explanation given for Jagger’s inability to talk about his own past in an interesting way comes from Charlie Watts, who says Jagger is so tightly focused on tomorrow that he has no interest in what he was doing yesterday. (There’s plenty of evidence of that in Jagger’s career, and it may be the most important factor undermining his sincere desire for a film acting career. Again and again, he’s launched himself on some intriguing project, from a pre-Stanley Kubrick version of A Clockwork Orange to Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, only to lose interest in it along the way.)
This quality, and the impenetrable veneer that Norman sums up with the phrase “the Tyranny of Cool,” make Jagger a terrible subject for a writer like Norman, who never seems to tire of revisiting the major events of the ’60s, and whose attraction to the period’s pop heroes finds its truest icon in John Lennon, who ultimately abandoned cool in hopes of direct emotional connection with his fans. Norman jots down all the pertinent material about Jagger’s role in the rise and sustained success of the Stones, but he never illuminates what’s inside the man, and at some point, readers may suspect that he doesn’t care to. Mick Jagger is almost 200 pages longer than Symphony For The Devil, but it mostly covers the same ground. Norman recycles the material while making it Jagger’s story by deemphasizing the other people in it—Richards, Brian Jones, Bianca Jagger, Andrew Loog Oldham (the manager he casts as Svengali to Jagger’s Trilby)—even when it’s clear that he’d be happier writing about any of them. (He’s perfectly equipped to sympathize with the plight of filmmaker Peter Whitehead, who was hired to shoot a cinéma vérité documentary about the Stones’ 1965 tour of Ireland, and whose work met with the band’s disapproval, because he was unable to tear himself and his camera away from Charlie Watts.)
Norman does touch on the best-known women caught in Jagger’s web. The copious, moving attention paid to Marianne Faithfull amounts to a plug for her own book, while Jerry Hall, vibrant and funny (and the first woman capable of countering Jagger’s whining about how he dreads going on tour again by telling him that she can afford to support both of them if he wants to retire), brightens up every page on which she appears. This in spite of Norman’s decision to render all her dialogue in Li’l Abner-speak: At one point, he has her “hollering” at the future First Lady of France, “Why cain’t you leave mah husband alone?” There’s good, fresh reporting on the role that the intelligence agencies of two continents, including J. Edgar Hoover’s COINTELPRO, played in Jagger and Richards’ 1967 drug busts, and Norman describes David Jove (“Acid King David”), an aspiring filmmaker selected by the cops to set up the Stones, as a weird, near-tragic figure deserving of his own book, or at least a long magazine article.
Only the last hundred or so pages of Mick Jagger really delve into what Jagger and the Stones have been up to in the quarter-century since Symphony first appeared. There’s nothing inspiring to report about the music they’ve made, so the two basic subjects are the friction between Mick and Keith, much of it generated by Jagger’s “belated,” ill-advised attempt to launch a solo career, and the tabloid headlines generated by his love life. (Norman seems to share some of the glee expressed by Jagger’s former lovers when the 54-year-old singer hooks up with the 22-year-old Angelina Jolie, and for the first time in his life discovers how it feels to be “treated like shit.”) It’s probably for the best that Norman doesn’t spend much time on trends in pop music that have developed since rock stars stopped looking for excuses to incorporate the sitar; at one point, he sneers that the aging Mick’s devotion to the new and trendy led him to give serious attention to “rap or hip hop: black music as simple as formulaic as the blues, which replaced melody with a hard, unadorned beat and singing with the recitation of belligerent doggerel verse,” whose only “real artistic creation was break dancing.” (As if to remind everyone who the true roots-rocker in the band is, he adds, “To Keith, however, rap still only meant something he’d spent the last few years dodging.”)
Mick Jagger may come handy as a textbook for students of pop culture who don’t know much about the ’60s and what it took for a definitive ’60s band to keep soldiering on through the ’70s and beyond. The stories are here, and they’re told well enough, but most of them mean less than they did when they were about the whole band. (And they’ve lost some of the memorable touches that adorned them when Norman told them before, such as the passing mention of Jagger’s middle-aged, middle-class parents at the celebrity-encrusted circus of his wedding to Bianca, patiently, awkwardly waiting for the chance to give him the present they’d brought.) And the central figure remains a cipher. The book could have really used some of the sympathetic imagination that Bill Wyman—not the perennially unappreciated former Stones bassist, but the critic of the same name—brought to the imaginary response he wrote from Jagger to Keith Richards’ memoir, in which he had Jagger talk about what it was like to feel unappreciated for “all the tedious hours I had to spend with Jann Wenner” to keep the Stones’ reputation alive, knowing that critics and fans had come to regard him as a plastic celebrity compared to the gun-toting, drug-addicted “authentic” wild man Keith. It would be nice to think that Norman—who, as he finds space to mention here, was once included in Granta’s first “Best Of Young British Novelists” issue, alongside Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Kazuo Ishiguro, Julian Barnes, and William Boyd—still had the fictional imagination to do something like that. But this book feels as if he’s had his head stuck in the ’60s too long to have any fun with it.