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JAGGER: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue
By Marc Spitz
Settling a Score, and Matters of Manhood, on Behalf of Rock Royalty
The Rolling Stones' 'Bigger Bang' album included a song called 'Oh No, Not You Again.' A lot of readers may join in on that refrain at the news that the Stones are back on the bookshelves with 'Jagger,' another rehashing of grievances between a certain snake-hipped singer and a louche guitar man. Next year these two will hit their golden anniversary and be able to celebrate 50 years at each other's throat.
When Keith Richards's 'Life' arrived last year, nice things were said about Mr. Richards, whose book said nasty things about Mick Jagger. Mr. Jagger has not struck back with his own side of the story. But Marc Spitz's 'Jagger' is an eager hagiography that takes aim at Mr. Richards while trumpeting Mr. Jagger's overlooked fine qualities. Although Mr. Spitz calls himself a neutral party, 'Jagger' is out to settle scores.
It begins with bait and switch. What if Mick Jagger is 'a man whom we don't really like anymore?' And 'how did this guy remain a constant presence in popular culture for 50 years and not, for one instance in that half-century, seem like ... our pal?'
This line of questioning should not be taken seriously and is quickly revealed to be disingenuous. Mr. Spitz's real intent is to tick off the main complaints that have been leveled against Mr. Jagger over the years, then to explain how wrongheaded they are. He credits Mr. Jagger with backhanded brilliance that has been missed and dissed.
Mr. Spitz (an occasional contributor to The New York Times who blogs wittily on his own site and Vanity Fair's) used to write for Blender, a music magazine that stuck Mr. Jagger between Yanni and Yngwie Malmsteen on its list of all-time worst rock stars. So he is hard-core about musicians' rivalries. In that spirit, he has used the Mick/Keith dichotomy as the basis for 'a parlor game for my rock-snob friends and peers,' which poses the question of which Stone they would rather be. Most are suckers for Keith.
'But if you explore the facts and hear the stories beyond the public images, it's Mick in a blink,' Mr. Spitz writes.
A blink? Not exactly. The reasoning in 'Jagger' takes more strenuous acrobatics than that. Wasn't it braver, this book asks, for Mr. Jagger to choose a rock 'n' roll career than it was for Mr. Richards, who lacked other options? Mr. Jagger had to drop out of the London School of Economics, where the Latin motto is 'Rerum cognoscere causas.' Mr. Spitz translates that as 'to know the cause of things.' He further translates it to mean that Mick cared about serious economic studies, not about making money, though he has been accused of having mercenary motives and a dearth of philanthropic ones.
To his credit, Mr. Spitz knows enough about the Stones' history to pick good shots and leave out the dull stuff. So this book has a full chapter about T.A.M.I. Show, the mind-blowing 1964 concert film in which the Beach Boys, the Stones, Chuck Berry, Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers and James Brown (among others) all turned up on the same stage. Mr. Spitz talks to Steve Binder, who directed T.A.M.I. Show, and tackles the enduring impression that the Stones almost committed career suicide by following Brown, whose theatrics and fancy footwork on this occasion were arguably his very best. According to Mr. Binder, Brown, when told that the Stones had top billing, just smiled. Then he said, 'Nobody follows James Brown.'
But the Stones had to do it. (They also had no choice.) And Mr. Spitz has an insightful take on this pivotal moment in Mr. Jagger’s career. He perfectly captures the rest of the band at that event: 'Brian burned with hard charisma. Keith looked geeky. Charlie and Bill looked like gargoyles in training.' But Mick was transformed.
'You can see him experimenting with his own body,' Mr. Spitz writes. 'Here, perhaps, the Mick Jagger of '69 was truly born.'
Among the book's other claims: that the 1965 incident in which the Stones were caught urinating outside a gas station was a 'water-passing, watershed moment'; that the druggy Mr. Jagger 'used acid to develop the mind in the same way he used exercise to develop the body'; that Mr. Jagger discovered 'in an honest and commendable way, by actually trying and failing to fight,' that he was better off singing about a street-fighting man than being one; and that Mr. Jagger knew how to use potentially Stones-unfriendly developments, like the advents of punk rock and music video, to his advantage.
His marriage to Bianca Jagger is seen here as a stroke of genius, the apotheosis of Mr. Jagger's quest for a high-low aesthetic or something along those lines. As for Mr. Richards’s hostility to Bianca: 'Her campaigns for human rights get high marks from the elderly [sic] Keith, but the young pirate’s style was cramped. He was unable to breathe for all the jet-fuel fumes.'
Mr. Spitz also equates the Stones' fighting over Anita Pallenberg, eventually Mr. Richards's longtime companion, with William Golding's Lord of the Flies. He says that Mr. Jagger's accepting a knighthood created a nice occasion for him to bring his children to Buckingham Palace. And he supplies evidence to debunk Mr. Richards's well-publicized assessment of Mr. Jagger's manhood.
'Let's call it average,' Mr. Spitz says, citing a nude photo of John Lennon as a point of comparison. In other words, no detail about Mr. Jagger is too small to be debated here.
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