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The Stones:

The Acclaimed Biography

Philip Norman

The Rolling Stones might have been expected to view their 50th anniversary this year with the misty-eyed camaraderie of old soldiers before Remembrance Day. Instead, it found Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on worse terms than at any time since the mid-1980s. One small line of print in Richards's autobiography seemed to have achieved what the British penal system, heroin and a palm tree in Fiji between them had not, and extinguished the Glimmer Twins permanently.

Those two boys who got talking over a pile of record albums at Dartford railway station in 1961 could not have been more different characters nor more ill-matched friends and collaborators. Mick would have loved not to give a f*** for anyone or anything like Keith; while Keith always hankered on the quiet for Mick's social and intellectual gloss.

The unlikely symbiosis was completed when record producer Andrew Oldham locked them together in a kitchen in Willesden, north London, so creating what would become one of the longest-lived and most commercially successful songwriting partnerships of all time.

The pair's deep mutual affection weathered even Mick's sex scenes in his film Performance with Anita Pallenberg, who was then Keith's girlfriend, to last well into the 1970s. When Keith was arrested for alleged heroin-trafficking in Canada in 1977 - the biggest threat to the band's survival for a decade - Mick did not immediately flee the scene as many others would have done, but stood by him and cared for him (in Keith's own words) 'like a brother'.

Later, while Keith waited to stand trial, he underwent electrotherapy for his addiction in a house in Woodstock, New York, shared with Mick and Jerry Hall. They nursed him through the ordeal, bringing him meals, re-attaching electrodes that fell off his head, watching for any sign of improvement like parents with a sick child.

The Glimmer Twins' real problems only set in with the Tattoo You world tour in the early 1980s. Keith, now fully compos mentis for the first time in years, resented the despotic grip Mick had taken on the band while he was out of it. Purist musician that he still was, he hated the sideshow of Jagger stage stunts, like the cherry-picker crane and the long-stemmed carnations. By the final gig, neither could bear the sight of the other.

Mick then made his long-delayed attempt to succeed as a standalone artiste. Keith, for whom the Stones had always been enough, reacted like a spurned wife, slagging off Mick's solo albums behind his back; mocking his obsession with aristocrats and jet-setters and his refusal to age gracefully; inventing childish nicknames for him, such as 'Brenda'; encouraging the other Stones to gang up on him.

Open conflict erupted when Mick refused to go on the road with a new Stones album, Dirty Work, because he planned a tour to promote his second solo album not long afterwards. Keith's contemptuous fury knew no bounds, especially on learning that Mick's backing musicians on the tour would be playing some 20 Stones songs and included a lead guitarist who was being coached in Keith's moves. To one interviewer he threatened that if 'Disco Boy Jagger's Little Jerk-Off Band' dared such plagiarism, he'd go after Mick and 'slit his throat'.

At the 1985 Live Aid concert, when the world's greatest pop names performed together for charity, Mick appeared at one end of the show, partnering Tina Turner, and Keith at the other, backing Bob Dylan with Ronnie Wood. 'When are you two going to stop bitching at each other?' a music journalist said to Keith. 'Ask the bitch,' he replied.

Hostilities were scaled back during the 1990s and early 2000s as the Stones belatedly embarked on their era of mega-money tours, each far surpassing its predecessor in the fabulous amounts generated by merchandising and corporate sponsorship. During these years, Mick alone still monopolised the spotlight, though its radiance had become soured by his age-inappropriate love affairs and his treatment of Hall.

If Mick became something of a fall guy to the media, Keith interpreted the phrase literally. In 1998, he broke three ribs after slipping off a stepladder at his Connecticut home. An amazed press found no drug- or booze-fuelled pratfall to gloat over: the steps turned out to have been in Keith's library and he had overbalanced while reaching for a book about Leonardo da Vinci.

Then, in 2006, he fell out of a coconut palm in Fiji, landing on his head, and had to be airlifted to New Zealand for treatment. He was said to have suffered only 'mild concussion'; in fact, a team of surgeons had to work hard to save his life.

Internecine strife had started up again in 2003, with Mick's acceptance of a knighthood from the Blair government for 'services to music'. To Keith, it was a betrayal of everything the Stones had always stood for. Publicly, he accused Mick of conduct unbecoming a one-time leftie London School of Economics student, adding that it was 'ludicrous to take one of those gongs from the Establishment when they did their very best to throw us in jail'. Privately, he admitted feeling such 'cold, cold rage at [Mick's] blind stupidity' that he almost pulled out of the 40 Licks tour. '[Mick] said, 'Tony Blair is insisting that I accept this.' I said, 'You can always say no' . . . But quite honestly, Mick's f***** up so many times, what's another f***-up?'

I used to love Mick, but I haven't been to his dressing room in 20 years The rift between the Twins widened to a Grand Canyon when Keith suddenly found success in two areas hitherto regarded as exclusively Jagger territory.

After Performance and Ned Kelly in the Seventies, Mick had never made another significant feature film. In 20 years, his only big-screen appearances had been in the dud sci-fi Freejack (straight to video in Britain) and as an extra in his own film company's version of the second world war drama Enigma. In 2003 Hollywood stardom arrived for Keith, albeit at first only ventriloquially.

While preparing for a new film called Pirates of the Caribbean, Johnny Depp, a Stones fanatic, borrowed Keith's slurry, stagey Sixties accent for his character Captain Jack Sparrow. Knowing Keith's volatile ways, Depp wondered whether he might find himself slammed up against a washroom wall with a cutlass at his throat. But Keith was hugely amused, and in the third film of the hugely successful Pirates franchise played a cameo role as Sparrow's father. A journalist asked whether any screen-acting tips had been forthcoming from Mick. 'He's the last person in the world I'd ask,' was the reply.

Keith then turned to literature. Back in the early 1980s, Mick had accepted a then unprecedented £1m advance to write his autobiography for the publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson. With his ghostwriter, he had concocted a manuscript of such thinness and evasive blandness that its editor at Weidenfeld mentally titled it 'The Diary of a Nobody'. Mick had agreed it was unpublishable, returned the advance in full and has never since sought to tell his stupendous life story.

In 2007 it emerged that Keith was at work on an autobiography for which he'd received a reported $7m advance from the publisher Little, Brown. It appeared three years later under the simple title Life. If vague about landmark events in Rolling Stones history ('I dunno what the f*** went down that day, man . . .') its pages contained great swathes about drugs, old Southern bluesmen and open-G guitar tuning - and Keith's revelation that, in his heart of hearts, he pined to be a librarian. But what mainly propelled Life into the bestseller lists was his extreme cattiness about Mick.

'I used to love Mick,' he wrote, affecting more sorrow than anger, 'but I haven't been to his dressing room in 20 years. Sometimes I think, 'I miss my friend.' I wonder, 'Where did he go?''

His 'friend' was then portrayed as an egomaniacal megalomaniac and impossible diva and snob who treated all women abominably and usually left them to cry on Keith's shoulder.

The coup de grace came in the section about his friend's relationship with Marianne Faithfull in the late 1960s. 'Marianne . . . had no fun with Mick's tiny todger. I know he's got an enormous pair of balls, but it doesn't quite fill the gap.'

The book's editors had urged for the passage to be cut, but in vain. According to Keith, Mick had read the proofs and asked for only one excision - not about his private parts but his use of a vocal coach to supplement all those pre-performance workouts in the gym.

Adopting the time-honoured tactics of royalty, which had served him well in the past, Mick made no public response to the book. And silence in this case proved eloquent.

Other great partnerships, from Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis to Simon and Garfunkel, have had no problem in splitting up. But for Jagger and Richards, however much they may snipe and snap at each other, there's simply nowhere else to go.

Keith is the quintessential survivor, a term once used for war veterans but now given to those who did not kill themselves with hedonism in the 1960s. Other such survivors, it's true, look better preserved. Yet all those decades of drug abuse seem to have left him unscathed.

He claims to be still off heroin and not to have used cocaine since nose-diving from that tree in Fiji, though his voice, and in particular his thoroughly scary laugh, still sounds like a thousand unemptied ashtrays made audible. 'Nice to be here,' he jokes raspily to live audiences nowadays. 'Hey, it's nice to be anywhere, y'know.'

Mick, by contrast, refuses to acknowledge the passage of time, still living essentially the same life he did as a boy demigod half a century ago and affecting to remember almost nothing of his past life, even though there are now seven children by four different mothers to remind him.

Now 69, he retains the physique of a gamine teenage girl. Only his face betrays a grandfather, born at the height of the second world war - the famous lips now drawn-in and bloodless, the cheeks etched by crevasses so wide and deep as to resemble terrible matching scars.

He maintains as strenuous a fitness regime as ever, with daily running, swimming, cycling, gym work, yoga and Pilates. He drinks a great deal less and exercises those once omnivorous lips on a sensible diet of wholegrain bread, rice, beans, pasta, chicken and fish. He also takes numerous supplements, vitamins, cod liver oil, ginseng and ginkgo biloba.

In an age when even celebrity chefs beat a path to the plastic surgeon's door, he rather impressively sticks to the face he was born with, relying instead on anti-ageing creams and moisturisers.

Financial considerations, of course, are what mainly keep the Glimmer Twins locked together. Since 1989, the Rolling Stones have earned an estimated £2 billion gross from records, song rights, merchandising, touring and sponsorship, while the band's trademark lapping tongue design appears on around 50 products, including a range of lingerie by Agent Provocateur. The young Mick's mouth, The New Yorker recently noted, is 'a brand as recognisable on the corporate landscape as McDonald’s golden arches'.

Emulating Lennon and McCartney to the last, Jagger and Richards do not control their earliest and best-known work. The copyrights in the Stones' great run of 1960s hits never belonged to the band, but to Andrew Oldham, their first manager, who sold the entire catalogue outright to their second one, Allen Klein.

The band own their recordings only from after 1971, when they jettisoned Klein, signed with the Atlantic label and set up Rolling Stones Records. Still, post-1971 was another golden age - and continues to be so.

In May 2010, Exile on Main Street was reissued with 10 hitherto unreleased tracks. Critically panned on its release in 1972, it was now hailed as one of the all-time great rock albums and became the band's first simultaneous UK/US No 1 since Voodoo Lounge. With it came a documentary, Stones in Exile, recounting the escape from the British taxman to France and the album's chaotic creation. When Stones in Exile was premiered at the Cannes film festival, personally introduced by Mick, a queue began to form two hours before the start.

This many-sourced treasure all flows into a nest of companies, based in Holland for its advantageous tax system, with low-key names such as Promopub, Promotone and Musidor. At the top, rather like some blue-chip law firm, is a partnership comprising Mick, Keith, Charlie Watts and Ronnie Wood. America's Fortune magazine recently tried to discover if every partner received an equal share but, after extensive quizzing of their financial advisers, had to report that 'no one will go there'.

And was ever a brand more potent, McDonald's and even Coca-Cola included? Two men in their late sixties, in their very different ways, are still thrilling to the youngest rock fans; still embody lawlessness and naughtiness like none who ever came after them. The mere mention of either of their names makes beautiful young women, as well as grandmothers, sit up straight and change colour.

Every journalist who enters the presence of either - old or young, female or male, tabloid or serious - instantly turns into a drooling fan. In short, they have shown others what the Chicago blues masters, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon et al, showed them so long ago. You can be old and still cool.

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