Saturday, 20 October 2012

Book review: MICK JAGGER by Philip Norman

This article was originally published in The Scotsman on 20th October 2012.


Philip Norman

HarperCollins, £20

Paul Whitelaw

When Michael Philip Jagger, corporate head of the Rolling Stones empire, was asked to deliver his autobiography in the early '80s, the ghost-written results were deemed so irredeemably dull that the publishers were forced to cancel the £1 million advance and scrap the entire project. His exasperated editor quipped that it should've been titled The Diary of a Nobody.

Contrast that with the colourful – if not always reliable – content of fellow Stone Keith Richards' best selling memoir, Life, from 2010, which, in between hair-raising anecdotes and scholarly ruminations on open-G tuning, functioned as a kind of frustrated public letter to his estranged old friend. The Stones are celebrating their 50th anniversary this year, with another mega-tour rumoured to follow in 2013, but Richards claims he hasn't set foot in Jagger's dressing room in over 20 years.

So what happened? How is it possible that a legendary figure such as Jagger, who's lived a life liberally festooned with dramatic incident, could think of nothing interesting to say about himself? And how did it get to the stage where he barely communicates with the man with whom he wrote some of the world's greatest rock songs?

Philip Norman's hefty, even-handed biography seeks to dig behind the studied public fa├žade and bore into the heavily guarded heart of this paradoxical icon. That he succeeds in presenting a rounded portrait of such a slippery character is doubly remarkable given Jagger's predictable refusal to have anything to do with the book.

And yet, despite this glaring Jagger-shaped hole, Norman may well have written the only biography of a living entertainer to actually benefit from the absence of its subject. After all, the author argues, when have you ever read a remotely revealing interview with Mick Jagger? From the moment he strutted onto the world's stage in the mid-'60s, his public pronouncements have always been couched in feigned indifference and, in later years, a maddening insistence that he's forgotten the finer details of his past.

A highly intelligent, shrewd professional, this is clearly a convenient avoidance technique honed over the years to reveal as little of himself as possible. Famously, Jagger is a song-writer who, despite penning countless lyrics, has provided barely a hint of autobiography in his work.

This diplomatic narcissist obviously cares deeply about how he's perceived, but his unwavering commitment – to borrow ex-paramour Marianne Faithfull's choice phrase – to The Tyranny of Cool prohibits him from ever suggesting otherwise in public.

Norman repeatedly returns to the Tyranny of Cool motif throughout the story, as a persuasive way of deciphering Jagger's often self-defeating and callous behaviour. Despite pushing 70, this still limber force of nature is arguably the most vainglorious exponent of the perpetual adolescence enjoyed by pampered rock stars.

Although Norman rightly celebrates Jagger's immense talent and historical impact, a portrait emerges of a selfish, charming, controlling man who's had his every whim, whether fiscal or carnal, indulged almost without question throughout his long career. And yet despite his keen sense of self-awareness, Jagger doesn't seem to realise that his endless series of affairs with women less than half his age has transformed a one-time cultural powerhouse into an increasingly pathetic parody of himself. That, I suppose, is what happens when the word you've heard least in your life is “no”.

Norman has assembled an addictive narrative mired in sex and, to a lesser extent, drugs (Jagger was always too sensible to overindulge), but thankfully he isn't interested in salacious gossip.

An esteemed biographer of, among others, The Beatles, John Lennon, and the Stones themselves (an updated edition of his exhaustive 1984 biography is published this month), his reputation for thorough research is compounded on virtually every page. Norman is the sort of detail-hungry biographer who'll delightedly note that an Abbott and Costello comedy prophetically titled Money For Jam was playing at the local cinema in Dartford when the notoriously stingy Jagger was born.

Having gone back over interviews conducted for his previous Stones tome, he's also gathered fresh, record-straightening yet dignified contributions from the likes of Jagger's former lovers Chrissie Shrimpton and Marsha Hunt (who gave birth to his first child, which he briefly tried to disown), and Maggie Abbot, his one-time film agent, who grants fascinating insight into the numerous film offers that came his way during his thwarted bid for Hollywood stardom. It's tantalising to imagine what directors such as Hal Ashby, Steven Spielberg, John Boorman and Franco Zeffirelli could've done with Jagger's unique charisma.

Despite his penchant for detail, Norman could never be accused of being a dry, academic biographer. Adopting a wry tone befitting his habitually self-mocking subject, he rarely passes up an opportunity for an ironic aside. Indeed, at times he'd be best advised to avoid a tempting pun or gag, as they often irritate rather than amuse. Perverting the title of the Stones' first US album to Europe's Newest Shitmakers? Describing ageing groupies as “gurgling matrons”? Really, Philip? And he does tend to repeat himself as the book goes on. Oh for the hand of a stricter editor.

Nevertheless, having breathed new life into familiar material, he's written what must surely be regarded as the definitive account of Jagger's remarkable life. Its very existence will, of course, vex and embarrass Sir Mick himself, who would clearly prefer it if people only wrote about him in the manner of a glowing press release. But you can be sure that, whenever the subject inevitably arises during future interviews, he'll casually dismiss it as an irrelevance. The Tyranny of Cool will never be vanquished.

Mick Jagger by Philip Norman is published 4th October (HarperCollins, £20)

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