Sunday January 20, 2013
Tyranny of cool
Review by KARYN ANNE KRISHNAN
Author: Philip Norman
Publisher: HarperColins, 600 pages
PHILIP Norman’s unauthorized biography of Mick Jagger – the famous thick lips and voice behind The Rolling Stones – aptly informs us of drummer Charlie Watts’ opinion of Jagger: “Mick doesn’t care what happened yesterday. All he cares about is tomorrow.”
Perhaps it is his failed autobiography in the 1980s (it had been deemed too boring by editors) that leads Jagger to maintain, when asked about his past, that it’s all a blur, making Norman all the more eager to tell Jagger’s life story. “So let’s flick through those yesterdays in hopes of refreshing his memory,” writes Norman as he concludes his prologue, “Sympathy for the old devil”.
As geared up as I was to read this book, knowing that in its pages lie a story worth telling, my mind kept wandering as I made my way through pages that turned out to be not as attention-grabbing as I had hoped.
As a music journalist who scored his first interview with Jagger way back in 1965, and with an array of noteworthy biographies under his belt – including The Stones, Shout! The Beatles In Their Generation, John Lennon: The Life and many more – there is no doubting Norman’s research and attention-grabbing cultural references, but amidst all that, this long account was difficult to digest.
Perhaps it’s his British English tone of writing coupled with an American publisher that made Norman’s flow of thought and its editing clash. Or perhaps I’m just imagining it all. Either way, after some effort to become accustomed to the choppy style, and with a pinch of tolerance, I realised that the entire biography, intentionally or otherwise, functions as a textbook on 1960s British pop culture for those who were not around to listen to The Rolling Stones on the radio and read about the band hot off the press.
But my interest lay in Mike before Mick, in the time before the lad became a rock ’n’ roll star.
An odd fact: Jagger’s background is so ordinary that you’d never guess he would grow into a rock idol. He was born into a middle class family with devoted parents who were big on discipline. Father Joe Jagger was a physical education teacher and coached his two sons, Mike and younger brother Chris, in all sorts of sports. Mother Eva was a stickler for cleanliness and tidiness and both boys had to share household duties drawn up in a strict timetable.
Imagine my surprise upon learning that rock’s symbol of rebellion grew up in such ordinary and well-rounded circumstances. And the icing on the cake: Mike and his brother sang in the church choir as kids!
Jagger did have a bit of a hard time at school where he was teased for having such thick lips; in those days, such a feature was associated with being of African descent, so the vile “N” word was spewed at him. And as the book describes, it was far from the days when he would find the comparison flattering.
Before the genre defining hits, before the trademark Jagger moves, before the scandals, drugs and arrests and the array of women and divorces, long before the untimely death of ex-member Brain Jones – basically before The Stones came into existence, Jagger met his beloved/hated soul mate, Keith Richards.
They met at school at the age of eight. One day in the playground, Richards confided in Jagger that when he grew up he wanted to be like (American singer and cowboy actor) Roy Rogers and play the guitar. Their relationship did not take off immediately, but resumed a decade later when Richards was already invested in playing the guitar and Jagger was a student at the London School Of Economics with a deep infatuation for the music of Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf.
Perhaps it’s his tidy childhood and days at a school of economics that influenced Jagger’s shrewd focus on finance, something that Norman reminds readers about sporadically throughout the book. As he bluntly puts it, “Sir Mick talks to writers only when he has something to sell”.
Jagger might be a rock idol with money on his mind but he was knighted in 2003 for his service to music – a huge accomplishment for someone who supposedly has been stoned for most of his career.
At the end of it all, I think it is Keith Richards who summed up Jagger beautifully in a couple of sentences when he said, “Mick likes knowing what he’s going to do tomorrow. Me, I’m just happy to wake up and see who’s around. Mick’s rock; I’m roll.”