Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue

  • Marc Spitz
  • Gotham Books
  • 320 pp.

Fifty years after the first Rolling Stones show, a sprawling recap of an outrageous life.

Reviewed by Randy Cepuch

Recordings and performances by the Rolling Stones tend to be a little messy, yet they’re often thrilling because they’re propelled by outrageous moments and anchored by riffs that get under your skin and stay there.

Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue is a bit messy, too, and Spitz’s episodic approach lurches all over the place the way the Stones might without their rock-sold rhythm section. This latest biography of the band’s 68-year-old lead singer, Mick Jagger, lacks scandalous surprises and never really finds a groove. The tales ― Altamont, Brian Jones’ death, Studio 54, Bianca, etc. ― have pretty much all been told before in other places. Indeed, this book relies heavily on regurgitated quotes from other rock writers. That said, many of the stories are entertaining to revisit now that Jagger’s a senior citizen who’s been knighted, and the 20 pages of black-and-white pictures provide a strong accompaniment.

All in all, if you read only one book this fall that’s largely about the Rolling Stones, it should be …  Life, the surprisingly lucid and enjoyable autobiography by Jagger’s famously death-defying bandmate, guitarist Keith Richards.

Richards’ book seems to hover over Spitz’s. Early in Jagger, author Marc Spitz alludes to it and says his book isn’t meant to be “anti-Keith.” Yet more than once he rationalizes Jagger’s bad behavior, some at the expense of Richards. For example, when Jagger made his movie debut in “Performance” in 1968, his co-star was Richards’ then-girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg. Spitz implies (and Richards’ book affirms) that Mick and Anita began an off-screen physical relationship matching their roles in the movie, and explains it away like this: “Most likely … [screenwriter and co-director Donald] Cammell is the villain here, and if Mick is guilty of anything, it’s of valuing his potential as a movie star over loyalty to his mate.”

Later, describing the period when Richards was addicted to heroin, Spitz writes that Jagger was “far too together to do smack,” while later in the very same sentence admitting that the singer did just that but suggesting the “experimentation … might have been nothing but a fact-finding mission.” Perhaps most amusingly, Spitz takes issue with Richards’ observing, in Life, that his partner “has a ‘tiny todger.’ This is yet another inaccuracy stoked by Keith. …” Okay, then!

Spitz even seems defensive that Jagger hasn’t written an autobiography or cooperated with biographers (including Spitz). He quotes Jagger as saying that it’s “really quite tedious tracking over the past. Mostly people only do it for the money.” According to Laura Jackson’s 1998 Heart of Stone: The Unauthorized Life of Mick Jagger, the singer once accepted a £1 million advance from a London publisher to compile his memoirs and delivered a partial manuscript in early 1984. It was, Jackson says, rejected as “a shambles” and other houses also said no, with one observing, “No sex. No rock and roll. Just boring stuff about his ordinary parents and his ordinary upbringing.” Apparently part of the problem was that Jagger has long claimed to have a poor memory, and a quote in Jackson’s book from Mick’s ex-wife Bianca may also shed light: “Mick is not famous for being the most honest person.”

While Jagger is hardly “a shambles” and does include some entertaining tales involving sex, drugs and rock and roll ― the interview with Carly Simon about Jagger’s unbilled guest vocal on “You’re So Vain” is especially fun ― there are moments when more careful editing might have helped. An interview quote attributed to Paul McCartney, for example, is printed as an embarrassing, rambling run-on, rather than punctuated to form actual, coherent sentences. And when singer Marianne Faithfull, then Jagger’s girlfriend, suffered a miscarriage in 1968, Mick’s response was “to simply work his way through it … as he had when Robert Kennedy was shot” ― an odd aside, since  there’s no indication elsewhere that Jagger reacted to Kennedy’s death in any way beyond updating a line in “Sympathy For the Devil” (then, eerily, a work in progress) from “I shouted out, ‘Who killed Kennedy?’ ” to “ … ‘Who killed the Kennedys?’ ”

The author’s offhand critiques of various efforts by the Stones and others are found throughout the book and are sometimes illuminating if a bit intrusive. (Do we really need to know that Spitz thinks Arnold Schwarzenegger is underrated as an actor?) Near the end, though, he goes over the top with a screed about what Mick was wearing in the 1980s: “the beginning of Jagger’s unfortunate untucked-shirt phase, in which he tops an array of sherbet-colored T-shirts with a loose-fitting shirt, open all the way. It seemed to take him forever to ditch that look, and thankfully he finally has, preferring a tight black T-shirt and trousers, which still suit his trim frame nicely. The hair, too, is a problem. …”

With 2012 marking 50 years since the first Rolling Stones show, it would surprise almost no one if Jagger and Richard launched a world tour to celebrate their Golden Anniversary. Meanwhile, Jagger has begun touting a new recording he made by sharing the microphone with four other singers, including Dave Stewart of the Eurythmics and Joss Stone. It might be worth a listen. The old Stones’ classics are worth a listen. Life is worth reading. Jagger, not so much.

Randy Cepuch was a Top 40 DJ in the 1970s, spinning Stones’ songs on vinyl at 33 and 45 rpm. He has been a financial writer for the past 30 years, and his book, A Weekend With Warren Buffett and Other Shareholder Meeting Adventures, is published by Perseus Books.

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