Book Review: ‘Mick Jagger’ by Phillip Norman
The simply titled Mick Jagger – first published last year in hardback, and re-released in paperback just this past week by Harper-Collins imprint Ecco – is an exhaustively researched, meticulously detailed study on this most overly analyzed, criticized and occasionally demonized of all rock legends.
Author Philip Norman’s credentials as an ace rock-biographer are impeccable. His Beatles bio Shout! is considered by many to be the definitive account of the Fabs, and previous tomes on John Lennon, Elton John and even The Rolling Stones themselves have also earned the author high marks from fans and critics alike.
What is most surprising about Mick Jagger though, are the new insights and perspective found within its 600 plus pages. In something of a disclaimer, Norman makes it clear from the git that Mick Jagger is an unauthorized biography, meaning that it was written without the participation or endorsement of its principal subject. But in many ways, it may just as well have been officially sanctioned. There is little new to be found in the way that the author portrays Jagger as an artist and a human being, that Sir Mick should find reason to take issue with. Wisely, Jagger’s legendary reputation for self-centered egomania isn’t overlooked here (because that would be both pointless and stupid).
But Norman’s approach here is more fair and even-handed than most. Jagger’s humanitarian efforts – such as the considerable sum he raised for Nicaraguan earthquake victims, even as his marriage to Bianca was crumbling – is discussed in some detail, as are his often overlooked contributions as a rock songwriter. Early on, Norman makes a convincing case for Jagger songs like “Sympathy For The Devil,” as being worthy of the same heft most often reserved for iconic songwriters like Dylan and Lennon.
However, he is not quite as successful in trying to downplay Jagger’s legendary reputation as an oversexed skirt-chaser. While there may be some truth to Norman’s assertion that Jagger’s sexual dalliances over the years puts him in the same big leagues as such legendary womanizers as Valentino, it’s hard to dismiss his treatment of former lovers like Marianne Faithfull and Marsha Hunt as being simply the product of immature, extended rock star adolescence.
Despite this sympathetic, if not quite apologetic account, there is no sugarcoating Mick Jagger’s role as a wealthy deadbeat Dad – nor his attempts to deny paternity through legal means – after Hunt first gave birth to his child (though he did make up for it years later). Another missing piece of the story here, is Marianne Faithfull’s comeback from drug addiction, beginning with 1979’s brilliant Broken English. The story here mostly leaves off with Faithfull as an unfortunate casualty.
Norman’s attempt to recast Jagger in a more heroic light following the 1969 tragedy at Altamont likewise falls somewhat flat. His only real supporting evidence for this is Sam Cutler’s testimony that Jagger’s decision to finish out the show – thus preventing further disaster – rather than to cut and run in the wake of the chaos and murder unfolding all around him constitutes his possessing “the balls of a lion.”
In fairness, anyone who has ever watched the death stares of the Hells Angels situated next to Jagger in the Gimme Shelter documentary would be hard-pressed to argue with Jagger’s testicular fortitude in playing out the gig. There have also been some pretty wild conspiracy theories floated in the years and decades since Altamont (most notably in Cutler’s own book).
But speaking of conspiracy theories, there have been several surrounding Mick Jagger and The Stones over the years, and in the biggest revelation of this book, Philip Norman actually seems to put a final exclamation point on one of the biggest of them all.
No Mick Jagger or Rolling Stones book would be complete without delving into the questionable circumstances surrounding the death of Stones founder Brian Jones. Norman’s account is a respectful one that unlike some others, seems to support some of the theories already out there, while casting Mick Jagger and the rest of the Stones in the more positive light that it should. There is no question that the once brilliant Jones had become a liability to the band that needed to be dealt with. But there is likewise no question that his death stunned the rest of them to the core – and none less than Jagger himself. Norman’s account doesn’t entirely discount questions about the official verdict of “death by misadventure,” but he wisely does rule out the involvement of Mick Jagger or any of the other Rolling Stones.
But this book does pretty much blow the lid off of the infamous Stones 1967 Redlands drug bust once and for all, and it does so in spectacular fashion. Not only does Mick Jagger reveal that Jagger and the rest of the Stones were set up in a conspiracy involving London police, the tabloid News of the World, and even a connection to American COINTELPRO espionage:
Spoiler Alert: The secret identity of “Acid King David,” the intelligence plant who set the Stones up at the 1967 Redlands bust, is revealed for the first time here. I won’t spoil the rest of the story here – you’ll need to get the book for that. But the true story behind the bust that put Mick Jagger in jail; ruined Marianne Faithfull’s career by forever identifying her as the naked girl in a rug; and briefly put the Stones touring aspirations on hold, makes Philip Norman’s Mick Jagger an essential read for hardcore Stones fans.
For the rest of us, there’s other stuff too. Like how the song “Brown Sugar” was originally called “Black Pussy,” and how “Angie” may not have been written about David Bowie’s wife after all. Jagger himself doesn’t always come off like the angel driven white as snow Philip Norman often wants to depict here. That would be near impossible, given the record. But his tightrope career walk between manufactured street thug and pompous aristocrat always makes for fascinating reading, and Philip Norman pulls off the enviable trick of balancing those scales quite nicely.
*Article first published at Blogcritics.