“Ooh ooh baby, I got a message for you,” Sir Mick Jagger croons, among other endearments, on the most recent Rolling Stones single, the aptly titled “One More Shot.” The creative muse may have gone south for Jagger and the boys sometime during the first Nixon administration, but the marketing machinery keeps these specimens of a Jurassic social order on life support. As well as the single, there is copious product out there to celebrate the Stones’ current golden anniversary, including their eighth or ninth “definitive hits collection” and other officially licensed products ranging from a line of “quality resin” bobblehead dolls and “personally approved” ladies’ underwear, among other exotica, to yet another coffee-table scrapbook transporting us to the lost world of Mars Bars, cocaine, and Margaret Trudeau. Last winter, the Stones’ latest revival from behind their marble slab shockingly saw them perform on stage. By the time you read this, the four band members will have an aggregate age of 277. Jagger himself turns 70 in July. Most of those investing $160 or so to see them from the upper reaches of their nearest stadium now experience the Stones as a sort of distant Punch and Judy show, with Sir Mick and company circling one another and bopping up and down. But whether out of morbid curiosity or genuine love of the music, audiences around the world still flock to share the same space as the old devils for a couple of hours. In the case of Keith Richards, the more decrepit he looks, the more fans he gets.
What’s the attraction? Nostalgia, obviously, for one thing. The Rolling Stones have been with us so long that even the jokes about how long they have been with us seem slightly old. The music press are thought to have begun calling them “the Strolling Bones” around 1973, while unflattering references to the group’s physical appearance have been making the rounds almost as long. To hear “Satisfaction” again, amid crowds cheering both the song and our own capacity to cheer, is to warp back fleetingly through the decades. As long as we’re experiencing the Rolling Stones in the flesh, it seems, we’re not old. The band themselves appear actually to live in a state of cryogenic suspension. In an era when most modern rock stars dress like they shop at Old Navy, and offer a relentless diet of screwed-up nihilism and phony salves, the Stones are still out there in their skimpy, DayGlo T-shirts and leather pants, chasing lingerie-clad models (at least in their videos) young enough to be their granddaughters. And along with their dozen or so best songs, that’s surely the core attraction. Like it or not, there’s a vicarious buzz in seeing the old codgers behaving badly. On some fundamental level, we need the Rolling Stones, if only as a living reminder that one of pop music’s chief initial functions was to act as an emotional tonic for a weary public. We want to be entertained by the stories about them swaggering around crashing their cars and snorting drugs off the implausibly contoured bodies of their latest inappropriate girlfriends. “You’re bored, and it’s wet and it’s grey, and there’s nothing on TV, but you’ve still got people like us strutting around and playing, and somehow it’s a little bit of a pick-me-up,” Sir Mick once told me. “You could call it mass funny entertainment.”
That’s certainly one theory. Another explanation of the Stones’ appeal is the sheer tribalism of it. In general, it seems fair to say that even their most imperishable songs connect on a visceral rather than an intellectual level. Might the attraction of hearing Jagger sing, say, “Brown Sugar” or “Wild Horses” possibly be anecdotal, as well as the appeal of moving to a rhythm at the same time as everyone else? As thousands of North Koreans periodically stage parades, lifting posters of the Dear Leader and lowering them simultaneously, so concertgoers sway and wave lighters during these particular numbers. I have seen the Stones in action 20 or 25 times over the years, once or twice as their guest, and I’ve come to notice certain reassuringly familiar aspects to the ritual. Somehow, the experience always makes me think fondly of my friend the late Joe Jagger, Mick’s father, who was a schoolteacher and professional gym coach in England back in the 1950’s. Even today, most Stones shows are essentially a giant power-aerobics class, punctuated by a blaze of rippling white light and a bazooka-like amplification system, and conducted by an elfin figure urging us to clap along.
Michael Philip Jagger was not born in London on July 26, 1944. The time and place, enthusiastically cited by the Rolling Stones’ veteran publicist Les Perrin, were all but universally accepted throughout the 1960’s and early 70’s, when the group’s lead vocalist apparently already wanted to appear younger and more metropolitan than he was. Jagger actually arrived with us a year earlier, and not in the capital but in its far-easterly suburb of Dartford. It’s a perfectly respectable place, if one not conspicuous for its raw energy, vital nightlife, or racy promise. Dartford, it’s true, enjoys a long history of religious, industrial, and cultural achievement: The Romans built roads there; medieval monks founded hospitals; and a series of paper mills, pharmaceutical plants, and munitions works flourished from around the mid-19th century until the Great Depression 80 years later. Of its kind, the town followed a classic path among southeastern English communities: In the 1930’s the recession set in like a chill North Sea fog, and lifted just in time for the arrival of the Luftwaffe. The civic planners soon finished the job, throwing up entire prefabricated neighborhoods on old bomb sites and green fields. “Clearance” was the word, the result a gaudily modern facelift whose chief physical characteristics are endless one-way systems, roundabouts, and mortuaries. It would be just to say that in the years Mick Jagger was growing up there, most people would have regarded Dartford as a dull, dispiriting place that had seemingly lost its soul in the 1930’s, and then for decades afterward found itself forced to endure the lingering acidic reek of its vanished chemical factories, like an industrial phantom limb after an amputation.
From the beginning, Jagger was a thoroughly conventional child, “obsessively neat, immaculately dressed, and always well organised—I had hopes for him in politics,” his father, Joe, told me. (Joe particularly liked the initials “M.P.” Jagger, which he thought augured well for “some sort of government career for the lad.”) For much of the 1950’s, the family lived in a smart, pebble-dashed house that boasted a row of descending garden gnomes and a doorbell that played “Greensleeves.” Joe’s wife, the former Eva Scutts, was a pretty, Australian-born hairdresser and amateur opera singer who is widely remembered for that curious mix of ego and insecurity that sometimes occurs in the socially ambitious immigrant. Mick clearly inherited qualities from both sides of the clan: the chirpy self-confidence and musical bent of the Scuttses, and the dour application of the Jaggers. Etymologically, too, it was his lot to be torn evenly down the line. Mick later liked to tell people that his paternal surname came from the Old English jag, meaning “to pierce or cut in tatters,” although to balance this it might be added that seven or eight centuries ago, a village youth who was considered unduly shifty or timid was apt to be called a scut—a term originally used of the tail of a hare, particularly noticeable when the animal was fleeing.
The portrait of Jagger that most often emerges from those closest to him in Dartford is of a boy who was long on graft and determination, if less so on raw intellect. Even some of those who later came to admire his consistently thrifty business sense had their doubts about his mental candlepower. In 1954, he passed the moderately demanding entrance exam to the local grammar school, “and gave no one any significant trouble,” his former headmaster told me. Jagger regularly placed in the upper third of his class, and made his only known protest against the school regime when, in November 1959, he signed a petition asking that they provide the student body with a better lunch. (He always was fond of his food.) When Jagger left to take up a place at the London School of Economics, the headmaster wrote a report on him saying,
His general record has been satisfactory. In the sixth form he has applied himself well on the whole and has shown a greater intellectual determination than we had expected. He should be successful in most fields, though he is unlikely to do brilliantly in any of them. Jagger is a lad of good general character though he has been rather slow to mature. The pleasing quality which is now emerging is that of persistence when he makes up his mind to tackle something. His interests are wide.
What is perhaps most interesting about this encomium is how much of it might still be said to apply more than 50 years later.
Aside from academics, the adolescent Jagger was also something of a sportsman who played competitive basketball, cricket, and soccer; could swim a length of a pool with seven or eight windmilling strokes; and once appeared with his father in a mountaineering episode of the British television series Seeing Sport, where he could be seen clambering up and down some rocks, having made his broadcast debut as a close-up of a disembodied foot: “Here’s Michael,” a voiceover intones, “wearing a nice clean pair of gym shoes.” Walter Stern, his college tutor, told me that he had doubts about Jagger’s strictly economic or mathematical ability, but high hopes for him in advertising. “That boy always had some campaign, you know, some scheme,” he said. At least some entrepreneurial flair can be seen from the fact that Jagger worked as a part-time beach peddler of ice cream in summer and a door-to-door vendor of Avon cosmetics in winter. By the time he was 18 he was also an occasional member of a weekend pop group called Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, whose surviving promotional flyer describes him as supplying “Miscellaneous background noises,” and had begun sending away for hard-to-get Chuck Berry albums from Chess Records in Chicago. “He used to make a note of the discs’ matrix numbers in his diary so that he could swap them with friends,” Joe Jagger told me. “Even then, he was the organized one.”
It’s worth dwelling on Mick Jagger’s adolescence for a moment, if only to show that he was—and, I suggest, remains—a solidly conservative figure whose whole career has been predicated more on a sense of stoic perseverance and financial accumulation than on any desire to spike the public water supply with LSD. Time and again, he has demonstrated his infallible eye for the avenues down which his public might be inclined to roam, without showing any interest in exploring them himself. The discrepancy between the raised-by-wolves legend of Jagger’s upbringing and the reality, with its emphasis on duty, exertion, and self-discipline, can be illustrated by events throughout his long career. I always enjoy the story the late Ian Stewart, the Rolling Stones’ piano player, told me about their recording session at Hollywood’s RCA studio in December 1965. Jagger, then at the height of his apparent antiestablishment phase, was working on the lyrics of a new single to be called “19th Nervous Breakdown,” as well as on several equally caustic songs that ended up on the album Aftermath. Late one night, he broke off from creating his spirited attacks on traditional English family life and other social mores to confer with a Western Union messenger. He was not confirming his attendance at an antiwar rally or some other popular protest, but “sending his mum and dad a congratulatory silver-wedding anniversary telegram at home in Dartford,” Stewart remembered with a chuckle. Two years later, Jagger assured the bishop of Woolwich and the editor of the Times, “I don’t want to format a new code of living, a new morality. I never set myself up as anything. It’s society that has pushed one into that position.” We can only speculate on what Mick might have made of his life had he not been standing on the platform of Dartford station one dank morning in October 1961, waiting to go on to an economics class in London, when Keith Richards loomed up at him out of the fog, lugging his guitar.
In fact, of course, the Rolling Stones were even less radical than the Beatles. Interviewing Jagger immediately after his acquittal on drug charges in July 1967, William Rees-Mogg of the Times was astonished to discover “a right-wing libertarian,” who was “primarily interested not in storming the Palace, but in the current score of England’s cricket match.” “No one’s recruiting me to anything,” the head Stone later confirmed to Ian Stewart. Instead of joining the revolution, Jagger joined the Country Gentleman’s Association. Over the years, he would remain similarly reticent when it came to moving the guardrails defining the limits of normal behavior. A long-time Stones employee, Tom Keylock, told me that he had been specifically instructed to “bin” any requests for donations to “way-out causes,” including those from antiwar groups, and that even then Jagger’s preferred company was that of his high-powered business managers, leavened by the attentions of his groupies. Around 1968 he did, it’s true, briefly flirt with a 62-year-old maverick Labour MP and practicing occultist named Tom Driberg. Although evocatively titled Stones songs like “Street Fighting Man,” “Salt of the Earth,” “Factory Girl,” and “Sympathy for the Devil” all date from this era, it’s debatable whether Driberg’s mélange of utopian-socialist slogans had any lasting effect on the band’s chief lyricist, whose dazzling charm offensive sometimes masked his lack of any deeper commitment. When Driberg once suggested that Jagger stand for his local council, or even Parliament, the latter “literally fell off his chair laughing about it,” according to Keylock. No doubt it was this same essential attitude that led Jagger to tell Abbie Hoffman, when solicited for funds to finance his defense on criminal-conspiracy charges arising from the 1968 Democratic National Convention, “I got my own trials, man.” If the Rolling Stones were political at all, it was only in the internecine sense of the word. By the Summer of Love, as much of the group’s energy was spent on squabbling among themselves—the firing of the band’s founder Brian Jones being only the most visible result—as it was on the creative process, let alone any countercultural effusions. “No one knew what [Jagger’s] agenda was,” the Times wrote, but based on his penchant for watching cricket and meticulously restoring his medieval country mansion, it contained a large vein of English traditionalism.
Any Stones fan who has committed himself to the view that even in the 1960’s the band were primarily about rebellion may wish to consider the evidence of their songs. The most famous of them, “Satisfaction,” offers lyrics musing not on social revolution but on the perils of stardom, and relies on an infectiously raucous guitar hook—as well as perhaps a degree of critical goodwill—for its longevity. Similarly, “Sympathy for the Devil” came about as a rather fey retelling of Mikhail Bulgakov’s newly translated novel The Master and Margarita, a copy of which Jagger’s then-current squeeze had given him. “It was about as satanic as my Granny,” Ian Stewart observed. (Jagger himself quickly got on the phone to offer the song to Aretha Franklin as her next single, but the soul diva felt obliged to pass.) Equally, most of the adoring critics of the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man,” a tune of some charm, completely missed the irony of Jagger’s central lament in the song: All he could do, he rued, was to sing in a rock ’n’ roll band. Five years later, direct action was still not a Jagger priority. When publicly challenged by his wife to write a song with a “serious message,” his response was a number called “It’s Only Rock ’n Roll (But I Like It).” In January 1991, just as Allied bombers opened the first Gulf War, the Stones recorded their 73rd single, “Highwire.” Described in the Times as “Mick Jagger’s biting critique on the global crisis,” a careful study of the lyrics suggests only a mild satire on promiscuous international arms dealing (allowing Jagger to rhyme tank with bank), surely an uncontroversial theme. More recently, there was 2005’s “Sweet Neo Con,” which supposedly “personally offended” President Bush with its unflattering allusions to the Iraq war. The ensuing debate was only the latest attempt by an interested group to claim for itself a band with a nearly perfect 50-year track record of political apathy. “Sweet Neo Con” failed to make a single appearance in the 147 Stones concerts that followed over the next two years. President Bush later remarked genially that he had “never heard of” the song.
Of course, you can take the view that Mick Jagger is no more and no less than a long-running entertainer, and that he owes his public nothing beyond his still-energetic illustration of the Rolling Stones’ songs during one of their infrequent concerts. After 50 years, the band remain quite adept at mining black American folk art and giving it a new, gaudily choreographed twist. In their best songs, you could argue, they took the basic idiom of the blues and wrung out the grief and sadness until all that was left in most cases was a sense of fun (if, it has to be said, mildly demented or sadistic fun), which so thrillingly caught its time. Good luck to them. But on a sociological level, it’s reasonable to ask whether Jagger’s undoubted influence as a role model to millions of those coming of age in the late 1960’s and 70’s has proved an entirely benign one, and in particular if some of the more relaxed notions both of family responsibility and “soft” drug use with which he was long and vocally associated may in some way be the precursor to the collapse of such flagrantly unfashionable concepts as self-restraint, delayed gratification, and service to others, and more obviously to the tendency of so many adults today to dress, speak, and in general conduct themselves like a pack of particularly lewd-minded teenagers. It’s a point at least worth pursuing, if one on which Jagger himself is characteristically silent. He lives today in some splendor, we’re told, at liberty to enjoy the landscaped gardens of his French chateau, or the Old Masters adorning his London townhouse, both of which properties nestle behind high walls, and thus, perhaps, he is spared many of the day-to-day consequences of the social convulsions he could be said to have inspired.
It is not surprising that, at 70, Sir Mick Jagger is a thoroughly establishment figure. What is more shocking is just how conventional he always was, and how so many people apparently formed the opposite impression.