To those of us who were there, and can remember it all too vividly, the 60s was a time when almost anything seemed possible. The chrysalis miraculously turned into the butterfly and flittered into space.
This longed-for transformation from drabness into glamour is the theme of Jerusalem the Golden, my favourite of Margaret Drabble’s early novels, and it is a recurring motif in Philip Norman’s new biography of Mick Jagger, in which he charts in riveting detail Jagger’s own transformation from a humdrum LSE student in striped college scarf and cardigan into the beautiful renegade and rock star, living symbol of that naive but in some ways rather wonderful 60s rebellious nonconformity.
Philip Norman is a former Sunday Times journalist who has written books on the Beatles and John Lennon besides a group biography of the Rolling Stones. He views the Beatles and the Stones as “one single epic story”, an intertwined narrative he has been telling and retelling for the past three decades. He brings to the subject a great depth of knowledge and a critical detachment that raises his writing way above the level of most rock band biography, usually a nightmare of unattributed anecdote and gush.
He is particularly good on Jagger’s early life. Mike, as he was then, was brought up in mundane respectability in a white pebble-dash house in Denver Road, Dartford. He watched Muffin the Mule. Yes, those were calmer childhoods. His genteel mother Eve, who was born in New South Wales, was an office secretary, then a beautician.
Norman has a novelist’s awareness of the oddities of human relationships, and Mick’s father emerges as a fascinating figure. Basil Fanshawe Jagger was a high-minded disciplinarian, an athlete and a sportsman whose passion was basketball. He taught PE, then held a lowly post in recreational sports administration. Basil Jagger was a deeply conventional man whose gallantry to women, Norman argues, descended to his son in the fitful moods of protectiveness and kindness that were to punctuate the younger Jagger’s history of droit de seigneurism and his less-than-charming habit of denying paternity suits.
In 1961, Mike Jagger left Dartford Grammar School and enrolled at the London School of Economics to read for a BSc. He had lost his virginity to a nurse in a store cupboard at the local Bexley psychiatric hospital where he had been working as a temporary porter. Mike would soon be transforming into Mick.
London itself was emerging from its postwar frowsiness. Norman tells us: “A feeling of excitement and expectation pulsed through the crusty old Victorian metropolis at every level.” Norman is not above a cliché. But his grasp of the sudden change of atmosphere in which Town and Queen magazines began to flourish and girls started to parade down Kings Road in V-neck sweaters, black stockings and short skirts will strike those who remember those days of sudden exhilarating novelty as absolutely accurate. Coffee bars and blues band music were a part of it, and Mick’s first performance with the Rolling Stones took place at the Marquee on 12 July 1962.
The book brings out well a key aspect of the period: the close relationship between rock music and the art schools, breeding ground of anarchy and protest in the 60s. Jagger and Keith Richards had gone to the same primary school. By the time they met again the future star guitarist was at Sidcup Art College. John Lennon, Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton and Syd Barrett followed the same route. It wasn’t just the music of the Rolling Stones, what Norman describes as the “dishevelled slightly off-register sound” of their first No 1 single “It’s All Over Now”. It was the look of them, the volatile and taunting aspect of performance. This was rock music transformed into theatre art.
The most intriguing character appearing at this period is Andrew Loog Oldham, seen by Norman as the Rolling Stones’ Svengali, a strawberry blond 19-year-old who had started his career as an odd job man in Mary Quant’s boutique Bazaar. It was Oldham who, as their first manager, marketed the Rolling Stones as anti-Beatles, bad boys in contrast to the mothers’ pets with pudding-basin haircuts. I remember the impact of Jagger’s 1967 solo composition “Let’s Spend the Night Together”, replete with heavy breathing.
By the mid-60s the drug culture was rampant. Norman provides a conscientiously credible account of the 1967 Redlands drug bust, though in some ways I prefer the more ebullient and ramshackle version of this famous episode given in Richards’s recent autobiography, Life. Both versions, incidentally, deny the Mars bar story.
The arrest and brief imprisonment of Jagger on drugs charges ended in high farce with the establishment frenziedly kowtowing to the youth cult. First William Rees-Mogg’s pro-Jagger editorial in the Times, with its headline taken from Alexander Pope, “Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel?” Next the World in Action confrontation in an Essex garden between four besuited establishment grandees and Jagger, flown in like a young god by helicopter. The sycophancy of the scene will be etched in the memory of all of us who watched it in excruciating detail on our primitive black and white TVs. Norman finds evidence of overtures made to Jagger by Harold Wilson’s government in 1968 suggesting he should stand for parliament. For England as a serious country, all this surely signified the beginning of the end.
For the young he was a subversively Romantic figure. In a Byron exhibition I curated for the National Portrait Gallery I suggested that Jagger was a 20th-century Byron. Some people felt this was going a bit far. But you only have to replay the footage of The Stones in the Park, the rock concert held in Hyde Park in 1969, to see the obvious parallels. Not just the blubber lips and Byronic ruffled shirt. Not just Jagger’s recitation of Shelley’s “Adonaïs” in memory of Brian Jones, who had drowned two days before the concert. It’s the crowd reaction that makes one think of Byron, girls climbing up the platform for the ecstasy of touching him. Like Byron in his period, Jagger was the focus of hysterical sexual fantasy.
He’d become one of the beautiful people, the sophisticates, appearing in Roy Strong’s diary (from which Norman should have quoted) at a Cecil Beaton party: “Once again this was a costume parade on the grand scale: Peter Ayer the actor, in brown velvet, Ossie Clark in plum velvet edged with ribbon, his wife Celia Birtwell tousled and pretty in black … Patrick Lichfield all hair and embroidered shirt, Mick Jagger in purple, and Penelope Tree wearing an astonishing leather hat whose brim went halfway down her back.” Strong himself, emerging from a similarly drab and disadvantaged London suburban background, was on the same fast-track reinvention course as Jagger’s, turning himself into the kingmaker of taste.
By 1970, when I interviewed Lennon, the Beatles had disbanded. He and a rather surly Yoko Ono had a lot to tell me about their wish from now on to “live in paper bags”. He suggested the Stones should follow suit and find themselves more mature, more spiritually rewarding occupations. But how could this be possible? Mick lived for the performance in a sense that the Beatles, primarily songwriters, did not. In effect the Stones filled the vacuum left by the Beatles. Their Sticky Fingers album, with its Andy Warhol cover, was, as Norman tells us, “a landslide victory”.
It has to be said that the second half of this biography flags and becomes just a little repetitious. There is too much about Jagger mingling with the aristocrats, too many scenes of drug-taking, too much of both together, as when Marianne Faithfull at a banquet given by the Earl of Warwick “took five Mandrax tablets by way of hors d’oeuvres and passed out into her soup”. But what the book does establish, in spite of the commotion there has always been around him, is Jagger’s remarkable consistency both as a performer (still singing “Satisfaction”) and major countercultural influence.
• Fiona MacCarthy’s The Last Pre-Raphaelite: Edward Burne-Jones and the Victorian Imagination won the 2012 James Tait Black prize for biography.
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