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Review: New bio paints Mick Jagger as a contradictory enigma Special

By Jeff Cottrill     Nov 3, 2012 in Entertainment
Rock stars, like all celebrities, are hard to pin down. Their true selves hide behind carefully crafted public images, shielding us from the deeper complexities that make up a human personality. With Mick Jagger, it's unclear where the facade ends.
Philip Norman's new biography of the eternally young Rolling Stones frontman, simply titled Mick Jagger, leaves you wondering if you know The Lipped One any better than you did before. I'm not sure whether that's Norman's point – that Jagger is, in the end, unknowable – or if the author just wasn't as interested in making Jagger come alive as in sending the reader down a journey through rock history. Some of the book feels more like a retelling of the Stones' story than a biography of one member; Norman, a veteran British novelist, journalist, playwright and rock biographer, has indeed penned a previous Stones bio, as well as 2008's excellent John Lennon: The Life.
The contrast between the public Mick and the real Sir Michael Philip Jagger is a constant theme, and Norman credits much of Jagger's bad-ass reputation to “the Tyranny of Cool”, or Jagger's need to downplay his true emotions and beliefs in favour of the image. For the first half, Norman's thesis often appears to be that Jagger isn't quite the narcissistic, self-absorbed Raging Id that everyone thinks he is: he recounts Jagger's history as an articulate London School of Economics student from a stable, middle-class home, points out that Jagger was never anywhere near into hard drugs as Keith Richards was, and busts the myths of Jagger's supposed callous indifference to Brian Jones' death and the Altamont tragedy. Later, there's more than a hint of irony in this characterization, such as when Norman describes Jagger as “as good a father as any peripatetic, tax-avoiding rock superstar could be.”
Norman doesn't skimp on Jagger's famous womanizing ways, though. From his early relationships with Chrissie Shrimpton and Marianne Faithfull to his marriages to Bianca De Macias and Jerry Hall, Jagger is depicted as an aimlessly wandering libido that can never be tied down to one woman. His dalliances with Marsha Hunt, Carla Bruni and Angelina Jolie are covered, among others. But Norman stops short of confirming that Jagger ever had a full tryst with David Bowie. (And that story about Mick, Marianne and the Mars Bar is evidently nothing more than an urban legend.)
Mick Jagger (which Norman originally wanted to title Satan of Suburbia) delves into the Rolling Stones' roots as a poverty-stricken blues band in London, before an ambitious nineteen-year-old named Andrew Loog Oldham took over as their manager and molded the quintet into a sort of scruffy, outlaw anti-Beatles. Norman recounts how media sensation of the group's bad-boy image led to Jagger and Richards receiving harsh sentences for minor drug offenses in 1967, as well as the frequent friction between the privileged, egotistical Jagger and his neglected bandmates. And there's the bitter irony that thanks to Boomer nostalgia, the aging Stones have come to represent every establishment value that they supposedly despised forty-some years ago – with the once-controversial “Satisfaction” turning into Britain's “alternative national anthem”.
Sometimes, Jagger comes off as more sensitive, intelligent and sincere than one would have thought; other times, Norman can't resist mocking Jagger's manipulative qualities, such as his selective memory, or even selective accents. Depending on the situation, Jagger would try to charm interviewers or audiences with a posh tone, a faux-Cockney dialect, or those frequent attempts at southern American blues drawls in the songs. “'Pleeze 'lau me to interdooce mahself / Ah'm a ma-yne of wealth and tay-yeast,'” Norman transcribes phonetically from “Sympathy for the Devil”, among other songs.
The final portrait of the elderly Sir Mick, who turns seventy next July, is little more than what you already assumed: a monumentally vain Eternal Teenager, stunted by early success and lacking common self-awareness, who has rarely been told “No” in his life. “As a rock god, Mick inhabited a separate universe in which the normal rules of morality did not apply and inconvenient facts never needed to be faced,” Norman writes. Unfortunately, the vast majority of the book is devoted to the 1960s and early '70s, with the final seventy-five pages rushing through the last thirty years, so you don't get a chance to learn if there's much more to Jagger than that now. Not that Jagger's notoriously non-revealing interviews could have helped much.
Mick Jagger is readable, entertaining and full of fascinating anecdotes and rare detail, and it's occasionally amusing too, especially when Norman tosses in one of his dry sarcastic asides. But you never really get a clear sense of why Mick Jagger is Mick Jagger. Maybe you're not meant to.
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