A jarring truth is that there have been more Mick Jagger biographies (three) than Rolling Stones tours (none) in the past five years. The Stones were supposed to launch their 50th anniversary tour this summer, but postponed it. At least there has been no shortage of reading material, including Keith Richards’s blockbuster memoir, “Life,” which renewed the band’s outlaw image even as it angered Jagger so much he refused to speak to his old bandmate for months.
Now comes the best of the three Jagger biographies, succinctly named “Mick Jagger’’ though it’s a sprawling 622-page opus. It is remarkably thorough but also at times quite snide toward Jagger. The author is Philip Norman, who has written biographies of Buddy Holly, John Lennon, Elton John, and, yes, the Stones (back in the ’80s). The level of detail — and revelations — dwarfs the amount found in the other recent Jagger books, by Marc Spitz and Christopher Andersen.
Admittedly this is an unauthorized biography, but Norman, a fellow Briton, first interviewed Jagger in 1965 and has an extensive list of contacts that makes this a must-read for Stones fans. It is sometimes floridly written but paints a more complete picture of Jagger than past attempts, one that better examines his music, business acumen, and spirituality (he used to meditate in a teepee in his record label’s office).
Jagger is depicted as a paradox. Norman calls him an “elusive butterfly” and implies he was a victim of the “Tyranny of Cool.” Yet he also limns a generous side less well known, notably buying a cottage for girlfriend Marianne Faithfull’s mother, being more supportive of Rolling Stones founder Brian Jones than has been alleged, and enlisting the Stones to play a benefit concert for victims of a Nicaragua earthquake (at the urging of his then-wife, Bianca). And he is said to be a good father overall. He had seven children with four mothers — and once denied paternity of a daughter, Karis, but later helped her out and attended her graduation from Yale University.
Perhaps the most surprising revelation involves the drug bust of Jagger and Richards at the latter’s Redlands estate in 1967. The snitch was California native David “Acid King David” Snyderman (who confessed to it years later). Norman adds that Snyderman did it in exchange for having drug charges against him dropped with the help of the FBI, which was cooperating with British authorities. He notes that FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover “hated” Jagger and wanted to be sure the Stones were denied visas to tour the United States.
Not surprisingly, Norman spends 400 pages on the ’60s, because that was the most memorable time for the Stones. He adds that it was a less tabloid-driven era, allowing Jagger & Co. to get away with more than in today’s 24/7 social media universe. Jagger’s “sexual predator” ways were often kept out of the press, as was the suicide attempt of early girlfriend Chrissie Shrimpton.
Jagger is treated roughly at times, but if anyone truly gets drubbed, it’s Richards. Norman likens him to a “Dickensian workhouse waif” and even suggests he made some things up in his memoir. It all makes for lively reading, of course, and Norman is as shocked as the rest of us that the Stones have survived, though he refers to them now as “just a few steps ahead of the taxidermist.” There’s no lack of provocative writing in this book, but it’s easily the best rock ’n’ roll biography of Jagger yet.Steve Morse was a longtime staff music critic at The Boston Globe and currently teaches an online course in rock history at Berklee College of Music. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.