greg baker/associated press
Mick Jagger is perhaps rock’s greatest frontman, but over the past few decades he’s played second fiddle to Rolling Stones colleague Keith Richards. Whereas Richards has been largely viewed as the backbone of the band, Jagger is often portrayed as being uncommitted to the group and to rock ’n’ roll in general.
That’s the type of popular opinion Marc Spitz attempts to challenge in his new biography-cum-critical analysis, “Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue.’’ More specifically, Spitz contends that the singer-songwriter has been wrongfully caricaturized as the Stones’ “lone miser and cynic.’’ This depiction, according to Spitz, has obscured Jagger’s influence and role in the band’s success and his contribution to the development of rock.
Not surprisingly, given that the number of books written about the Stones could topple a hefty bookcase, it might seem like an impossible task to say something new about Jagger. Yet, Spitz does an admirable, if sometimes strained, job coming up with fresh perspectives on the singer and his times. Rather than offering a comprehensive account of Jagger’s life, Spitz selects several key moments in his career to create a narrative that demonstrates that his history is every bit as compelling as the one portrayed by Richards in his recent autobiography, “Life.’’
Among other against-the-grain claims, Spitz argues that Jagger’s performance “matched’’ James Brown’s in the 1964 concert film “T.A.M.I. Show,’’ that he shouldn’t be singled out for the tragic Altamont concert at which one fan was stabbed to death by a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang who was working security for the group, and that he’s kept his revolutionary edge by “bringing the establishment’’ to him rather than railing against it. Elsewhere, Spitz says that Jagger’s calculated decision to enjoin screenings of Robert Frank’s documentary of the band’s 1972 tour helped mythologize the film (which goes by an unprintable title) and paved the way for modern viral culture.
More interestingly, Spitz makes a strong case that Jagger’s public image was largely shaped by the women in his life. Jagger’s girlfriend in the late 1960s, Marianne Faithfull, is credited with pushing him to stand out among his British Invasion peers by cultivating an image of himself as a “mod Lord Byron’’ who could still “talk trash with the boys.’’ Anita Pallenberg, who briefly dated the late Stones member Brian Jones before moving on to Richards, emerges in the work as a Dionysian muse whose decadence and fashion sense (the Stones “wore her clothes’’) influenced their dark, pansexual persona. Moreover, Jagger’s alleged fling with Pallenberg, and Richards’s subsequent liaison with Faithfull, fueled their often volatile relationship.
Even the usually vilified Bianca Jagger (Mick’s first wife) is credited for helping distinguish the band in the 1970s from their arena-rock counterparts, giving them “a celebrity sheen and an air of high society that mixed very nicely with their nitty-gritty, torn, and frayed image and created, essentially, a brand-new rock and roll aesthetic.’’
Some other attempts at new points of view, however, fall flat. Perhaps the book’s most questionable statement concerns Jagger’s attitude toward the past. “Mick is perhaps the least sentimental of rock stars,’’ Spitz writes, “and one gets the feeling that trafficking in nostalgia in any way is painful to his psyche.’’ While there’s a case to be made that Jagger’s embrace of musical trends helped keep the Stones relevant, it’s a stretch to suggest he’s retrophobic (indeed, this is the same singer who has enthusiastically performed “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’’ on almost every tour since 1965).
Ultimately, though, these and other blemishes don’t hinder the book’s chief project: giving Jagger his sympathetic due. Spitz says Jagger has fallen off the “the list of icons that each new generation feels compelled to explore and welcome as one of their own.’’ Spitz’s book should place him back on track for making that list.
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