The Rolling Stones’ Bigger Bang album included a song called Oh No, Not You Again. A lot of readers may join in on that refrain at the news that the Stones are back on the bookshelves with Jagger, another rehashing of grievances between a certain snake-hipped singer and a louche guitar man. Next year these two will hit their golden anniversary and be able to celebrate 50 years at each other’s throat.
When Keith Richards’ Life arrived last year, nice things were said about Richards, whose book said nasty things about Mick Jagger. Jagger has not struck back with his own side of the story. But Marc Spitz’s Jagger is an eager hagiography that takes aim at Richards while trumpeting Jagger’s overlooked fine qualities. Although Spitz calls himself a neutral party, Jagger is out to settle scores.
It begins with bait and switch. What if Mick Jagger is “a man whom we don’t really like anymore?” And “how did this guy remain a constant presence in popular culture for 50 years and not, for one instance in that half-century, seem like ... our pal?”
This line of questioning should not be taken seriously and is quickly revealed to be disingenuous. Spitz’s real intent is to tick off the main complaints that have been leveled against Jagger over the years, then to explain how wrongheaded they are. He credits Jagger with backhanded brilliance that has been missed and dissed.
Spitz used to write for Blender, a music magazine that stuck Jagger between Yanni and Yngwie Malmsteen on its list of all-time worst rock stars. So he is hardcore about musicians’ rivalries. In that spirit, he has used the Mick/Keith dichotomy as the basis for “a parlor game for my rock-snob friends and peers,” which poses the question of which Stone they would rather be. Most are suckers for Keith.
“But if you explore the facts and hear the stories beyond the public images, it’s Mick in a blink,” Spitz writes.
A blink? Not exactly. The reasoning in Jagger takes more strenuous acrobatics than that. Wasn’t it braver, this book asks, for Jagger to choose a rock ’n’ roll career than it was for Richards, who lacked other options? Jagger had to drop out of the London School of Economics, where the Latin motto is “Rerum cognoscere causas.” Spitz translates that as “to know the cause of things.” He further translates it to mean that Mick cared about serious economic studies, not about making money, though he has been accused of having mercenary motives and a dearth of philanthropic ones.
To his credit, Spitz knows enough about the Stones’ history to pick good shots and leave out the dull stuff. So this book has a full chapter about the T.A.M.I. Show, the mind-blowing 1964 concert film in which the Beach Boys, the Stones, Chuck Berry, Lesley Gore, the Supremes, Gerry and the Pacemakers and James Brown (among others) all turned up on the same stage. Spitz talks to Steve Binder, who directed the T.A.M.I. Show, and tackles the enduring impression that the Stones almost committed career suicide by following Brown, whose theatrics and fancy footwork on this occasion were arguably his very best. According to Binder, Brown, when told that the Stones had top billing, just smiled. Then he said, “Nobody follows James Brown.”
But the Stones had to do it. (They also had no choice.) And Spitz has an insightful take on this pivotal moment in Jagger’s career. He perfectly captures the rest of the band at that event: “Brian burned with hard charisma. Keith looked geeky. Charlie and Bill looked like gargoyles in training.” But Mick was transformed.