Sympathy for the devil: Sir Mick at 70
Sir Mick Jagger has just turned 70. The Rolling Stones lead singer, more corporate icon that culturally relevant at this point, keeps bounding across elaborate stage sets across the world, despite his advanced age. Seems he’s just getting started. By RICHARD POPLAK.
Imagine the Rolling Stones had called it quits in the '80s. Imagine they never crafted the Steel Wheels monolith, and had never rolled across planet Earth crushing arenas and filling Swiss bank accounts in the process. Imagine they’d slipped into quiet retirement, spat out the odd venomous interview decrying the shite state of today’s music industry (sample headline: “Rap is bollocks,” says Mick, in rare public appearance). Image we were left alone with their output from the '60s and '70s, along with the archival material from one of the greatest ever runs in popular music. Imagine that when the Queen offered him a knighthood, Mick had raised himself from betwixt a glamour model’s breasts and intoned, “Liz can get fucked.”
I am not, of course, suggesting that the Stones’ legacy belonged to anyone other than the Stones, and that they were not perfectly within their rights to cash in mightily, and become part of an establishment they so perfectly rubbished during an earlier stage of their journey. All I’m asking you to do is imagine their legacy without all the latter clutter. Go on, imagine it.
There. Wouldn't it be nice?
Watch: Satisfaction (1964)
Instead, back here on Planet Capitalism, Mick and the Boys—those who have made it, at any rate—are now celebrating their jubilee year as a band, slashing through the umpteenth arena version of “(I can’t get no) Satisfaction” for crowds of largely deaf geriatrics who are too Alzheimer’s-ridden to remember the band in its glory days. The Stones brought the blues to Britain, and then turned nostalgia into a platinum-plated cultural product that was, it turned out, worth many billions of dollars.
“I don’t want to be a rock star forever,” Mick once said, “playing Las Vegas to old ladies.” Instead, those old ladies replace their grandchildren in the stands of cavernous sporting arenas, where the previous night Justin Bieber rocked the crowd. Mick has never seemed happy just being a rock star—hence all those awkward yet fascinating appearances in front of the camera in a host of filmic oddities—and so he turned into a mogul, reminding the world that it was in fact perfectly okay for onetime blues men to have the net worth of Western Africa.
“When we first started out,” Jagger once told Fortune, “there really wasn’t any money in rock ‘n roll. Obviously there was someone who made money, but it wasn’t the act. Even if you were very successful, you basically got paid nothing.”
Watch: Angie (1973)
It’s not properly accurate to say that the Stones changed all that, because it was Mick who became the driving force in altering the band’s destiny from counter-culture icons of the '60s and '70s, to mega-corporation Hoovering up dollar bills. In this, Mick Jagger helped transform the music business twice: first, he offered an alternative to the mop-topped Beatles and ushered in the possibility of punk. Second, he confirmed the fact that musicians could be business, and taught U2 and others that life, or at least massive wealth, begins when a rocker turns 40.
And so, Jagger’s remarkable life enters the home stretch. He has been, despite five decades of public life, an extremely private figure. He was once given a million pounds to pen his autobiography, but found the process “depressing” and gave the money back. He has bedded an astounding number of astoundingly beautiful women, but as Keith Richards pointed out in his superb Life, pussy was Jagger’s cocaine—an addiction that allowed him to ignore the vicissitudes of his own sexuality, and the nagging doubts that celebrity life had opened up in his psyche. He was far too smart to revel in the limelight like many a duller man has—he understood the power of fame, and understood its nature as a feedback loop. So he clammed up, gave away no private details that didn’t come out when he inevitably cheated on a wife or a lover and the bitterness spilled over into the real world.
Watch: Angie (1978)
Mick’s tell-all would chart the arc of an entire generation; it would tell the story of the Boomers, who began with so much promise, and ended up getting rich under Reagan and Thatcher, and subsequently screwing the world into penury. In many respects, Mick is the perfect avatar for this group. His long shaggy hair was once an affront; now it’s charmingly mutton dressed as lamb. His tight pants were once a sexually ambiguous come-on; now they’re just tight pants. So much has changed over the course of his career, and so many of those changes were wrought, at least in part, by Mick himself.
Several weeks ago, Mick & Company played the Glastonbury rock festival. They looked odd, and very, very old. That said, many of their heroes played music until late in life: Muddy Waters, Leadbelly, Howling Wolf. Elder statesmen, whose voices and attitudes and outlook changed with every ravaging year, and got better for it. But like the Boomers they are at every turn, on stage the Rolling Stones are pretending they haven’t been at it for fifty years. They are, as the saying goes, “turning back the clock”. Where is the sound of acquired wisdom in the current versions of their own, and others’, classics? Why can’t they just act their age?
Watch: Start me up (Glastonbury, 2013)
That would be a species of honesty, of forthrightness, that Mick Jagger is perhaps unable to display. The proto-mod has always been about the strut, the pose, the simper. He did not coo sweet truths into a microphone, but howl sweet lies. That he continues to do so at the age of 70 is a remarkable physical feat, but a disappointing cultural letdown. We need our elderly bluesman, not another aged CEO. We get what we deserve, I guess. DM
Photo: Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones performs on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury music festival at Worthy Farm in Somerset, June 29, 2013. REUTERS/Olivia Harris