Would anyone who followed the world’s greatest rock and roll band in the 1960s and 1970s have predicted it would be celebrating its fiftieth anniversary this year, much less that its front man would by this point have become Sir Mick? Such events call for recognition, but the Rolling Stones and Mick Jagger are worthy of a better book than Christopher Andersen’s cut-and-paste biography.
As a kind of prologue, Anderson begins in 2003, when the singer/dancer/sex fiend/millionaire–the son of a hairdresser and a gym teacher–finally got the royal recognition he craved. (Prince Charles did the knighting, we are told, because Queen Elizabeth was not a fan.) Then he loops back to tell the story chronologically, starting with Mick’s earliest years and the fortuitous moment when he ran into his childhood friend Keith Richards at the Dartford train station in 1961. Mick, then studying at the London School of Economics, and Keith, who was at Sidcup Art College, discovered they liked the same American blues music and renewed their friendship.
The book follows the two men, especially Mick, through their decades of fame, drug busts, liaisons and disagreements, all the way beyond their most recent spat over comments about Jagger’s “tiny todger” in Richards’ 2010 memoir, Life. While Richards’s memoir did tell us much about their musical influences and approach to songs, Mick spends far more time on scandal than on analyzing why the pair’s music has endured.
Their longevity is remarkable: Geezer-in-chief Jagger, now a grandfather, still slithers across a stage with most of the moves he stole from James Brown, still belts out the songs onstage even if he needs a voice coach to keep him from getting laryngitis, and apparently has no plans to retire.
Sleeping with a lot of women is a worn trope in books like this; sleeping with plenty of famous men (perhaps including bandmate Brian Jones and manager Andrew Oldham, plus Eric Clapton, David Bowie, Rudolf Nureyev, and Andy Warhol) less so. Other can’t-look-away moments portray Mick as a penny-pincher (quarter tips for cabbies) despite holding a fortune pegged at $400 million, Mick the social climber, and Mick the businessman. But Anderson covered much of this territory earlier, in his 1993 biography Jagger Unauthorized.
What I found most interesting are the stories of Mick the parent, as his seven children (by four different mothers) grow into adulthood. One daughter, Lizzy is dating Sean Lennon (John and Yoko’s son), while another, Jade, has made him a grandfather twice. (Kidnappers once plotted to kidnap granddaughters Assisi and Amba, an episode described in this book.) Also notable are Andersen’s lengthy depictions of Jagger’s key loves, two of whom, former wife Jerry Hall and current companion L’Wren Scott, are American.
His essential mate, of course, is Keith Richards. Mick is not nearly as good a read as Richards’ Life–but then, Richards was helped greatly in that book’s compositionby a stylish collaborator, journalist James Fox. Taken together, Mick and Life make it clear that the greatness of the Rolling Stones relies on both men, despite their half-century of bickering. There is already a bookcase worth of writings and memoirs on the band. Nevertheless, Mick’s antics are outrageous enough to make this latest one compulsively readable, even though it offers little new information and the author had no access to the man himself. Empty calories? Sure. But, like chocolate, tasty.
Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger, by Christopher Andersen, 2012, 364 pages. ISBN: 978-1451661446. Gallery Books
This is a strange and fascinating collection of essays by the author of The Gospel Sound. The key chapter, “Aretha: How She Got Over,” makes the essential point that Franklin’s sensational voice merged gospel style with soul sexuality and changed pop music forever.
To begin, Heilbut, details the role of gay men in gospel music, including James Cleveland, the biggest star in gospel between 1960 and 1980, who collaborated with Aretha on the 1972 album Amazing Grace. Although gay men and lesbians were closeted for most of gospel’s development, Heilbut says he wrote this essay because “the church abandoned its responsibility toward gay men suffering from AIDS” and added the insult of homophobia.
Heilbut segues into his discussion of Aretha by reviewing the way she was steeped in gospel music as the daughter of Rev. C.L. Franklin, Detroit’s most important pastor. “Within black America, Reverend Franklin was royalty,” he writes. Aretha brought with her not just vocal genius but a deep understanding of the gospel and blues singers who came before her, blended with a love of entertainers from the jazz and pop realms such as Billie Holliday and Judy Garland.
My problem with Heilbut’s analysis of Aretha’s huge contribution is that he spends too much time on her tentative Columbia years and not enough on her classic early Atlantic albums, especially the transcendent I Never Loved a Man the Way I Loved You. Give him credit, though; he argues that Aretha’s brilliance led to the excess of melisma (“the gospel gargle”) in those who followed her –“all of those Whitneys and Mariahs”–not to mention a slew of American Idol contestants.. His conclusion: History will judge Aretha Franklin as “the Last Woman Standing, the most full-throated witness of her parent’s generation.”
What’s peculiar about this book is that the Aretha chapter is followed by two studies from left field, one about artists who fled Hitler, and the other about soap operas. He does return to music by discussing castrati (and falsetto singing) and what fandom entails. As much as I admire the breadth of Heilbut’s interests, I would have been thrilled if he had skipped these and instead offered more insights into the Queen of Soul and her acolytes.
The Fan Who Knew Too Much: Aretha Franklin, the Rise of the Soap Opera, Children of the Gospel Church, and Other Meditations by Anthony Heilbut. 2012. 354 pages. ISBN: 978-0-375-40080-3. Knopf
– Grace Lichtenstein