- - Thursday, May 17, 2012

Mick Jagger will close out this season of NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” as both host and, along with Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire, musical guest. He does so at a moment when his professional reputation is not exactly at its high-water mark.

His close relationship with producer Lorne Michaels; the fact that the television network’s parent company, NBCUniversal, owns much of the Rolling Stones’ back catalog; the simple convenience of keeping a residence in New York City in preparation for activity with the Stones next year — these factors, as much as if not more than his potential to attract viewers, converged to land Mr. Jagger the “SNL” gig.

Time spent away from the Stones always seems to do this to Mr. Jagger. Keith Richards says he implores his creative partner and foil of 50 years to “keep a low profile” between tours. Yet Mr. Jagger, an inveterate workaholic, insists on releasing commercial duds like 2001’s solo album “Goddess in the Doorway” and, most recently, a collective project called SuperHeavy.

With due allowance to the British music press’ storied sense of cheek, Mr. Jagger was brazenly snubbed by the influential New Musical Express, which omitted him from its list of the “50 most electrifying frontmen (and women)” of all time. More recently, the face of the Stones failed to crack the Top 10 of a “greatest frontmen” listeners poll conducted in March by British radio station Xfm, running behind the likes of the Killers’ Brandon Flowers.

Just about his only claim to contemporary cultural relevance was an accidental gift — Maroon 5’s hit single “Moves Like Jagger,” a tune that even Mr. Jagger admitted he got tired of hearing.

In contrast, the mystique of Mr. Richards is as potent as ever. The chainsmoking, skull-ring-sporting guitarist has become a rascally elder statesman. In addition, he’s become a sort of literary bon vivant, thanks to the best-selling success of his memoir “Life.” Longtime fans of the Stones couldn’t help noticing the effortlessness with which Mr. Richards made a splash in the movies, playing Johnny Depp’s father in a pair of “Pirates of the Caribbean” sequels, as compared with Mr. Jagger’s earnest, at times misbegotten (witness the 1992 turkey “Freejack”), attempts at crossover success over the years.

Is this seeming dichotomy — Mr. Richards the epitome of cool; Mr. Jagger the soulless careerist striver … actually fair? Look: I’m as loyal a Keef disciple as you’re likely to find. I maintain a YouTube channel, recently featured in Rolling Stone magazine, with Richards-related guitar tutorials. I know more about him than perhaps an otherwise well-adjusted adult should know about a perfect stranger.

But honesty compels me to mount a defense of Mr. Jagger. Whatever the scriveners at NME — itself a British dinosaur — think about him, Mr. Jagger will always stand as rock’s paradigmatic frontman in my book.

And he is not merely a “frontman.” Not by a long shot.

Mr. Jagger is hugely underrated as a songwriter in his own right. The catalog of Stones classics he wrote with little or no input from Mr. Richards — including “Brown Sugar,” “Sway,” “Moonlight Mile,” “Dead Flowers,” “Sister Morphine,” “Shine A Light,” almost the entirety of “Some Girls” and many more — is extensive and formidable.

As for the movie-mongering, Mr. Jagger actually has received decent notices for roles in films like “Bent” (1997) and “The Man From Elysian Fields” (2001). Sure, the SuperHeavy supergroup bombed commercially — but almost all music bombs commercially these days. I didn’t love it, but it was an intriguing failure.

I will take the admixture of flops and gems that Late Jagger yields over what I’m getting from Late Richards — which is not much of anything.

Say what you will about Mr. Jagger’s management of the Stones‘ legacy over the past 25 years — the ruthless branding, the shameless corporate tie-ins, the private shows for Pepsi executives, Texas billionaires and German bankers. I’m not a huge fan of it myself. But if Mr. Richards fancies himself the purist of the partnership, he seems awfully happy to ride sidecar in the Mick Machine, doesn’t he?

I get, too, why Mr. Richards doesn’t care for Mr. Jagger’s spotlight-seeking outside the Stones. But if such a thing is possible, Mr. Richards lately keeps a low profile within the Stones. For instance, he contributed barely any material to the band’s last studio effort, 2005’s “A Bigger Bang.” Similarly, the most recent Stones products — reissues of the classic LPs “Exile On Main Street” and “Some Girls” — have been piloted by Mr. Jagger. Producer Don Was served as audio curator while Mr. Jagger put finishing touches, including brand-new vocal tracks, on a passel of studio outtakes.

It was Mr. Jagger who — to the delight of hard-core Stones fans like me — tapped departed lead guitarist Mick Taylor to play on the stray “Exile” track “Plundered My Soul,” the first time he’d appeared on a Stones recording since 1981’s “Tattoo You.” When asked about this brief, low-profile reunion by Guitar World magazine in 2010, Mr. Richards dismissed it as a rumor. It’s possible he was affecting ignorance in order not to unduly stir excitement about the possibility of future contributions from Mr. Taylor. But my sense is that Mr. Richards honestly was not aware of the fact, so out of touch is he with Stones Inc.

After a brilliant productive run from 1986 through 1997, during which he recorded two solo albums as well as contributed roundly to four Stones albums, Mr. Richards has apparently dried up creatively. The traumatic fall from a tree while on holiday in Fiji in 2006 has certainly not helped. But the onset of the drought preceded the head injury. I could be wrong; for all I know, he writes regularly and chooses not to release the output. All I can go on is what’s publicly available.

I have a hunch that Mr. Richards is actually not much interested in writing rock songs anymore. If he had his druthers, he’d cut a figure similar to those of aging oddballs like Leonard Cohen and Tom Waits.

Instead of this, we get long periods of musical silence, punctuated by lots of unclassy sniping at Mr. Jagger.

It makes me sad to say this, but I fear it’s the truth.

Keith Richards isn’t the purist.

Lately, he’s more like a parasite.



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