- - Friday, October 19, 2012

By Philip Norman
Ecco/HarperCollins, $34.99, 640 pages, illustrated

Philip Norman is a longtime chronicler of Britain’s popular music, having written books on, among others, the Beatles, Elton John and the Rolling Stones. Now, in this lengthy but disappointingly insubstantial biography, he focuses on the Rolling Stones’ leading light. It is a pity that he shows neither particular insight into Mick Jagger’s personality nor an understanding of the popular culture that spawned his success. It is not particularly reassuring that he refers to South Africa’s Sharpeville Massacre as taking place in the Belgian Congo while discussing zeitgeist at the London School of Economics when Mr. Jagger studied there. More serious is his inability to get below the surface of his subject’s political stance, a problem that also goes for his facile discussions of the superstar’s sexuality, musicality and, well, one could go on and on.

What Mr. Norman takes for granted is Mr. Jagger’s accomplishment as a musician and as a cultural figure, although acknowledging his stubborn refusal to achieve his true potential. It does not seem to occur to him that not only fuddy-duddies considered Mr. Jagger’s contributions little more than savage roars. For if the Beatles showed early on a genuine connection with English folk music tradition, what can one link Mr. Jagger and the Rolling Stones to except unbridled sexual exhibitionism and enthusiasm for psychedelic drug taking? At times, this biographer’s attempts at apologia for Mick Jagger the man border on the ludicrous:

“While Mick certainly sampled most of what was available, moderation was his watchword, as in everything else except vanity; despite being around heavy drug users all the time, he never took a smidgen too much or lost an iota of self-control. Even LSD gave up in despair after finding no inner demons with which to unsettle him.”

What about the drug culture he promoted, the millions for whom he made taking psychedelic substances desirable and, above all, to use the catchword of that time and even now, “cool”? No wonder he was surrounded by druggies. And are we supposed to give him credit for resisting LSD when it devastated so many others?

Mr. Norman’s attitude toward Mr. Jagger as an icon may be summed up in these priceless words about the summer of 2002:

“Nor was the Stones’ fortieth Britain’s only significant anniversary that summer. It was fifty years since the Queen’s accession to the throne in addition to the expected round of royal visits and banquets, showing how immeasurably times had changed, there was a marathon pop concert on the grounds of Buckingham Palace the Stones could not join Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard, and Brian Wilson at this royal command rave-up as they were in Toronto, rehearsing for their “Licks” tour. But after the live concert was over and Buckingham Palace glimmered in a garish blue son et lumiere, what was its mega-volume overture that much-loved, unlovable voice in a sarcastically soft register, those prodigious lips remolding every syllable, ‘Ah cain’t get no-o Sat-isfack-shern.’ All the British parents who had fulminated about ‘obscenity’ back in 1965 little thought they were listening to an alternative National Anthem.”

Really? The biographer mentions that Mr. Jagger had just been knighted for services to music in the Queen’s Jubilee birthday honors and correctly says that it was actually compiled by Tony Blair’s government.

Yet it has been reported that the queen balked at actually dubbing Mr. Jagger as Sir Michael. In her decades on the throne, Queen Elizabeth has had to perform many an act that she found unsavory. After all, she had to suffer having the Ceausescus as her Buckingham Palace house guests because they demanded a state visit as the price for a lucrative export contract her government deemed vital. But apparently, laying sword on Mr. Jagger’s shoulders and shaking his hand even with her gloves on was a bridge too far for even this hardened professional to cross: She let her eldest son do the “honors.”

Mr. Jagger earned his knighthood, as have many before and since, by earning lots of money for his country, despite his efforts at minimizing his own income taxes. But I suspect there are a few of Her Majesty’s subjects who share her distaste for this particular phenomenon of her reign.

• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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