It’s been nearly five decades since The Rolling Stones helped upend the social order in England and America—so much so that Sir Mick Jagger’s easy acquiescence into the ruling class rankles a lot of feathers, not least among them Keith Richards’. But because the long hair, sullen attitude, frank sexuality, open drug use, and wanton flirtation with devilry that the Stones embodied have seeped so deeply into mass culture, it’s easy to forget precisely what a shocking figure Jagger once was—and that he was, at least for a time, a canny, powerful artist as well as a publicity lightning rod.
Former Spin staff writer Marc Spitz attempts to redress the balance with Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue. It’s more a critical examination of the singer’s life than a straight biography, though it offers plenty of year-to-year context, judiciously used secondary sources, and a number of interviews to thicken the base. The best of these comes from Carly Simon, who recounts the making of “You’re So Vain”—to which Jagger contributed an uncredited, unmistakable backing vocal—with a delicious anecdote about Jagger pushing Harry Nilsson (the planned backup singer) out by sheer vocal force. “Simon was so inspired by Mick’s contribution that she later rerecorded her lead vocals,” Spitz writes.
It says everything about the Stones’ fall from critical favor after 1972’s Exile On Main St. that “You’re So Vain,” from 1974, gets its own chapter, rather than the trio of albums the Stones made after Exile. Spitz is sharp on why, calling Goats Head Soup (1973), It’s Only Rock ’N’ Roll (1974), and Black And Blue (1976) “personality records […] They’re great because, like certain Jack Nicholson or Robert De Niro films, the root artist is appealing and the work of art marks a fascinating time in pop history, not because they contain, as with their late ’60s run, one killer song after another. They’re The Passenger or New York, New York, not Five Easy Pieces or Taxi Driver.”
Spitz’s worthwhile points are sometimes lazily set up: The above quote is preceded by “They were not, as widely accused, sucking in the ’70s”—Sucking In The Seventies being the Stones’ own term, from a 1981 compilation. (The book appears to have been loosely edited at best, with several phrases repeated in close proximity.) But Spitz’s analyses are felt and reasonable, not glib, even given a subject who is often just that.