Philip Norman (left) has written a life story of Mick Jagger (right)
Published: 13 September, 2012
by PIERS PLOWRIGHT
Philip Norman had wanted to call his biography of Mick Jagger – out next month – “Satan From Suburbia”, but it didn’t make the cut. Maybe his publishers feared exile to the Occult or Fantasy sections.
Actually it’s a very good description of Michael Philip Jagger’s transformation from nice middle-class Kent boy and LSE student to wild-eyed, pouty-lip, fallen angel, fronting Britain’s bad boys, The Rolling Stones. Advice from his manager, early in his career, did the trick: “If you pretend to be wicked, you’ll get rich.”
Mick Jagger is Norman’s ninth rock biography, after brilliant and often controversial treatments of – among others – The Beatles, Elton John, Buddy Holly, John Lennon (which led to a big, not-yet-healed rift with Yoko Ono) and, of course, The Stones.
This new book he describes as “a full-length portrait” of Mick the Lips after the earlier “charcoal sketches” and in some ways Jagger is the hardest rock star to get right. This is because he deliberately obliterates his history – “He pretends not to have a past”, as Norman puts it. Rather like Horace Skimpole in Dickens’ Bleak House, he skips away from any attempt to make him take moral or social responsibility for his life.
And, anyway, who is the real Mick Jagger? The strutting, snarling rock star? The man who got a quarter of a million people to listen in silence in Hyde Park to him reading Shelley’s “Adonais” in tribute to Brian Jones? The subtle lyricist of Sympathy for the Devil which Norman considers one of the epic pop singles to be ranked alongside Lennon and McCartney’s A Day in the Life, Dylan’s Tangled Up in Blue and The Beach Boys’ Good Vibrations? Or the social snob, revelling in his knighthood and invitations to aristocratic houses? All of these and more. Which makes him a fascinating subject for Philip Norman.
“Can you imagine the tedium,” he says on a rainy morning, looking out of the window of his Hampstead house, “of writing conventional rock theology: what hits when, changes in personnel, yet another tour, when this single went to No1 etc. etc?”
What interests Norman is the music and what it tells us about the people who make it. Getting behind the publicity machines to the real stories. He’s not afraid to stick his neck out in public and tells me a lovely story of disrupting a bland Barry White Q&A session with something like: “Mr White, let’s face it, your music runs the full range from A to B flat, what else can you do?” Afterwards, White came over to him, looming above the gadfly critic and rumbled, after a dangerous pause: “Really creative questions.”
Rock biographer was not Norman’s first career choice – “No job for a grown-up”, he calls it. In 1983 he was named one of the 20 Best Young British Novelists by the Sunday Times; his published journalism runs to three collections – early in his career he interviewed everybody from Richard Burton (via Colonel Gaddafi) to PG Wodehouse; and his hugely entertaining memoir Babycham Night is all about his childhood on the Isle of Wight, helping his unpredictable father run the Seagull Ballroom on Ryde Pier.
His latest novel, due out next year, is a love story called When You’re in Love with a Beautiful Woman.
“Nothing,” he says about it, “is what it seems”, which seems true too of his latest rock biog. “Expect some revelations,” he says at the front door. “Like who really betrayed Mick and Keith to the cops in 1967. It definitely wasn’t the News of the World”.
For the answer to this question and others, literary and musical, and to hear one of the most interesting observers of our times reflect on his own, come along to Burgh House next Thursday evening when Philip Norman will be talking to me in the Lifelines series.
• Piers Plowright is a former BBC producer
• Philip Norman is at Burgh House, New End Square, Hampstead, NW3, on Thursday, September 20, 7pm for 7.30pm. Tickets £12 or £10 for Friends of Burgh House. Stay for supper after for £18. Book online at www.burghhouse.org.uk or call 0207 431 0144
• Mick Jagger is published on October 4 by Harper Collins, £20