The night Mick fell into a plate of salmon
Lynn Barber reviews Old Gods Almost Dead by Stephen Davis
Oh dear, oh dear, why can't someone write a decent book about the Rolling Stones? Stanley Booth's The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones was good, but it was published in 1985; the two standard biographies of Jagger and Richards (by Christopher Anderson and Victor Bockris respectively) are no better than adequate and are now 10 years old.
Any hopes that Stephen Davis will bring the story up to date are dashed when you realise that on page 500, with only 60 pages to go, he has still not reached the Nineties. The recent upheavals in Jagger's love life are barely alluded to; there is no glimmer of his knighthood, or even his desire for one.
Despite its jacket promise (or threat?) that "the Rolling Stones story does have a pantheistic mythos", the book soon settles down into a nerd's compendium of tour dates and playlists and album tracks that feels as if it's been written in a library, a very long way from the real world.
Thus Davis can remark of Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg: "It is well known in the literature of sadomasochism that some women believe that to stay in an abusive relationship is to be strong." The "literature of sadomasochism", forsooth! Why doesn't he get out more?
And yet, surely, the story of the Stones is amazing, with all the drama of strong characters in constantly shifting alliances. Keith Richards says he and Mick were inseparable until their tax exile in the early Seventies:
"I started going my way - downhill to Dopesville - and Mick ascended to Jet Land. It got up my nose, his jet-set shit, and the flaunting of it. But then he's a lonely guy, too. He's got his own problems."
And, in fact, Jagger's socialising paid off - he was able to pull strings with Walter Annenberg, the American Ambassador, to get Richards an American visa in 1975 when Richards was deep into heroin. Richards had to go to a Swiss clinic to have hemodialysis so he could pass a blood test, but by then his visa was secure. I hope he gets a knighthood soon - after all, he did sing as a chorister at the Queen's coronation.
Recently, Charlie Watts amazed everyone by saying that he'd been a heroin addict, too, back in the mid-Eighties - long after everyone else had cleaned up. His addiction was shortlived, but it remains a strange pimple on his otherwise granite facade. Apparently, he had a great row with Jagger in 1984. Jagger - unusually drunk - called Watts's hotel room at 5am and bawled, "Izzat my drummer, then? Get yer arse down here right away!" Watts got up, shaved, put on his Savile Row suit, his Lobb shoes, went to Mick's room and, according to Keith, "dished him a left hook that knocked him into a plate of smoked salmon". Then he snarled "Don't ever call me 'your drummer' again," and returned to bed.
How have the Stones managed to remain, if not always alive, then at least ambulant for so long? Obviously, much of their success is down to their real dedication to music - especially Keith Richards's, but also Jagger's - and their ability to change and to absorb new influences: Richards's love affair with reggae, Watts's with jazz. When rock was out of fashion in the Eighties, they became a ballad group; when gigantism and corporate sponsorship ruled the world in the Nineties, they willingly sold out and gave us the Budweiser Voodoo Lounge Tour.
They are also astonishingly prolific - on tour in the Sixties, Jagger and Richards would sometimes write 12 songs in two weeks; in 1964, they recorded 50 tracks. Richards always worried about plagiarism, but it was Jagger who almost got them in trouble in 1997 when he cribbed kd lang's "Constant Craving" for the melody of "Anybody Seen My Baby". The CD was already pressed; the video already shot. Luckily, however, lang pronounced herself flattered and was happy to accept a co-writing credit - and, of course, a cheque.
Will they ever retire? Mick Jagger famously said in his youth that he hoped he wouldn't still be singing "Satisfaction" when he was 50. But they're embarking on a new tour this autumn (presumably the pretext for this book), which will still be going when Sir Mick turns 60 next July. Anyway, as he says, "It's my job. My vocation. No musician is beyond that, until he gets too old." Fair enough - if only his music didn't attract such truly awful writers.