x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Newsmaker: Mick Jagger

Mick Jagger's passion has kept The Rolling Stones together for five decades. As the band begins its world tour in the US today, Ben East finds that the almost 70-year-old singer still fills arenas with energy but remains as calculating as ever.

Mick Jagger by Kagan McLeod
Mick Jagger by Kagan McLeod

It was going to happen eventually. Mick Jagger had just played a warm-up show in Los Angeles for the new Rolling Stones tour, which begins in the city today. His schedule up to his 70th birthday in July would be punishing for a frontman half his age - by the summer he will have played 17 dates in North America, headlined the Glastonbury Festival for the first time and reprised the Stones' famous 1969 Hyde Park gigs in London. Twice. And for all the bullishness, for all the talk of unfinished business and living for the moment, the backstage pictures in America were hardly flattering. Jagger looked absolutely knackered.

In fact, it looked for all the world like the years of gigging, carousing, womanising, troublemaking and, well, entertaining had finally caught up with the louche, rubber-lipped frontman. Not that Jagger would ever countenance actually submitting to the vagaries of time, of course. This is the man who, though he could quite easily kick back, enjoy his love of cricket and catch up with his seven children from four mothers, can't quite give it all up.

Incredibly, the general consensus is that Jagger still "has it", too. While Bob Dylan's arena gigs are just about enjoyable - despite his reedy voice rather than because of it - and Paul McCartney's eagerness to please quickly becomes wearing, The Rolling Stones are still cool. The warm-up for their world tour this week was at a tiny LA nightclub more used to hosting small indie bands. The surprising revelation from their 50th anniversary shows in London late last year was that Mick Jagger wasn't fronting a pastiche of a once-great band after all. There was an energy and vitality in the performances which belied the fact that he was entitled, at his age, to use his free bus pass to get home.

Could he have imagined such a state of affairs when the first incarnation of The Rolling Stones made their debut at the Marquee Club in London in 1962? Bandmate Keith Richards certainly couldn't: "I didn't expect to last until 50 myself, let alone with the Stones," is his typically live-for-the-moment response on The Rolling Stones' own website. But with the Stones, there has always been the feeling that Jagger was the careerist, playing the long game.

"We modelled ourselves on lots of people who came before us, and I learned to sing from various blues artists and from Chuck Berry," he said on his website last year. It wasn't exactly a sensational revelation, but the use of the word "modelled" was interesting - suggesting a man who completely understood that there was success to be had in selling refracted blues and R&B to a white audience. In his foreword to The Rolling Stones 50, the coffee table book that celebrates their five decades, there's another telling line from Jagger. After Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts join the nascent band, he writes, "we began to take seriously the possibility of being a band that got paid for playing the kind of music that very few others in Britain liked to play."

"Got paid" being key. Jagger is well known for his financial acumen - he started out as a rather well turned out London School of Economics student before dropping out to concentrate on music. In one of many paradoxes that make up his life, he became the leader of 1960s counterculture, barking out bruised songs of rebellion and frustration such as (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy for the Devil. He once, quite seriously, described himself as an anarchist who didn't believe in private property. And yet, though Jagger pleaded that he was an ordinary "guy from suburbia who sings in this band", he was, as Christopher Sandford's excellent biography notes, happy to hobnob with Princess Margaret. He had a country estate by 1970, and accepted a knighthood in 2003.

Even his bad-boy image had a whiff of capitalist marketing about it: Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham encouraged the idea of the band as an "anti-Beatles", a bunch of lads who wouldn't so much as want to hold your hand as propose spending the night together. It's intriguing to note here that The Rolling Stones second single, I Wanna Be Your Man, was actually written by Lennon and McCartney - but Jagger's raucous delivery turned what would probably have been a quite twee ditty into a brooding, menacing and charged anthem.

And of course, there were the women. Only Marianne Faithfull and Jagger really know the truth behind the salacious rumours that characterised their relationship - although seeing as she and Jagger were caught up in a notorious drug bust in 1967 at Richards' country home, they probably can't remember, either. And Richards, too, found a certain amusement in detailing Jagger's dalliance with the former prime minister of Canada's wife, Margaret Trudeau, in his brilliant memoir, Life.

Jagger's real trick was to be all things to all people; both a street fighting man and a man of wealth and taste. Not that his bandmates particularly found it alluring; after a few too many drinks, Jagger once called Charlie Watts' hotel room in the middle of the night and asked him "Where's my drummer?", as if he was asking for table service. Unsurprisingly, Watts took exception. The legend is he got up, got dressed in a suit, found Jagger, and punched him square in the face. "Don't ever call me your drummer boy again," he said. "You're my singer".

There was a wild unpredictability surrounding Jagger's every move - and he loved it. Fiona MacCarthy, the award-winning biographer and historian, has suggested that Jagger was a 20th century Byron, and the comparison with the poet certainly bears scrutiny; the love affairs, the intimidating sexuality, the connections with aristocracy and, well, the talent.

There is one crucial difference, however. Byron was dead at 36. And while The Beatles had imploded by 1970, The Rolling Stones somehow kept it together, despite the rivalry between Jagger and Richards becoming ever more antagonistic. How this odd couple actually managed to stay together is a matter of much discussion, but one obvious conclusion is that they knew their brand had financial longevity. It helped, of course, that they were still capable of producing brilliant records.

Exile On Main Street from 1972 is widely regarded as their best album - despite being recorded in tax exile and Jagger becoming increasingly exasperated with Richards' recreational habits. By now Jagger had married Bianca De Macias and had two children. At the time, he said he wasn't that pleased with the record, and even 30 years later, when it had entered the canon of great rock albums, he maintained "it's really not good", and bemoaned its lack of hits. Naturally, his dislike for Exile On Main Street had nothing to do with its image as a record which reflected Richards' musical interests rather than his own.

And yet, somehow, Jagger manages to put such animosity to one side. Richards' autobiography not only reveals that he hasn't been to Mick Jagger's dressing room in 20 years and that the frontman had became "unbearable" by the start of the 1980s, it is also less than complimentary about Jagger's vital statistics. But Jagger has always turned a blind eye to such brickbats because he knows the value of The Rolling Stones. The huge, record-breaking world tours, featuring tickets which can set Stones fans back anything up to Dh5,700, have made him a multimillionaire. And though there are plenty of Rolling Stones biographies casting him as a bean-counting accountant constantly massaging his bank balance, they do Jagger a disservice. The reason people still like to spend weeks' worth of wages seeing him perform is that he's hardly a bank manager on stage.

Jagger, with his trademark moves and arrogant strut, essentially invented the idea of the swaggering frontman. The photographer Cecil Beaton once called him "beautiful and ugly, feminine and masculine ... a rare phenomenon", and though Jagger has always liked to control his own image, there's the sense he rather enjoys such descriptions. The famous, bright-red Rolling Stones logo, at once sensual and leering, is modelled on his own lips. "I started off thinking about what a performer meant when I was about 16," he told The Observer in 2011. "It's about keeping the audience enthused, keeping them involved."

So though the quality of new music has diminished - both in Jagger's solo career and as part of The Rolling Stones - it's his commitment to the image so carefully constructed in the 1960s that is still the wellspring from which they continue to draw. It helps, of course, that the 1960s line-up is still alive, and generally seeming to love what they do. But the reason those Dh5,700 tickets will be snapped up is because Stones fans can live vicariously through their ageing but seemingly timeless heroes. Even if he feels the effects just a little more these days, no one's quite got the moves like Jagger.

weekend@thenational.ae