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Pete Townshend on Mick Jagger and the Nature of Aging in Rock & Roll

A discourse on Mick Jagger's fortieth birthday

September 15, 1983
 Mick Jagger
Mick Jagger laughs with papparazzi photographers while leaving a London nightclub in 1983.
Tom Stoddart/Getty Images

Mick Jagger, Singer of the Rolling Stones, turned forty years old on July 26th. Apart from the fact that forty is a nice, round number, it also signifies the twentieth year of the Stones' career. Looking for a maxim suitable to open an article in which I would try hard to find some reason why these events should be of interest, I came across a Proverb (22:6) in the May issue of Awake: "Train a boy according to the way for him; even when he grows old he will not turn aside from it."

The Times is an appropriate place for me to be airing my thoughts on this moment in rock history. On June 30th, 1967, my group, the Who, took an advertisement in the Evening Standard to protest against the savage sentences meted out to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards for possession of drugs. We really thought we were going out on a limb, attracting the attention of the police and the press and probably opening ourselves up for similar busts. On the following day, however, the Times went one better. The editor himself, William Rees-Mogg, wrote an article – now legendary in rock-music circles – titled "Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel?" It demanded that Jagger be treated like any other young man, and that tolerance and equity, being a part of our traditional values of justice, were vital. I am pretty sure that without it, Jagger and Richards would have stayed in jail.

It's sad to say that with or without the editorial (or the Rolling Stones), drug abuse would still be a problem among young people today. The importance of our celebrities' behavior in private and public, and the responsibilities involved in reporting that behavior, are something I want to try to come to grips with here, having just waded through five or six biographies of debatable value. Jagger has lived for a long time as the spearhead of the rock business, examined and vilified, coveted and glorified. He has been paid well, and can certainly exercise power within society and among his friends. His charisma seems to have effected a peculiar unanimity of approach among his biographers: they have always concentrated on his wilder, glamorous attributes, even though his fortieth birthday sees him more mature, less mysterious, more affable and less self-indulgent. Because Jagger is a rock star, we are a little surprised by the idea that he might slow down and round out like everyone else in the world at middle age, but remember the proverb; there is no one to whom it can be more perfectly applied than Jagger. Back, then, to the biographies and press clippings; there must be something there that explains why it is so significant that Mick Jagger is forty years old.

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Matthew Evens, Chairman of Faber and Faber, says "he must be at least forty-two." That's how old Matthew is, and he was in Jagger's class at the London School of Economics. My wife remembers that at one of Mick's birthday parties in Chelsea several years ago, there was some doubt as to how old he was meant to be even then. Why does anyone care? Not only because Mick Jagger is a rock star (can they still act like adolescents when they are suffering from midlife crises?), but also because he is a celebrity.

I have known Jagger since 1963 or '64. Our relationship is fairly distant, and although we call ourselves friends, we are not in the traditional sense so. Mick is often described as lonely, but I don't think he is. One of the obstacles to the deepening of his older friendships is his constant movement. He was wriggling like an eel when I first laid eyes on him. Having heard all about this splendid animal from the girls at my art college, I saw him face to bum for the first time at St. Mary's Ballroom in Putney in the winter of 1963, where the Stones were doing a show and we, the Who, were their support.

Mick was doing the twist at the side of the stage. It was a satirical version of the dance: he was throwing his gangling arms from side to side, pursing his lips and making the girls around him laugh. His bum, such as it is, was thrust out like a baboon's. We all laughed. The curtains were closed; in front of them, the audience our band had unnecessarily tried to warm up was already screaming. Jagger knew everyone was watching, so he hammed it up a little bit more, getting his blood and adrenalin flowing for the show. Before the curtains even opened, he was at full tilt – a complete exhibitionist.

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