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A Birthday Salute to Mick Jagger: 75 Years of Sympathy for the Devil

Why rock’s most elusive icon is also one of its funniest

25th May 1976:  Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger during a concert in 1976.  (Photo by Evening Standard/Getty Images)

Rob Sheffield delves into what makes Mick Jagger one of rock's greatest, most elusive icons.

Evening Standard/Getty

Let’s raise a birthday toast to Mick Jagger, who turns 75 today — over 50 years after he sang “The lines around my eyes are protected by a copyright law” on Aftermath. After all these years in the public eye, he remains the ultimate rock & roll trickster. He’s the most visible of rock stars, yet also one of the most mysterious and unfathomable — not to mention the funniest. He’s the most elusive of the Rolling Stones — anybody can tell right away what’s cool about Keith or Charlie or Woody, but Mick takes pride in keeping his secrets to himself. That’s a key reason why we obsess over him. “Pleased to meet you! Hope you’ve guessed my name!” he leers in one of the Stones’ most infamous classics, “Sympathy for the Devil,” and he’s never made that guessing game easy. Who could hang a name on him? He’s the “Jigsaw Puzzle” none of us will ever solve. Bless him for that.

Mick has spent his life writing genius songs full of intense emotion: heartbreaking songs like “No Expectations” or “Child of the Moon” or “Miss You,” hilariously bitchy songs like “Shattered” or “Who’s Driving Your Plane” or “Dead Flowers,” terrifying songs like “Sway” or “Play With Fire” or “Memo From Turner.” But he never gives himself away. In the legendary 1969 Madison Square Garden footage from Gimme Shelter, he slithers in his skintight black catsuit to announce, “I think I burst a button on me trousers — hope they don’t fall down. You don’t want my trousers to fall down, now do you?” The crowd screams in orgasmic frenzy. But he never lets his trousers fall down, just as he never lets any of his masks slip — even when he’s letting it bleed.

Obviously, Jagger has never been a recluse — you might have caught him on TV last week during the World Cup, grimacing through the France vs. Belgium game. He’s never toned down his flamboyant personal life either — he has an infant son younger than his great-granddaughter. His onstage energy remains a marvel — watching him wiggle and flounce and swivel onstage, you wonder if Lucifer was his Pilates instructor. But he’s never let the world peer inside the labyrinth of his soul. In his definitive 1995 “Jagger Remembers” interview for Rolling Stone with Jann S. Wenner, looking back on his life is this guy’s least favorite thing to do. “Yesterday’s papers are such bad news,” he sang in 1967 — before he’d even seen 25 years’ worth of yesterdays.

From the beginning, Mick had zero interest in faking the kind of sincerity other rockers aspired to. Instead, he was the master of disguise. Oh, that moment in “Beast of Burden” when Mick licks his lips and prances through the line “pretty pretty pretty pretty girrrrrls” — as if he knew that to do justice to all the yearning desire in that song, he had to transform himself into the prettiest girl on the planet. (Pretty pretty! Such a pretty! Prit-taaay prit-taaay girrrrrl!) He’s always been more Oscar Wilde than Howlin’ Wolf.

You can hear that lethal wit in a song like “Ride On, Baby,” which the Stones cut at the end of 1965: a Swinging London satire where Mick looks at the groovy mod scenesters around him and reads them all to pieces, over a swishy Brian Jones harpsichord groove. He sees groupies, models, speedfreaks (“The red ‘round your eyes says that you ain’t a child”), poseurs. The music is impossibly glam yet ominous, as Brian decorates it with marimba, autoharp, 12-string Rickenbacker fills. But then Mick moves in for the kill, cramming it all into one breath: “By the time you’re 30, gonna look 65/You won’t look pretty and your friends will have kissed you gooood-byyyye.” Everything about the moment is startling: the blasé way Mick drops the dreaded age of 30, the casual use of the future-perfect tense, but most of all the way he dances off into the distance by the time you take it in. He’s not sticking around to see how this story ends — the night is young and Mick’s got other parties to kill. Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed his name. He’s got no expectations to pass this way again.

That nasty streak is part of the allure of early Stones records like Aftermath and Flowers. Mick shares it with Lou Reed, one of the few fellow Sixties rockers he openly admired. “Even we were influenced by the Velvet Underground,” Mick told the NME in 1978. “I’ll tell you exactly what we pinched from him too. Y’know ‘Stray Cat Blues’? The whole sound and the way it’s paced, we pinched from the very first Velvet Underground album. Y’know, the sound on ‘Heroin.’ Honest to God, we did.”

That unsentimental edge is why Mick stayed slippery and nimble as other legends got stale. It’s also why he’s the one you can always count on to be funny. If he were nothing but a comedian, we’d still salute him today. His self-parodic shimmy with Peter Tosh in “(You Got to Walk and) Don’t Look Back.” His 1983 “Beast of Burden” video dance-off with Bette Midler. (Bette: “Just stay to hear me sing your song? I sing it better than anybody!” Mick: “Well, almost anybody.”) His “Dancing in the Streets” MTV throwdown with Bowie, one of the most bizarro moments in either man’s career. But he’s always in on the joke, which is how Mr. Love in Vain is so passionately in love with being vain. Which might be why Carly Simon asked Mick to sing back-up vocals on “You’re So Vain.” You hear him wail along with Carly — “I bet you think this song is about you! Don’t you! Don’t you!” — and realize Mick sings the way you can only sing if you sincerely believe every song is about you.

One of the greatest Mick moments is the Stones’ famous free concert in London’s Hyde Park in July 1969. It was supposed to be the big debut for their new guitarist Mick Taylor; tragically, Brian Jones, who they’d just fired, spoiled their plans by drowning in his pool. (Peak Brian: finding new ways to be a pain in the ass right to the end.) So they turned it into a Brian tribute, a hippie festival with security by the Hells Angels. (An idea that worked exactly once.)  Mick begins by reading a poem to the crowd — Shelley’s “Adonais,” his elegy for John Keats. He stands with his book in a frilly white-lace shirt. It could have been a ridiculous moment, yet he commits beautifully. It’s the last moment in his career — maybe his life — where he’s caught in public taking anyone else’s utopian ideals seriously. Then the show begins and you can see Mick shake himself free of the whole Sixties myth. (Another crazy detail about this performance: King Crimson opened, so in the film footage, you can spot Robert Fripp at the side of the stage gazing on Mick like a stern chaperone.)

I love so many Micks — young blues jester Mick (“The Spider and the Fly,” “Down Home Girl”), psychedelic wizard-hat Mick (“Dandelion,” “Citadel”), debauched sucking-in-the-Seventies Mick (“Rocks Off,” “Hand of Fate”). I have a special fondness for Eighties Sleaze Mick, in exquisitely disreputable Eighties albums like Emotional Rescue and Undercover, from “She’s So Cold” to “She Was Hot” (his answer to Bryan Ferry’s “Mother of Pearl”). Most of these identities are poses he left behind, just more shit he scraped off his shoes.

But if there’s an album that sums up his genius for me, it has to be Some Girls, from the summer of 1978.  (Why did they call it Some Girls? As Keith explained at the time, “We couldn’t remember their fucking names.”) It’s the most Mick of their albums — he wrote most of the music himself, because Keith was strung out on drugs, right before the Toronto bust that nearly killed the band. It’s their bitchiest, crassest, meanest and funniest — not to mention their all-time best seller. It was one of the first records I owned as a kid, blowing my boyhood mind one “shedoobie” at a time. In the ever-controversial title song, Mick does not play coy about the high cost of womanizing. He lays it out in detail: Sure, kid, you can chase this fantasy if you really want it, but it’ll cost you. And you probably can’t afford it, since you don’t happen to be Mick Jagger. “Some Girls” introduced me to exotic adult concepts like paternity suits, social diseases, divorce settlements. It’s a song nobody else could have written — or would dare to sing. But it’s all him. After all these years, Mick Jagger is still introducing himself, taunting us to figure him out. But none of us will ever truly guess his name.

In This Article: Mick Jagger, RSX, The Rolling Stones

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