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

Mick JaggerMick 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.

Jagger once claimed, as I have done, that he had thought about becoming a journalist before he became a musician. I have the feeling that for once in my life I am getting to the post first. In most other respects, Jagger beat me to it. He heard rhythm & blues before I did, played it before I did, went to America before I did, got taken for a fool by Alan Klein before I did, met Robert Fraser before I did, tried LSD, DMT, cocaine, marijuana and so on before I did. He probably had a hundred groupies before I even poured one a polite drink back in the Holiday Inn. But I have stopped living for rock & roll before he has.

Living in Ealing in 1963, I occasionally used to see the Stones as they gathered near the Ealing Club to go off to Soho for rehearsals. They were staggering to look at, even to an art student like me who had seen lots of men with long hair and had even met a junkie or two.

When I first saw Jagger close up onstage at Putney, I thought I would never see anyone like him again. Yet these days, when I drive through London or any urban area, I see dozens of strikingly beautiful and dangerous-looking men and women, boys and girls. Hair cut dramatically or razored to the scalp; clothes brittle and improvised, changing daily in color and cut. Having once stood out so far from the crowd, I often wonder if Jagger will suffer (as Olivier is said to have suffered) if youthful beauty flees in late middle age. Will he remain a great charismatic singer and dancer, but have to make do without the pure shock-weapon of animal beauty? One of his friends said that Jagger’s beauty was its owner’s greatest joy.

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I spent so much of my youth wanting to look striking or beautiful that it was years before I realized that I was not exactly average looking and not exactly ugly. I know now, approaching forty myself, that the way a person looks is really not at all important, but when I am with Jagger, I do love to look at him. He is still very beautiful in my eyes; much has been said of his androgynous attraction, and I suppose my response to his physical presence confirms all that. Jagger is also such a charismatic person that he could easily make you forget his looks. I cannot forget, though, the way Jagger looked onstage at St. Mary’s Ballroom in Putney. A gangly young man doing the twist inspired me to commit myself completely to the rock & roll stage.

Wading through all the biographies about Jagger and the Stones, I get the feeling I am reading only what the biographers expected would be remembered. If, like Tony Sanchez, they are close enough to the band for their memories to be accurate, all they seem to be able to remember are scoring the drugs and being a “comfort” to neglected girlfriends. If, like Carey Schofield, they are too young to have had firsthand knowledge, they tend simply to read everyone else’s books and the collected press cuttings. What I want to say here in contrast is something fresh and vital, but not abusive of my relationship with Jagger.

The relationships between rock stars are peculiar. Jagger and David Bowie are two of the few people in the mainstream of rock to whom I can talk with the knowledge that they understand precisely what I mean when I talk about pressure, creative problems or irritations with the press. I am anxious, therefore, not to alienate Jagger. Nevertheless, there are a few secrets about him that I can make known. Forget the Mars bars and the French whores (mentioned as “rumors” in every biography and duly repeated here); what about all the insignificant but still really irritating habits he has? Like picking at the edges of Sellotape rolls until they just will not work? Or running his fingers around the tops of champagne glasses and making them ring piercingly? He is also a terrible name-dropper. Once, on the Concorde, he pointed out to me that Britt Ekland was traveling a few rows ahead without makeup. Jagger does have hundreds of small, worrying faults like these, but none of the incredibly beautiful women that fill his life seems to care.

Something else emphasized constantly in the biographies that I feel I have to dive-bomb is the way Jagger and, later, Keith Richards have been prepared to sacrifice anyone around them for success and control of the band. Aspects of this contention could be true: when Brian Jones was being edged out of the band, I remember how much he seemed to want my friendship; he was insecure and lonely. But in order to get Jagger’s and Richards’ so-called brutality into scale, I must repeat a story about my form master at grammar school.

In the last term (1960), I had taken to wearing my navy-blue blazer adorned with breakfast-cereal droppings and egg yolk. The headmaster had asked me to take a little more pride in my appearance: “For heaven’s sake, Townshend, couldn’t you just wipe a damp cloth over it every now and then? You look like you’ve been dropped into a dustbin.” My form master felt there was more to my lack of pride than met the eye. He took me aside one day. “Townshend,” he said meaningfully, “I know why you leave egg stains on your jacket, milk dribbles in the lap of your gray flannels and tea stains on your shirt. Shall I tell you why you do it?” He asked me in such a way that I had no choice but to request illumination, so I answered, “Yes, sir. Please do.” “Because, Townshend, it’s your perverted way of saying to the world, ‘Look at me – I’m dangerous!”‘ I was confused. “Dangerous, sir? Having egg yolk on my blazer?” “Yes, Townshend, you believe it makes you look dangerous.”

I really did not understand what he was saying, believing instead that he was being deeply ironic. The penny dropped when I told a friend of Edwardian inclinations about it, and he said that the master had told him the same thing – in his case, that he dressed like a Teddy boy because it made him look dangerous. In fact, he had taken every single boy in the class aside during that last term and told each one that he looked the way he did because he wanted to appear dangerous – even those who were very, very neat and conventional. We were all very impressed with our master’s perspicacity. We all were, of course, quite dangerous-looking; we knew that.

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Practically the whole of the Stones’ image is rooted in this rather boyish philosophy: that people will believe you are what you believe you appear to be. Some people close to the Stones say that Keith Richards is genuinely as he appears to be; bearing in mind some of the terrifying stories I could tell about him, that is a possibility. But is Mick Jagger really the ruthless, conniving, duplicitous, scheming, evil-touched, money-greedy, sex-mad, cowardly, vain, power-hungry swine his biographers and the newspaper hounds have made him out to be?

Do people who claim to know Jagger talk about him and expand on all these awful ideas about him because they really don’t feel their opinions or their treachery matter to him? Does no one feel close enough to him to keep his mouth shut? I, for example, have spilled all about Jagger’s disgusting habit of name-dropping at every opportunity – and there is a strong possibility that I am a very important friend to him. I don’t really think so, but it’s possible. People like Jagger need people like me: I may be a gossiping, back-biting sycophant, but at least I don’t interfere with the other sycophants. The truly sycophantic are not really dangerous. The dangerous ones are those “close friends” who become obsessed with protecting their famous buddies from the sycophants they see all around. They see their famous friends being exploited, given drugs and being seduced by beautiful women who really only want money. So, with only their famous compatriot’s good will in mind, they intercede, they advise and warn. When their well-meant good advice is ignored, they scuttle off to the nearest newspaper and tell all; in particular, how their own compassionate care was wasted and unrewarded.

So much for friends – but, incredibly, many journalists also feel they have a privileged relationship with Jagger. He is so courteous and gentlemanly that, even though he is well known for fielding any and every direct question he does not like, those interviewing him will feel they have set up a very real rapport and come close to the real man behind the image.

It is only the conceit of these pathetic individuals that prevents me from feeling totally sympathetic with them – after all, it is not so different believing oneself to be a close friend of Mick’s when in fact one is kept hanging on purely because one has some value to him of which one is unaware. How can someone believe himself to be Mick’s friend while choosing to make a living writing about him, buying his drugs, relieving his sexual desire, driving his car and answering his phone for him?

When you talk to someone at home, by the fire or in bed, you really do not imagine, even if you are Mick Jagger, that ten years later you will see that person’s rough idea of the way the conversation went, printed as though it were a verbatim transcription of a tape recording made at the time. Imagine the scene. You are Mick’s girlfriend, one of the few he really cared for. You have just made love. Mick says to you, “I love you.” You get out your pencil and scribble it down, just in case. I suppose everyone in the public eye goes through this. I regard it as humiliation, and because I know Mick, it hurts me too. It hurts me especially because no one ever bothers to show any interest in what I said to my girlfriend after we made love fifteen years ago. I have to spread my own malicious rumors about myself.

I only want to celebrate my friend’s fortieth birthday, to rally one and all to do the same. To avoid judging either his complexion or his waistline, his future or his past, his genius or his despotism, I want to ask everyone to turn away from the biographies and their serializations written by friends cast aside, journalists in newspaper-cuttings libraries and simple hacks on the make. Degas said that everyone has talent at twenty-five but the difficulty is having it at fifty. Mick will still be beautiful when he is fifty, still one of the original rock writers who discovered the new song form that embodied a width of human passion contained before only in poetry. His talent will be as strong at fifty as it is today at forty because his ambition is not dependent on his youth, his songwriting in the rock genre is not dependent on his own suffering, and his drive to be popular and loved is not dependent on his personal insecurity.

I believe that rock music is art, especially because it attempts to share passion rather than demonstrate stances. Everyone has his own definition of art, and mine is neatly contained in the song form that emerged in pop music during the early 1960s. At some point, I would enjoy taking up more of your time justifying my claim, but despite the fact that I believe Mick Jagger to be a significant and genuinely inspired artist who often creates great work, the whole precept would probably bore Jagger himself; so I will desist.

He sees himself as an entertainer, thus a servant of sorts. And yet it still serves us well to remember, on the fortieth birthday of this successful man, that William Rees-Mogg in 1967 entreated us “to ensure that Mr. Jagger is treated the same as anyone else, no better and no worse.”

So I shall invite him down to the pub, buy him a pint, talk about how well he always does his job, and never mention the old days again.

This story is from the September 15, 1983 issue of Rolling Stone.



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