There Ought to Be Fireworks
Jagger: Rebel, Rock Star, Rambler, Rogue
It’s like at the beginning of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11—that dismal moment recalled as an act of beautiful cinema emotionally checkmating us into feeling that Al Gore had been cheated in the 2000 election. Or “Fireworks,” the opening track of Drake’s Thank Me Later, his collaboration with Alicia Keys, little more than a moody disavowal of the über-materialism into which newfound wealth has positioned him.
Listening to Drake wouldn’t be bad right now: “Money just changed everything, I wonder how life without it would go.” “Fireworks” would play like exactly the right sequence of strange, sacrificial haikus placed at the altar of the monsters we become when the spotlights hit us. Absolutely the right mood to absorb Jagger, the book that reads more like a BOLO (“Be on the Lookout For”) notice for the Stones frontman than a hagiography. Jagger is a missing-persons report, a crime story trying vainly to track down a Jagger that refuses to be found.
But calming disquiet of Drake is not to be. I push in my earbuds to drown out the woman at the other table loudly agreeing with the chef that the salad isn’t as inferior as she first thought. I flip forward a few pages and the easy mystery of shuffle pushes Mogwai’s “Auto Rock” from the Miami Vice OST. One click and I skip ahead to the Chemical Brothers’ “Galvanize,” then another to Metallica’s “Whiskey in the Jar.” It’s only then that I settle in and begin to read earnestly. In a little under 24 hours the plane struck the North Tower 10 years ago, to the minute.
It’s hard to shake the feeling that Marc Spitz’s Jagger is deliberately engineered to downplay its most elegant feature: the secondhand charm of its Keith-Mick drama. Last year’s Life painted a (to be political) less-than-flattering picture of the Stones frontman, while simultaneously recapturing a vital sense of disengagement in the lead guitarist. It’s this sense of soft resistance against the inevitable (against age, against suffering, against economic collapse) that allows Bret Easton Ellis’s labeling of Richards as a “post-Empire geezer” to just feel right. Life brought a sense of healing, Keith Richards recast as a global shaman for the 21st century teaching us all how to endure.
There’s no doubt that Marc Spitz’s Jagger directly engages Life. Perhaps this is an attempt to distinguish itself. But what was the thinking behind allowing Vanity Fair’s music blogger the access required for a biography of this magnitude? Was it Spitz’s own decision to engage Life? Or was there pressure from Jagger’s people? Readers (myself included) are left with the strange sense of Spitz working as hired gun. The severe judgment of “hagiography” has been handed down by many, not least the New York Times.
But behind the hagiographic, there’s something deeper at play. There’s a genuine wrestling with the role of the journalist as observer. Are we still prepared to pay professionals for plying their trade and providing us access to distant stars, like Jagger? Or has a new world of social media made autobiography the natural weapon of choice? Richards’s own Life afforded the slightly-more-than-140 characters the rest of us get on Twitter.
Spitz’s choices with Jagger fall so appallingly short of the mark that it seems a de facto argument for Richards’s model: become famous, find a collaborator like James Fox, and then get to work on your memoirs. The model sits conveniently with the popular conception that the world’s only got one stage left and all the world’s players have been globalized into one monoculture. The Danish Refn directing the Canadian Gosling in the L.A. neo-noir movie Drive seems the perfect statement in this regard. There’s no one who’s not us anymore.
The real problem with Jagger, however, isn’t Jagger’s own post-national flavor. It isn’t even Spitz’s DIY airing of the misconceptions Life suggests about Jagger (it’s too seductive to be baited by the he-said-she-said of Spitz’s writing style in Jagger). The real problem is Jagger’s reducing of Jagger himself to the status of missing person.
Perhaps in some twisted way, Jagger’s greatest strength actually is its resorting to a he-said-she-said with Life. The gambit plays out like a sleight of hand, misdirecting us away from the book’s core weakness: the idea that the protean Mick Jagger simply refuses to be captured. But there’s a deeper problem at the heart of Jagger. It is the book’s failure to provide genuine access to a personality that has kept us enthralled for decades now. That secondhand charm of it all doesn’t only append to the ongoing bickering between Jagger and Richards, but wholly encompasses Jagger himself. How do you write about Jagger now, at the height of his achievement? And yet, when has it been easier to write about Jagger? If there’s a betrayal in Jagger, it’s a secret one. It’s that the cavalcade of facts Spitz marches like an army subtend to form the basis for a rational argument, and yet they fail to animate the decades of Jagger as Life did for Richards. There’s no sense of it having been Our Decades With Mick in the way that even 20-year-olds were claiming Our Decades With Keith.
It’s pure Shakespeare, the Julius Caesar of it all. Marc Spitz is Marcus Brutus’s rational argument in the Greek philosophical tradition, while Keith Richards is Mark Antony’s impassioned pleas for justice that eventually move the crowd.
But there’s a different game I end up playing with Jagger. The missing person-ism gets almost too much, and I retreat into Robert Frost’s “Death of the Hired Man.” Frost’s collection North of Boston is the last ethereal piece of Americana that doesn’t dip into being funereal. The last at least before Stephen King and Hunter S. Thompson. Published in 1915, North of Boston’s second poem is the one poem you can return to even if you don’t want to.
“Death of the Hired Man” is the story of an unsettling conversation between Warren and Mary, with Warren having just returned from market and the twilight setting in, about Silas the laborer, who’s just returned. On the face of it, Silas wants one more chance to redeem himself, to show that he can work out one full job. But Warren knows that Silas can’t be trusted. Silas has burnt his bridges with this homestead. He’s always been lured away in the middle of work by the promise of easy money. But Mary urges kindness; Silas is old and might be ill. He’s come back here for a reason. “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in,” Frost’s craft lies in the compassion with which Mary is able to turn Warren to her point of view. The poem ends with Warren heading out to the barn to welcome Silas home, despite arguing earlier for Silas’s bank-president brother to care for the possibly infirm Silas. But it is too late; Warren finds Silas has already died.
It’s just too hard not to lose track of Mick Jagger in Spitz’s Jagger. The facts take on an evidentiary quality that allows Jagger himself (or even the version of Jagger we grasp at through the media) to simply escape. We’re locked into reading missives of Spitz’s pursuit of Jagger. Mick as Billy the Kid, with readers trapped in Fort Sumner. The whole world as the scrublands of the Southwest. It was more engaging reading Barney Hoskyns’s Tom Waits bio Lowside of the Road. And Hoskyns had the problem of an uncooperative Waits.
It’s not that the facts themselves seem to build a wall around Jagger, preventing us from celebrating him in the way we could Richards. That’s only the secret betrayal. The super-secret betrayal is the squandered opportunity.
What if this had played out differently? What if Spitz had used Jagger to play to the strengths of the social media model? Frost began work on North of Boston the year Albert Einstein published his Nobel Prize–winning paper on the photoelectric effect. Yet Frost only published 10 years after, in the year Einstein finalized his thoughts on general relativity. And yet, how hard has it been for earlier generations to connect Einstein and Frost? What if, rather than focus tyrannically on Jagger himself, Spitz showed us a Jagger plugged into social shifts far beyond rock ’n’ roll. In an entire movie about bluesmen in Chicago (Cadillac Records), the one takeaway line is Mick Jagger appearing outside Chess Records, introducing himself to Muddy Waters: “We named ourselves for one of your songs, Mister Waters. We’re the Rolling Stones.” What if Marc Spitz wrote about Jagger the way David Harvey teaches Karl Marx: every day for 40 years, and now via podcast?
There ought to have been fireworks. The super-secret betrayal in Jagger isn’t that I’m cut off from Jagger himself (what can really be known about Jagger?) but that I’m cut off from the world he helped invent.
Shuffle throws up Mike Shinoda’s “Cigarettes,” a track from his solo work away from Linkin Park, Fort Minor’s Rising Tied.. It’s an agonizing contemplation of how we buy into the mythology rappers draw around themselves in much the same way we get suckered into the “cancer-free” of light cigarettes. “Cigarettes” is the first useful track in a while.
In just about 52 hours, I’ll dispense with the magic of shuffle and play in one sitting, from beginning to end, “Ten Years In,” episode #445 of This American Life. Ira Glass will say 9/11 happened to us, but the last 10 years we made for ourselves. The beauty of the thought rings out even now, as I write this piece weeks later. Glass captures our immaculate shift from the object-oriented trauma of 9/11/01 back to subjectivity.
Without knowing it, I’m desperately falling into that thought to be able to capture what Jagger should have been. And without that thought, I’m caught in the “North of Boston” of the situation. Jagger has delivered a broken-down and drunk Jagger to my barn, and I’m playing out both Warren and Mary. By the end of this, I’ll either be the Warren who finds the corpse, or the Mary who convinces him to.