We can all agree that there are rockstars, and then there are the Rolling Stones.
Who’d imagine that they’d be still at it with the priapic posturing, the sold-out stadium tours, and the tabloid headlines, seven decades later.
Then there is the music. The pop perfection of Gimme Shelter, Sympathy for the Devil and Angie, needs no elaboration, neither does their erudition of the blues, though few Stones singles have worried the charts since the late 70s. That is a long time ago, and yet, their 2005-2007 A Bigger Bang Tour was the highest grossing stadium tour of all time.
The mythology goes like this: when the Beatles split up, they created a vacancy. In 1969, whilst John Lennon mused that the Beatles were 'like students of philosophy on a gap year in India', the Stones stepped up, a bunch of yobbish delinquents; ‘black-hearted outlaws’, guilty of stirring up Satanic panic. Those lips, that hair, and of course the gyrating hips. As Lulu tells it, ‘I was slightly wary … it was scary ... exciting ... and scary.’
Of course the reality was not quite like that. Keith Richards likes to remind us that the Beatles were just as badly behaved as the Stones, they just had a manager who did a good job keeping it all hushed up.
As for Mick Jagger, the way he sees it, he wasn’t an ‘evil twink’, just a big show-off.
Their fame had blown up within a matter of months. No wonder it seemed like they had entered a Faustian pact. There was a price to pay, and wherever they went chaos followed. Throw in social change, civil unrest, and shed loads of LSD and something seismic happened. There were casualties. The price was high; the debt is yet to be settled. Keep flogging those tour tickets.
I’ll leave it up to the writer Lesley-Ann Jones to tell us more. In her latest book, The Stone Age: Sixty Years of the Rolling Stones, she explores the Stones story in forensic detail. Reputations are reassessed, first-hand accounts picked apart, difficult questions asked; none of it is salacious, which is quite a feat considering the subject-matter.
In our #metoo/trans rights/BLM era, even Mick has come to view his 1960s self through a ‘non-binary’ lens. ‘I’m masculine, feminine, and all those things,’ he is on record as saying.
If this is the case, how do we view what happened back then? The implication being that it is not as straight-forward as men using and abusing girls and women.
Marianne, Anita, Mouche, Mandy, et al, may disagree. They take centre stage in Jones’ book: ’the stories of the Stone’s women are relevant because of what they reveal about their men.’
We cannot underestimate how unflinching a position this is for a writer. There are broadsheet music journalists out there, men of course, who will not tackle these questions. They will not call out the Rolling Stones, for whatever reason.
When it comes to men, masculinity and rock n’ roll, is it possible to integrate reputations and behaviour? As Lesley-Ann Jones writes, 'we come not to damn them but to understand.' There is always a bigger story, there is always personal privation, and of course social context. And yet abuse is abuse, and that is why a skilled writer is needed to navigate the nuance without losing sight of the facts, and the difficult questions.
Full disclosure here, Lesley-Ann Jones and I are good friends. We have known each other for three decades. Back then, she was a Fleet Street columnist, and I’d just arrived in London to start a career in TV. Since then, she has written bestsellers about David Bowie, John Lennon, and Freddie Mercury, and recently, I’ve been fortunate enough, in my capacity as a clinical psychotherapist, to contribute some psychological insight into the lives of these music legends.
On this occasion, we turned a psychoanalytic lens on Brian Jones, the Rolling Stones’ co-founder who died in his swimming pool in 1969 at the age of 27. He was a tricky character, deeply flawed and adored. Charlie Watts said of his bandmate, ‘he was not very nice ... he upset people easily’. A copious amount of drugs was consumed; there was a lot of anger. Eventually, the Stones fired him. Of course, Brian’s story is one of unrecognised complex trauma. It’s all there in his eyes, under that heavy blonde fringe. The wounded inner child is close to the surface, and yes, his childhood story is certainly one factor.
The Stones were part of a generation that made pop music subjective, what they did was transgressive; it was modern. Society would never be the same again, and that legacy can never be taken away from them. The rest? It’s complicated.
Further reading: The Stone Age: Sixty Years Of The Rolling Stones - Lesley-Ann Jones