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Review: The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years

books Updated: May 11, 2012 19:22 IST

Indrajit Hazra, Hindustan Times
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The Rolling Stones: Fifty Years

Christopher Sandford

Simon & Schuster

Rs. 599 n pp 497

There’s a languorous Rolling Stones song, ‘The Spider and the Fly’, that came out in 1965 as the B-side of the more famous single, ‘Satisfaction’. In this proto-slacker blues track, a 22-year-old Mick Jagger can be heard drawling out, “She was common/ flirty/ she looked about thirty/ I would have put her away/ but I was on my own”.

A studio ‘reworking’ of the song went into their 1995 live album Stripped, with one notable alteration: the 52-year-old Jagger updates the age of the lady in the track from 30 to 50.

Every time I hear this version, I can’t help but think that technically, 30 years since the original song came out, the woman’s age should have been bumped up to 60. But then, I realise that it would be downright crazy for the Stones to update the woman’s age to 67 if they performed ‘The Spider and the Fly’ now in 2012.

But following and enjoying the Rolling Stones in their ‘first 50 years of existence’ can’t be a chartered accountant’s game — even if the tag of ‘The Greatest Rock’n’Roll Band in the World’ sits on their shoulders much more ironically these days than it did in the 70s. And even if it’s the more ‘reliable’ Fortune magazine that hails the Stones as the “Plutonian offshore business empire” which has recently proved itself more financially durable than some of the world’s longest-established consumer brands.

Since July 12, 1962, when ‘Mick Jagger and the Rollin’ Stones’ first confronted an audience in a 50-minute show at the Marquee Club on 165 Oxford Street, London, the Stones have shuffled in, swaggered through, pillaged and held on like a species passing through geological eras. If their persona and music provided the antidote to the Beatles, the counterpoint of ‘Would you let your daughter go out with a Rolling Stone?’ to ‘I want hold your hand’, then the artist Peter Blake, who designed the iconic album cover of the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was also spot on in 1963 when he predicted that “by the year 2000, the Rolling Stones will seem to have been as cuddly as teddy bears”. It took far less time for the gnashers to turn into franchise material stuffed toys for paunchy babyboomers and their offsprings.

The biggest challenge to write a book like this is that the story isn’t over. Sandford’s other noteworthy biography, that of Kurt Cobain, was published a year after the musician’s death. When Philip Norman wrote The Stones in 1984, there was a far clearer marker: the band had come to the brink of breaking up in July 1982 because of serious spats between Richards and Jagger and was barely alive. There have been other books that picked up the tempo after the band ‘reformed’ in February 1989. But these were really updates.

Frankly, this book is an update too. But where the author scores is what he chooses to play up and skim over using his impressive narrative skill. We are told about the moment of “the raw, autumnal morning of 17 October [1961]” on Dartford station in a rather ‘over-the-top-but-so-what?’ way: “As Jagger peered down the curve of Platform 2, that particular option [of the lad going into a career of music] seemed singularly improbable. A moment later it became inevitable. Emerging out of the depths of the fog was Keith Richards, lugging his guitar.”

Other bits and bobs of the mythology are covered with equal cinematic skill by Sandford; the death of Brian Jones, the Stone who actually formed the band and gave it its name from a Muddy Waters song; the drugs; the drug busts; the girlfriends; the girls; the run-ins with the law; the Punch-and-Judy Keith-and-Mick quarrels; the music; the performances. There is much that Sandford picks and pastes here from Satisfaction, his 2003 biography of Keith Richards (including the epigraph from Robert Browning’s ‘Saul’ at the beginning of the book: “God’s in the stars, the stone, the flesh, the soul, and the clod”). So how do the Stones, in their status as Living Dead grandees, come off when it comes to a 2012 biography?

The early years of the 60s and the 70s come as confirmation for the Stones fan. The 80s-onwards, the Stones story turns into one of tenacity and grit. There’s a mention of the 2003 concert in Bangalore. But neither Sandford nor his source was clearly there as he writes that “the audience was seated in an open courtyard on granite benches covered with fluorescent blue tiles, and a marble staircase decorated by stained-glass windows ran up the side of the auditorium”. It’s a strange way to describe the Bangalore Palace Grounds, where only a small poncy VIP ‘crowd’ was seated next to the likes of Vijay Mallya, while the rest of us were standing and co-rioting to ‘Gimme Shelter’.

Fifty Years: The Rolling Stones is not in the league of Keith Richards’ ravishing memoir Life, in which we read about the music and the genius of the band. It doesn’t have the freshness of Norman’s earlier biography. But still, as a gateway to the long, rambling, funny as well as vicious universe of the Rolling Stones, Sandford’s book does more than well to retread well-trod ground. Till another 10 years, this book should do the job.