While I was reading Christopher Andersen’s superb biography Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger, I kept thinking of a quotation from Walt Whitman: “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Mick Jagger is indeed large—a larger than life performer who has lived life on his own terms for half a century and counting.
And Mick does contain multitudes. More specifically, he contains within himself, within his creative genius, within his persona as a performer, oppositions that he does not wish to resolve. We can’t resolve them, either, so the line in “Sympathy for the Devil” that goes “what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game” is both ironic and accurate at the same time.
To take the obvious example, let’s consider his sex life. The general estimate is that he has slept with about 4,000 women over the last 50 years. That works out to about one new woman every five days, 52 weeks a year, for 50 years. He is probably the most famous beneficiary of the sexual revolution!
And yet Andersen quotes Mick as saying, “Everyone knows that everyone is bisexual.” Mick has also had numerous relationships with men—most obviously, with Keith Richards. Andersen quotes Jerry Hall, one of Mick’s ex-wives to the effect that, “Mick loves Keith, you know. They’re like a married couple.” But Andersen says that he also slept with Eric Clapton, Rudolf Nureyev, and numerous other men.
So is Mick straight or is he gay? This is Mick Jagger we’re talking about, so there is no either/or—there is only a both/and. It is essential to understand the “both/and” is the nature of his game. Throughout his astounding career he has come on stage and flaunted the juxtaposition of gay and straight. He has defied us to reject him, and he has defied us to simplify him. It turns out that we can’t do either, and what that means is that we can’t take our eyes off him when he’s on stage.
This is one reason why Mick is such a British performer—someone who could not possibly do what he does if he were American. Although plenty of gay British men, such as writer Oscar Wilde and computer pioneer Alan Turing, had their lives destroyed by British intolerance of homosexuality, within the arts community homosexuality (and, as in Mick’s case, bisexuality) is widely accepted. It is enough here to mention the Bloomsbury Circle of the '20s and '30s that included such well-known figures as Lytton Strachey and Virginia Woolf.
Mick thus has a lot in common with David Bowie, with whom he had an intense relationship. And of course some major performers in British rock and roll are gay; I have in mind not just Elton John, the obvious example, but also Boy George, and the late Freddy Mercury of Queen.
British society also gave Mick a coherent class structure within which to define his multitudes. The easy and obvious take on rock and roll, especially as the Stones have practiced it, is to say that it’s a form of rebellion. And surely Mick and Keith were engaging in some form of rebellion when in the early sixties they lived in an apartment of indescribable filth. After reading Andersen’s description of it, you wonder why they didn’t die of dysentery.
And yet, as always, there’s another side to Mick—the social climber. As Andersen forcefully puts it, “For essentially his entire adult life, this vocal enemy of the Establishment has also been cozy with England’s aristocracy.” Cozy is a polite word here, considering that Mick supposedly slept with Princess Margaret, the Queen’s sister. Still, as Keith himself acknowledges in his autobiography, there has been a two-sided flirtation between the Rolling Stones and British aristocracy. Nevertheless, when Mick accepted a knighthood in 2003, Keith was shocked and horrified. It may have been the only time when he had something in common with the Queen, who found an excuse not to attend the ceremony.
Although you would never know it to watch him on stage, there is a synergy between Mick the social climber and Mick the businessman, who made the money that fueled the social climb. A former head of Rolling Stones Records once commented, “He has a very, very shrewd business mind It’s impossible to overstate how clever he is in this regard.” It may be impossible to overstate how clever a businessman Mick is, but the fact that they made 1.7 billion dollars in one ten-year period speaks volumes.
When you make money like this in the British arts community—whether that means rock and roll, or fashion, or film--society gives you certain things to do, and certain ways to live. You buy a house in London, and another house in the country. Mick and Keith and the other Rolling Stones made these purchases, just as the Beatles did. Mick later bought a chateau in the Loire Valley of France, and a beach house in the Bahamas, among other things. Contrast these multiple real estate holdings with the very American rootlessness of Bob Dylan, who can afford to live anywhere, but chooses to live everywhere and nowhere.
But there is one American with whom Mick has a lot in common—Steve Jobs. Like Mick, Steve was a genius who famously wanted “to make a dent in the universe.” Thanks to Walter Isaacson’s biography, we now know that Jobs was not, to put it mildly, a nice man. He screamed and yelled and browbeat Apple employees until they turned products that came as close to perfection as anything an American corporation had ever put on the market.
It’s fair to say, then, that Mick is the Steve Jobs of rock and roll. For all his life he has been driven and calculating. He has always been ready to yell at people and fire them without regret when it was time to move on. And of course he’s seduced and abandoned all those thousands of women without a second thought. He’s mellowed, a little, in old age, but in the '60s and '70s his drive for fame never let him care much for people. Even the death of Brian Jones in 1967 had relatively little effect on him—considering the key role that Brian played in the formation of the Stones’ sound
And the beat goes on. The force of nature that we know as Mick Jagger goes on managing his multiple projects and multiple relationships, children, and grandchildren. Like Steve Jobs, he’s made a dent in the world of Western culture.