The Stones by Philip Norman - review by Richard Williams

Richard Williams

Regency Psychedelia

The Stones

By

Elm Tree Books 368pp £8.95
 

Ah, those fabulous Sixties! Who does not remember exactly what he was doing when he heard the one about Marianne Faithfull and the Mars bar?

Philip Norman gets it right: ‘Already, by some mysterious means, a rumour was travelling the length and breadth of England that, when the police entered Keith Richard’s sitting room, they had interrupted an orgy of cunnilingus in which Mick Jagger had been licking a Mars bar pushed into Marianne Faithfull’s vagina. The Mars bar was a detail of such sheer madness as to make the story believed, then and forever after. No one needed an explanation of the line that appeared on Private Eye magazine’s next front cover: “A Mars bar fills that gap”.’

I was in the middle of the Thames at Henley on that appropriately sunny, sultry day in late June, 1967, watching the regatta from the whitewashed wooden press box stuck on stilts over the stream. A man who seemed to me then to be a grizzled Fleet Street veteran – he was probably aged about thirty – broke off a conversation with his London office to relay to us, his colleagues, that juiciest of tit-bits from the inside story of the Rolling Stones’ biggest and best bust.

Henley seemed exactly the right place to be during such a time. Its combination of tradition and raffishness, of indolence and play, of gentlemen behaving like louts and vice versa, provided an exact reflection of the image then being presented by the Stones, who were deep into a Regency Psychedelic phase with their striped velvet jackets from Hung on You, their druggy debauchery in oak-beaked country houses, their blonde hounds and their Afghan girls. Norman’s detailed descriptions of the backstage areas at various open-air concerts given by the Rolling Stones remind me of nothing so much as the Stewards’ Enclosure on the Berkshire bank: the striped tea-tents, the potted plants and the flimsy frocks rooted in some sort of idealization of England as a garden party, a folk memory recreated by the Sones in sports arenas around the world.

In describing such cultural collisions and displacements, Norman is at his best: they provide the only convincing excuse, other than a commercial imperative, for his decision to follow up a best-selling biography of the Beatles with a similar job on the Stones. He is struck by the similarities between the careers of the two groups, and in particular how they came to make many of the same mistakes, but the strongest material in the new book is to do with that which differentiated the Stones from the Beatles: the evil and the ugliness to which the Stones were attracted and which they so thoughtfully enlarged, like a home movie transformed to Cinemascope, for a family audience.

Norman’s lapidary style, with its carefully cultivated tone of faux-naif astonishment, is particularly effective when he describes the circle of courtiers which embraced and encouraged Mick Jagger and Brian Jones at the moment when they tipped over into psychedelic indulgence. Robert Fraser, Donald Cammell and Christopher Gibbs were among those providing the Stones with the final veneer of demi-monde decadence; this is, to the best of my knowledge, the best retrospective description of that time, although nothing quite catches the flavour so well as Gibbs’s own shopping column from a contemporaneous edition of Men in Vogue, wherein he swept along through Chelsea from antique shop to boutique in a hallucinogenic haze of Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding and Bob Dylan, in the process creating a piece of rock criticism matched during the entire decade only by Nik Cohn.

Gibbs and Fraser are among Norman’s sources; so are Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg, neither of whom managed to marry their Stone (or, in Pallenberg’s case, Stones). One senses that Norman would like to have turned the book into a stately death-dance for Mick and Marianne, but the cold light cast on Jagger’s highly developed career and business acumen, coupled with the bathetic acquiescence of Faithfull’s descent, preclude both poetry and sympathy. Brian Jones, who did manage to die, seems hugely dislikeable; hard though he tries, Norman cannot persuade us that Jones’s musical talents were sufficient to excuse his social unacceptability, nor that the circumstances surrounding his death were so unnatural and mysterious as to require an exhumation of the details at this stage.

During the course of Shout, Norman achieved in his description of John Lennon ‘s childhood a startlingly vivid and moving account of growing up in the early 1950s: to read it was to taste gob-stoppers, to feel the texture of a page from an old ration book, to smell a freshly laundered aertex shirt. The author tries again, here, with Mick Jagger’s Dartford boyhood: the poetry eludes him, of course, because there is none within his subject. Mick Jagger is incapable of writing Strawberry Fields Forever or In My Life, although a Satisfaction or a Get Off Of My Cloud were within John Lennon’s compass.

Indeed, the subject occasionally draws the least satisfactory writing one has read from Norman’s pen. Of Jagger’s Cheyne Walk house, he writes: ‘from the ceiling hung a ball of multi-faceted mirror glass that could be made to turn slowly, drenching the walls and moulded cornices, and whatever figures lay below, in specks and spermatozoa of eerie, wriggling light’ – would one so describe the identical mirror ball at the Hammersmith Palais? What, too, of an inflation, wholly uncharacteristic, such as this: ‘The Rock star became a male mannequin, in flared yellow suit and white pumps, lolling back against his Latin beauty dressed for the nonce like Scarlett O’Hara, complete with parasol, amid the cosmetic glades of Biba’s roof garden. The photographer was Leni Riefenstahl, whose most notable previous assignment had been filming the Berlin Olympics for Adolf Hitler. Shake up the words how you will, they still spell Mick and Bianca and everything chic in London circa 1974.’

Can this be the author whose sensitive perception and fine touch brought so many portraits to life during the course of Shout? His temporary downfall should not really surprise us. Like so many others, from William Rees-Mogg to Marianne Faithfull, contact with the Rolling Stones has debased his own worth. Norman will recover, of course; his book is, as much as anything, a depressing gallery of those who did not.

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