Mick Jagger, By Phillip Norman

This epic life evokes a balance-reading tycoon – a canny survivor, never a street-fighting man

Among the big names signed up by America's magazines to cover the 1972 Rolling Stones tour was Truman Capote, waspish author of Breakfast at Tiffany's and In Cold Blood. A man equally at home with famous friends and scruffy associates, he should have got on well with Mick Jagger, the Dartford-born son of a PE teacher who, as the world's most notorious rock titan, dined with earls and princes. But they didn't hit it off.

Nonetheless, Capote joined the tour and, from his privileged position on the band's private plane and in the wings at 80,000-strong shows, loftily inspected the singer. He is, concluded Capote, "a scared little boy, very much off his turf… Mick has no talent save for a kind of fly-eyed wonder… He could, I suppose, be a businessman. He has that facility of being able to focus in on the receipts in the midst of 'Midnight Rambler' while he's beating away with that whip."

Poor Mick. He's 70 next July, and has five decades being adored and found wanting in equal measure. For 10 years, from 1962 to 1972, he rose to a stardom never before seen in showbiz: the posturing, narcissistic, androgynous rock star/ sex god/ dance king. Since 1973, he has mostly been regarded as a canny, tight-fisted franchise-manipulator, exploiting past glories.

Philip Norman, in this long but hugely readable biography, gives us both incarnations but is keen to confront received opinions. He reveals that young Mick, rather than a randy, rebellious extrovert, was shy and slow to show affection. He was fastidious (he hated being pushed in the mud during rugby) and good at staying out of trouble - a credit to his middle-class parents and their insistence on strict routine. But his report said he was "easily distracted". Norman gives us the distractions: a guitar, bought by his mother on a Spanish holiday; his first pop concert (Woolwich, 1958, Buddy Holly); a gold-flecked jacket; an early TV appearance (demonstrating tent erection). Bit by bit, the elements of the future star accrete.

Norman's earlier group biography, The Stones (1983), often gave the impression he disapproved of Jagger. In this new work, he radiates sympathy for the old devil. We learn that everyone thought young Mick was too ugly to succeed, that his voice was "too black" for the BBC, that Marianne Faithfull's first impression was "a cheeky little yob."

As he re-tells the highlights of the Sixties years -- the 1967 drugs bust, the death of Brian Jones, the conquest of America, the violence at Altamont – he always takes Mick's side. He offers a fresh perspective on Altamont Speedway, where Hell's Angels killed a young black man while Jagger sang "Under My Thumb". Norman explains that it was a dangerous event, with the stage crammed with Angels, and Jagger was brave to keep going before grabbing a helicopter out of the redneck Armageddon. Of the drugs bust he reveals that "Acid King" Dave Snyderman, the drug-dealer at the house, had been set up by MI5 to infiltrate the Stones's inner circle.

Mick's relations with women were more anguished than advertised: he wept over Chrissie Shrimpton; he and Marianne ceased sexual relations after six months; his marriage to Bianca Jagger was on the rocks inside a year. And though Mick entertained scores of interchangeable blondes at his Cheyne Walk love nest, he seems to have preferred a friendly bunk up with one of his female staff.

Norman is shrewd about Jagger's fascination with money. He emphasises his intellectual interest in the stuff. Andrew Loog Oldham's accountant's father-in-law was startled to be asked by the 20-year-old Mick what he thought the pound would be worth on the currency market in a few years' time. Jagger comes across as a cautious, diffident, old-fashioned Englishman with "an insatiable thirst for social status". Leaving a trail of broken hearts and suicide bids in his wake, he body-swerved trouble and forgot calamities. While band mates smoked, snorted, shot up and swallowed every drug available, Jagger practised moderation. "Even LSD gave up in despair after finding no inner demons".

The only force to which he was in thrall was the requirement to be a rock star. "I was a victim of cool, of the tyranny of hip," Jagger said. It made him abandon "kind, thoughtful, generous and chivalrous" impulsesand behave like a cad. After fathering a baby with Marsha Hunt, he responded to her request for a trust fund by making it a condition that she sign a document saying he wasn't the father. It's a shocking story of how rock divinity can't co-exist with human decency.

Norman offers some marvellous details of clashing cultures: Marianne, invited with Mick to a fancy dinner at Warwick Castle, taking five Mandrax as an hors d'oeuvre and falling asleep in the soup; Tom Driberg making overtures to see if Mick (aged 25) would consider standing for Parliament. He reveals that a favourite Jagger seduction line (usually employed in the back of a limo) was "Do you like waking up in the country or the city?"

Norman sometimes overdoes his special pleading. I lost track of the number of times a newcomer arrives on Planet Jagger expected to meet a snarling degenerate and instead encounters a charming, cricket-loving English gent. I also worried that Norman tends to see sex everywhere in the songs: "Satisfaction" is apparently "a hymn to masturbation" with the first-ever reference in a song to menstruation ("Baby, better come back, maybe next week") Hello? And he overdoes the Mars Bar gags.

But otherwise his book is a nicely sardonic history of the maddest decade in the last 100 years, and a fascinating study of an invented rebel who re-invented himself as a self-controlled conformist. Of all the pungent quotations, my favourite is from Keith Richards, mulling over the difference between him and his fellow Glimmer Twin: "Mick likes knowing what he's going to do tomorrow. Me, I'm just happy to wake up and see who's around. Mick's rock; I'm roll."

Mick Jagger By Philip Norman Harper Collins, £20 Order at a discount from the Independent Online Shop

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