Focus: Sympathy for the Old Devil

What's the attraction of Britain's most magnificent ruin? That he's still standing? Or that - on their night - the Rolling Stones are still the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world? The rock writer Charles Shaar Murray pays a birthday tribute

"You're a funny little fella," the gangster played by James Fox tells the reclusive rock star played by Mick Jagger in the 1968 movie Performance. "You'll look ridiculous when you're 40."

Forty? Yesterday, rock's great actor-manager Sir Michael Philip Jagger, formerly of Dartford, celebrated, if that is the correct term, his 60th birthday. And in December his former junior-school chum and life-long collaborator/sparring partner Keith Richards is also due to hit 60: mind you, Keith looks as if 60 has already hit back. The Rolling Stones, needless to say, are still touring, some 40-plus years after their inception as a bunch of spotty, gawky blues geeks led by a gifted, golden-haired waster named Brian Jones.

This is an unprecedented triumph, in one way. What other group of their vintage has been in more-or-less continuous operation for as long? Their nearest competitors, The Who, still embark on the occasional lucrative reunion tour, but they haven't made any new music since the early Eighties, whereas the Stones still release original albums and sell between four and six million copies of each one. Their marathon world tours regularly pack the planet's stadia to bursting point.

Yet Jagger seems to have spent most of his career plotting his escape from the Rolling Stones, and his artistic dependence on Keith Richards. In 1966, he was already announcing, "It's very unlikely that the Stones will still be going in 10 years' time. I've worked out that I'll be 50 in 1984 [he was 41, actually]. Horrible, isn't it? Halfway to a hundred. Ugh! I can see myself coming on stage in an invalid carriage with a stick. Then I turn around, wiggle my bottom at the audience and say something like, 'Here's an old song you might remember called Satisfaction!'"

Six years later, at 29, he insisted: "When I'm 33, I'll quit - I don't want to be a rock star all my life. I couldn't bear to be like Elvis Presley and sing in Las Vegas with all those housewives and old ladies coming in with their handbags. It's really sick." And when a 34-year-old Jagger was reminded in 1978 that he had claimed not to want to be singing Satisfaction in his forties, he snapped back: "No, I certainly won't." Again, when an interviewer suggested in 1985 that, "There can't really be a Rolling Stones when you're all 50," Jagger replied, "No I don't think so, either."

But there was. And there still is. Jagger's last serious attempt at a great escape came in the 1980s, when he concentrated his creative efforts on the recording of a solo album, She's The Boss, to the detriment of the then-current Stones album, Dirty Work. Richards fumed. "If he tours without the band, I'll slit his throat" - a threat Jagger faced down by doing exactly that.

After several years of duelling with solo albums (Keith got better reviews, Mick higher sales) Jagger appeared to become reconciled to his fate. The Stones roll on with Richards running the band and the LSE dropout-turned-singer running their awesomely com- plex business operation. In his spare time Jagger is a film producer (including the Second World War code-breaker thriller Enigma), a celebrity cricket fan, a serial philanderer whose affairs with stunning young actress/model/whatevers are routine gossip column fodder, and a family man, albeit one with a seriously extended family. Marsha Hunt gave Mick his first daughter, Karis, in 1970. The second, Jade, was born a year later to Bianca Jagger, shortly after they were married.

The marriage lasted until 1979, by which time he had already met Jerry Hall. They had four children before the annulment of their marriage in 1999: Elizabeth, 19, James, 17, Georgia, 11, and Gabriel, five. And four years ago the Brazilian model Luciana Giminez Morad gave birth to a son, Lucas.

So far only Jade has given Jagger grandchildren. Some of his children were expected to join him at a relatively quiet birthday party last night in Prague, where his first performance as a 60-year-old will take place with the Stones tonight.

He still cuts the odd solo album - the most recent, Goddess In The Doorway, came out in 2001 - but out of politeness everybody pretends not to notice. Jagger and Richards may have only marginal appeal as individual performers, but together - especially with Charlie Watts behind the drum kit - they are the Rolling Stones, elder statesmen of rock, and the world will obediently hand over its shekels whenever they show up on the doorstep. The question is: why?

On one level, the answer is obvious. The Forty Licks compilation provides about 30 variations on it: at their best, the Stones fully earned the title of Greatest Rock And Roll Band In The World. They may not have made a great single since 1981 ("Start Me Up") or an entirely impressive album since 1978 (Some Girls), but their myth (satanic stud Mick, stoned piratical "Human Riff" Keith) remains intact, as does their ability to incarnate a reasonable facsimile thereof during their increasingly complex and spectacular stadium shows. It's understandable that their old fans would come out and see them. Crises permitting, even Tony Blair - who famously used to treat audiences to bare-chested renditions of "Brown Sugar" as a student - might want to spend an evening recapturing lost youth in the company of the idol to whom he bunged a knighthood (once again provoking the Wrath of Keef, whose anti-establishment spirit still runs strong).

But isn't it somewhat embarrassing - demeaning, even - for the 60-year-old Jagger to be playing the teenage rebel, running around the stage like a hyperactive toddler, pouting and pointing, shaking his bony bum and going "Whooo! Aw-raht!"? Isn't it patently fraudulent for this man of many voices - "an interesting bunch of guys" Richards once called him - to still be impersonating an East End yobbo when he talks and a Mississippi Delta field hand when he sings? We know why the Stones are still doing it - every tour represents a mega-payday - but why on earth would people young enough to be Mick or Keef's grand-kids want to pay good money to see old men pretending to be teenagers?

You may as well ask why people still bother going to see the Sphinx or the Parthenon or the Colosseum. They are patently not what they were when they were built: totally unfitted for their original purpose and barely a shadow of their former selves. But on a certain heroic scale, even a shadow is enough. The Stones are a magnificent ruin, a battered monument, and audiences show up just to marvel at the fact that they're still here, and to pay their respects to past glories.

"I want to try to make this thing grow up - it's very important to prove that this isn't just teenage kids' shit and you should feel embarrassed when you're over 40 and still doing it," said Richards in 1988. "This is a job. It's a man's job, and it's a job for life. And if there's a sucker to ever prove it, I hope to be the sucker.'

Whether Jagger, and the Stones, have grown up or merely grown old is something audiences will flock to their British tour dates in order to find out. The great jazz and blues men the Stones admire so much kept going until they dropped, but then youthful rebelliousness and kinetic athleticism were never the calling cards of John Lee Hooker or Miles Davis. So in the meantime, Sir Jumpin' Jack Flash, the original hard day's knight, is limbering up for yet another show.

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