A pleasing picture comes to mind, of Mick Jagger in the late summer of his years, relaxing in the study of his palatial Richmond home, a rolling stone's throw away from the Railway Hotel where his career began 33 years ago, listening to his fumbling attempts at "Johnny B Goode" as he contemplates the long, weird journey that has taken him from Dartford schoolboy to icon of a generation.
But it is unlikely. Mick Jagger does not strike one as a sentimentalist, rather as a man who has spent the better part of the last few years trying to escape from his past rather tha dwelling on it.
"People have this obsession," he once said. "They want you to be like you were in 1969. They want you to, because otherwise their youth goes with you, you know. It's very selfish, but it's understandable."
Tonight, the Rolling Stones will be back on the British stage - in Sheffield for the first time in five years, in the latest stage of The Voodoo Lounge tour, which has been trundling around the world for almost a year. As is custom in the stratospheric echelons inhabited by the Stones, their appearances have been heralded less with hyperbole about the group's musical adventurousness than about the profits. Voodoo Lounge is said to eclipse all previous campaigns by Madonna, Michael Jackson and Pink Floyd. By the time the tour winds up in Germany next month, 6.5 million people will have seen the Stones perform. Gross takings of pounds 162.5m are predicted. Sales of merchandising are estimated to make pounds 200m more. The sponsors, Volkswagen, have chipped in a further pounds 6m for the privilege of hearing Jagger say at a Stockholm press conference that, actually, he drives a Mercedes.
Jagger has prepared for the rigours of touring in a manner which befits the modern rock star: circuit training, dance classes, Evian water and the attentions of his personal fitness instructor, a Norwegian named Torje, whose previous gigs include Crystal Palace FC and the Royal Ballet.
There is a scene in Donald Cammell's epochal 1970 film Performance where James Fox, in the role of an east London hoodlum, sizes up the rock star Turner, played by Jagger, and sneers, "You'll look funny when you're 40". But something extraordinary has happened. Gambolling effortlessly on stage, lean, athletic, exotically attired, in defiance of nature, Jagger just looks like he always did. Pushing 52, he is still the coolest guy on the block, utterly familiar, yet still curiously unknowable.
One of Mick Jagger's most enduring skills has been to reflect a different mood depending on whichever light is shining on him at the time. Cod- aristo, diamond geezer, committed artist, serious businessman - the accent warping effortlessly across continents and social classes - "a nice bunch of blokes", as Bill Wyman once had it. Nice, at least, when it suited him. Jagger has always been the most astute manipulator of the media, all things to all people, a whiff of scandal for the tabloids; something portentous for the heavies - leaving journalists believing they have been gifted with a particular intimacy. "We're not doing this for the Times," he said on one occasion I interviewed him, "so I can tell the truth." You wanted to believe it, but then again ...
AT FIRST there was nothing to distinguish Jagger from a thousand likely lads of his generation. The son of a PE instructor; LSE student; blues enthusiast blowing harmonica in a pub band. But Mick Jagger was always a quick learner, able to spot an opportunity and exploit it. From Andrew Loog Oldham - the Stones's first manager and British rock's first authentic Machiavelli - he learnt hype and hustle. Tony Calder, Loog Oldham's partner then and now, remembers the two forever "conspiring in corners. The ambition and the ruthlessness was so strong - y'know, how do we see off the Dave Clarke Five?". Eventually, says Calder, Jagger "just sucked Andrew dry. Every piece of flair and imagination that Andrew had, Mick took it and used it up".
He learnt from the soul singer James Brown, an early idol, whose moves he would study from the wings of the Apollo, and who uttered the words that would ring for decades in Jagger's memory: "I'm a businessman ..."
He learnt the powers of charm. Jagger, it seemed, could captivate anybody. William Rees-Mogg, as editor of the Times in 1967, defended Jagger, arrested for possession of cannabis, with the famous "Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel" editorial; Cecil Beaton rhapsodised over his "in-born elegance ... beautiful and ugly, feminine and masculine; a rare phenomenon". The late Labour MP Tom Driberg, perhaps enamoured as much of Jagger's lean and hungry physique as his mercurial intelligence, tried to lure him into politics, but Jagger was much too nimble for that.
How did the exemplar of what the viperish Albert Goldman once called "sado-homosexual-junkie-diabolic-nigger-evil" (now there's a compliment) turn into such a pillar of society, cultivating his art collection and his garden, interrupting the European leg of the tour to fly back to Britain to catch the last day of the England v West Indies Test match at Lords? It is easy to forget the figure of outrage - and influence - which Jagger cut in the Sixties, vilified by the Establishment, hounded by the press as a symbol of degeneracy. Jagger did not simply toy with sexuality; he seemed the very embodiment of sex - the animal athleticism, the voluptuous lips, the narcissism. He was a one-man moral revolution - although the right-wing American pedagogue Allan Bloom may have been over-egging the pudding when he singled out Jagger as being personally responsible for the decline of Western cultural values, an accolade that Jagger would surely cherish, if only for its absurdity.
He sashayed out of the Ad Lib and the Revolution, into the drawing-rooms of the Gettys, the Guinnesses and the Ormsby-Gores. Marianne Faithfull, his consort in the high days of the Sixties, would later claim in her autobiography that living with Jagger was like "living with a vampire. A hollow, voracious entity that constantly needed to replenish itself with things, people, ideas, souls" - a man who would rush to "attend events given by any silly thing with a title and a castle". By then, Jagger had become his own version of the aristocracy, "a man of wealth and taste", as he sang in "Sympathy for the Devil" (though the song was referring to Lucifer).
Jagger's flirtation with the powers of darkness culminated in 1969 on a bleak race track in northern California, at the Altamont festival, where a young black man was stabbed to death by Hells Angels as the Stones played "Sympathy for the Devil", and Jagger struggled in vain to control the forces he had, in part at least, unleashed.
It was the closest Jagger would come to losing his balance. The Rolling Stones would never be as dangerous again. The lifestyle became yet more sybaritic, the narcissism more pronounced (for who was Mick Jagger marrying when he tied the knot with Bianca if not himself?), but Jagger's instinct for self-preservation never lost its edge.
Casualties abounded: Brian Jones died; Keith Richards and Charlie Watts succumbed to heroin addiction; more marginal figures burned out or simply faded away. But whatever thin ice he may have skated on, Jagger always knew when to leave the party, his flawless poise intact.
In Jerry Hall, Jagger met his match: a woman whose abilities at social mountaineering exceed even his own. Having left the catwalk, Hall is more likely to be weekending at Badminton with the Marquess of Worcester or debating at the Oxford Union - as she did two years ago. Through a combination of flirtatiousness and public reprimand she appears to have curbed Jagger's restless sexual appetites. Asked about Hall, Jagger has described himself as "the most wonderful husband a woman can have".
But the most important relationship in Jagger's life has not been with either of his wives - or even his accountant - but with the Stones's guitarist, Keith Richards. The two have fallen out and fallen in again over the years like an old married couple. "Keef", the redoubtable old stager, reproaching Mick for his dilettantism and his infatuation with high society - what Keef calls "that jet-set shit". Away from the camaraderie of the road, they nowadays communicate mostly by fax.
The truth is that, while Richards has always been the keeper of the spirit of the band, it is Jagger who needs the Rolling Stones most. It is on stage with the Stones that Mick Jagger is most essentially himself, that his trick of suspending our disbelief that he should still be performing is at its most accomplished. The truth is that there is nobody as resonant, as compelling and as dangerous in rock music now as Mick Jagger was in his prime, and that even now he has the power to summon up the ghosts of the past and, momentarily, make them real.
Every time the Stones go on the road, the same question is asked: why do they keep on doing it? "Because there's a demand for it," Jagger said recently. "If the demand wasn't there, I'd go and do something else." What he would never say, because nobody would believe him, is that he does it because he was always the best, and because it may be only rock 'n' roll but he always loved it. And you can bet he still does.
Sunday Review, page 27