Copyright © 1993 Davin Seay.All rights reserved.
The Star of Fame
Bill Wyman remembers. The golem-faced bassist for the Rolling Stones remembers everything: singles charted, gates tallied, groupies groped, rooms ransacked--the numbing minutiae of the whole superstar routine. For Bill Wyman, the rise of the Rolling Stones is measured in statistics and session sheets, itineraries and collected clippings.
One of the things Bill Wyman well remembers is the freezing London winter of 1962. Three teenagers had taken a flat together that dreary year, a trio of pasty layabouts pooling their poverty, playing the occasional pub date, and dreaming of nothing that could have prepared them for the eventual reality. Wyman can see their faces still, unseamed and eager.
Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brian Jones were calling themselves the Rollin' Stones. It seemed a dicey proposition to Wyman. After all, he was married and had a real job, clerking at Dupont's on Penge High Street, along with weekend gigs for his band, the Cliftons, playing youth clubs and church halls in Greenwich and Lower Sydenham for two quid a night. If not respectable, at least he was presentable and not given to hand-to-mouth living and bohemian excess.
But it was the music that brought him back--that collection of scratchy sides the roommates played over and over until something in Wyman's stolid soul rose up and rattled at the signifying moans of Jimmy Reed, Howlin' Wolf, and Elmore James. He took to hanging around the Edith Grove dive, soaking up the sounds and watching with an impassive stare.
He can still feel the chill of those frigid nights they sat round the kitchen table, bored and broke, with Muddy Waters muttering his Delta incantations on the hi-fit Someone would fry up the last of the potatoes, stolen fresh that morning from the corner store, and the smell of rancid fat would hang in the air on wreaths of stale cigarette smoke.
And it was on such a mildewed evening, just before Christmas 1962, that Judy had first peered into the future. Judy Credland was the druggist who lived downstairs from the boys' walk-up and who occasionally slipped them a jar of instant coffee and sometimes something more.
She fancied herself a palm reader. For a lark that night she took Mick's hand in her own and traced the lines etched in his palm. She stared and blinked and looked up. "You've got the Star of Fame," she whispered, as if she could really see the end from the beginning. "It's all there."
And Mick with a frightened flutter grabbed back his hand, while the others laughed and scrounged through the ashtray for serviceable butts.
The circumstances of Mick Jagger's birth and breeding suggest a life predestined to pedestrian unraveling. He was born on a Monday, July 26, 1943. On that date, half a world away, General Douglas MacArthur launched the long-awaited Allied offensive in the Pacific. The Eighth Army entered Palermo, and the Russians had gained the upper hand over Hitler's hordes at the Battle of Kursk. The outcome of World War II now seemed certain.
It was a sense of cautious optimism that found its way onto the hit parade. Earlier that year, Kay Kyser had rallied the troops with his rousing rendition of "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition," while springtime had bloomed a little brighter with Vaughn Monroe's poignant "When the Lights Go On Again (All Over the World)." By the summer of Mick's uneventful arrival, the number-one song in the free world was "As Time Goes By" intoned by Rudy Vallee.
Joe and Eva Jagger were a trim, tidy couple and from all outwardappearances, contentedly conventional. Basil Fanshawe "Joe" Jagger had married Eva Mary Scutts three years before in a modest ceremony followed by a reception at Coneybeare Hall in the town of Dartford. The couple had set up house among the precise semi-detached rows of Denver Street, just across from a laundry in Dartford, where orchards and fields had only recently been swallowed up in London's suburban sprawl. There were, in fact, still apple trees in the Jagger family's small, walled backyard. This was County Kent, "The Garden of England," a place now given over to the uniform unfolding of middle-class prosperity and the nation's desire for order.
A pinched and dour Northerner from the fens of Lancashire, Joe Jagger had a self-sufficiency that found expression in his careful grooming. Slight and wiry, balding and bantam-weight, he was a physical education instructor at a local secondary school, a scholar of athletics, in fact, and a pioneer of British basketball. His was a solid (grounding in that tenet) of empire-building--an unshakable faith in the benefit of sports. The crisp white shorts and deep knee bends, the whistle, clipboard, and frosty breath on a winter playing field--the little man embraced the beloved traditions and all their attendant rectitude.
It's an odd boy that doesn't like sports, so the old English expression goes. And young Michael Jagger was by no means an odd boy. The earliest photos show an earnest, robust child--happy, guileless, safe in the embrace of hearth and home. He wears gym clothes, at age eight, in a photo of the Dartford Grammar School basketball club, his body gangly, his head too large, his features unfinished. Traces of the face we know can be seen in the mouth and lips parted in that wide and winning smile.
Joe and Eva's memories of their firstborn are also locked in simpler times. "He could have been a great athlete," muses a wistful Joe. "He was excellent at basketball and cricket, but he didn't want to be tied down with all the practice. He rebelled against that kind of prestige." It's a telling turn of phrase, that precocious kicking at convention and its attendant rewards.
"Once," remembers Eva, "we were walking down the beach, when he knocked down every single sand castle we came across." She laughs, as much for remembering herself, the nervous young mother, as for the faded image of her firstborn.
"We called him Mike," says his brother, Chris Jagger, born four years later. "He hated the name Mick. I only used it when I was teasing him."
Taken together, the family memories make up a scant scrapbook faded by fond handling, casting back to a life captured in holiday postcards and washed-out snapshots. They are the recollections of people at a loss to explain the extraordinary events that soon overtook them.
Mick's own memories reflect the unperturbed indolence of a happy childhood. "My mum was very working-class," he allows, "my father bourgeois ... so I came from somewhere in between. Neither one or the other. I don't think I was a popular kid, but then I wasn't particularly unpopular. Truthfully, I can't remember too much about those days. I was just an ordinary, rebellious, studious, hardworking kid."
He was also a kid whose ambitions were evident from a very early age. Brother Chris recalls, "As far back as I can remember, he said the thing he wanted most was to be rich."
Beyond the emotional boundaries that bordered their lives, another story can be faintly traced. It is the story of a woman tightly bound by the strictures of class and status, of her uneasy alliance with a man of rigid habits, and most importantly, the story of their son, caught between the two of them.
The currents of Eva's life ran deeper than her husband's, back to Australia, where she was born and raised, finally coming to England as a teenager. She was "a lovely girl with real golden hair, a slim figure," recalls her friend and neighbor Elsa Smith, who remembers also, "the blue eyes that smile when she talks."
Elsa and Eva shared the same boyfriends until Eva met Joe and began a resolute quest for bourgeois respectability that would, she fervently hoped, erase the lower-class stigma of her Aussie roots. The Dartford house, with its pebbled walls and French windows opening to the garden where young Mike and Chris swung from the apple trees, was immaculate. Eva's reputation for fastidiousness was matched by Joe's stiff and unyielding regimens. Neighbors recall a yard laid out with cricket pitches, dumbbells, and other sporting accoutrements. Household order was maintained by a carefully administered system of punishment and reward. "I was brought up in a very protected environment," Mick has said, and it was an equilibrium he did nothing to upset.
"I always thought he was a bit of a mother's boy," recounts John Spinks, one of Mick's earliest playmates.
"He did everything he was told at home." Others recall mandatory daily exercise routines, push-ups, weight lifting, and laps around the garden before Joe allowed the youngster out to play.
It's not hard to imagine the family's subtle, mutually reinforced taboos against unseemly displays and emotional outbursts--precisely the extravagant expressions upon which Mick would later build his career.
"You have to remember that part of the hero image is making it from the bottom," Mick asserts. "It's more of a hang-up making it if you're from the bourgeoisie, because if you're from the bottom you've got nothing to lose." It seems likely that Mick found a kindred spirit in Eva, for whom British propriety had to be carefully emulated rather than simply learned. Everyone agrees she kept a spotless home, yet something of her unruly Australian roots did survive the tidy streets of Dartford and the tyrannical dictates of her husband, and she passed that something on to her son.
Eva was "fun," her friends would say, and "lively" and "well liked," and even her determination to find a place in the British class system speaks of a spirited woman. She was unwilling to accept the implied inferiority of her colonial upbringing and set about to keep up appearances.
What she imparted to her son in the language of mother and child was a hint of life's secret possibilities. "What he had that we didn't," recounts schoolmate Peter Keir, "was a wider view of things." "He gave the idea," recalls another chum, Robert Wallis, "that he'd sooner be somewhere else than with us, doing far more glamorous things." "You couldn't help being aware of Mick," agrees Ian Harris, one of his teachers at Dartford Grammar School, "because he seemed alive, where the other kids would just sink down in their chairs."
There's a curious contradiction that runs through accounts of Mick's early years, alternating imagery of robust insubordination and a cameleonlike ability to fade into the scenery. "He was an India rubber character, really," says John Spinks. "He could bend any way to stay out of trouble." "He was so deliberately insulting," Dr. Bennett, a teacher at Dartford Grammar School, recalls of a particular incident, "that I simply knocked him down." "Mike was already looking like a useful cricketeer," another teacher, Ken Llewellyn, recounts. "If I remember him at all, it's running in from the playground with both knees grazed and a great big smile on his face."
"I just couldn't take to games," says Mick himself. "All that running around for no real reason seemed a waste of time."
Revised recollections aside, the impression Joe and Eva's oldest boy left on his peers and superiors is fleeting and formless. Little Mike Jagger hardly cut a commanding figure as a scholar, an athlete, or even a fledgling reprobate. His infractions were minor, most often having to do with school dress codes. "He didn't wear anything really outrageous," classmate Peter Keir recounts, "just an exaggerated version of what was allowable."
The composite that emerges coheres only in the context of his family life--delicately balanced between the subconscious pull of his spirited mother with her sun-dazzled roots and the ceaseless, steadfast self-control of his father. It's a dynamic glimpsed between all the glib quotes and guarded interviews of his public life. It's a conflict that would express itself in Jagger's ever-nimble dance between passion and pragmatism. It's a paradox that would come to define the man, his music, and his impact on a generation.