Mick Jagger: Our Most Underrated Songwriter?

I learned about George Harrison after a draft of this column went to the copy editors. Reading the many well-deserved tributes he’s getting now made me feel even more strongly the importance of paying tribute to artists while they’re still with us rather than waiting for death to provide a “peg.” It’s one of the things I’ve tried to do since I began The Edgy Enthusiast, and you can think of this Mick Jagger tribute in that light.

Recently I came upon a startling remark by Stephen Booth, a brilliant literary scholar who occupies a special place in my pantheon for his transformative edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets. (His Yale University Press commentary on the sonnets is an exhilarating exercise in polysemous pleasure–which is not as dirty as it sounds.)

Anyway, I’d been tracking down some of Mr. Booth’s other essays in places like Pacific Coast Philology when I came upon that remarkable opening line from one of his essays: “Shakespeare is, of course, our most underrated poet.” Shakespeare underrated ?

In a tongue-in-cheek kind of way, Mr. Booth is saying that all the millions and perhaps billions of words expended on Shakespeare’s poetry have still not come close to justly rating his immensity. So he’s underrated! In that spirit, I would like to argue that Mick Jagger is our most underrated songwriter. Despite the millions and millions of words expended on Mick Jagger’s rock-star persona, on the mansions and the babes and the paternity suits and the Tootsie Roll soaked in acid on the tour plane (or was that Led Zeppelin?), despite–or because of–the millions and millions of words about Mick Jagger the celebrity , no one has done justice to Mick Jagger as a writer . A writer of brilliant, soulful, soaring, incantatory anthems, hymns to broken hearts (“Memory Motel”), broken spirits (“Wild Horses”) and fragmentary hopes for redemption (the incomparable “Sweet Virginia”). And let’s not forget, at this particular moment, that he’s one of the rare rock songwriters who has addressed the question of evil and apocalypse (“Sympathy for the Devil,” “Gimme Shelter”) in a sophisticated way.

He’s more well-known for his “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” manic-exhibitionist stage persona, but he’s done some killer slow, aching ballads, such as “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” and “Angie” and “Time Waits for No One.”

He’s been doing it from the beginning of his songwriting career, with underappreciated slow-tempo numbers like “Blue Turns to Grey,” “The Singer Not the Song” and one of my all-time, all-time faves, “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back to Me).”

That’s the one where I think he first discovered the power of incantatory repetition that transforms simple love songs into soaring sonic prayers in the gutter religion of love. Sometimes it’s the despairing prayer of a Graham Greene whiskey priest, as in the almost completely overlooked “Till the Next Good Bye.” Sometimes it’s the bleak beauty, the spare Beckett-like eloquence of “No Expectations.” He’s got another potential classic in the anthemic “Wild Horses” mode on his new solo album, Goddess in the Doorway –a song called “Don’t Call Me Up.” But that’s not what prompted this column, or even my call to radio guru Jonathan Schwartz.

No, what prompted me to call Mr. Schwartz was the dispiriting news that I first read in Page Six, that Mick Jagger’s new solo album only sold a paltry 900 copies in its first week of release in the U.K.! This despite a prime-time network documentary (ABC’s Being Mick Jagger ) about his living the high life, hobnobbing with Prince Charles at the royal premiere of the film he’s just produced ( Enigma , starring Kate Winslet), and making music with the many children of his several wives.

I say “despite” the prime-time documentary, but maybe because of it–because, again, it played into the image that people have always used to underrate him, to write him off as a jet-setting celeb these days, rather than the serious artist he was and still is.

This jet-set stuff obscures the fact that Mick Jagger has written powerful songs that will last forever (the unbearably sad and beautiful “Memory Motel” will last as long as memory–or at least as long as motels).

But before I go any further, I think it’s important to say that when I say “Mick Jagger has written,” I mean the songs that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards have written. Most of them are written for Mr. Jagger’s voice , for his persona. But I have a feeling that the writing credit “Jagger/Richards” represents a real collaboration, whatever the division of labor may be.*

Actually, I’d love to know how Mick and Keith work together as a team. (My fantasy is to do one of those Paris Review “Writers at Work” interviews with them.)

But when I say Mick Jagger is our most underrated songwriter, I also believe he’s our most underrated voice. A voice–and a delivery–that deserves comparison, by this time, with Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Bob Dylan and Neil Young as one of the defining male voices of the century.

Yes: Jagger and Sinatra. That’s why I felt compelled to put in a call to my friend Jonathan Schwartz, an elegant advocate for Sinatra, Bennett, all those guys, but someone who also has a deep understanding of Dylan. I’ve had some of my most illuminating Dylan conversations with Jonathan, and yet I couldn’t recall any real conversation about the Stones.

Jonathan Schwartz, as I’m sure you know, is the gifted novelist, memoirist and host of two widely admired Saturday and Sunday afternoon music-and-meditative- monologue shows on WNYC. When I reached him, he told me he was about to send me news of an additional gig as on-air producer and programmer on a singer-songwriter channel of the new no-commercials satellite-radio service XM, where, he said, they allow him the freedom to play “deep tracks”– overlooked classics by his favorites, such as (in the order he reeled them off) Lena Horne, Count Basie, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett and that other guy he likes so much, Frank whatever.

I felt that Jonathan might be the one person who could redress the imbalance in Mick Jagger’s reputation, repair the underestimation of Mr. Jagger as a songwriter.

I was ready to say, “See here, Jonathan, you’re one of the few people who has the perspicuity to appreciate both that Frank guy and Bob Dylan. It’s time you did the same for Mick Jagger’s songs.”

But before I got two sentences into my prepared rant, Jonathan stopped me to say that, in fact, he has played Jagger on his mostly Sinatra and Tony Bennett show.

He told me how he segued recently from a conga riff at the end of “Sympathy for the Devil” into Mel Tormé’s “I Don’t Want to Cry Anymore” in a way that perfectly “married the two genres of music,” as he put it.

And then he cited several other Jagger songs he’d played, including some of those classic anthemic ballads that are my favorites as well, among them “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” “Wild Horses” and “Angie.”

I shouldn’t have been surprised at Jonathan’s discernment. We went on after that to consider the relationship between Jagger and Dylan as songwriters. Was Jagger, as Jonathan initially suggested, “a blue-collar Dylan”?

I put it differently: Mick Jagger’s audience might have been more authentically blue-collar, in the sense that Bob Dylan’s initial audience bought their blue work shirts at the Harvard Co-op, so to speak. But Mick Jagger’s songwriting was anything but blue-collar, even when–Jonathan had a point here–portraying blue-collar kids in “Satisfaction” and “Street Fighting Man.”

Mick Jagger, I argued, was more of an aesthete in the sense that his art–or part of his art–was not to call attention to his art. Not to call attention the way Dylan did, with over-the-top verbal pyrotechnics, at least until Dylan shifted into a new, more pared-down mode of songwriting with Blood on the Tracks –not necessarily better, perhaps, or as novel as the Highway 61-Blonde on Blonde Dylan, but very, well, Jaggeresque. (I await the sensitively written Ph.D. thesis comparing “Gimme Shelter” with “Shelter from the Storm.”)

Meanwhile, though, Mick Jagger–always a peacock on stage–was, in his ballads, more in the mode (or the pose) of the aristo-poet than the blue-collar rocker. At his unaffected best, Jagger can display flashes of the tossed-off brilliance of Byron.

But there’s something else about Jagger that defines him as a songwriter, defines him as a singer–something that doesn’t necessarily appear on a lyric sheet. It’s his beautiful use of incantation.

Incantation : a lovely word for a special kind of vocal recurrence, one that combines overtones of prayer, magic, spell casting, all that.

Incantation: It’s a kind of vocal voodoo that has almost completely overcome the genius of Van Morrison, so that sometimes you feel he’s only about incantation.

Ecstatic incantation: It’s what defines rock music against the “standards” given such knee-jerk reverence by young fogies and old. (Well, maybe that and the Little Richard-like, ecstatic ” Whooo-oooo! ” that made the Beatles the Beatles.)

But what made the Stones the Stones is Jagger’s jagged-edge incantation.

No one does more with the incantation of a first line–a focused incantation–than Jagger. It’s there in the beautiful, desperate, hopeless urgency of “Tell Me (You’re Comin’ Back to Me).” And in the way it’s not just “Wild Horses” but “Wild, wild horses.” And then there’s the amazing apocalyptic couplet that fades to infinity in “Gimme Shelter”:

War …it’s just a shot away, shot away, shot away

Love …it’s just a kiss away, kiss away, kiss away….

(By the way, has anyone ever compressed a deeper truth about human nature in two lines of a song?)

It’s not “You’re just a memory,” but “You’re just a memory, just a memory, just a memory” in “Memory Motel.” Each incantatory reiteration of “memory” conjuring up a very real ghost, rather than consigning the unquiet spirit to the memory hole–which is the ostensible declarative intent of the song.

So many Jagger/Richards songs deal with time (and, implicitly, memory), don’t they? “Time Is on My Side” (“Time, time, TIME / Is on my side … yes it is”), “Good Times, Bad Times,” “Out of Time,” “This Could Be the Last Time” ….

I’ve celebrated before the brilliant visionary metaphysics of “Time Waits for No One,” with Mick Taylor’s guitar somehow spilling out a vision of beauty and complexity that virtually translates Stephen Hawking’s theory of “imaginary time” into guitar runs. String theory!

Recently, I came across an extraordinary phrase in a poem by Robert Lowell:

We are all old-timers,

Each of us holds a locked razor.

I found it in the foreword of the fascinating book I’d just picked up, Gracefully Insane (by the Boston Globe writer Alex Beam). It’s about McLean’s, that remarkable institution right outside Boston where some of the best and brightest madmen and madwomen, from Lowell to Sylvia Plath to Susanna Kaysen, were resident–some recurrently, like Lowell.

In a section of “Waking in the Blue,” Lowell talks about waking up there and then glimpsing the “shaky future grow familiar” in those who were older and had been there longer–and more often. Thus:

We are all old-timers,

Each of us holds a locked razor .

For Lowell, the “locked razor” suggests mortality, insanity. In the songs of Mick Jagger, the “locked razor” is the heart, a ticking time bomb–the locked razor whose jagged edge scars when it opens.