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The Man Who Killed Mick Jagger

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Corgi, London, 1979
(price: £1.25; 288 pages)

The blurb on the back:

'Ladies and gentlemen - The Rolling Stones!'
Ronald Harrington - graduate student misfit, social outcast, lost in the confusion of the California hip scene and trying every escape he knows to get free.
It is time to rebel, he thinks - but rebel against what? And now he knows, perched on a gantry high aboe the stage, poised to jump on the sleeky, sweaty body of the idol of his generation, the prancing, teasing symbol of everything that at once repulses and attracts him...

opening lines:
Yellow. Yellow signs. Big yellow letters stencilled on concrete walls, walls that seem to run on and on for hundreds of yards.

You’ve read the title and tag-line, you’ve seen the cover, and you’re rightly settling down in anticipation of a nice bit of pure trash. But hang on - what’s this? How did Johann Joachim Wincklemann, an 18th century German authority on classical art, get in here? Are we really looking at a book where people say to each other, ‘But surely you’ve read Neugebauer’s reply to Van den Haag?’ (p.220)

I exaggerate slightly. That’s only a small part of the novel. But you should be warned that the presentation is wildly misleading. Since the book was copyrighted by the author in 1977 and only published in 1979, I assume that he had some trouble placing it and settled for the trash presentation in order to get a deal.

What we’re looking at here is a clash between academia and popular culture in 1960s America. Our anti-hero is a lower-middle-class scholarship boy who falls under the spell of Nietzsche, and draws the inevitable conclusion that he is the Superman prophesied by the crazy old German, because he feels so different to everyone else. Well, of course he does. Everyone does. That’s the nature of human consciousness. The only people who don’t are those who remain unconscious. But in the case of Ronald Harrington, he is at least genuinely out of tune with his own times: while everyone else is falling under the spell of the Sixties, he’s sinking further and further into the rarefied world of Medieval art.

To be honest, it’s all a bit of a mess. Hares are set running and never chased down: episodes drift in and out with their significance never quite becoming clear, there’s a suggestion of pyromania that doesn’t reach maturation, and the relationships between Harrington and his family – particularly his elder brother – don’t get fully explored. Most importantly, the juxtaposition between his academic pursuits and the crass irresistibility of the Rolling Stones fails to gel. We start and end the book at a gig on the legendary 1969 US tour, but it sits uncomfortably with the structure of the rest of the novel.

Having said which, it keeps your interest, if only because you hope something’s going to happen that will make sense of all the disparate, disjointed elements. And there are some moments of great writing here. Here, for example, are the Stones playing some blues in the middle of their set:

Out pours nothing but pure moaning voice, soaring into the space over their heads in long, slow, stretched-out aching notes. Below, only the deeply satisfying strumming of a simple, slightly drunken blues beat; once a bar a soft drum tap from behind.
Nothing simpler or more formal in all music. Two short, stark lines; the same lines again; then a third. The accent pattern, even the subject and tone ~ the bittersweet cry of a poor man's loss - fixed for a hundred years. And yet within this cage of sound a twenty-six-year-old white British singer drives his pure, strange, whining sliding voice further than he has for the last ten songs, spreads to the uttermost his wildly mannered accents and emphases, making another nation's, another race's tradition uniquely his own, rolling free and far over the strumming, almost heartbreaking beat. And when the powerful, pure, hogcalling wail has wound and twisted its way in, too deeply in, when all is silent beyond silence, on the edge of pain, he stops, picks up his harmonica again in order to close off full circle this interlude of calm, this ice-still eye of the hurricane; and it was too much, the yearning heart's wail from a distant place, a far-off time. If one could have cried, one would have cried. (p.69)

That’s beautiful stuff that. And the whole description of the Stones on stage is better than any review I’ve ever read.

Mr Littlejohn was also the author of The Fate of the English Country House and The Ultimate Art: Essays Around and About Opera, which may give a more accurate indication of his tastes and interests than the cover suggestion here that his work is ‘savage, sensual, shocking’.


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