Are you a Mick or a Keith?

In July, Mick Jagger celebrated his 80th birthday with a party in a Chelsea nightclub. His musical partner, Keith Richards — who turns 80 on December 18 — did not attend, but Instagrammed Mick: “Have another good ’un; and give me a call — let me know what it’s like.”

Now as a longtime Stones watcher, I doubt that call took place. Being 80 doesn’t strike me as a subject Mick would relish discussing, and the two haven’t been close in decades, except physically for professional purposes — as last week, when they held a press conference announcing the forthcoming release of Hackney Diamonds, their first album of new material in nearly 20 years.

In his autobiography, Life, Keith said that, even though they were no longer friends because of “too much wear and tear” (a very Stonesy phrase, incidentally), the two were nonetheless “the closest of brothers”. But Mick isn’t so sure about that. “I actually have a brother . . . It’s not like being with Keith at all.”

Two men drinking beer
Mick and Keith share a beer during the ‘Let It Bleed’ sessions in Los Angeles, 1969 © Robert Altman/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Backstage at an open-air Stones gig in Belgium in the mid-1990s, I observed the froideur. The Stones filed out of their marquee-dressing room to walk towards a Portakabin for a “meet ’n’ greet” with some local VIPs. On the way out and back, the Stones chatted in every possible permutation, except that Mick did not talk to Keith.

When I shared this insight with a member of the group’s entourage, he was surprisingly forthcoming: “Andrew,” he said, “you were probably great mates at school with people you now no longer see. You just grew apart. It’s like that with Mick and Keith, except of course, they’re both in the Stones.” 

I became a connoisseur of photographs of the band, waving matily, perhaps arm in arm, but invariably with Ron, Charlie or Bill interposed between the two main men, and I came to regard their divergence as so elemental that everyone — or at least, every male baby-boomer — struck me as either a Mick or a Keith. 8b72 4eb5 919f da0910ed0e74
Mick in ‘Performance’ with Anita Pallenberg, left  © Keystone/Getty Images fd5c 4c76 a352 6a6eef7a5e55
Keith with Pallenberg, their son Marlon and Mick at Heathrow airport, 1970 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The roots of the antagonism are said to lie in the making of the film Performance in 1968, when Mick’s sex scenes with Keith’s lover, Anita Pallenberg, perhaps went beyond performance, and in Mick’s moonlighting as a solo artist in the 1980s. Keith put a brave face on the decent sales of Mick’s debut solo album, She’s The Boss: “It’s like Mein Kampf. Everybody had a copy, but nobody listened to it.” 

Mick, he believed, “thought the Stones were becoming old-fashioned” — and that’s the faultline between the two: whereas in the 1960s they were both at the arrowhead of modernity, only Mick has attempted to stay there. He embodied languid 1970s decadence (“that jet-set shit”, Keith summarised), but in the hyperactive 1980s, he dressed like an aerobics instructor on stage, with corpse-like Keith chain-smoking behind him. 

Mick’s workout regime persists, and he keeps up with musical fashion. He pushed the Stones stylishly into disco and the output of his one-off supergroup, SuperHeavy, included hip-hop elements. (Ron Wood, speaking to The Times, said he had to talk Keith into letting Mick put a dance number on the new Stones album: “I would say to Keith, ‘Come on, you’ve got to let him dance.’”) 5b80 4492 9d74 b659c883a781
Keith and Mick in a Rolling Stones performance at Candlestick Park, San Francisco, in 1981 © Clayton Call/Redferns

Keith does not like hip-hop: “The rhythms are boring — they’re all done on computers.” He’s not into computers either. As he explained to the Durango Herald, “I’m not at all hooked in any high-tech internets.” He prefers reading in his library, which — from photographs — resembles 221B Baker Street: velvet drapes, a couch, strewn papers, mysterious-coloured liquids in glass-stoppered bottles, a weathered Telecaster in place of a violin. In 1998, he punctured a lung when falling from the library stepladder — an old-fashioned sort of accident, although in 2006, he needed brain surgery after suffering the most primal mishap it’s possible for a human to have: he fell out of a tree.

In 2011, Ron Wood revealed that Keith was still communicating by fax. “That’s why I never hear much from him,” Ron continued, “because I ain’t got a fax machine.” Keith’s Twitter (now X) account is prefaced “Keith does not tweet, dig?” so he doesn’t even want us to think he’s doing his own social media. Mick, by contrast, was interviewed by the Washington Post about what they called his “Instagram obsession”. He posts in an effortlessly modern way, picturing himself at international beauty spots, using exclamation marks to signify joviality (“Relaxing in Italy after some songwriting time!”) and generally resembling a monstrously exaggerated version of that Facebook friend who seems to be doing better than you.

A man lounging on a chair in his home’s library
Keith in his library, c 1995 © Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Whereas Keith published his autobiography, Mick doesn’t look back. It’s as if he thinks time would stop were he to do that, and time has always been on Mick’s side. An interview he gave to the NME in 2021 suggests a reluctance even to recall the time he gave up trying to recall the past for a book. “I think [it was] in the ’80s I started it.” He returned the advance, not having enjoyed “reliving my life, to the detriment of living in the now”.

The two represent the stark choice faced by every older person in our technologically accelerated, morally restless times: to keep up or not. My late father-in-law, the theatre producer Bill Freedman, was telling me to watch Straight Outta Compton when he was about 86, so he was a Mick. Donald Trump? Another Mick. (I was about to write that Trump is ageless, yet some clever ingénue who’d never heard of him, but had merely been exposed to the tone of his social media, might suggest that the author was about 15.) 

A singer and a guitarist both singing onto a microphone
Mick and Keith rehearsing in Malmö, Sweden, 1970 © Jan Persson/Redferns

David Bowie was a Mick. With his relentless reincarnations, he made himself the kind of moving target that Mick would probably have liked to become were he not tethered to Keith. In the sense that Madonna, with her constant churn of images and styles, is like a female Bowie, we might see her as a Mick, and when reading an FT interview with Joyce Carol Oates, it struck me that she’s a Mick, being, at 85, an “exuberant presence on Twitter”, posting on such of-the-minute topics as artificial intelligence and trigger warnings. 

Lucien Freud, heedless of aesthetic fashion, was clearly a Keith. Martin Amis? He was called “the Mick Jagger of literature”, but I think he was more of a Keith, hence perhaps his fascination as a novelist with that humble forename. Like Keith, Amis piloted the speeding arrow for a while, but didn’t disdain the rear-view mirror later on. “I’d rather see a film I’ve seen four or five times than something new,” he told Vanity Fair. Like Keith, he stuck with the fags until inadvisably late and bowed to the march of time. He described the feeling that comes on when you’re 60 as “This can’t turn out well”, which echoes Keith’s growled response when asked how he’d know when the time had come to stop performing: “I’ll find out the hard way.”

Andrew Martin’s latest book is ‘Metropolitain: An Ode to the Paris Metro’

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