Authors: Philip Norman
Everyone in the grass-sprawling multitude, it is safe to say, had wondered how he would present himself to them after all this time. None could have guessed it would be in a white garment which, despite matching bell-bottom trousers, resembled nothing so much as a little girl’s white frilly party dress, set off by a metal-studded leather dog collar and full makeup. Still less could they have imagined that, having greeted them with a Dixie Mama–ish “Well, a-a-a-aw-RIGHT!” the ruched and beflounced figure would go to the rear of the stage and return with seemingly the least relevant object at this moment—a small hardback book.
“Okay … now listen, will you cool it for a minute?” he instructed rather than requested, as if he were suddenly his father, Joe, taking some huge, torpid gym class. “ ’Cause I really would like to say something for Brian … about how we feel about him just goin’ when we didn’t expect it.” The “something” was a reading from Adonais, Percy Bysshe Shelley’s 1821 poem about the death of John Keats—no brief quote but two hefty stanzas, declaimed in serious, level tones from which all traces of slurry Cockney and camp Dixie had miraculously vanished:
Peace, peace! he is not dead, he doth not sleep—
He hath awakened from the dream of life—
’Tis we, who lost in stormy visions, keep
With phantoms an unprofitable strife,
And in mad trance, strike with our spirit’s knife
Invulnerable nothings!—We decay
Like corpses in a charnel; fear and grief
Convulse us and consume us day by day,
And cold hopes swarm like worms within our living clay …
The One remains, the many change and pass;
Heaven’s light forever shines, Earth’s shadows fly;
Life, like a dome of many-coloured glass,
Stains the white radiance of Eternity,
Until Death tramples it to fragments.—Die!
If thou wouldst be with that which thou dost seek!
Nor did the poetic mood end there. On the stage was a stack of brown cardboard boxes containing 2,500 white butterflies, which, as Shelley’s words died away, were shaken out into the crowd. These symbols of Brian now more than Mick—who more thoroughly broken on a wheel?—had been purchased for £300 and permission to release them obtained from the Royal Parks authority on condition that they were all sterilized and included no leaf-munching cabbage whites (they were in fact mainly cabbage whites). The heat had caused many to expire inside their boxes, but a goodly number fluttered free to ravage gardens throughout the neighborhood.
The Stones’ opening number was “I’m Yours and I’m Hers” by the albino Texan Johnny Winter, which had been a particular favorite of Brian’s but was hardly the most tactful choice on Mick’s part with Marianne and Marsha both looking on. And from the first notes of even this straight-ahead heavy-metal rocker, the band’s underpreparedness was painfully obvious. Keith’s and Mick Taylor’s guitars, so harmonious at first meeting, turned into a pair of pneumatic drills fighting a grudge match to the death. Charlie’s drumming and Bill’s bass, each seemed have melted into Jell-O. Only Mick’s frilly white figure seemed fully awake and on the beat, walking the invisible Travelator he had stolen from James Brown all those years ago, singing into two globular hand microphones taped together. “The tempo!” he kept hissing over his shoulder at Keith. “Get the tempo together!”
But the fluffs, lurches, and whistles of feedback could not have mattered less. All that concerned the assembled quarter million was that the Rolling Stones were back, reborn on that golden afternoon next to Bayswater Road as surely as the Beatles had come to an end on their chill Mayfair rooftop five months earlier. Mick Jagger was back, somehow more sex-soaked and shocking with his white dolly dress and poetry book than ever in his career before; the unchallenged simultaneous king and queen of rock.
There was one great difference, however, from live shows three years before. The Stones’ music seemed to have lost its old power to unleash violence and mayhem. “Satisfaction,” “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” even “Street Fighting Man” thundered out in turn, yet brought no shadow to the sea of happy faces and waving arms, and dwindled away among the treetops and Park Lane hotels. The stage’s six-foot-plus height kept it mostly free of the female invaders whom Mick once had to dodge like on-heat meteor showers. Occasionally, a lone figure would manage the ascent via the shoulders of friends, then be instantly collared and carried, squirming, into the palm-fronded wings. This was done by the band’s own minders rather than the Hell’s Angels, who remained below the stage throughout. A confidential police report later called them “totally ineffective” as stewards and a threat to no one.
For the first time, too—discounting that now-buried Rock ’n’ Roll Circus moment—Mick’s performance featured an element of striptease. The frilly dress was torn off and thrown aside after about half an hour, soon followed by the metal-studded dog collar, leaving only a skimpy violet T-shirt and white bell-bottoms, with a constant wink of bare midriff between. The strangely intimate space in the eye of that vast crowd became an arena for showmanship (if man is the right middle-of-word) that no Jagger audience had ever witnessed before. Sometimes he rolled and writhed on the stage as though actually in the grip of “Midnight Rambler” ’s rapist-killer, sometimes punished it with his belt; at one barely believable moment, he knelt with the double hand mike rearing between his thighs, leaned forward, spread his hair over it, and seemed to fulfill the ultimate narcissist fantasy of sucking himself off.
The finale was an eighteen-minute version of “Sympathy for the Devil,” backed by a troupe of African tribal drummers in full costume—even this darkest of all his masquerades seemingly purged of all malignity by sunshine and good vibes. At its end, the “mayne of wealth and taste” showed masterly crowd control yet again, winding things up like a parent mollifying overtired children: “Aaw-right … We gotta go … We ’ad a good time … We ’ad a good time …”
While the heat-drunk 250,000 dispersed, as peaceably as they had assembled, the five tons of rubbish strewn on the grass was picked up by an army of volunteers (rewarded with a copy of “Honky Tonk Women” apiece), leaving the park tidier than after a normal Saturday.
THE FOLLOWING MONDAY morning, with his usual unstoppable energy, Mick flew to Australia with Marianne to begin shooting Ned Kelly. They had no sooner reached Sydney than she became the second of his lovers (Chrissie Shrimpton had been the first, in 1966) to try to kill herself.
As Marianne would later recall, several factors had brought her to this extremity: her feeling of isolation in her life with Mick, the side effects of drugs she was taking, the shock of Brian Jones’s death, the humiliation of sharing the stage with Marsha Hunt in Hyde Park (and knowing Mick had had a tryst with Marsha that same evening under cover of a Chuck Berry–Who concert at the Royal Albert Hall). Nor had it helped to be playing Ophelia in Hamlet and driven to the point of suicide night after night by another charismatic but unreachable swain, “lov’d of the distracted multitude.”
The tipping point came after they had checked into the Chevron Hilton hotel, overlooking Sydney Harbor. While Mick was asleep, Marianne looked into the dressing-table mirror and thought she saw Brian’s face looking back at her. She wanted to jump from the fourteenth-story window, but found it painted shut, so instead she swallowed 150 Tuinal barbiturate tablets, enough to kill three people, washing them down with sips of room-service hot chocolate.
Mick awoke just in time to get her to St. Vincent’s Hospital, where doctors managed to flush out the barbiturates before they could cause brain damage. The police naturally had to be involved and—with memories of fur rugs and Mars bars still fresh—initially treated the episode as a drug orgy gone wrong. Rather than a Samaritan, Mick found himself briefly a suspect, undergoing hard-faced questioning about where Marianne had got the huge stash of Tuinals and whether he had had any part in feeding them to her.
A couple of hours later, he was holding a packed press conference for media from all over Australia, greeting them with a raucous Cockney “Ma-a-awnin’!” as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Director Tony Richardson apologized for their slight lateness, explaining that Marianne had “collapsed” as a result of the long flight from Britain. Mick showed no anxiety to be anywhere else as he declared that he took his role as Ned Kelly with total seriousness—though he hoped it would also be fun—and joked about the “incestuous relationship” he would have with Marianne in the role of Kelly’s sister.
It was a different story later, when the exact nature of her collapse became known and St. Vincent’s was besieged by the same media pack Mick had charmed that morning, but no longer playing by the same civilized rules. When one photographer sneaked through security and into her room, Mick had to be physically restrained by his PR, Les Perrin. Marianne would have seen no Tyranny of Cool in the enraged figure struggling in Perrin’s arms and shouting, “I’ll get him … I’ll get him!”
Though the doctors had saved Marianne’s life, she remained in a coma for six days, seemingly beyond all medical efforts to revive her. Her mother, Baroness Erisso, flew from Britain to be at her bedside and, fearing all hope was gone, summoned a Catholic priest to administer the last rites.
For Marianne, the time passed in a vivid dream of meeting and talking to Brian Jones in some transit area between life and death. In her clear recollection of the encounter, Brian made no reference to having been murdered, but was just faintly perplexed at finding himself no longer alive. Two days into the coma, on July 10, his funeral took place in his genteel hometown of Cheltenham. There were five hundred, mainly distraught female, mourners, and the floral tributes included an outsize wreath “from Mick and Marianne with love.” The officiating clergy asked the congregation to pray for the lifeless-seeming young woman on the other side of the world along with the Rolling Stone about to gather infinite moss.
Eventually, as Marianne recalls, she heard three voices calling her into the land of the living once more—her mother’s, her son Nicholas’s, and Mick’s. When she opened her eyes, Mick was at her bedside, holding her hand (although, pragmatic as ever, he had managed to start some filming in between hospital vigils). “You’ve come back” were his first words. “Wild horses wouldn’t drag me away,” she weakly replied.
When she became stronger, her mother had her moved to the more tranquil surroundings of a hospital run by nuns. (“Get thee to a nunnery,” Hamlet cruelly tells Ophelia at the height of her psychological torment.) Mick returned to the Ned Kelly set, where Marianne’s role as Kelly’s sister, Maggie, had been taken over by the Australian actress Diane Craig. He remained full of anxiety about her and wrote to her constantly from the location: “beautiful letters,” as she would recall, “full of remorse, asking for forgiveness.”
The film was mainly shot around Birdwood in New South Wales, where Mick’s mother, Eva, had been born and spent her first two years before coming to Kent. It had caused much controversy in the Australian press, not only because a Pommie pop singer had been chosen to play a national folk hero, but because Kelly’s actual field of operation had been the neighboring state of Victoria.
During the shoot, Mick lived on a small farm near Palarang, some thirty miles from Canberra, sharing the onetime overseer’s modest quarters with Tony Richardson and producer Neil Hartley. July in New South Wales is the coldest month of the year, and much of the action took place out of doors, taxing all Mick’s secret reserves of athleticism and stamina. The production did not have the same good feeling as Performance and, going on from Marianne’s suicide attempt, suffered so much ill luck one might have thought “Sympathy for the Devil” had been ritually sung on its first day. There was recurrent illness among the cast and crew, some of the costumes were destroyed in a fire, and Mark McManus, playing Kelly’s henchman Joe Byrne, narrowly escaped serious injury when a cart in which he was riding accidentally tipped over. Then, in the second week, Mick squeezed the trigger of a prop pistol and it backfired, causing quite a severe burn to his right hand. Despite being in some pain and able to use the hand only with difficulty, he insisted on continuing work.
While keeping up the flow of letters to Marianne, he also wrote constantly to Marsha—“laughing, sad, pensive, deep, observant, touching” missives, she would later call them, including an especially sweet and supportive one just before her appearance at the Isle of Wight pop festival headlined by Bob Dylan. Another, written on Sunday, July 20, the day of the first moon landing, was headed “Sunday the Moon.” For a time, his bandaged right hand couldn’t hold a pen, so he wrote to Marsha with his left.
Despite the dawn-to-dusk days on the set, and the need to learn lines for the next day, he still had to keep turning out material for the Stones. He’d brought a notebook for jotting down lyric ideas that he kept near at all times and a new electric guitar that proved useful in coaxing his injured right hand back to full flexibility. One day, sitting by himself in the chill New South Wales landscape and thinking about Marsha, he sketched out a lyric with the notably un– pensive, deep, and touching provisional title of “Black Pussy.” This changed to the not much less dubious “Brown Sugar,” a synonym both for interracial sex—specifically in the Mars bar area—and dun-colored street heroin. Its familiar “Noo Awleans” setting also featured nineteenth-century slave markets, the casual rape of young female slaves by their white traffickers, youths losing their virginity, and mothers with strings of toy boys. Even at that time of barely articulated feminism and zero political correctness, he was slightly surprised by his own apparent urge to use “all the nasty subjects in one go.”
From time to time, celebrity friends of director Tony Richardson would visit the set and stay at the house Richardson and Mick were sharing. These included the author and poet Christopher Isherwood, then sixty-five, who had traveled all the way from California with his thirty-years-younger lover, Don Bachardy. The eminent author of Goodbye to Berlin and bosom friend of W. H. Auden expected to meet a brash, butch rock star, but instead got Mick in serious filmmaking mode—that is, at his most winning. “[He] is very pale, quiet, good-tempered, full of fun, ugly-beautiful … almost entirely without vanity,” Isherwood’s collected diaries record. “He hardly ever refers to his career or himself … you might be with him for hours and not know what it is he does. Also, he seems equally capable of group fun, clowning, entertaining, getting along with other people, and of entering into a serious one-to-one conversation with anyone who wants to. He talked seriously but not at all pretentiously about Jung and about India … and religion in general. He also seems tolerant and not bitchy.”