Today, believe it or not, is Mick Jagger’s seventieth birthday. (He was born on July 26, 1943.) Jagger seems, so far, to defy aging, but if you look closely there have been subtle signs. In 1995, for example, when Jagger was fifty-two, Hendrik Hertzberg noticed a change in some of the Rolling Stones’ lyrics. For decades, the song “The Spider and the Fly,” which is about a rock-and-roll singer getting picked up by a woman in a bar, had featured this couplet:
She was common, flirty, she looked about thirty… She said she liked the way I held the microphone.
But on “Stripped,” the Stones’ album of acoustic performances, the lyrics had changed:
She was shifty, nifty, she looked about fifty… She said she liked the way I held the microphone.
“The Spider and the Fly,” Hertzberg pointed out, had been written in 1966, “when Mick and Keith were both around twenty-three.” That means it might be time for a new couplet. (She was shapely, stately, she looked about seventy…?)
In August of 1972, Anthony Hiss wrote an account of Mick Jagger’s twenty-ninth birthday for Talk of the Town. The party, on the roof of the St. Regis, was predictably spectacular. (Count Basie, Muddy Waters, and a tap-dance troupe performed; a giant cake was wheeled in, and “a girl with no clothes on” jumped out and “moved around a little”; at one point, “Mrs. George Plimpton did the Lindy Hop.”) But the party was staid and boring, Hiss wrote, compared to the Stones’ incredible performance at Madison Square Garden earlier that evening—the final performance of a three-night run. “The Stones,” he wrote, “present a theatrical-musical performance that has no equal in our culture.” The band was able to create a “total, undefined sensual experience of the most ecstatic sort,” reminiscent of Wagner. Mick Jagger, of course, was at the center of it all, and Hiss was struck by his uniqueness as a performer. Then, as now—Jagger still has it—he moved and looked like no one else:
Mick Jagger is often compared these days to great dancers, but such comparisons are misleading. Jagger has a lot of stiffness in his body. He does not make smooth curves. His abdomen, chest, and back are completely rigid. He hits the ground with his knees locked. The bounce of his step is visible from a long way away. No doubt he is thinking of the back row. His shoulders are tight, forcing his arms in against his sides. The arms themselves look powerful. They have a stringy muscularity and definition. His hands are long and strong. His head is mobile, rolling around on top of his neck. His mouth is unlike any other mouth. It is not a normal mouth. His lips are almost prehensile. The power of his voice—the strength of his vocal cords—is physically remarkable.
Hertzberg, too, had attended one of the Stones’ concerts that week, and, leaving the Garden, he ran into a friend. The friend, Hertzberg wrote, was one of those people who are obsessed with ranking things: “Over the years, he has informed me at various times that Mao Tse-tung is the No. 1 politician, Le Monde is the No. 1 newspaper, and the Siamese cat is the No. 1 urban pet.” “I’ve decided that Mick Jagger is No. 1,” he told Hertzberg.
“You mean he’s the best rock singer in the world? Of course he is,” I said.
“No,” he said. “I mean that he’s No. 1 over all. I mean that if I were to make a list ranking all the people in the world, all four billion of them, his name would be the first on the list. In the field of human beings, Mick Jagger is No. 1.”
It’s forty-one years later, and there are now seven billion people in the world, but Mick Jagger is probably still near the top of that list. For more on Jagger and the Rolling Stones, check out John Seabrook on the origins of “Satisfaction”; Pauline Kael on “Gimme Shelter”; George W. S. Trow on the founder of Atlantic Records, Ahmet Ertegun; David Remnick on Keith Richards’s memoir, “Life”; and Nick Paumgarten on his experience at Davos, where “Jagger sightings were conversational currency.”