In 1975, just as the rolling Stones were smack in the middle of a tumultuous tour, a sharpshooting photographer took a famous picture of Keith Richards — his eyes dim, his expression all smirk and swagger — wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the following inquiry: ”Who the f— is Mick Jagger?”
It was a cheeky in-joke at the time, intended to poke fun at the Stones frontman’s increasingly swelling ego and ascent into the social elite. Nowadays, of course, it’s hard to imagine anyone not knowing the answer: Only a handful of bands have had their bad-boy mythology so completely documented (and ultimately celebrated) as the Rolling Stones have. For rock fans, the band’s legendary excesses — both behavioral and financial — come to mind with the same auto-recall as the buzz-saw guitar riff that propels ”Satisfaction.”
With so few mysteries left to unearth, Stephen Davis faces a near-impossible task of digging up new dirt in Old Gods Almost Dead, his lengthy, career-spanning group history that follows Mick and Co. from angry young men to coldly calculating money machines. With his bawdy, best-selling exposés on Led Zeppelin (”Hammer of the Gods”) and Aerosmith (”Walk This Way”), Davis has established himself as an unflinching explorer of sleazy indulgence and backstage drama. But while there’s no shortage of either in ”Old Gods” (after all, this is a group whose best-behaved member merely dabbled in heroin), even the most extreme moments of extravagance are, by now, too familiar. When it comes to the Stones, nothing’s shocking.
Still, Davis’ latest warts-and-all rock & roll tome is, at the very least, a thoroughly researched primer on the band’s early years and glory days. Beginning in World War II Britain, he introduces the oft-feuding ruffians who would eventually make up the first fully realized incarnation of the Stones: campy attention arbiter Mick Jagger; choirboy?turned?blues freak Keith Richards; mild-mannered family man Charlie Watts; perennially charmed Bill Wyman; and brutish Brian Jones, who serves as the violent focal point for the first half of ”Gods.”
Though he’s now overshadowed by Jagger’s tabloid escapades and Richards’ seemingly lifelong near-death status, Jones was the band’s true wild child, and Davis is fascinated by his dueling personalities. At times, Jones was a sensitive genius who could learn almost any instrument within minutes. But he was also a lout, with a crippling drug addiction and a horrific attitude toward women (when he wasn’t knocking them up, he was knocking them down). His cruel treatment of trailblazing groupie Anita Pallenberg — who would later hook up with Richards — is captured here in heartbreaking detail.
But even before Jones’ departure from the band and subsequent death in 1969, the Stones were becoming the Jagger/ Richards show, and after the nightmare of Altamont, the group was retreating — both from the authorities and one another. The reckless decade that followed makes for pure rock & roll soap opera, and is ”Gods”’ highlight: As the tax-exiled group moves from country to country, leaving a trail of drug binges and brilliant records (this was the era that spawned ”Exile on Main Street” and ”Sticky Fingers”) in their wake, Davis’ breakneck writing deftly captures the band’s tenuous grasp on its troubled existence.
It’s a bit of a letdown, then, when Davis begins to shift from fact finder to fervent fan. An obvious Stones aficionado, he’s at times too forgiving of their indulgences, musical and otherwise. For all his legitimate tsk-tsking of Jones’ behavior, Davis seems to merely shrug off Richards’ wicked ways — this was a man whose on-again, off-again substance abuse constantly threatened to break up the band. It seems far easier to pick on the dead, to lazily reason that if Richards can look back and laugh, why call him on it?
Davis also fawns over the Stones’ spiral into a ’90s corporate-sponsored nostalgia act, during which they cashed in with instantly forgettable albums and overpriced tchotchkes (does anyone look back fondly on that ”Voodoo Lounge” CD-ROM?); they even licensed ”Brown Sugar” for a Pepsi ad. ”Old Gods” is inevitably undermined by Davis’ belief that the Rolling Stones’ uproarious past makes their sadly self-parodying modern-day transgressions forgivable; in the end, he simply has too much sympathy for these devils.