When You Think About Mick

By Christopher John Campion
Mick Jagger playing Rotterdam, the Netherlands, in 1982. Marcel Antonisse/Anefo

When you think about Mick Jagger, what springs to mind? Do it now for a quick second while I still have you off guard. Annnnd . . . time! 

Okay, what came back? I’m sure most of you thought about him growling into a microphone and goose-stepping in front of the Rolling Stones, which would be fair, it has been his occupation for the last 56 years. But what else? 

Maybe your brain was besieged by a series of evocative images gathered over a lifetime: ’60s Swingin’ London, flashes from the Maysles brothers’ documentary “Gimme Shelter,” Mick all glammed up at Studio 54 with Andy Warhol and Bianca in the ’70s, all the Jagger women and scandals, a pastel-and-pleated Mick gyrating into a lather with Tina Turner at Live Aid in 1985, Mike Myers sending him up on “S.N.L.” in the ’90s, on and up to a present-day YouTube clip of him sprinting down a stadium catwalk, a kinetic human meteorite of unprecedented septuagenarian marvel. 

But did anyone think of him in terms of what he actually is in his purest form, a singer and a lyricist? I’ll bet not that many of you did.

After hearing a Stones classic on the radio, and I’ll just pluck one out of the air, say, “19th Nervous Breakdown,” have you ever once heard a D.J. wax on about the depth of genius in Mick’s lyrics the way they do Dylan, Lennon, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, or any other of rock’s “poets”?

It seems Mick’s larger-than-life persona as an outrageous performer and cultural icon, along with his reputed vanity, has, through the years, distilled him down to a cartoon character in our consciousness and bounced him out of that conversation. Trust me, the minute he dies, as evidenced by what happens every time we lose one of these greats (and, lo, there have been quite a few these past few years), there’ll be a tsunami of sorrowful social media messages from heartbroken fans praising Mick as a much-dismissed writer, and why didn’t anyone ever think of him that way? You know it’s comin’ — hopefully not for a while yet, but it’s comin’.

I’m not overlooking the brilliant contribution from the infamous other half of the Glimmer Twins songwriting team, Mick’s simultaneously beloved and “be-hated” battery mate, Keith Richards. Unbeknownst to some, Keith, in addition to being the main riff supplier of the operation, also wrote some timeless lyrics of his own (“Ruby Tuesday” and “Happy,” to name just two), and Mick, in turn, was responsible for some classic guitar hooks, like the opening salvo of “Brown Sugar.” So they did have cause to switch hats on occasion. 

Also, lest we forget, the vital importance of the bassist Bill Wyman, the drummer Charlie Watts, and the succession of three brilliant (in their own right) guitarists, Brian Jones, Mick Taylor, and Ronnie Wood, who make up the rest of “the world’s greatest rock ’n’ roll band.” The sound they all make together is what makes it special, what makes it the Stones, and who could ask for a better sonic palette from which to create? 

However, I’m focused solely on Mick as a designer of vocal melodies and author of lyrics, and as heralded as he is for being “Mick Jagger,” I really don’t think he gets the credit he deserves for the ideas he attaches to these songs. 

As a singer-songwriter and also the frontman for a band, I know how hard it is to write lyrics. You want something that matches the mood and feel of the tune and is gonna give it that liftoff. The words have to sound good together while being sung, and a strong theme has to emerge for it to have the thrust required for it to connect with people, otherwise it fails. 

If you go through the 30 studio albums the Rolling Stones have made, taking them song by song, it’s astonishing how high Mick’s batting average is using what I just spelled out as criteria for grading. He rings the bell almost every time and has the versatility to move you in all different directions: He can break your heart with “Angie” or “Wild Horses,” rev you up with “Rocks Off” or “Monkey Man,” crack you up with the unhinged talk-sing spontaneity of “Shattered,” be intensely topical in “Gimme Shelter,” theatrical and dramatic in “Midnight Rambler” — everything is represented in his lyric canon.

I’m a full-time musician, and there isn’t a day that goes by that I’m not tremendously thankful for that, but I’d be lying if I said I felt grateful at every gig. Some cover-song shows I have to play can be a real slog, but being able to crank out some Stones songs at these things is a quantum saving grace. I never feel more badass than when I’m singing Mick’s lyrics, and if I do happen to be in a funk, rest assured, by the end of the song I won’t be. 

When I was a kid in the ’70s, my dad and I had an ongoing debate, “Who was better, Jagger or Sinatra?” He would always say, “When Frank sings a song he tells a story . . . your guy just hops around wiggling his ass like some cockney prostitute.” Then I’d say, “Yeah, well, Mick writes his own songs, Dad. Frank needs them written for him.” He’d grumble, and the argument would grind to a stalemate. 

In those years, the family would often pile in a station wagon and head out to Montauk from Huntington to beach it for a few days and go fishing on a neighbor’s boat. I remember on one of those rides out, D.J. “Scottso” Muni of WNEW coming on the air and talking about how the Stones liked to vacation out in Montauk, and in his signature gravelly voice said, “even wrote a song about one of their favorite spots out there,” and spun “Memory Motel.” 

My 10-year-old mind went all a-flutter with the far-out fantasy of sneaking away from the family in the middle of the night and stumbling upon Mick and Keith on the beach writing songs around a bonfire, and, of course, me joining in to lend a hand.

Right as that daydream started to dwindle I guess ol’ Scottso decided to make it a “twofer” and segued into “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” and I noticed my dad’s body language acquiescing to it. His head started swaying back and forth and his shoulders relaxed. He dropped one hand off the wheel, turned around, and asked, “This is a good one . . . who does this number?” 

Excitedly realizing I was about to take a huge lead in our never-ending debate, I yelled, “The Stones! This is Mick, Dad, he wrote this, I told ya!” 

He kept driving and gingerly humming along with it. About a minute later he shook his head and said, “You know what, you’re right . . . sonofabitch can really write a song.”

Christopher John Campion, a singer-songwriter and regular visitor to Amagansett, is the author of “Escape From Bellevue: A Dive Bar Odyssey,” published by Penguin-Gotham.