London -- As British rock icons go, Mick Jagger, the pouting, ageless Rolling Stones singer, may be the biggest. But a funny thing happened here when Jagger's American wife, supermodel Jerry Hall, recently announced her intention to divorce him for his serial adultery. Jagger responded by saying their exotic 1990 wedding on Bali was a fake, so she wasn't entitled to any support.
Most Brits lined up squarely behind Hall. What began as a messy celebrity divorce is becoming something of a cultural sea change, as many Britons reconsider their views of one of the most famous and richest of their countrymen.
Jagger rhymes with swagger, and he embodied it in the 1960s and 1970s, when the Stones were the bad-boy alternative to the Beatles. If the Beatles were a bunch of nice lads from provincial Liverpool, the Stones personified hip, cosmopolitan London, more nasty than nice. That image, not to mention some great songs, made the Stones in general and Jagger in particular world-famous.
Like other successful rock groups who find touring too lucrative to pass up, even as they become grandfathers, the four remaining members of the Stones continue to put out albums and stage lavish shows, despite having a cumulative age of 214. And while most graying rock stars are a shadow of their former selves on stage, the 55-year-old Jagger is still leaping around with the energy of a man half his age.
(Jagger, though, was feeling less than spry as the band's current "No Security" tour kicked off last month in California. Two dates on the indoor arena tour, which reaches Baltimore next month, had to be canceled when Jagger was reported ill with the flu.)
The Stones have earned their bad-boy reputation. One of the band's guitarists, Brian Jones, died of a drug overdose. Longtime bassist Bill Wyman was widely denounced as a pervert when he married a 17-year-old. Keith Richards, the guitarist and Jagger's songwriting collaborator, has battled various addictions, changing his blood to kick the heroin habit as some people change the oil in their cars.
Jagger, however, took care of his body like a professional athlete. He studied at the London School of Economics, not the London School of Music, and brought business acumen to the music industry while peers were shooting their profits into their veins or snorting it up their nostrils.
But now, more people are seeing Jagger's fastidiousness as part of a great rock and roll swindle.
As Rodney Saunders, a skeptical music fan from Middlesex, put it: "I always thought Jagger was a hypocritical phony with his music copied from black rhythm and blues and the image of rebellious '60s icon carried on into near pensionable age. Now he's surpassed himself."
Whenever there is a dispute pitting Yanks against Brits, the British tend to side with their own. That, in part, explains why so many Britons were so willing to believe that former nanny Louise Woodward was wrongfully accused in the death of an American toddler.
But Jagger's assertion that Hall, the mother of four of his children, was not entitled to any money in a divorce because their marriage was not legal brought howls of indignation from newspapers and ordinary Britons, who labeled Jagger a cad.
Many Britons believe Jagger is willing to renounce the woman he lived with for 21 years and the children they produced simply to protect his fortune. Hall wants $50 million, about one-fifth of Jagger's estimated wealth, which is nearly double the highest divorce settlement ever in Britain, paid out by Prince Charles to the late Diana, Princess of Wales.
"Mick's dismal behavior towards Jerry Hall is now a matter of record," fumed the Mirror. "Given his selfishness, it was too much to expect him to give in quietly for the sake of his four children, whom he has now also succeeded in humiliating."
"Was it ever cool to be despicable? Was it ever sexy to be penny-pinching and selfish? Of course not," the Daily Mail declared.
No one questions Jagger's ability to write a song. He and Richards are among the most prolific and successful songwriting teams in history. Nor does anyone question Jagger's stage presence and charisma, which have more than made up for his lack of range as a vocalist.
But people are asking why someone who appears to have more money than he can spend and who seems to have no other passion but to amass a fortune and bed as many women as he can, continues to perform while refusing to do the right thing by his wife and children.
Garry Mulholland, music editor of Time Out, a London magazine, says the Stones continue to tour because Jagger insists on it, and Jagger insists on doing so simply to make money. Seats at most of the "No Security" venues range from a low of $40 or $50 up to $300.
"This pains me to say, because I was brought up on the Stones and adored their music, but for the last 20 years the Stones and Jagger have become a joke," says Mulholland. "Each new album is worse and sells less. ... They make their money from the tour, not the albums."
Mulholland believes most Brits think Jagger is "a businessman, not an artist." Jagger's reputation for pettiness was enhanced last year, when he threatened to call off a tour over a tax dispute.
"I think the public perception of Mick Jagger is that he is a bit of an arse, and a greedy one at that," says Mulholland.
Like Americans, the British don't expect their rock stars too be role models or pillars of the community. And the British have an enormous capacity to forgive their wayward stars, especially if those stars exhibit other redeeming qualities.
Sting -- the former lead singer of the Police, who has enjoyed an enormously successful solo career -- was similarly denounced when he left his wife for the actress Trudie Styler. But Sting's work with Amnesty International and charitable organizations has earned him fans who are only remotely interested in his music.
The homophobic British tabloids pilloried the pop singer George Michael when he was arrested last year in a Los Angeles public restroom after exposing himself to an undercover police officer. Michael offered to serve AIDS patients as a condition of his probation, and his popularity soared.
Jagger, on the other hand, is being denounced as someone so cheap that he is willing to legally categorize his children as bastards if it will save him some cash.
Hall, 42, understands the British. She could sue for divorce in the United States, where she would be eligible for nearly three times as much as she is asking for here. But she would also be open to charges of being a gold digger.
Jagger's miserliness and chronic infidelity stand out even more when he is compared with the only living British rock star whose ability and success rivals his: Paul McCartney.
McCartney and his American wife, Linda, were an antidote to celebrities who treat marriage like a hobby. The McCartneys' daughter, Stella, is one of Britain's most successful young fashion designers.
When Linda McCartney died last year after a long battle with cancer, her husband's declaration of undying love only increased British affection for him.
In his youth, Jagger derided the Beatles, saying they lacked the gritty edge of the Rolling Stones. But as far as many Britons are concerned, Paul McCartney is a man, while Mick Jagger needs to grow up.
Pub Date: 02/07/99