Book Review: 'Rollaresque, Or the Rakish Progress of the Rolling Stones' by Simon Goddard

Despite being yet one more Rolling Stones book in a sea of Rolling Stones books, 'Rollaresque' is definitely a one-off.

Literally hundreds of books have now been published on the subject of the Rolling Stones and there is little sign of this abating. Is there anything new to say about them? Simon Goddard's new book suggests perhaps not, but his ingenious idea instead, is to come up with a novel way to tell the old stories; literally by reinventing the group's early glory days as a picaresque novel in the style of Thackeray or Fielding.

He brings their rich vocabulary and florid wit to bear on "five of the boldest English rogues as have ever trodden their native soil", arguing that "the lovable rogue begat English literature." Now you may well be thinking, isn't that a rather flimsy hook to hang a book upon. This was certainly my feeling as I struggled through the turgid opening chapters.

My heart felt heavy when I noticed the author had even included a glossary to help we "sour wretches, raised without nourishment of art or poetry," bringing back dismal school day memories of Chaucer which could not simply be read and enjoyed without first translating it. The eight illustrations with their antiquated style, a tribute to Hogath's Rake's Progress just struck me as pretentious and the clever-clever language often felt like a tiresome hurdle requiring considerable effort to reach the content.

But then, gradually, little by little, I found myself chuckling out loud at some lacerating wit here and reluctantly admiring a bawdy invention there, and I think it was finally around the satirical and, seemingly entirely made up, chapter describing a meeting of the dreaded Jazz Mafia that broke my resistance and won me over. A description of an early Stones audience plucked almost at random gives a sense of the detailed imagination and the absurd and surreal humour at work: "... not a thread of duffel amongst them, their hair unkempt as troglodytes, their number so huge that both sexes splurged together as one in a depraved human chutney of lipstick, knitwear and Chelsea boot".

Underpinning the ornate verbal constructions lies an insightful awareness of the small-minded pettiness, the claustrophobic conformity that stifled England in 1962. The oppressiveness of this short back and sides world is persuasively drawn and helps the reader understand why the Rolling Stones declared war on it and how vilified and loathed they were in return. 'Rollaresque' draws to a close soon after the heroes have been cut down to size by the Establishment in the infamous drug trial of 1967, similar to the moralistic fate dished out in early novels. Except that Goddard plays with the unlikely notion of a Jagger and Richards moral conversion by hinting at what we know to have followed in the years after this incident, the more serious drug issues to come, Brian's death, murder at Altamont etc.

The author may have also have decided to end his book at this point sensing that although the sixties Stones may have fitted the bill of lovable English rogues, the seventies Stones with their tax exile, the jetsetting, the moneygrabbing, the aging, and the model wives might fail to strike a similar chord.

Individually, none of the protagonists are sympathetic characters, with the possible exceptions of Keith Richards and Charlie Watts. Brian Jones comes across as a vile, weak, narcissistic woman-beater and Bill Wyman as a dull, pathetic sex-addicted trainspotter. Strangely Goddard still manages to have you rooting for them collectively despite such defects and some highly questionable behaviour, probably in the same way eighteenth century readers identified with Tom Jones.

If there is such a thing as an average Rolling Stones fan then he (not she) will probably be unhappy with the way the music itself is relegated to the background. He may take umbrage at the limited timespan which ends before the Stones golden period (album-wise) has even begun. If he is not in possession of an English literature A Level he is most likely to be put off by the 'poncey' words and arty gobbledegook: Exactly the aspects I imagine that will excite literary critics or open-minded readers.

Oh, despite being a jaded reader of too many books on the Stones I did learn at least one new fact from this book: Brian had a driving cushion in his Humber to elevate his compromised height and the other Stones regularly hid it to annoy him.

Despite being yet one more Rolling Stones book in a sea of Rolling Stones books, 'Rollaresque' is definitely a one-off.

Published in Hardback by Ebury Press 2015, £20.00

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