Have you ever pictured The Rolling Stones as the heroes of their own picaresque novel – the rogueish heroes battling their way through a corrupt and venal society as sketched by Dickens, Thackeray or Henry Fielding? Probably not, to be honest, yet you have to admit the idea of Jagger and Richards cocking a snoot at authority and living on their wits does make a certain amount of sense. It made so much sense to Simon Goddard, author of Ziggyology and Mozipedia, that he’s reimagined the story of the band in Rollaresque, a new novel, complete with sketch illustrations by Mr Chadwick. I spoke to Goddard to find out why he wanted to retell the ‘rakish progress’ of The Rolling Stones…
What parallels did you see between the story of The Rolling Stones and the picaresque tradition?
“Rock’n’roll is something that we labelled in the 20th century as ‘rock‘n’roll’. It’s a sound, but it’s also a spirit and an attitude which The Rolling Stones exemplified, but that spirit existed long before the age of electric guitars in other forms. It goes back centuries. If you look over British history you can easily see that the rakes and dandies of the late 18th and early 19th centuries were pretty much the essence of what we call rock‘n’roll. We’re talking about very fashionable young men interested in wine, women and song and living quite a debauched, intoxicated lifestyle. Even though the music wasn’t around, what they did atmospherically was exactly what we think of a rock‘n’roll band today. Someone like Lord Byron was the first proper rock star, as we would understand today: the way he lived his life as a rampant, bisexual madman. By treating The Stones as characters in a novel from that period, what I’m trying to do is celebrate the great tradition of the British bad lad. Everybody loves a rogue, and whether it’s Dick Turpin, or a fictional character like the Artful Dodger, or Keith Richards, they’re all sort of heroic outlaws of one kind or another. What The Stones did wasn’t just a 20th century thing, it was a timeless attitude of rebellion, and a very British naughty, rebellion that should be celebrated.”
Rebellion with a glint in your eye?
“Yeah, the joy of being naughty and sticking your fingers up to society. In our Conservative times it’s good to be reminded of the joy of wrecking a hotel room with a packet of biscuits, or urinating on the forecourt and not giving a fuck. Also I thought it would be quite good to write a mucky, rude, filthy, funny book with lots of arcane swear words. It’s not meant as a history lesson, it’s a Carry On film with a script by Thackeray.”
Did you find the story and style fitted quite naturally?
“I did. I always liked picaresque books, I read Dickens for pleasure and I’m a massive fan of that style. I always thought it would be great to write a book like that, but the problem is I’m not a 19th century novelist, I’m a 21st century music journalist. I thought that was a bit of a problem, but if you look at The Stones’ story their first five years really fits all the conventions of a picaresque novel. They all had a sort of ‘on the road’ travelogue story. It often ended with a trial or an imprisonment, so the fact that you’ve got the Redlands scene at the end of it just makes it a classic picaresque tale of rebels being bought to task by the very straight conventions of the day. It struck me as genuinely the kind of story that Henry Fielding, who wrote Tom Jones might have told, or that Hogarth genuinely might have made into a series of etchings of one of his ‘moral modern subjects’. We had Mr Chadwick, who sounds like a character in a Dickens novels, do all the illustrations for this book. He’s got a fine etching style, so he draws in that semi-Victorian illustrative style.”
Bands like The Libertines seem intent on keeping this rogueish tradition alive, don’t they?
“Yeah, I think by calling themselves The Libertines they’re being very upfront about it. In all the really great bands in history who have upset something, like the Sex Pistols as well, there’s something timeless and rogueish about them. Even a band like Sleaford Mods, people have compared them to Shakespeare. As rock’n’roll recedes into history, I’m interested in how we keep telling those stories and make them relevant for now. Basic biography isn’t always the right way to do that.”
Do you think sometimes it’s more important to print the myth?
“Yeah, there’s a lot of things in this book which may be disproven or contentious. Even the trashing of the hotel room with the packet of biscuits, there’s one version of the story that Mick just accidentally stood on a digestive and the maid went mad, but I’d rather print the idea of them having a riot with it. An ‘apocalypse of crumbs’, as I called it. Print the legend. When the book concludes, they’ve got their knuckles rapped but it’s very obvious they’ve only just begun to fuck shit up. Usually when people tell the story of the Stones, by the time you get to the end of the ’60s you’ve got the death of Brian Jones and Altamont. It gets very, very heavy and people get very, very serious. Then heroin comes in and it all gets very demonic and satanic. I just want to remind people how funny the Stones’ story was, and how funny they were. Also, I saw a genuine opportunity for bawdy humour and some 18th Century knob gags.”