A remarkable series of love letters from the heart of the cultural and social revolution in the summer of 1969, written by the frontman of the world’s most successful rock band to his secret lover, a black American who had found a place at the heart of the British cultural scene. Jagger comes across in these letters as remarkably self-aware, indeed self-contained; they provide a glimpse of the strength of character that had (and has) enabled him to survive and thrive despite the insanity that surrounded him for so long. He often appears ironically detached from his own superstardom and infamous reputation – thanking her at one point for being “so nice to an evil old man like me” – although he does find time to complain that the girls at a party are so plain that he is left with nothing to do but eat chocolate éclairs. References to poetry, responses to the Australian landscape, and anxiety about the future of his relationship with Hunt co-exist with the familiar Jagger swagger of deliberately mis-spelt words, surreal flights of fancy, and raw sexual desire.
This outpouring of words was inspired by a suitably extraordinary woman. Marsha Hunt was the epitome of “Black is Beautiful” in the UK in the late 1960s and has been described as London’s Josephine Baker: strikingly beautiful with a distinctive Afro hairstyle, educated, highly articulate, and ambitious. Hunt’s family came from the Mississippi delta but she was born in Philadelphia and attended the University of California, Berkeley, before coming to London in 1966. She soon became part of the blues circuit (from which the Stones had emerged earlier in the decade) where she sang with Alexis Korner and a young Elton John, lived for a while with the influential bluesman John Mayall, and in 1967 married the musician Mike Ratledge. In 1968 her breakthrough came when she appeared in the West End production of Hair. Not only was the show a sensation, but such striking images as Justin de Villeneuve's photographic portrait (reproduced above) ensured that the production brought her fame. Her appearances in mainstream glossy magazines that followed revealed how racial barriers were beginning to break down. She was the first black face on the cover of Queen magazine (December 1968, complete with Christmas baubles in her hair), whilst the photograph of her nude by Patrick Lichfield that graced the cover of British Vogue in January 1969 (five years before a black model appeared on the cover of the American edition) remains one of the era’s most enduring fashion images. She also began a recording career of her own, signing to the same label as Jimi Hendrix and playing at the 1969 Isle of Wight festival.
In the spring of 1969 Hunt was contacted by the Stones' office and invited to appear in a photo shoot, posing in “tarty” clothes alongside the band as publicity for their forthcoming single “Honky Tonk Women”: she refused on the grounds that she did not wish to look like she had “just been had by all the Rolling Stones”. Shortly afterwards, as Hunt recalled in her 1986 memoir Real Life, Jagger appeared unannounced at her Bloomsbury flat: "framed by the doorway as he stood grinning with a dark coat ... He drew one hand out of his pocket and pointed it at me like a pistol ... 'Bang'." The two embarked on a passionate, but initially very private, affair, at a time when an inter-racial relationship was then charged to an extent that is difficult to imagine today. Jagger had, of course, always been enthralled by American black culture and the Rolling Stones had long played a part in “soft” integration by introducing their largely white audience to black music; here, again, he was at the crest of a wave, and Jagger and Hunt’s relationship was a potent symbol of a new sexual and racial order. In 1970 Hunt became the mother to Jagger's first child.
The first half of 1969 was a turbulent time for Jagger. The Stones were recording Let It Bleed, and although the album was an artistic triumph its recording threw the decline of Brian Jones into sharp focus, whilst Jagger’s long-term girlfriend Marianne Faithfull was spiralling into deepening drug addiction. Jones was finally sacked from the band in May, and it was Marsha Hunt who led Jagger to Mick Taylor as his replacement: she had remained close to John Mayall so knew that Taylor was tiring of his current role as guitarist in Mayall's Bluesbreakers. Then, on 3 July 1969, Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool. Two days later the Rolling Stones played a free concert in Hyde Park that attracted an enormous crowd estimated at 250,000. They had decided that, rather than cancel, they would make the concert a memorial tribute to Jones, and Jagger famously began the set with a reading from Shelley's Adonais. Just days later Jagger flew to Australia with Marianne Faithfull, where the two were due to star together in Tony Richardson's Ned Kelly, but almost immediately on arrival Faithfull took an overdose of barbiturates and almost died.
Jagger was writing these letters across the world from an isolated film shoot in New South Wales, having just buried the bandmate who had named the Stones, and with his private life in turmoil. Despite the passionate nature of these letters, Jagger refers to these traumatic events only obliquely, such as when he wonders why some people’s lives are so short, or in his letter of 11 August in which he explains that “Things” – surely meaning his relationship with Faithfull – are “a little difficult”, and admits that “my patience snaps my love peters out at vital moments”, before turning away to less painful subjects.
Richardson had invited Jagger to play the title role in Ned Kelly largely on the basis of reports of his performance in Nicolas Roeg’s Performance (as yet unreleased), but Marianne Faithfull, who was to play Kelly’s sister, had played Ophelia in Richardson’s Hamlet at London’s Roundhouse earlier in the year. Jagger's agreement to star in the film strongly suggests that he saw acting as a possible career development and the current letters also include strong indications of his interests beyond music. He writes with excitement that Christopher Isherwood is coming to stay to discuss a screenplay of Graves’s I Claudius (“…I hope I get the part of Caligula…”), and one letter gives an extraordinary vision of a future show, an intimate performance that would include “all our medias – films, music, drama, and magic” in a new non-narrative form, “a procession of images", that would be utterly unlike a conventional musical.
Filming took place in Palarang (or Palerang), some thirty miles from Canberra in New South Wales (not Victoria, where Ned Kelly had lived). Christopher Isherwood described the ranch house in his diary:
“It belonged to a family named Sykes. The young Mr Sykes was a daredevil-type skier, rider and auto racer, not really much interested in farming ... His sister Annabelle cooked for us; she was a very nice girl ... This being the Australian winter, the nights were cold, with frost on the ground, and we had big fires.” (Christopher Isherwood, The Sixties: Diaries:1960-1969 (2010), p.586)
Isherwood’s impressions of Jagger chime remarkably well with the figure that emerges in the letters: “very pale, quiet, good-tempered, full of fun, ugly-beautiful …he has the air of a castaway, someone saved from the wreck, but not in the least dismayed by it” (ibid., p.586), and although Jagger describes himself in one of his letters as a prima donna, Isherwood was clearly surprised by Jagger’s lack of pretension and social grace:
“…he seems equally capable of group fun, clowning, entertaining, getting along with other people, and of entering into a serious one-to-one dialogue with anybody who wants to. He talked seriously but not at all pretentiously about Jung, and about India (he has a brother who has become a monk in the Himalayas), and about religion in general. He also seems tolerant and not bitchy. He told me with amusement that the reason why the Beatles left the Maharishi was that he made a pass at one of them: “They’re simple north-country lads; they’re terribly uptight about all that.” Am still not sure if I believe this story. And indeed I am still not sure what I think about Mick...” (ibid., p.588)
It may well be that Jagger felt a sense of liberation at being so far from England and the complexities of home, and perhaps his feelings for Australia were touched by the fact that his mother had been born there. Jagger certainly writes of the outback in lyrical and surprisingly precise terms, describing how the mist of early morning “then turns red and violent then hard and warm”, the “pink granite boulders” of a nearby river, and in a particularly vivid passage writes of lying in a bed "with a lyre at the head" in a converted hayloft, thinking of her whilst listening to the alien sounds of the outback in the heart of a forest of strange trees.
Despite the romance of the location, the shoot was not a happy experience. Jagger’s letters mention the foul weather and an unpleasant virus that swept through the unit, but there was also a fire that destroyed costumes and various accidents – not least when a prop pistol backfired in Jagger’s hand. His injury gets only one brief reference in which it is dismissed as “boring crap” but he was badly burned and for some time was able to use his right hand only with difficulty. This injury accounts for the shifts in Jagger’s handwriting in some of the letters. The letters trace his disillusionment with the film-making process, especially in a letter written towards the end of the shoot in which he also writes with ironic distance about his own superstar status, conjuring up a satirical picture of him sitting in luxury in his caravan surrounded by sycophantic hangers-on who nod approval as he repeats his banal lines and a pretty girl "drools up" with a rewrite, before he takes up his guitar and shocks the company with a new song - "a scathing attack on the film industry".
This is one of several scattered references to song-writing in the letters, and his relationship with Hunt famously inspired “Brown Sugar”, one of Jagger’s greatest songs, which was composed during his time in Australia. The first letter in the sequence, written from Sydney shortly after his arrival in Australia, begins with the lyrics to “Monkey Man”, a song recorded earlier in the year for the forthcoming album Let It Bleed, but here with the addition of an extra three lines that link the song to his faraway lover. On several occasions within the letters themselves, however, Jagger’s prose tautens into sequences of images running together with a lyricism that raises the letters themselves into compositions reminiscent of his songs:
“...Wind blows, rains cold, stars shine, millions of them, guitar riffs on & on..."
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