Barry Coleman still remembers the day in 1983 when he was called by his editor at the publisher Weidenfeld & Nicolson and told: “We’ve got a problem. Can you come in ... tomorrow?”
“The urgency was a bit disorienting,” he says. “Something had clearly gone horribly wrong.”
Coleman arrived to face what he describes as a delegation, who told him that Mick Jagger had apparently banked £1 million for a proposed autobiography yet so far failed to produce the book. Unusually, Weidenfeld & Nicolson hadn't done a deal with a copublisher for overseas publication, so it was bearing the entire financial risk, which presented an "existential threat" to the company.
The sticky situation had arisen because a respected English ghostwriter had allegedly been unable to pull off the task. "The story I was told was that he'd gone to a lot of celebrity parties and met people like Michael Jackson, and then lost the plot," Coleman says. "I don't know if that was the pressure of the book."
If you want to write an autobiography, you can't do it in a week. It takes a lot out of you. It takes a lot of reliving emotions, reliving friendships, reliving ups and downs
The company knew Coleman was a speedy writer, as he had, in only 10 weeks, written a biography with the motorcycling champion Kenny Roberts, and they brought him in to mount a rescue job. "They said. 'You're the only person we know who can do this.' So, rather surreally, I became Mick Jagger's ghostwriter's ghostwriter."
Unfortunately, the Rolling Stone abandoned the project. To this day Jagger’s autobiography remains one of the most sought-after properties in publishing. The success of his bandmate Keith Richards’s 2010 memoir, Life – an international bestseller – doesn’t seem to have jolted Jagger to follow suit.
“When I actually started to get into it, I just didn’t enjoy reliving my life,” the 77-year-old told BBC Radio 6 Music last April, while promoting his and Dave Grohl’s pandemic-themed single, Eazy Sleazy. “So I just said, ‘I can’t be bothered with this,’ and gave the money back. If you want to write an autobiography, you can’t do it in a week. It takes a lot out of you. It takes a lot of reliving emotions, reliving friendships, reliving ups and downs ... I just didn’t enjoy the process.”
However, Coleman recently contacted the Guardian newspaper, which he used to write for, to say there was more to the tale than Jagger had made public. “I am quite sure that nothing that Mick has said is misleading,” Coleman, now a dry-humoured, white-haired 74-year-old, says over Zoom. “I just don’t think he knows everything that happened, either!”
Coleman is now ready to explain his role in the saga – which was almost scuppered from the start.
Three years before he was called in to salvage Jagger’s book he had panned a Stones gig at Belle Vue in Manchester in his role as a Guardian music critic. Luckily, Jagger didn’t recall this, so Coleman was flown to New York, where he was provided with a personal computer, a rarity in 1983. “It was the first time I’d ever seen one.” However, where the original ghost had been put up in the swanky Sherry-Netherland hotel, Coleman was placed in what resembled “a broom cupboard, which looked out on to a waste pipe”.
Then the expected collaborations with the initial ghostwriter didn’t happen. “We had one conversation, then he stopped returning my calls. Then the publishers told me that they now had a deal for the US market [with the New York-based publisher Bantam Books] but they needed the finished book within two weeks or the deal was off.”
Coleman’s panic sharpened when he realised that only fragments of the project existed. “Two chapters were more or less presentable. The rest was a pile of interview transcripts, and nothing related to recent years. Stitching everything together was an awful experience.” Doing the motorcycle book had left Coleman with insomnia. Jagger’s would-be biography required “a horrible level of concentration”. For light relief, Coleman had taken a golf putter with three balls. “I’d just putt the balls in the hotel room whenever I couldn’t stand it any more.”
There was always this sense in the transcripts that Mick was holding back or trying not to hurt anybody's feelings
The transcripts covered key periods in Jagger's life – growing up in Dartford, in Kent, meeting Richards on platform 2 of Dartford station, the infamous 1967 drug bust, the Rolling Stones guitarist Brian Jones's swimming-pool death and the horrors at the Altamont festival in 1969, where an 18-year-old audience member named Meredith Hunter was stabbed and beaten to death by Hells Angels security in front of the Stones on stage. There's a scene in the Gimme Shelter movie where the usually strutting singer watches the footage of the incident and looks shaken to the core, but the transcripts contained none of his innermost thoughts.
“All the big stuff was in there. There just wasn’t anything interesting said about it,” Coleman says with a sigh. “There was always this sense in the transcripts that Mick was holding back or trying not to hurt anybody’s feelings.”
Somehow, Coleman delivered on time, taking all night to print a single copy of the manuscript on a daisy-wheel printer "the size of a suitcase, with wet towels over the doors, because the [hotel] security kept coming to complain about the noise". Lord Weidenfeld, no less, phoned to thank him for rescuing his business. "But I'd gone to the toilet," Coleman says. "So a young man from Bantam took the call. I came out just as he said, 'Thanks for calling.'" He emits a tiny chuckle at the farce of it all. "So I didn't even have that moment."
By now, though, Jagger was getting cold feet. During subsequent conversations, Coleman glimpsed a more human Stone than was presented in the transcripts. The singer would phone him while "writing songs and watching the cricket" to reveal a mutual childhood interest in motorcycling. "He told me he used to watch it at Crystal Palace when he was a kid, and he reeled off all these riders' names from the 1950s. He described the little boy who went on to become Sir Mick. Stuff I'd love to have put in the book."
I think Mick Jagger respected his audience by not giving them something ordinary about an extraordinary life
Alas, while Coleman found the rock legend to be “charming, engaging and honest”, a face-to-face meeting at the office of Prince Rupert Loewenstein, the Stones’ financial manager, brought the curtain down on the memoir. “We’d talked a lot about whether he still wanted to go ahead or whether we could do it again but differently. Mick didn’t blame me. He just didn’t want to do it.”
Coleman maintains that Jagger behaved honourably. “I think he respected his audience by not giving them something ordinary about an extraordinary life,” he says. “I’ve lived with this story for 38 years with a certain frustration, but in a way it tells you more about Mick than anything that could have come out in a mediocre book. It needed Mick to be able to talk to someone like he might a therapist, approach his life from a tangent. Instead we ended up with something that was too pedestrian for Mick Jagger.”
About years ago three pages purporting to be from the book-that-never-was came up for auction – although Coleman says he doesn’t recognise them as being from the book he worked on. “‘I took to sex like a duck to water’? I can’t imagine Mick talking like that. He was much more dignified.”
Then, in 2017, the publisher John Blake claimed to possess the 75,000-word manuscript, which he declared to be "the rock'n'roll equivalent of the Dead Sea Scrolls ... Mick tells of buying the historic mansion Stargroves while high on acid and of trying out the life of horse-riding country squire. Having never ridden a horse before, he leapt on to a stallion, whereupon it reared and roared off 'like a Ferrari'." Again, Coleman doesn't remember these anecdotes, but Jagger's management has verified it as genuine, and he admits that it's possible that Blake has that solitary copy of his manuscript.
"Or perhaps tarted up some more," he says. "By a ghostwriter's ghostwriter's ghostwriter." – Guardian