Once I saw Mick Jagger mail a letter.
This was in the West Village, New York City, sometime in the mid-1970s. That summer night, I felt unmoored, but in a good way. I rarely walked west of MacDougal Street, but for some reason I had wandered beyond my usual boundary, entering the part of the Village where New York’s fierce grid system makes a quarter turn, and new parallels and perpendiculars emerge. It was Sunday night, which meant I had to work the next morning, but that event seemed distant enough to be if not invisible at least pleasantly irrelevant.
The block was uncrowded in the surprising way that New York blocks can sometimes be. You slip your way through and around three sets of people shouting at one another simultaneously, then you turn a corner, and suddenly you’re in an Edward Hopper painting.
Ahead, a streetlight glowed, oddly focused on the mailbox beneath it.
More alike than not, yet never exactly the same, the similarity of mailboxes is welcoming, while their differences produce the tiniest thrill of novelty. Not many years before, the words U.S. POST OFFICE spray-painted with a stencil on these boxes began to be covered with a large sticker that said U.S. POSTAL SERVICE, and blue bodies with red tops began to be painted all blue, and standalone bins with spindly legs began to replace small letterboxes mounted on posts. Witnessing these transitions was like living in a real-time drama, with every mailbox seen in the distance carrying just a hint of suspense. Even as mailbox design, color, and wording settled into greater similarity, there remained a playground of dissimilarity. Some rested at a bit of an angle, despite being mounted on concrete slabs to keep them level. Some had fresh labels with collection times, while on some, the labels were peeling. On some, collection times were hand-lettered, while on others mechanically lettered. Among those hand-lettered were glorious differences in not only penmanship but the weight of the lines due to the writing implements used.
Under the conveniently-located streetlight, on this unusually quiet street, as if posed for me alone, was Mick Jagger, white legal-sized envelope in one hand, the other reaching toward the shadowed opening wherein I trusted but could not see the existence of a handle on the tilting tray of the mailbox.
Our eyes may not be able to zoom in like a telephoto lens, but our minds can change our field of vision. The wide-angle view that yielded a gently realistic painting titled “Mick Jagger Mails a Letter on a Quiet New York Street” soon was replaced by a close-cropped image of Mick Jagger’s face.
Comedian Dana Carvey once observed this about the thrill people showed when encountering him in public: The same reaction, he said, would be elicited if a television network broadcast a peach all day. Seeing a peach at a fruit stand, the public would say, “Wow, that’s the peach I saw on TV!”
The thrill arising in such an encounter is not a function of the importance of the thing seen, but to the degree at which the thing that is palpably the same as other things is different. We are not thrilled when we see two different hair stylists at work. They may have the same profession, but the differences between them—one may be short and the other tall, for example—outweigh the similarities. But what if you run into your regular hair stylist at the drug store? Your frame of reference is that this is the same person you see every six weeks at the hair salon, but the variation in setting is sufficient to provide a momentarily significant burst of excitement.
The important thing wasn’t so much that this person mailing a letter was Mick Jagger but that I had seen hundreds of pictures of this person, had, in fact, pored over such pictures during the years not long past on that evening when I saw him. Those pictures were my frame of reference. And what I saw on that night on that unusually quiet New York street was something very similar to those pictures, but not quite the same. And that “not quite the same” was the catalyst for the thrill even more than that the thing being seen was Mick Jagger.
Perhaps I should not dismiss a different kind of thrill being in operation here. I walked on many streets on which Mick Jagger was not present, much less mailing a letter. Now I was on a street on which Mick Jagger was present, and mailing a letter. Is this not the thrill of the dissimilar as much as the thrill of the similar?
Having grown up in medium-sized Midwestern America, I felt the thrill of the dissimilar when I first witnessed subway car graffiti in New York City and the swoop of moors in Scotland and the scorching sun of Arizona. Seeing sights so dissimilar from my familiar context brought a wonderful sizzle that rose from shoulder to chin, then cheekbones, then temples. This sensation is a sugar rush of undefined possibility that, merely by being in a particular place so dissimilar from one’s frame of reference, is, with no further effort, realized.
What is vacation if not a thrill ride of the dissimilar?
Its sudden onset is part of the thrill of the dissimilar. And that thrill can be extended for hours, even days, with proper dosing at proper intervals. Yet in two ways that thrill is inherently finite. First, the sugar high inevitably exhausts itself. Second, over time, the dissimilar becomes the norm. After living in New York for several years, for example, visiting Chicago brought not the loud thrill of the dissimilar, but the quieter thrill of the similar – that is, of witnessing the marginal distinctions between two largely similar places.
That night on the quiet New York street, I was thrilled, but not by Mick Jagger per se. I was thrilled to see something similar to a photograph of Mick Jagger, yet definably different.
I was thrilled by the way the overhead light caught his left cheek, the way that light generated delicate shadows defining the gutter around his mouth, already well clear although Mick was only 35ish at the time. This cheek, the mouth gutter, the shadow—these were similar to the hundreds of pictures of Mick Jagger I had seen, but different. This was in three dimensions. This was in high definition, higher with each step I took closer to the focal point. This was accompanied by the smell of the big city and the gentle nudge of air displaced by a passing car.
Seeing Mick Jagger mailing a letter was a cousin of The McDonald’s Experience. All McDonald’s draw from the same bevy of elements—yellow arches, reddish brown double-sloped mansard roof, the company’s proprietary sanserif typeface (called Lovin’ Sans, rather odd considering that “sans” means “without”), shiny silver counters, molded plastic booths, etc. Yet every McDonald’s uses those elements in a slightly different way, altered to abide the dimensions of each building, its unique external and internal traffic flow. The comfort of each trip to McDonald’s is the sameness of these elements; the thrill of each trip to McDonald’s is the tingle of dislocation as we absorb the small and investable differences of this McDonald’s from every other McDonald’s.
Like the thrill of similar McDonald’s, Mick Jagger mailing a letter presented a new configuration of familiar elements. Yet the charge running from my right shoulder to my heart to my jaw to my eyes on seeing Mick that evening was more intense than the tingle of seeing a subtly different McDonald’s. Perhaps it was more like seeing the rock and roll McDonald’s in Chicago. Two stories! Huge arches! Huge windows! Beach Boys 45s and Ronald McDonald and John Lennon’s guitar and your Big Mac on your brown plastic tray all goofily coexisting. The similar still overrides the dissimilar. The rock and roll McDonald’s is primarily a McDonald’s, but barely so. The dimension of its dissimilarity from other McDonald’s is extreme enough to come very close to outweighing the similarity, the sensation of teetering on the precipice of dissimilarity giving a new thrill.
Seeing Mick Jagger mail a letter was that sort of dimension of dissimilarity, that sort of thrill. Seeing him then, envelope in hand, could, I sensed, be a reordering experience. A reconfiguration of perception. A new frame of reference. This Mick Jagger, this three-dimensional entity, this individual who moves, who mails letters in the evening, might become my new basis for processing the perception of Mick Jagger. Although Mick Jagger was not at that time so very important in my life, not a part of my thoughts unless some unbidden externality brought him forward, nonetheless this potential change in perception seemed important.
Or perhaps it wasn’t. In only a matter of days, perhaps just hours, the primacy of the rock and roll McDonald’s receded, and the routine attributes of the routine McDonald’s returned as the primary criteria of perception.
Two or three years before I saw Mick Jagger mailing a letter, the Rolling Stones recorded a version of the Temptations’ 1966 song “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.” Not long ago, I asked a musician friend of mine—someone who had played with members of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles—whether he could name any cover version that was superior to the original song. Usually voluble, my friend said simply, “No.”
I’m not talking here about the Great American Songbook. Songs like “Anything Goes” and “Baubles, Bangles, and Beads” have no consensus originating performer or recording artist, no single and obvious point of reference.
“Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” however, is clearly a Temptations song. It was very popular. And it was released only eight years before the Rolling Stones released their version, surely not long enough to require resurrection.
I suppose there are two perspectives from which to perceive a cover song. One is the performer’s. How must it feel to play someone else’s song? I imagine like listening to a favorite song with the vibrations not entering through the ears but through the bloodstream. Like you embody the song, or it embodies you. A high level of excitement, in which I suspect the differences between the original version and the performer’s version are buried in the rush of sensations.
The other perspective is similar to mine in encountering Mick Jagger mailing his letter that evening: the audience’s perspective. For us audience members, listening to a cover song is a comparison. We are perceiving, primarily, the differences between the version of a song that is familiar to us and this cover version. Oh, I recognize that a more popular artist may present to the audience a cover version of a song the audience has never heard—as the Rolling Stones did for Irma Thomas’ “Time Is On My Side,” for example. But for a song as well-known as “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg,” our experience is primarily comparison and contrast. A cover version does not obliterate the original. Certainly not with superior quality. Does any example of a superior cover version come to your mind? None does to mine. Mick Jagger is not a better singer than the Temptations’ David Ruffin.
We are left, then, in the peculiar place of not enjoying a song, but processing the quality of difference between this performance and a similar one. If extreme—for example, Joe Cocker’s version of “With a Little Help from My Friends”—those differences may reorient our perception of the song, as the rock and roll McDonald’s reorients, if only fleetingly, our perception of McDonald’s. If not so extreme, we tap our toes, perhaps, and say to ourselves, “Well, that’s a nice version of the Temptations’ song ‘Ain’t Too Proud to Beg.’” Which on the face of it seems rather a waste of time.
But what, then, are we to make of the strange case of Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoffs recording a series of six disks over seven years consisting of 60 highly familiar songs—I mean rampantly familiar, like “Maggie May” and “All the Young Dudes”—recorded with close to note-for-note fidelity to the originals? Even the vocals – especially Sweet’s – strive toward those of the originals. In this set of works, Sweet and Hoffs show themselves to be perhaps our greatest auteurs of the similar. Our pleasure in this series of works exists in the most delicate, most tantalizingly wisp of the portion of the two circles that do not intersect in a Venn diagram of two all-but-identical objects.
The thrill here is small in degree, but its subtlety is lovely and enduring, like the sound of wind on grass, like seeing a thousand pictures in fan magazines of Mick Jagger singing. No, we are not reoriented, but neither are we disquieted. These sorts of tiny differences can go the distance, can accompany us with great pleasure, like taking a road trip with a long-time friend.
Perhaps my life would be better had I never seen Mick Jagger mailing a letter, if he were only a collection of similar images.
On my bedside table rests a book, a 50-year-old mass market paperback, titled What’s Up, Doc? On the cover is a photograph of actors Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal, stars of the movie of the same name. At the bottom of the cover are the words, “a novel by Carole Smith.” This is not a novel on which the movie was based. Rather, it is a novel written based on the movie. Once upon a time, when moviegoers were not able to see movies repeatedly on video, such novelizations were common as a way of allowing fans to re-experience a favorite movie.
The goal of a novelization is to recreate a movie as exactly as possible. The ideal novelization would be precisely the same as the movie, but of course that’s not possible. The thrill of a novelization is its necessary dissimilarities—verbal descriptions standing in for visual depictions of a scene, a suspenseful moment, a character’s feelings. Dialogue can be the same—well, in any case, the same words spoken can be written. But in the movie, we may witness a character say a line of dialogue with a smile, but in the book, we have only the words “with a smile.”
A novel also must grapple with point of view in a very different way than does a movie. Many novelizations, including What’s Up, Doc?, hew toward a kind of objectivity that attempts to duplicate the objectivity executed by a typical Hollywood camera. Consider this line: “Room 1711, unoccupied at present, connects with Room 1713, in which Mr. Smith is pacing the floor.” These words replace a hallway view of two doors, a dissolve to a dark, empty hotel room, a pan to a connecting door, and a dissolve into a shot of a pacing man. The perspective is the same, the information is the same, and the effect is the same, except for the tingle of words replacing images, despite the flat functionality of those words.
Just the tiniest movement from objectivity to subjectivity comes in a sentence like this: “She smiles, takes a last, longing look at the finished pizzas on the rack in the window, retrieves her overnight case, and continues walking.” Still rigorously objective, but there is that word “longing,” which we certainly can see in Ms. Streisand’s face in the movie scene, but that in the book borders on a dip into the mind of the character. And this is where the book’s perspective rests for most of its pages.
But not all. Look at this: “Directly across the hall from 1717, in room 1716, Howard Bannister is dressing for the banquet. The bump on his head no longer hurts, but it is a bit noticeable. He is having some trouble discarding thoughts of Judy Maxwell.”
Ha! Author Carole Smith couldn’t resist. We are most decidedly inside Howard Bannister’s head. We feel the lack of hurt from his head bump. And we know his thoughts: Judy Maxwell.
The novelization doesn’t duplicate its source material as much as transpose it, like transposing a piece composed for a big band into a piece for guitar (or the other way around). On one level, the joy for the listener is in the small and complicated adjustments made to accommodate the transposition, as I might feel if I put on the clothes of someone almost but not quite my size. On another level, in striving for exact duplication through a new format, we become happily sensitized to moments we might otherwise have taken for granted, as we were in Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake – but in color! – of Psycho.
And isn’t that what Mick Jagger was for me now? A photograph transposed into something else? What, I am not sure.
In New York, when you see a celebrity, you’re supposed to be cool. Don’t stare. And certainly don’t accost. Perhaps that’s one reason celebrities like New York: they get to be seen in all their celebrityhood, but they don’t have to deal with the concomitant annoyances. My interpretation of New York’s how-the-masses-relate-to-celebrities rule was that I was not required to alter my path to avoid Mick Jagger. Rather the opposite. Go about your business –that was the spirit of the law. So I kept walking, which brought me closer to Mick Jagger at the mailbox. Mick surely was not aware of me and so would not have known if I stared. Still, I followed the rules. However, as I approached, I did steal glances. The effect was rather like stop-motion animation. Mick reaching toward the tray of the mailbox. Mick holding the envelope near the opening. Mick facing away from the mailbox. Mick continuing his walk. Mick, only a flash of his denim jacket visible, disappearing around a corner. The street ahead of me lacking a living Mick Jagger.
The circle of my Venn diagram labeled “Mick Jagger in person” was gone.
I thought about that diagram, and all the other Venn diagrams that had ruled my passion for the similar, my attention on the non-common edges rather than the far larger intersecting portions. In those intersecting portions were wonderful stories, whether in movies or books. Were fun and familiar trips to McDonald’s. Were the mailboxes of the nation and their miraculous and crucial omnipresence. And was Mick Jagger, the person in a million pictures and the person walking the streets of New York at night, enjoying the perfect hour just past dusk, ignoring the obligations tomorrow would bring, delighted to encounter a nearly empty street in a busy city.
My legs suddenly springy, I adjusted my course just a bit to the right. A couple appeared in the distance. A motorcycle buzzed past. My arms tingling, I reached around to my back pocket. I removed from my pocket a legal-sized envelope, which I saw was now rather bent. With my other hand, I reached for the handle of the mailbox tray.
ROBERT FROMBERG is author of the memoir How to Walk with Steve (Latah Books, 2021) and the essay collection Friends and Fiends, Pulp Stars and Pop Stars (Alien Buddha Press, 2022). He contributes regularly to the Los Angeles Review of Books. Find more at robertfrombergwriter.com