There are a couple of things that help when it comes to telling a story that’s already familiar to your audience.
One, of course, is to wait a while before you do it. Give the audience time to lose a bit of the detail in the fog of distant memory. With The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones Stanley Booth certainly did that. Fifteen years after the end of the Rolling Stones tour of the States at the end of 1969 the book Booth was wrangling about through the events he’s chronicling here finally appeared.
Second, of course, it helps to be able to recast things so that your telling of the story is substantially different from what has gone before. Booth gets a walk up start in that department since he was on the ground in the Stones’ inner circle throughout the tour, so he saw things first hand that others could only pick up through hear say or rumour, and he’s found a three strand approach to the story that throws a new light on some of the circumstances.
Of course, it helps if you can really tell a story, particularly when you’re entering the same gonzo territory favoured by Hunter S. Thompson, where the narrator gets right inside the story and is an active participant. Thompson, for all his foibles and quirks, for all his wander and waffle, could, when the mood took him, write, and when he nailed a story it stayed well and truly nailed. His stuff might not have always worked, but when it did...
If you’re operating in that territory you’re not going to be over-prolific, and a glance at Thompson’s bibliography reveals a total of nineteen titles, four of them posthumous and most cobbled together from shorter pieces. Take a look at Stanley Booth’s bibliography and you’ll find, in the long form, a couple of incarnations of this title, a trio of Keith Richards biographies and the rather wonderful Rythm (sic, spelling taken from a mojo potion sold on Beale Street) Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South, which explains a fair bit of Booth’s access all areas status as the Stones toured the States in 1969 and collected articles Booth had contributed to magazines and newspapers including Playboy, Esquire, the Saturday Evening Post, Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.
Born in January 1942 in Gram Parsons’ home town (Waycross, Georgia) Booth spent his early years in a turpentine camp on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp where he saw a black man who worked for his family attempt to kill his grandfather. The family moved to Macon and on to Memphis in 1959, where he studied art history at Memphis State University before moving on to graduate school at Tulane University in New Orleans, returning to Memphis without completing his degree due to lack of money and the fact that study distracted him from writing.
In between he’d done the Greyhound odyssey to Beat Generation Central in San Francisco, read Kerouac, listened to Miles Davis and met poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Zen scholar Alan Watts. That sort of CV would have allowed him to slot neatly into most hipster circles in the States and Britain, but by the middle of 1964 he was back in Memphis, acquiring a black belt, teaching karate and taking up a job with the Welfare Department that lasted until 1966, when, disillusioned with the system, he quit to try his hand at writing on a full time basis.
An ambition to be a full-time writer is all very well, but you need something (or someone) to cover the bills, and Booth got by on his girlfriend’s salary and what he was able to scrape together from freelancing, largely writing about music, which is where the link to the Stones, predictably, slots in.
He’d already had an article based on time he’d spent at Graceland with Elvis Presley in early 1967 published in Esquire (allegedly the first serious article written about Presley) and had been in the Stax studios with Otis Redding two days before the singer’s death, watching the session that produced Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay. That one was a commission from the Saturday Evening Post. He’d also drunk bourbon for breakfast with B.B. King the day after Robert Kennedy's assassination during one of the last interviews for an article for Eye magazine, the source of another commission in September 1968.
That one sent him to London to write an article about the Rolling Stones, one that turned out to be about Brian Jones' last drug trial. Booth arrived in London, rolled up to the Stones' office, told them I was from Memphis and that I knew people like BB King and Furry Lewis, and he was, more or less, in. He’d met Memphis blues man Furry Lewis through a friend who owned a club where Furry occasionally played, had spent mornings accompanying him on his regular gig as a street sweeper and had put him onto the War on Poverty: Memphis Area project South Summer Workshops Program where he made a thousand dollars for working for six weeks, two hours a day.
There’s a bit of street cred there that transcends hack journo status and provides the access that fuels two-thirds of the narrative threads that run through The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones and a fair bit of the third. As far as the Stones were concerned he looked and dressed the part, spoke with the right (Southern) accent, indulged in the right vices and, coming from Memphis had firsthand knowledge of the music that inspired them.
I had managed to sweep the streets with Furry Lewis, throw up at Elvis Presley's ranch (overdosed on the painkiller Darvon by Dewey Phillips, the first man to play an Elvis record on the radio), drink Scotch for breakfast with BB King, watch Otis Redding teach Steve Cropper 'The Dock of the Bay' ... (loc. 4925 of the Kindle edition)
Following that trip to England Booth had a publisher looking for a book about the Stones, though he was, in his own words, way too serious and high-minded. Things started to change with Brian Jones’ death on 3 July 1969, since his death was a mystery. I wanted to get to the bottom of that. Booth heard the news directly from Stones secretary Jo Bergman, so he was already, to most intents and purposes on the inside. He was also partly swayed by his mate Memphis producer-musician Jim Dickinson assertion that the Stones were bound to be good ol' boys.
The Brian Jones side of things provides one of the three narrative strands Booth uses to drive the narrative, a more or less chronological description of the rise of the Stones from the days before they were an unknown group in front of an audience that didn’t quite stretch to double figures at the Station Hotel, Richmond, through the scene at the nearby Richmond Athletic Club that produced, among others, the Yardbirds and the Pretty Things to the end of the Sixties, when they were at the height of their rock’n’roll power and mainstream media notoriety.
As far as the other two strands are concerned, one runs through the actual tour, starting from the various parties arriving in Los Angeles, running through the pre-tour rehearsals and then heading off on the circuit of dates that finished with the infamous free show at Altamont. The other, predictably, is Altamont, a slowly unveiled account of the whole shebang from a viewpoint within the Stones’ entourage. That doesn’t deliver a whole lot of new detail, but is told by an observer with an eye for detail and unrivalled access to what was going on behind the scenes.
Looking back on it, that Stones tour across America represents a remarkable stage in the evolution of the twentieth century rock concert, one that’s worth pausing a moment to consider. Forty-five years later matters relating to touring have been honed into a finely tuned mechanism, but here, having just emerged from the package tour where you get half a dozen acts in the space of two hours or thereabouts with the whole party travelling on a bus you’re heading towards a longer set by the headliners with a couple of support acts, and, in most cases, still two shows per night.
The Stones had moved into travel by chartered airliner territory, but when you read the details here the logistics of the whole operation seem completely ramshackle as the touring party weaves its way through the concrete underbellies and stage entrances of the sports arenas and basketball stadiums that seemed to be the promoters’ venues of choice. The logistical arrangements get them to the night’s destination, though you have to add the qualifiers just and eventually, there are seemingly interminable delays in airport terminals, on the tarmac and nights spent in anonymous identical Holiday Inns. They’re the sort of circumstances that don’t just encourage the travelling rocker to seek refuge in chemicals, but go close to making the rampant drug use close to mandatory for anyone who isn’t immune to sleep deprivation, flawed decisions, illogical logistics, and inept management.
Booth also gets the reader inside the session at Alabama’s Muscle Shoals studio, where they played for three days straight, cutting Brown Sugar, Wild Horses, and Fred McDowell’s You Got To Move, all of which, of course, ended up on Sticky Fingers. When the Stones needed a piano player for Wild Horses, Booth points them towards his mate Jim Dickinson, who he’d invited along to the session and introduced to the band.
Then, of course, there’s the issue that leads straight to the decision to play the free show, that is and to wit ticket prices.
The hip critics are down on the Stones for prices that are too high, though given another forty years of establishing what the market will bear by anyone with aspirations to sell out a major tour, what they were asking for the Stones plus supports (in most cases Terry Reid, B.B. King and Ike & Tina Turner) seems pretty reasonable, even allowing for the effects of inflation.
Still, there are countercultural street cred issues at stake here, so there’s an agreement to play a free show for the kids, and in the wake of the previous year’s utopian peace and love vibe and events in Woodstock a couple of months earlier there’s no perceived need to hire security personnel.
From his spot on the inside "writer-in-residence" Booth ends up becoming Keith Richards’ friends and late-night sparring partner and there probably isn’t a better source to verify the accuracy of Booth’s account in The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones than Richards’ assessment that it’s the only one I can read and say, "Yeah, that's how it was."
That story is told against a framework of gigs, travel and Booth’s attempts to sort out the contractual side of his book project, something that isn’t an issue as far as the Stones are concerned but is an issue for assorted hangers-on with their own irons in the fire.
As far as the mayhem, violence and murder that went down at Altamont and effectively killed off whatever remained of the late sixties’ peace and love vibe there isn’t a lot that can be said and hasn’t already been reported. Booth’s approach to it, gradually unfolding the detail as he works through the book’s other strands works, and his from the stage insider’s perspective and eye for detail delivers a gripping account of the ugliness that culminated in the death of Meredith Hunter, stabbed and kicked to death by the Hells Angels who were supposedly providing security right in front of the stage where the Stones were performing.
Booth's account, however, goes further than that. He points out that the Stones carried on for another hour and a half, delivering a brilliant performance in a setting where it seemed safe to assume that several people had been killed and things would become substantially nastier if the band had cut and run. Along with Gram Parsons, he’s one of the last to board the chopper that got them away from the scene, No one, he points out, could say that the Rolling Stones couldn't play like the devil when the chips were down.
More than that, he’s able to point to the way Altamont changed the Stones’ approach to performing, claiming that reasons of self-preservation prompted a turn toward comedy. Jagger would disagree, but it’s fairly obvious the whole tour experience, not just Altamont but the whole shambolic procession around the States shaped the way the band approached future tours.
Booth was in a position to note and feel the change. Following Altamont he’d lived in England at the Richards’ residence until a certain weekend [when] I decided that if Keith and I kept dipping into the same bag, there would be no book and we would both be dead, retreated to Memphis to begin working on the first draft of the book (uncapitalized, unspaced, uncorrected), that Stones’ assistant Jo Bergman’s astrologer reportedly suggested would cost him everything except his life.
It took a while to finish. A drugs bust in 1971 could have resulted in up to 140 years in prison, but thanks to an enlightened Attorney General he escaped with a fine and a year’s probation. Thanks to a a family inheritance, he got by in an Ozark mountain log cabin owned by his parents, where he spent the best part of the next 10 decade, emerging to return to the road for the Stones tour in 1972.
Having done the ’69 tour, he was in the right place to note the difference as socialites like Princess Lee Radizwell and Truman Capote climbed aboard an ugly scene full of amyl nitrate, Quaaludes, tequila sunrises, cocaine, heroin, and too many pistoleros. Booth, predictably, headed back to the hills and avoided the ’75 tour completely, dealing with clinical depression, drug problems and domestic upheaval as he attempted to finish True Adventures, which he eventually succeeded in doing in 1984. Along the way he broke his back and smashed his face falling from the top of a waterfall while high on acid in 1978, went through three divorces and ended up addicted to painkillers.
While True Adventures was a success as far as the critics were concerned, contractual disputes with agents and publishers meant Booth ended up making nothing out of it, and hopefully this republication, coinciding with the fiftieth anniversary of the Rolling Stones, will deliver something substantial into his pocket.
There are plenty of books about the Stones out in the market place, and while I haven’t read them all I’ve read enough to realise that this is the one to get if you have to limit yourself to a single volume. If you want to double that, go to Life, but that’s probably all you really need...