Caught by the River

The Music Book Reader Bulletin

Andy Childs | 6th August 2012

by Andy Childs

The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones by Stanley Booth
(Canongate, pbk, 552 pp)

Amidst the publication of the obligatory commemorative biographies in this, the Rolling Stones’ fiftieth anniversary year, the re-issue of Stanley Booth’s powerful, gonzo-style account of the band’s 1969 U.S. tour that culminated in the horrors of Altamont is both timely and provocative. Originally published in 1984, True Adventures took fifteen years to write and apparently almost killed the author in the process. Booth doesn’t hold back in describing the toll that his experiences with the Stones and the trauma of writing the book took on him and if there is occasionally an air of smugness and narcissism that creeps into the writing it’s more than justified by the depth and clarity that he brings to his account of the Stones’ beginnings, the downfall and demise of Brian Jones and life on tour during what was arguably the band’s heyday. All these elements are woven compellingly into the narrative. Charlie Watts and Keith Richards are especially forthcoming on the band’s early days and with access to Brian Jones’ father and Anita Pallenberg, Jones’ sad story is given a sensitive and poignant treatment.

But the meat of the book and the event that propels it is the ground-breaking U.S. tour in November of 1969 which has assumed mythic rock’n’roll status. Perhaps in order to retain a degree of sanity, but also by way of illustrating the level of dysfunctionality surrounding the preparations for the tour Booth writes almost cathartically about the frustrations of trying to get his book authorised by the Stones and his contract confirmed in time by his publisher, and he returns to this theme regularly throughout the first 250 pages. Of course drugs and women feature prominently in his story and Booth’s closeness to the action, his chummy relationship with Mick, Keith and Charlie (Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman have but bit parts in this saga) and his unflinching portraits of their chaotic business entourage and less salubrious hangers-on all contribute to the sense of drama and disorder that seems to prevail for most of the time.

As the tour unfolds we get a show-by-show, hotel-by-hotel chronicle although one gets the impression that the band and their ‘management’ have a diminishing appreciation of just how powerful an effect their music is having on their audience and how their superficial anti-establishment stance is being taken far more literally than they ever intended. This tenuous hold on reality reaches some kind of apogee during the ill-fated free concert tacked on to the end of the tour that was meant to be a gesture of appreciation and a riposte, one imagines, to influential writer Ralph Gleason who had earlier complained of the high ticket prices at their shows, but instead turned into a nightmare of violence and death and came to represent the nadir of the era of ‘peace and love’. Booth’s account of the Stones at Altamont is the most intense part of the book; it’s completely riveting and still, to this day, disquieting not just for the brutality exercised by the drug-addled Hells Angels and the shocking murder of Meredith Hunter but also because of the Stones’ response to the uncontrollable mayhem unfolding in front of them. Jagger’s attempts to placate the crowd, as reported by Booth, were platitudinous bordering on incoherent and their total incomprehension of what was happening is sobering to say the least. Lessons were learnt of course and Rolling Stones tours became bigger and more grandiose as they made the transition from renegade band-on-the make to well-oiled rock’n’roll business machine. But they were probably never more potent, vital and downright dangerous as they were at this time – at the tail end of the 60s. Booth gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what made them so and provides a snapshot of a defining moment in rock’n’roll history that remains as sharp and focused as when it was first made.

THE BYRDS : Requiem For The Timeless Vol 1 by Johnny Rogan (Rogan House 1,200pp, hdbk)

The Byrds go country!

Now down to the duo of McGuinn and Hillman, following the departure of Michael Clarke, replacement drummer Kevin Kelley is hired. We’re in 1968 and The Notorious Byrd Brothers is released to much acclaim. Of course David Crosby isn’t happy because although he’s on the record he isn’t credited and what’s more he perceives the cover art to be a personal insult (I can sympathise with you on that one Dave). Regardless, as Rogan convincingly argues, The Notorious Byrd Brothers established The Byrds beyond all doubt as one of THE great bands. Period. As unstable as ever though, change was on the way. They tried touring as a trio but quickly realised it wouldn’t work and with McGuinn wanting the band to move in a more experimental/jazzy direction, as hinted so promisingly at on Eight Miles High, he somehow contrived to hire Gram Parsons as a jazz pianist! Of course as an unsustainable pretence it seems a fairly blatant move on Parsons’ part to enrol himself in The Byrds and then persuade them all that country music was what they should be playing. On reading Rogan’s in-depth account of this episode it appears that McGuinn especially was completely blindsided by Parsons’ manoeuvre and went along with what was by then a Parsons/Hillman pincer movement. They went to Nashville and played The Grand Ole Opry where Parsons apparently assumed Crosby’s mantle and upset everyone there, never to be invited back. McGuinn’s plans to take the band into more experimental territory were shelved and Parsons’ influence grew to the point where he and Hillman tried, unsucessfully, to get rid of McGuinn! Doug Dillard is hired for live dates to give further credence to the band’s growing country repertoire, they start recording what would become Sweetheart of the Rodeo, and when it seems that Parsons’ stranglehold on the band is all but complete it’s all change again. We’re halfway through 1968 and Parsons is cultivating new friends in Mick Jagger and Keith Richard who manage to persuade a somewhat confused Gram that the Byrds’ impending tour of apartheid South Africa is a bad idea and that he shouldn’t go. And after much soul-searching he decides to take their advice and abandon the group just before they flew out there. The tour was a disaster that was thankfully soon eclipsed by the release of Sweetheart of the Rodeo, a record that had die-hard Byrds’ fans scratching their heads. To say that it was a record divorced from the prevailing rock culture was an understatement – it was their worst-selling album to date but it did inspire – for better or worse – a plethora of bands who came to shape what we know as country-rock. And so to bring us to the close of a tumultuous year Gene Parsons is recruited to replace Kevin Kelley and almost simultaneously Hillman finally quits to go off with Gram Parsons and form the Flying Burrito Brothers, a plan that many Byrd watchers believe was hatched long before Gram quit the band. John York replaced Hillman and at the beginning of 1969 McGuinn is starting almost from scratch again and still having dreams about synthesizers. We are now deep into this monument of a book and although the band’s golden period is coming to an end and Crosby isn’t around anymore (I’m missing him already… really), the pace hasn’t flagged a bit. Furthermore Rogan makes several mentions of Vol.2 the anticipation of which will help stave off any impending withdrawal symptoms.