January 1, 2006

Backstage Man

IN 1984, when I was beginning my book Coyotes, my editor at Random House handed me a brand-new book about the Rolling Stones that he said was very, very good. The editor, David Rosenthal, had just come to the book business from Rolling Stone magazine and so, I figured, knew what he was talking about. I browsed Dance With the Devil: The Rolling Stones & Their Times, by Stanley Booth, noticing that much of it took place in 1969, during a tour of the United States that ended with the infamous Altamont concert in California. “Why’s it only coming out now?” I asked Rosenthal, who grimaced. “Long story,” he said, and never told it to me.

I do not read many books about music, but this one drew me in. Part of the reason was that Booth’s style of research with the famous rock group seemed similar to what I had in mind with Mexican migrants: participate and immerse rather than simply interview and observe. Yes, the Rolling Stones on tour led a life different in most respects from that of people sneaking into the United States, but there were similarities (young men traveling in a group, young men working but also having an adventure, young men breaking laws, young men staying up late and getting blasted, etc.). The other reason was that, as I soon discovered, Dance with the Devil is a treasure of participatory journalism, a book with something good on practically every page.

It was also a book suited to the disjointed way in which I was living at the time. Dance with the Devil, in other words, though mainly about a tour, digresses frequently and does not impel you breathlessly toward the end. So I could read it in little pieces, a few pages here and a few pages there; unlike most books that I don’t plunge into, I kept it around, in night table or knapsack. Maybe because those early days were also a time when I often found myself stuck in writing, too self-critical and unable to find the words, Booth’s book also came to hold a sort of magic for me, the power to break a dam and start a flow. Which is more, somehow, than I can say for most books I admire.

The hardcover edition didn’t sell and so the paperback was retitled (in the way the author had always wanted): The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. But that didn’t help sales either and both editions soon fell out of print. In 2000, however, True Adventures got a new life when it was republished by Chicago’s A Cappella Press. Blurbs on the cover, I was delighted to see, showed that it had found other admirers. “The one authentic masterpiece of rock ’n’ roll writing,” raved Peter Guralnick, a writer not given to hyperbole (or blurbs, for that matter). “In all the annals of the 60s, there is nothing on paper that so evokes those days and nights,” sang Robert Stone. Harold Brodkey, in the early 1990s, called it “the best book so far about the 60s.” There was a new afterword, too, so I picked up a copy and read the book again.

True Adventures begins in a way that gives readers a taste of what they’re in for, and foreshadows the disaster to come. Six strange paragraphs in italics, a kind of prologue, describe Mick and Keith’s nighttime reconnoiter of the coming evening’s venue, the Altamont Speedway east of San Francisco, where they would give a long-awaited free concert:

It is late. All the little snakes are asleep. The world is black outside the car windows, just the dusty clay road in the headlights. Far from the city, past the last crossroads (where they used to bury suicides in England, with wooden stakes driven through their hearts), we are looking for a strange California hillside where we may see him, may even dance with him in his torn, bloody skins, come and play.

Inside the band’s limo, The Crystals are on the radio singing “He’s a Rebel.” Outside, people waiting for the gates to open are everywhere, with their dogs, packs, and sleeping bags. The driver doesn’t know where to go but finally arrives at a fence. “So we stand on one foot and then the other, swearing in the cold, and no one comes to let us in, and the gate, which is leaning, rattles when I shake it, and I say we could push it down pretty easy, and Keith says, “The first act of violence.”

The story of the free concert, which is well known, ends the book: as the Stones play the next night, the Hell’s Angels, acting as security, will kill a black man, and beat others. Altamont is considered by many to be the calamity that began the eclipse of the Age of Aquarius. Ending the italicized section is a cartoon panel with the title, “J.P. Alley: Hambone’s Meditations.” The black man pictured in it, leading a mule, is saying “O, lock up de do’ en set down yo’ load – hones’ folks asleep en de debil on de road!!”

It’s the only drawing in the book and, with its racist dialect, its presence seemed strange – until I discovered that “Hambone’s Meditations” was until 1968 a regular feature of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Then I saw how it ties together three important elements of Booth’s project: Memphis, where he began his career writing about the blues (he is originally from Georgia), the Stones’s satanism, and black people (and their music and their rhymes) as depicted by white people. Because what apparently drew Booth to the Stones was music: they were set apart from most other acts by their interest in and adoption of the blues, and Booth’s association with that music, and the South, seem to have been a reason they agreed to let him chronicle their tour.

That chronicling gets under way after passages about the formation of the Stones, their rise to popularity in Britain, and the death of the guitarist Brian Jones, apparently from a drug overdose. Booth also recreates early meetings with the Stones and their managers, repeatedly sharing his anxiety over whether the arrangement will work out, whether he’ll have a deal signed before the tour begins. As Booth tells it, what probably clinches the deal is when Jagger asks him:

“What would your book be about?”
“You know, what would be in it?”
“What will be in your next song?”
“A girl in a barroom, man, I don’t know. It’s much easier to write a song than a book,” says Jagger . . . .

I told Mick that I had written a story about a blues singer who had swept the streets in Memphis for more than forty years, but he’s more than just a street sweeper, because he’s never stopped playing, if you see what I mean. I didn’t look at Mick to find out whether he saw. You write, I told him, about things that move your heart, and in the story about the old blues singer I wrote about where he lives and the songs he sings and just lists of the things he swept up in the streets, and I can’t explain to him, Furry Lewis, what it is about him that moves my heart, and I can’t tell you what I would write about the Rolling Stones, and so, well, I guess I can’t answer your question. No, he said, you answered it, and for the first time since I thought, long months ago, of writing this book, I felt almost good about it.

It’s when the tour begins, in the book’s middle section, that the ship leaves the shore and Booth finds his pace. He is with the band during rehearsals, at arena gigs, and inside recording sessions, cars, private jets, hotel suites and house parties with a changing cast of groupies, handlers, cops, and other musicians. Booth has said in an interview that “I wanted to write a book that readers could walk around in and know what it was like to be in London in 1968 or America in 1969,” and he works hard to capture the texture of the times.

He is strongest when writing about the music – the history of it, the business of it, and the experience of it. Booth’s believer’s passion results in all sorts of luminous insights into the enterprise: “The Stones’s show was not a concert but a ritual; their songs . . . were acts of violence, brief and incandescent.” And later, “Making love and death into songs was exactly the Stones’s business.” Booth tells a story in which “Each night we went someplace new and strange and yet similar to the place before, to hear the same men play the same songs to kids who all looked the same, and yet each night it was different, each night told us more.” He suggests that “In the sixties we believed in a myth – that music had the power to change people’s lives. Today people believe in a myth – that music is just entertainment.” He writes about what it was like backstage and what it was like in the audience, what it felt like when things really clicked and what it was like when they did not.

The backstage view is, of course, the main draw to a book like this, and Booth offers anecdotes intriguing, disgusting, and amusing. He writes about a comely woman in the studio audience during the taping of the The Ed Sullivan Show who does not succeed in getting taken advantage of: a minion picks a “big blond in buckskin” to visit the boys backstage instead. Booth writes of leaving the studio with a friend, “the pretty little girl in the brown outfit ahead of us, smiling, lucky to be left with her dreams.” He reports on how, a couple of days after a recording session, the Stones “made more money than they had ever made in one day by recording a television commercial for Rice Krispies . . . .” In one particularly delightful scene, Booth describes Jagger on his hotel bed after a concert, exhausted, eating Chinese food, and taking flack from others for his smelly socks:

Mick drew his feet up under him . . . and began talking to me about the future, where to live, what to do . . . . “I’ve got to find a place to live, got to think about the future, because obviously I can’t do this forever.” He rolled his eyes. “I mean, we’re so old – we’ve been going on for eight years and we can’t go on for another eight. I mean, if you can you will do, but I just can’t, I mean we’re so old – Bill’s thirty-three.”

Sometimes there’s just pleasure in the writerly risks Booth takes, and seeing how they pay off. Toward the end of the tour, he describes waking up at the Plaza Hotel in New York “still anesthetized by the heroin.” His friend, Gore, “being like all speed freaks evangelistic,” takes him to a “speed doctor,” who gives them shots in the butt of something restorative for ten dollars apiece.

Booth then writes:

I had felt faint and limp-wristed, but with the charge in my ass I decided we didn’t need a cab, we could walk across town to Madison Square Garden for the Stones’s afternoon concert. Out of an earnest desire not to rob this account of its true interest, I will confess that I was carrying the red carnation from my bedside table at the Plaza; so there I went, boots, jeans, and leather jacket, sniffing a long-stemmed red carnation, looking like some insane faggot ought to be kilt with a shovel, as we walked briskly through the streets, fatigue gone, feeling ardent.

What Booth captures so well is the particular energy of the time. The style is sometimes Beat, Kerouacian – there’s a sense of experimentation under way. And in that, True Adventures achieves true oneness with its subject: like the Stones, Booth is full of aspiration, trying something new, unsure where it will take him. And that, in retrospect, is I think the book’s great resonance for me, and its promise for any young writer: take these chances, it has continued to tell me, and some of them will pay off.

The Random House cover photo of the author, apparently taken years later, showing him neatly groomed and wearing coat and tie, made you wonder how on earth he hung out with the Stones. But a much better shot of Booth and Keith Richards at the end of the new edition shows him long-haired and modish, bandanna around his neck, perhaps backstage somewhere, looking like maybe Keith’s brother. (Throughout True Adventures he seems to connect more readily with Keith, and, indeed, years later he published another book about only him: Keith: Standing in the Shadows.)

This photo is a valuable addition because it lets you see how close Booth got to the band, how much he identified with them. And by contrast, how little common ground he felt with other journalists on the Stones’s trail. Take, for instance, Booth’s descriptions of the Stones’s press conferences and interviews with the correspondents of various well-known media. The distance between these accomplished people and the author is fascinating. Instead of participating in these scenes, he simply observes cannily, letting the reporters’ superficial questions and the Stones’s sound-bite answers speak for themselves. It’s all summed up by a sentence which, when he wrote it, must have given Booth great pleasure: “When the Newsweek talk ended and the reporter left, we all decided to have lunch together on the Strip.”

At other times, his in-group status results in clear antipathy toward outsiders. He’s particularly hard on Albert and David Maysles, who are also along for parts of the tour, including Altamont, filming their now-classic documentary, “Gimme Shelter.” The filmmakers’ sin, it appears, is to have gained access to the inner sanctum without the requisite knowledge of the music, or long-term commitment to the enterprise. Booth is in a New York taxi with the brothers on the last day of the tour: “As we rode we talked about the Stones. David and Al seemed to know nothing about them and two months later, after their film was shot, would still be talking about Bill Watts” (a conflation of the names of Charlie Watts, the drummer, and Bill Wyman, the bass player).

Another peril of participatory journalism is exposure to a subject’s vices – drugs, in the case of the Rolling Stones. Drug use was part of the ethic of the times. “Practically everybody who got near the band in those days got drug-addicted,” a friend whose family was in business with them told me. Booth comments on it (and has joked that the book was so late because he had to wait for statutes of limitation to expire). And yet Booth also, in being so firmly “embedded” with the Stones, seems unaware of what he’s being swallowed up by – or, at any rate, unwilling to struggle against it. Booth, with Richards apparently as his source, maintains that in the early days the Stones took “no dope of any kind . . . But in 1969 things had changed. It would be impossible to endure a world that makes you work and suffer, impossible to endure history, if it weren’t for the fleeting moments of ecstasy.” And so we have the drugs, and the justification for them. By the seventh paragraph of the tour, Booth is taking up a roadie for B.B. King on his offer of a sniff of heroin and then describing how particularly sexy Tina Turner and the Ikettes looked when he was high, how it figured in with the work (“People talked to me but I went on writing, no one could reach me in my Poe-like drugged creative sweats.”) Marijuana is omnipresent, starting on page four. In one passage, Booth, tripping on LSD, describes a policeman in a roadside café, “all dark blue, black leather, and menacing devices.” The cop, on his radio, receives a report of a crime committed by a black teenage girl. “The cop said he’d be right there, his tone loaded with sex and sadism. The only way he could be intimate with a black girl was to punish her. After he left, the place still reeked with his lust, if you had taken acid.”

After all these years, I finally see that drug use probably explains the book’s hallucinatory opening (where else do you get, “All the little snakes are asleep” and the suicides with stakes through their hearts?), and I can see it behind some of the book’s luminosity and its inscrutability. Booth makes clear that drug addiction was, indeed, one of the reasons the book took so long to complete; withdrawal, he writes, brought on epileptic seizures. But it apparently wasn’t the main one. In the new afterword he lays the blame mainly on changing times, on the end of the sixties, on the rise of Reagan and yuppies and greed. He claims:

I had to become a different person from the narrator in order to tell the story. This was necessary because of the heartbreak, the disappointment, the chagrin, the regret, the remorse. We had all, Stones, fans, hangers-on, parasites, observers, been filled with optimism there in the autumn of 1969 . . . we believed that we were different, that we were somehow chosen, or anointed, for success, for love and happiness. We were wrong.

Elsewhere in the afterword, he writes that he had to overcome depression and “domestic upheaval.” “So torn was I that at times I begged for death and for years tempted death almost constantly, at last throwing myself off a North Georgia mountain waterfall onto the granite boulders below, smashing my face, breaking my back.”

What to make of this? Cynically, I now wonder if such a talented writer simply requires a dramatic explanation – for himself, as much as anyone – for his book being nearly fifteen years late. But a better part of me appreciates that journalism approaching this level of art might necessarily exact such a price: If you take Booth’s explanation at face value, his time with the Stones becomes a kind of parable about participatory journalism. The book was a stand-out because Booth involved himself so fully not in just a band tour but in the passions of a generation. And yet, as the world changed, there was no way for that participant to write the book until he became somebody else and could look back on his experience as a thing apart, something that happened to a different person in a time long lost. Either way, the afterword brings me a bit closer to solving the question I asked my editor at Random House, those many years ago. I don’t think he knew the answer, anyway.