Stanley Booth was the Zelig of rock’n’roll writing. A Southern hipster determined to become a serious writer, he was present in the Memphis studio when Otis Redding wrote ‘Dock of the Bay’, and he witnessed the Rolling Stones record ‘Brown Sugar’ in Alabama. He penned the liner notes to Dusty in Memphis, was a confidante of revered record producers Jerry Wexler and Jim Dickinson, and a friend and patron of street-sweeping Memphis bluesman Furry Lewis. That Booth came from the same small town in Georgia as Gram Parsons just confirms his knack of being in the right place at the right time.
It must have seemed that way when, after writing prescient, lyrical pieces on BB King and Elvis Presley for Esquire and Playboy in the 1960s, he was commissioned to write a book about going on the road with the Rolling Stones on their 1969 US tour.
The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones took Booth 15 years and almost cost him his life. The book became a critics’ favourite but was a box-office disappointment. It didn’t enable him to get on with his real ambition – to become a streetwise successor to William Faulkner – but aficionados of music writing consider it to be the one book in an over-published, undisciplined genre that approaches literature.
Booth was originally disdainful of white musicians trying to perform R&B; in a 1968 article he was scathing of a chaotic Janis Joplin performing alongside dignified Memphis soul legends. But he became fascinated by the Stones after attending the drugs trial in England of the group’s doomed founder, guitarist Brian Jones. He was invited into the group’s inner circle: he was a writer, not a journalist. Best of all, he was an actual Southerner whose immersion in a cultural and musical milieu they could only envy and emulate. Keith Richards with Stanley Booth, 1969
The Stones’ 1969 tour is notorious for climaxing with Altamont, a free concert that became an apocalyptic nightmare. The tour also produced the live album Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out and the classic cinema verite documentary Gimme Shelter. The winter of 1969was one of discontent, of bad dope and bad vibes, with Nixon in th e White House, troops stuck in Vietnam, students protesting and generations clashing.
Booth’s book weaves through several stories simultaneously. There is the tour itself, with the writer having an access-all-areas pass and a rapport with Keith Richards that has professional benefits and lifestyle drawbacks. Almost subliminally, the Stones’ history is compellingly related using anecdotes from the participants. Booth describes the unlovable Brian Jones, his decline and inevitable demise. And he also tells his own story: a swift ascent to become a writer who then tumbles, like Icarus, from flying too close to the sun. The Altamont festival provides a chilling climax to the strands of his narrative. On stage beside the band, he stands transfixed but impotent as several Hell’s Angels viciously beat members of the crowd with pool cues.
The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones is written like a non-fiction novel. In Cold Blood was an influence, though Truman Capote’s own attempt at writing about the band’s 1972 tour stalled from writer’s block and a cultural disconnect. Booth was immediately on the Stones’ wavelength. His Southern accent, upbringing and contacts provided an entree: he could act as their regional interpreter. By appropriating R&B, rock’n’roll and country music, and adding their own Dartford Delta seasoning, the Rolling Stones produced their finest albums Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, inventing a trans-Atlantic music steeped in popular culture and hedonism.
With an introduction by Greil Marcus and an afterword by the author, this handsome reissue by Canongate coincides with the Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary. But it conveys their story far more evocatively than any sanctioned coffee-table book. To Booth’s annoyance, the 1984 US edition was melodramatically renamed Dance With the Devil. His own title – The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones – hints of James Fennimore Cooper. Booth had aspirations towards Raymond Chandler, and affectations to William Faulkner. But the one thing his original publisher did right was see the link to Edgar Allen Poe.
First published at Beattie’s Book Blog