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Working the Puzzle

A re-issue adds one more piece to our picture of the '60s

by Chris Wohlwend

In 1969, the Rolling Stones embarked on a tour of the United States. The country was still flush from the promise of the summer of love despite the reactive brutality from the right that was appearing more and more frequently. At its start the tour and its attendant whirlwind would reflect the giddiness, with the Stones agreeing to put on a free concert at tour's end. But that show, at Altamont, would end in tragedy.

Accompanying the band was the writer Stanley Booth. His resultant book, published in the U.S. in 1984 as Dance with the Devil, has been hailed as "The one authentic masterpiece of rock 'n' roll writing" (Peter Guralnick) and "The best book so far about the Sixties" (Harold Brodkey).

That double-barreled praise speaks to one of Booth's many insights into what he was seeing in 1969: The cultural phenomenon that was the '60s depended to an important extent on its troubadours. The music, Booth says, "served a journalistic function, it was a way of getting the news out." And the Rolling Stones, with their knowing lyrics and searing music, delivered with swaggering, irreverent intensity, were at the forefront. While focused on the tour, Booth unerringly found the telling details in the surrounding events, deftly making the connections to the larger forces that swirled around the band.

A critical success from its publication, the book garnered the Deems Taylor Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers, an honor that speaks to its value as a work about music.

Now, after being out of print for several years, it has been re-issued by A Cappella Books under Booth's original title, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, with a new afterward by the author.

It was only natural that Stanley Booth would be drawn to the Stones. A native of south Georgia who grew up there, in Macon, and in Memphis, his musical tastes had been influenced from early and continuing encounters with the blues. In Memphis, he furthered his education by accompanying bluesman Furry Lewis on his street-sweeping day job.

From his home in Brunswick, Ga., Booth recently talked by phone about the book and its times:

"The first time I saw the Stones was in 1965 when Brian Jones was still with them and the shows were incredible, brief but very intense. The shows in '69 were much, much longer and even more intense in part because Brian was dead, but also because Mick Taylor [Jones' replacement] is such an incredible guitar player.

"The songs were tremendous poetry, certainly high drama on stage—'Midnight Rambler,' 'l9th Nervous Breakdown.' They had that blues tone, that ironic blues edge. The Stones came out of Jimmy f—-ing Reed, Muddy Waters, Slim Harpo, John Lee Hooker. Howlin' Wolf—the first time I saw them that's who they were with and there ain't no better company than that.

"Their songs had conviction. Mick Jagger had this power when he said something, not only were you inclined to believe it, but you had to pay attention—'There's some little jerk in the FBI/keeping papers on me six feet high/It gets me down.'"

As the lyric Booth cites shows, the typical Stones' song was without illusion, almost always a clear-eyed reflection of the era's darker side. The Vietnam war was continuing despite its unpopularity, and Richard Nixon and his electors were envisioning their fascist version of the American dream. And, Booth points out, the "barbaric drug laws that we still have" were affecting people all over the country.

No one could predict what happened at Altamont, the music and stylized stage act a pale mockery of the dark death drama taking place in the audience, where violence perpetrated by the Hell's Angels security detail led to mayhem and a mortal stabbing.

Booth's intuition about the unfolding story proved true, and the Stones and their ever-changing, ever-the-same entourage, alternately strutting and stumbling across the country, provided a perfect vehicle for a portrait of the era. Amidst the drugs and sex, there were encounters with Chuck Berry and Little Richard and Bo Diddley, Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, Gram Parsons and Leonard Bernstein, Ed Sullivan and Topo Gigio, Ken Kesey and Abbie Hoffman. Booth noted it all and ultimately produced, as he says in his afterward, "the story of those days, when the world was younger, and meanings were, or seemed for a time to be, clearer."

The book's re-issue comes while Booth is working on biographies of two disparate south Georgia musicians. The first will be about Parsons, the Waycross singer/guitarist/songwriter who pushed traditional country music into the rock mix. The second will be about songwriter Johnny Mercer, a Savannah native. He's also working on another re-issue. Gimme Shelter, the Maysles brothers' documentary movie on the tour, is coming out on DVD and Booth is doing an essay to accompany it.

It's only fitting—Booth's picture of the times is still the most honest and compelling. As novelist Robert Stone wrote recently of the book, "In all the annals of the '60s, there is nothing on paper that so evokes those days and nights."

August 10, 2000 * Vol. 10, No. 32
© 2000 Metro Pulse