Sunday, November 13, 2011

The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (1984)

Stanley Booth is an American music journalist from the South. He happened to fall into the orbit of the Rolling Stones shortly after the death of Brian Jones, and was on hand for a good deal of the band's first extensive tour in several years in 1969, including the ill-starred show at Altamont in December that year. Even the Stones formally recognize and acknowledge the legitimacy of Booth's reporting in a brief, vaguely mocking letter to him, dated October 21, 1969, which is reproduced in my 1985 paperback edition (I'm not familiar with the 2000 edition, which reportedly contains minor revisions and an afterword that discusses the writing of the first edition): "This letter assures you of the Rolling Stones' full and exclusive cooperation in putting together a book about the Stones for publication," and it's signed by Mick Jagger, Keith Richard, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Mick Taylor. It's fair enough to call this book a labor of love, but the emphasis there must fall on the "labor," as it took Booth some 15 years to complete and the language feels well worked over, honed and buffed to a point where it's occasionally a labor to read as well. But I don't know of anything better anywhere on the Stones, or particularly on Altamont, and it makes an excellent companion piece and counterpoint to the Maysles brothers well-known documentary Gimme Shelter; each is a nice tonic to the excesses and deficiencies of the other, and both offer converging yet significantly differing points of view that harmonize well. Both have also earned colossal burdens of reputation, hailed as landmark works about the times—figures of no less stature than Harold Brodkey and Robert Stone, for example, call Booth's book the best single volume on the '60s. OK, fair enough. I'm inclined myself to put that on a few other volumes first (Dispatches, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Manchild in the Promised Land, or Catch-22 come to mind immediately). But I see how it works. And if I'm going to indulge hyperbole of my own here, it's for the 50-some pages that Booth devotes to the Altamont show proper, which open with a section of transcript from the discussion between Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips on the epistemology and ontology of evil, and hell, in the context of the song they are attempting to record, "Great Balls of Fire." It's an earnest and serious discussion, at least on the part of Lewis, steeped in old-time Christianity. Just so, I have never encountered anything anywhere that penetrates so deeply into the simple facts of what was happening that day at Altamont as Booth's book (and that includes Gimme Shelter, which I have always counted as impressive and important)—nor, more importantly, any more powerful, simple, and nuanced suggestions of "what it all meant." There are no easy answers here, and not much comfort. I should get that 2000 edition, if only to find out for sure what held up the writing of this for 15 years. But I have a feeling I might already know.

In case it's not at the library.

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