BOOK REVIEW: The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones

They've been called "the greatest rock and roll band in the world," and for a time during the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was hard to argue that it wasn't true.  Bursting onto the rock music scene in 1964 in the wake of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones are music history's greatest runners-up.  Ironically, while the media pitted the Beatles and Stones against each other as rivals, the bands were good friends.  However, whereas the Beatles were universally adored and considered a national (and later, worldwide) treasure, the Stones were set up as their polar opposites by the press: scruffy, dirty, vulgar, and dangerous. As usual with these sort of things, the truth of the matter lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, although it is fair to say that the Stones did have a seedier image, lifestyle, and mystique attached to them. This reached its fever pitch during their golden period of 1968-1973 when they released a run of albums and singles that stands with the best that any band of any era produced.  In the middle of all of this, from 1968 to 1970, writer Stanley Booth traveled with the Stones and the resulting book, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, ended up being one of the greatest rock and roll books ever in spite of its tortuous gestation period (more on that in a bit).

***special thanks to Stacey at Chicago Review Press for sending me a copy of the book to review!*** 

Drug busts,  trials, sentencing hearings, and the rapid deterioration of Brian Jones forced the Stones off the road after their 1967 European tour.  Even though they'd continued to release several excellent singles and albums in the interim, by early 1969 the band were itching to get back on the road and play in front of crowds, especially in America where they hadn't toured since 1966. Complicating matters was the mental and physical degradation of Jones, who had become increasingly irrelevant to the Stones' music since the end of 1966. With Mick Jagger and Keith Richards firmly in control as the songwriters and creative drivers of the band, Jones was marginalized as he sank deeper into his addictions. Several months before setting out on their comeback tour of the US, the Stones replaced Jones with Mick Taylor, whose debut show was to be a massive festival in London's Hyde Park in July 1969. A few days before this concert, Jones was found dead in his swimming pool, turning the concert from its intended introduction of Taylor into a tribute to Jones. Three months later, the band would head to America to rehearse for the tour, which started in November and became one of the most epic and mythical tours of its era (at least until the Stones' equally celebrated 1972 US Tour). Into the middle of all of this dropped Stanley Booth, an at the time unknown writer from Waycross, Georgia who spent 1968 and 1969 in London working on a biography of the Stones before accompanying them on the 1969 tour. The resulting book would turn out to be more gripping, informative, interesting, and shocking than either the author or his subjects could have ever known.

The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones was originally written between 1968 and 1970, but wasn't published until 1984.  Thankfully, it has been reprinted for its 30th anniversary by Chicago Review Press and it is this edition that is the subject of the present review.  The book is set up as both a history of the Rolling Stones from their inception to the present (ie 1970, when Booth's time with the band was over) and as a blow-by-blow chronicle of the 1969 tour as it happened.  The structure has chapters alternating the band's history with the ongoing tour before they meet head-on at the end.  After starting the book with a tease about the situation at the ill-fated Altamont Festival (which we'll get to later) prior to the Stones taking the stage, Booth takes the reader for a ride on two parallel tracks: from humble beginnings in the country suburbs of London and the R&B clubs of the city before the Stones achieved stardom, and the decadent sleaze and boredom of a rented house in Los Angeles a month before the US tour starts in November 1969.  The central figure of both tracks is Brian Jones, the enigmatic and doomed young man who founded the band before he was usurped and pushed to the side the more successful they got.  As far as the band history part of the book goes, Booth does an excellent job tracing their history from the nascent jazz and R&B clubs of London where the band members began sitting in with each other to the moment when the five of them finally came together and started down their road to success.  Besides the concert riots and negative press that dogged them at every turn, what was most shocking to learn was just how soon after the Stones became famous that Brian's influence and participation in the band began to wane.  Indeed, Mick, Keith, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and Ian "Stu" Stewart all recall how Brian would not turn up for gigs or recording sessions, leaving the band to capably carry on without him.  Additionally, while Jagger and Richards' dismissive and often cruel treatment of Jones is well known and well documented, most fans (myself included) usually consider it to have started in the 1966-67 period, when Brian's drug problems became overwhelming and he lost his girlfriend, Anita Pallenberg, to Keith. However, the book clearly shows that the Stones (and then-manager Andrew Oldham) took this attitude toward Brian as early as 1964 and in earnest by 1965.  The book also gives the most detailed and in-depth look at the infamous Redlands drug busts of Mick and Keith and the resulting overreach of the courts in sentencing (and then releasing) the duo. However, Brian's offenses are also discussed, in even more detail as Booth was present at the hearings, and it's quite surprising as to how differently he was viewed by the media and the courts when compared to his two bandmates.  Booth also managed to interview Brian's parents for the book, albeit after his death, and their somewhat ambivalent yet ultimately loving feelings toward their late son and his former bandmates makes for fascinating reading.

Running concurrently with the band history is Booth's diary of the 1969 tour which is the beating heart of the book, bringing all of the threads together.  Beginning in October 1969 when the band, their various mates, management, and hangers-on decamped to several rented houses in Los Angeles to rehearse and prepare the logistics of the tour, Booth's prose is a narrative of not only what was going on in the Stones' world, but in his own life.  His troubles with his agent and publisher in getting his advance and a proper contract for the book drawn up, the strain the assignment put on his marriage, and his burgeoning drug addition as he imbibed alongside the Stones and their friends are all issues that continued to dog him throughout the tour. Along with this, he does a great job detailing the boredom and drudgery that accompanies a lot of rock and roll touring. While the Stones were demigods by this stage, earning a small fortune every night for a few hours' work and able to have their every whim and desire catered to, there were still endless hours slogging around on airplanes, buses, taxi cabs, in hotel rooms, and the constant bouts of hurry-up-and-wait as they flitted from city to city. All of this led to the inevitable climax, the disaster at the Altamont Festival. The last show of the tour (although not actually part of the tour proper as it was added at the last minute and took place a week after the true end of the tour), Booth had a backstage view of the mayhem and violence of the festival from the moment the Stones arrived at the site all the way through their performance and their harrowing escape to the safety of their hotel. In particular, his play-by-play recap of the concert itself (which, along with listening to the audience recording of the entire show and watching the Gimme Shelter film gives one an almost completely immersive and accurate picture of what went on) makes for edge-of-the-seat reading.  Indeed, I literally could not put the book down while I was reading this chapter. His grisly description of Meredith Hunter's fatal injuries at the hands of the Hells Angels doesn't make for easy reading, especially when he conveys an eyewitness account from a man who was involved in trying to save Hunter's life. While most accounts rightly point the blame at Hunter for pulling a gun in the midst of the huge, restless crowd (and indeed, it's all captured in the film), the manner in which Booth describes the entire event is terrifying and places the reader firmly in the pitch dark madness of that cold California night in December 1969.

After that disaster, the finality of the tour is remarkably brief as everyone in the Stones entourage scattered to the four winds almost immediately after Altamont.  The rest of Booth's story, both in terms of his personal life and his book, is no less troubling.  It took him many years to recover, emotionally and physically, from the experience; he had to kick his drug addictions after a few more years of spending time with the Stones on subsequent tours nearly cost him his life.  The long and winding road his book took to being published, as well as the various missteps made by his publicity handlers, cost him a lot of money and fulfillment which led him to the desperate brink of suicide. He never made much money off of the book despite its critical darling status since its publication and this seems to have left a slightly bitter taste in his mouth, and understandably so.  However, we should be eternally grateful that the book did come out and that it is now available again.  If method acting involves an actor getting so immersed in his or her character that they actually become the character for a time, then Booth was a method writer as he became one of the Stones during this period in his life, and he paid a dear price for it both mentally and physically.  Apart from some rather dense and perhaps overly verbose and slightly pretentious passages scattered throughout, this is a fascinating and enjoyable book that puts the reader there in the moment. It's not fly-on-the-wall writing so much as it is fly-in-the-ointment writing, and it also contains one of my new favorite sentences of all time:

"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."

That is powerful, profound stuff and so, so true.

This book has rightly been hailed as a classic of rock music writing and I can't argue with that assessment. It is, in my opinion, the most rock and roll book about the most rock and roll rock and roll band ever. And I meant that sentence exactly as I wrote it.  None other than Keith Richards himself said "Stanley Booth's book is the only one I can read and say 'Yeah, that's how it was.'" If it's good enough for Keef, that's more than good enough for me.

MY RATING: 9.5/10