Symphony for the Devil: The Rolling Stones Story
Dance with the Devil: The Rolling Stones and Their Times
For two decades the Rolling Stones have sprawled across the sofa, bored and surly, their laps warmed by debutantes and groupies, their bloodstreams roughed up with drugs. If the Beatles have been embossed in legend as the merry ambassadors of Mod (brushed bangs and boot shine), the Stones have been cast as the boll weevils of upscale Eros, toying with the chambermaid before having a nasty go at the duchess. (WOULD YOU LET YOUR DAUGHTER GO WITH A ROLLING STONE? was a famous early headline.) Of course, such a face-off is far too neat—recent books about the Beatles have shown that they were no slouches themselves when it came to groupies, chemical abuse, and social climbing, that, indeed, they envied the Stones’ license to misbehave while they were obliged to keep up a squeaky-clean front. Philip Norman, an English journalist who wrote the best book to date about the Beatles (Shout!), has now turned his attention to the Stones in Symphony for the Devil. Unfortunately, where Shout! had a ruddy, exuberant glow, Symphony for the Devil is a group portrait in which the makeup has flaked and the skin gone sallow.
Norman, who writes fiction as well as journalism about the rock scene, has a flair for the snapshot image. Describing the plight of the Beatles’ wives, he writes, “on the rare occasions when they were permitted to emerge, their chalk white and ringlet-encircled faces bore the same look of bewilderment as pit ponies kept too long underground.” Mick Taylor, who succeeded Brian Jones in the band, is described as playing with his virginal face tilted sideways, “solemn as some thinking girl in a novel by George Eliot.”
For more sustained pleasures, there’s an excellent opening chapter in which The World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band (a phrase Norman employs with dry irony) grind their guitars ineptly before a throng of ninety thousand at Philadelphia’s JFK Stadium, proving their mettle a few days later by playing into the howl of a gale and giving no quarter, even after the wind has mugged old Mick. (“The headwind hits Jagger first, catching the radio-controlled mike in his hand and whirling it up to bump his mouth with such force that it loosens the diamond in his top front tooth.”) There’s also a full, comic account of the famous drug bust in which a fur rug, Marianne Faithfull, and a Mars Bar prominently figured. And Norman does the most lucid job I’ve seen of setting the scene for Brian Jones’s still-mysterious death (a competent swimmer, Jones was discovered face down in the pool, the coroner later determining his drowning to be “death by misadventure”—an apt phrase). Norman seems to carry his facts around like a mouthful of nails, hammering them emphatically into place. Symphony for the Devil is a sound piece of journalism.
But it often happens in journalism that you push on even after you’ve lost enthusiasm for the project, and that is …