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High on the Stones

Tomki Nemec
Václav Havel with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones on the day of their first performance in Prague after the collapse of the Communist regime, August 18, 1990

Richards’s childhood in the dreary town of Dartford, east of London, along the Thames, gave him a sense of existence itself—“life”—as something randomly meted out to begin with, and brutal for the lucky few who make it. Dartford had been known since the Roman times for thievery: “Sutton for mutton, Kirkby for beef, South Darne for gingerbread, Dartford for a thief” went the old laud. Little Keith was routinely bullied and robbed, though he had “that thing little fuckers have, which is called speed.” His backyard was the Dartford Marshes, where “everything unwanted by anyone else had been dumped” for a hundred years: “isolation and smallpox hospitals, leper colonies, gunpowder factories, lunatic asylums.” The asylums corralled Dartford in a ring (“You’d give people directions: ‘Go past the loony bin, not the big one, the small one’”) and every so often an air-raid siren repurposed as an escape alarm would sound: another “loony” (after “flitting through the shrubbery”) would be found “in his little nightshirt, shivering on Dartford Heath.”

Mick Jagger makes his first appearance in this book as a thirteen-year-old boy with a summer job at the “Bexley nuthouse, the Maypole,” a “bit more upper-class” asylum (Richards thinks everything about Jagger is too posh), doing “the catering, taking round their lunches.” Jagger was growing up in the fractionally less grim neighborhood nearby; Keith sees him around town, selling ice cream in front of Dartford town hall, and in the fullness of time they bond over records:

Did we hit it off? You get in a carriage with a guy that’s got Rockin’ at the Hops by Chuck Berry on Chess Records, and The Best of Muddy Waters also under his arm, you are gonna hit it off. It’s the real shit. I had no idea how to get hold of that.

Mick “had the London thing down,” had contacts, a catalog from Chess records, and, for a pen pal, Marshall Chess, Mr. Chess’s son who worked in the mailroom and would later become president of Rolling Stones Records. Mick had seen Buddy Holly play, and played the Buddy Holly songs he heard—if he didn’t play them, he wouldn’t hear them—in bars around Dartford.

Anyone reading this review can go to YouTube now and experience Muddy Waters, or Chuck Berry, or Buddy Holly, or the first Stones recordings, or anything else they want to see, instantly: ads for Freshen-up gum from the Eighties; a spot George Plimpton did for Intellivision, an early video game. Anything. I am not making an original point, but it cannot be reiterated enough: the experience of making and taking in culture is now, for the first time in human history, a condition of almost paralyzing overabundance. For millennia it was a condition of scarcity; and all the ways we regard things we want but cannot have, in those faraway days, stood between people and the art or music they needed to have: yearning, craving, imagining the absent object so fully that when the real thing appears in your hands, it almost doesn’t match up. Nobody will ever again experience what Keith Richards and Mick Jagger experienced in Dartford, scrounging for blues records. The Rolling Stones do not happen in any other context: they were a band based on craving, impersonation, tribute: white guys from England who worshiped black blues and later, to a lesser extent, country, reggae, disco, and rap.

When the situation changed in part because the Stones changed it, and suddenly you could hear (and even meet and play with) Chuck Berry or Bo Diddley, the band lost its way. They depended, for their force, on a body-memory of those early cravings for music they knew only by rumor and innuendo. Other cravings, for drugs and fame, were not sufficient, and had much more dire downsides. The early Stones were in a constant huddle, dissecting blues songs in front of the speakers and playing them back for each other and then for their few fans. They thought of themselves, not even as a band, really, but as a way of distributing music the radio never played.

With the first flush of fame, the huddle became a defensive crouch, which still kept them together, though the risk of being strangled by teenage girls was real. Nothing in their later career, not even Altamont, the free concert where everything went awry, ever reached the level of chaos of those early shows, where most of the day would be spent “planning the in and the out” rather than the gig itself (the audiences were so loud that the band could play anything, and once, to prove that they were inaudible, played “Popeye the Sailor Man” to the frenzied mob).

In the great film about their 1969 tour, Albert and David Maysles’ Gimme Shelter, there is a scene of the band listening to a tape of “Wild Horses,” the gorgeous ballad by Richards and Jagger from the album Sticky Fingers, at Muscle Shoals Studio in Alabama. The next day they would fly to Altamont. Charlie Watts listens for his drums; he seems to like what he hears. Jagger is silent, then suddenly businesslike, then, tying an imaginary bow as the song concludes, happy. Various managers and hands look rhapsodic.

The image of Richards, though, is what stays with you: head back, eyes closed, sloppily lip-synching to Jagger’s vocals. Keith had written the song as a lullaby for Marlon, his son, according to Jim Dickinson. Jagger got his hands on it and made it a love song, probably addressed to Marianne Faithful. It is hard to know whether Keith is synching his own lyrics, which Jagger changed, or is simply too high to sing along. But it is an unforgettable image, the image of a band beholding its own complex chemistry, even as they are beheld by the Maysles’ camera. That moment seems to me the peak of the Stones’ career. From there, as Richards puts it, things went “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”


Richards adds mainly footnotes to our understanding of Altamont and the ensuing years, when the Stones would make their greatest record, Exile on Main Street, at Nellcoˆte, the villa he rented on the Riviera. There is a huge trove of images and stories from this period that his own memories cannot but have drawn on; he seems to remember, from Altamont, mainly those images that Gimme Shelter captured. And yet those years, between 1968 and 1972 and the release of Exile, are the critical years for thinking about the meaning of the Rolling Stones.

There were several elements that crested at Altamont on December 6, 1969, all of them putting special pressure on the band as it ran through the opening chords of its first number, “Sympathy for the Devil.” That song was a case in point. The Stones were in the studio recording it when Robert Kennedy was murdered in June 1968; their response was to make the lyric “I shouted out who killed Kennedy” plural: simple as that, that was easy. Jean-Luc Godard had filmed the band recording the song, and released his film named for it, in November 1968. You could argue that for a song that both reflected and fed the cultural frenzy of the moment, “Sympathy for the Devil” was unprecedented: it is still chilling to hear those lines, “I shouted out who killed the Kennedys/When after all, it was you and me.”

The first pressure was the American situation at large, brought to a boil in part by the Stones’ music, but so much more lurid and dangerous than anything the Stones could have imagined when they began their 1969 tour. “The end of the dream as far as I was concerned,” Richards writes; but then “America was so extreme, veering between Quaker and the next minute free love, and it is still like that.” When the madness breaks out at Altamont, Jagger at first seems almost gratified: “Something very funny always happens when we start that number,” he chuckles, and then starts it over again. He digs deep for the flower-child crowd-control vocabulary: “Brothers…Sisters…. If we are all one, let’s act as if we are all one.” But the Stones were still speaking their darker, more tragic idiom siphoned from the Delta blues. They didn’t do flower power well; they never could.

The second pressure was race, and here the strands are very tangled. It was a black man who was killed at Altamont, the only black man in the big crowd gathered near the stage, and one of the few black people we see in the entire film (in a comic moment, a white woman who looks like she was sent from the Pacific Heights Junior League is seen handing out “Free the Panthers” broadsides to a baffled-looking black guy). His name was Meredith Hunter, an eighteen-year-old boy from Berkeley, and (as anyone who has seen the film remembers) he was wearing a resplendent lime-colored suit. Surprisingly little is known about him: a filmmaker named Sam Green has made a short documentary, lot 63, grave c, named for Hunter’s unmarked plot at the East Vallejo cemetery north of San Francisco.

The Stones had worshiped black blues since before they were a band: Jagger, who as a teenager had one of his many summer jobs as a kind of workout leader at the nearby American military base, befriended a black cook who played R&B for him. But their sense of race was, and still is, sanitized: all the black people they knew were Delta bluesmen or piano players in James Brown’s band. When they touch on race, as in “Brown Sugar,” they always get into trouble. That’s a great song, but a really bad idea.

What is so illuminating, but also so much a problem, about this band—you can hear it in Jagger’s singing, as he goes from honky-tonk to soul and back again in a single album—is its willingness to impersonate the blues in a purely musical context, almost as though there is no history outside the recording studio. People can debate whether the black man in the lime-green suit was killed because of his race (on the one hand, after scuffling with the Hells Angels who had been hired as security guards, he had pulled a gun, and was rushing the stage; on the other, he had been targeted by the Angels, who were notorious racists, perhaps because he came to the show with his blond girlfriend), but the tragic appearance of a single black figure in that sea of white one minute and the brutal stabbing just a minute later feel like a direct consequence of the music the Stones were making, so brilliantly, on stage.

And then there was fame, which the band was handling in its various ways: Jagger was making Performance, the avant-garde crime film with a bad-trip aesthetic, and injuring his hand shooting a revolver on the set of a film about the Australian outlaw Ned Kelly; Brian Jones, after being fired, died; the drummer Charlie Watts, the stone-faced stoic, was immersed in jazz, the way he always had been. Keith was getting high and writing music. The band was always on the lam: Richards learned to look out his window every morning to check for unmarked cars, the way you would do to check whether the paper had been delivered. The frenzy is captured in Life, but for me the best book about the period is still Stanley Booth’s True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (2000), which has the tricky virtue of having been written from the eye of the storm; anyone suspicious of the recollective sheen of memoir, or of Keith’s memory, should seek it out.

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