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 what I suspect happened with Symphony for the Devil. It reads like drudgery work done to a high polish. Too high a polish. The prose gets smart and fancy, as when Norman describes rock fans massed under “the brilliant, strange-scented sixties sun” (did the sun go odorless in the Seventies?) or, repeating a phrase from Shout!, measures Mick Jagger’s buttocks to be as “tiny as twin collar studs” (oddly, bassist Bill Wyman is also said to have “collar-stud buttocks”—this could make for catty talk in the dressing room).
With that knowing manner comes a certain condescension, a free-floating irony whose sting never quite finds a proper resting place. “Not since ancient Greece had gods formed so visible and numerous a class as in Britain in 1966 under the pullulating Olympus of the pop music industry.” He [Jagger] is distant, self-absorbed, quiet, unassuming. His quietness and unassumingness hold the garden in a thrall as absolute as that of the Sun King at Versailles.” “In the center, at a table covered with so much luxury it approached squalor, Jagger sat with his white satin lapels flat on his meager chest, eating voraciously while Ahmet Ertegun spoke into his ever attentive ear. He was twenty-nine—the age at which Nijinsky appeared in public for the last time.”
This mock magisterial tone becomes wearying. Norman is far better when he takes quiet note of events, like Mick and Bianca’s wedding reception:
The party went on all night, heedless of the various small children slumped half-asleep amid the marijuana smoke. It is debatable which was the more melancholy sight: those neglected superstar children, or Joe and Eva Jagger, wandering around still trying to find an opportunity to give their son his wedding present.
Unlike Shout!, which sailed along on gusts of affection and zeal, Symphony for the Devil moves fitfully. In part, the difference in motion and tone may reflect a difference between the two subjects. After many tellings, the birth of the Beatles still seems fresh and momentous, and there’s nothing in this book as magical as the moment in Shout! when Pete Best’s mother (Pete Best was the drummer fired to make room for Ringo Starr) steps out on the porch one morning and sees her garden covered with sleeping girls. There’s also no one in the book as touching and heroic as Brian Epstein, the man who launched the Beatles on their conquering way but never found consolation, punishing himself with booze, drugs, and rough trade. (Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones’ impresario who modeled himself on Phil Spector and the Laurence Harvey character in Expresso Bongo, is an amusingly punk little shark, but not nearly as original or as poignant as Epstein.)
Norman is also saddled in Symphony for the Devil with a star who grows more dim and pettish with each inspection. Offstage, out of the combat zone of charisma, so to speak, Mick Jagger goes slack and coy. As Norman remarks in his epilogue, Jagger is notoriously unhelpful to interviewers; skirting disclosure, he simply bats his eyelashes like a señorita. Perhaps the chafing annoyance of this book derives from Norman’s inability to pry anything new out of Jagger, to get the real goods. The boyish ardor of Shout! has been replaced by a shaking of the bars. Caged by fame and caution, the Stones refused Norman admittance.
Stanley Booth’s Dance with the Devil suggests that even if you are granted admittance into the royal coven, you’re still not privy to Jagger’s mind. He’s as shadow-lit and as teasing here as he is in Symphony. Although Booth’s book is more limited in scope than Norman’s (chronologically, it peaks in 1969, the year of Altamont and Brian Jones’s death), it’s a far more grandiose affair—an attempt to fuse Gimme Shelter and Greil Marcus’s Mystery Train and the hungover, questing journalism of Hunter Thompson and Frederick Exley into a big kaleidoscopic goggle at the Sixties, the decade that refuses to die, damn it.
“It is late,” the book begins, in italics.
All the little snakes are asleep. The world is black outside the car windows, just the dusty clay road in the headlights. Far from the city, past the last crossroads (where they used to bury suicides in England, with wooden stakes driven through their hearts), we are looking for a strange California hillside where we may see him, may even dance with him in his torn, bloody skins, come and play.
That cry across the moors—is it the Hound of the Baskervilles? No, sire; only the spirit of rhythm ‘n’ blues, bidding the Stones to come boogie. It’s true that the Stones music is rooted in R & B; in the growling convulsions of Howlin’ Wolf and Bo Diddley, but Booth’s brand of southern gothic is so thick the prose drowns in gumbo. Yet straining both books carefully, one can cross-reference these Devils to interesting effect. Both recount the old chestnut about Jagger and the plaster casters; both are preoccupied with Jagger’s trim bottom (which in Dance with the Devil has become a “knife-blade ass”—must be hell on the upholstery); and both view the Altamont concert, at which the Hell’s Angels killed a man, as the dark, bloody summit of the Stones’ career. But where Norman is standoffish, Booth tends to crowd the ribs.
He serves as the point-man in his own narrative. We’re kept abreast of his private life and his reading habits (“I sat facing forward, trying to read the biography of Hemingway that William Burroughs recommended during one of our talks about Brian Jones, earlier in the spring, when my life, as Brian’s had, was beginning to come apart”); his bedpost notches (“A few moments passed, and Cynthia gasped. ‘I’m sure I’d get over being frigid if I were around you for a while,’ she said, slipping off my lap to kneel beside the bed”); and his kind assists (“I lifted it for her and when we got to Great Neck carried it off the train, partly because I had never carried a Chinese girl’s suitcase”). Important to this kind of book is mind-bending excess, and Booth doesn’t disappoint, popping amyl nitrite and powdering his nose with expensive snow. Perhaps the druggy climax comes when Booth shares a snort of heroin with Keith Richards up a tube of gold bamboo. It’s like a ritual initiation into a mystic outlaw brotherhood. They’re comrades in smack.
I don’t wish to make light of Booth’s narcotic intake. Clearly drugs took a damning toll on his life (he mentions epileptic seizures brought on during withdrawals), and it’s a measure of his worth and stamina that he was able to right himself and complete this book after crawling so close to the brink. But if Dance with the Devil is a personal triumph, it isn’t a literary one. Booth spent a lot of time with the Stones, but his cinéma vérité zooming in and eaves-dropping doesn’t often capture anything of consequence (sometimes a close-up of an ashtray is just a close-up of an ashtray), and his attempts to rise above the commonplace into night-blue rhetoric lead to a lot of, well, writing.
In the noise, the cheering, the music, it doesn’t matter how much I love you, I can’t stay, one small kiss and I’m gone, back on the road, Holiday Inns and airports, sad, tired, drear, ugly mechanics of transportation—to L.A. in the dawn, with the lights in the city below us, under the smoke and fog, going out like the last small fires one by one.
That sort of thing.
Like Norman, however, Booth does come up with a crisp snapshot now and then. There’s a funny account of two rock critics whose love affair has just gone bust interviewing Jagger together in the hope that His presence will heal their rift (it doesn’t). And there’s a sweet comic moment when Stones drummer Charlie Watts (who emerges as the most likable character in both books) finds himself left on the curb after the other Stones have driven off in a turquoise Continental. “Really,” he says, “they are the rudest people.”
Where Symphony for the Devil and Dance with the Devil both fail critically is in refusing to think about the Stones’ music; they treat it strictly as a matter of myth and gossip and showmanship. Norman and Booth demonize the Stones, even while recognizing that the demons have gone wispy and gray. Writing about the Stones’ 1969 tour, Norman quotes a bit of spritz from Albert Goldman, whom he snubs as “an academic afflicted with the strangulating desire to write ‘hip.’ ” But later in his piece about the Stones, Goldman makes an observation far more intriguing and astute than any made in these books—that the Stones’ dabbling in Satanism gave their music a driving, original focus:
Commencing with their closest communion with sin, “Sympathy for the Devil” [from Beggars Banquet], they suddenly shifted from a head music of ideas about other people’s ideas to a genuine musical life flow. The rolling, roiling, moto perpetuo of ‘Sympathy’ showed that the Stones had a real musical body that answered to the rhythm of Mick Jagger’s body, shaking and soliciting from the stage.*
The Stones, that is, were able to make their new-found sense of sin and menace theatrical because they had learned how to shuck borrowed facile mannerisms and to locate their own distinctive, insistent beat. This projection of unbottled energy led to more than Dionysian release. The music from the great Stones period that began with “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and climaxed in Exile on Main Street rocked and incited, but it also had a distancing chill of irony, even contempt. Simon Frith, writing about Beggars Banquet in the rock-critic anthology Stranded, comments that one song “has a musical coldness that only a highly intellectual rock band could manage.” It’s this intellectual frost line that Booth and Norman miss.
The scanty treatment given to Exile on Main Street is the most grievous oversight in these books, and it’s not accidental. Exile on Main Street, a two-record set released in 1972, is the most heroin-bedraggled Stones album, and yet the most restlessly alive. Listening to it is like traveling down a long corridor of granite walls and flickering fluorescent lights and loose, exposed wiring; it’s a classic rock study in noise, tension, and confinement. Yet it isn’t mentioned by Booth (it doesn’t make his narrative cutoff point) and from Norman it receives less attention than Their Satanic Majesties Request, the Stones’ ill-conceived Sergeant Pepper-ish head trip. Why? The clue can be found in Norman’s sumup of Sticky Fingers (1971), which he concedes is brilliant, but adds, “Yet something, somewhere, was missing. The sixties were missing.” Well, the Sixties were missing from Exile on Main Street, and it’s still a staggering work. But to admit that, and investigate it, would mean dumping the notion that Altamont was the dark climax of the Stones’ career and everything after a mere noisy irrelevance. These books feed off the myth of Altamont and the “death-of-the-Sixties,” catering to a Big Chill sense of letdown and malaise. Both are exercises in male-menopausal nostalgia.
“As long as Fleet Street suffers from Rupert Murdoch braindeath, the Stones can go on forever,” Norman concludes. “As long as people will pay money to see a legend from a quarter of a mile and fifteen years off, the Stones can go on forever.” But is the spectacle really that dire? It’s true that the Rolling Stones are no longer the combustible band they once were, and in recent years Mick Jagger’s polecat voice has become captive to affectation—drag-queeny in falsetto, mangy in moan. But compared to the other Sixties supergroups the Stones have held up rather sturdily. The Beatles, disbanded in 1970, are an evergreen memory. The Who were pasty and beside the point long before they called it quits. The Beach Boys are a golden-oldie juke-box, rustily cranking out their summer-time hits. Boneless harlequin that he’s become, Jagger hasn’t turned into a mondo-trasho swinger, like Rod Stewart, or a crooner in a straw boater, like Elton John. Reading Symphony for the Devil you get the feeling that Philip Norman scorns the Stones for growing old—for not going up in a final glorious burst of flame. But the Stones have at least grown old with seedy, heedless flair; they’ve treated middle age as just another mattress for their shenanigans. They’re honest floozies. In their own sluttish fashion, they’ve remained true to themselves.
Bob Dylan has also remained true to his selves—that’s the thesis of Jonathan Cott’s glossy book on the bard, which features an unshaven, scowling Dylan on the cover, looking as if he’s trying to ward off unbelievers. Troubadour, poet, jokerman, thief—Dylan has been all of these things, argues Cott, and yet “ultimately true to himself,” a quick-change artist with a soul as old as Jerusalem. When Bob Dylan was in his rocking prime, in the period from Bringing It All Back Home to Blonde on Blonde, his music had a loose, banged-up, horn-honking acceleration, and he had a mean gift for rolling down the window and spitting out sharp, surrealistic asides. (“The pump don’t work ’cause the vandals took the handles,” “Money doesn’t talk—it swears,” “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”—all are from Dylan’s customized-Dada phase.)
But Dylan, unlike the Stones, hasn’t maintained his superstar appeal in the Eighties; when he appeared recently on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman, it was a nonevent, and an interview in Rolling Stone showed him to be vague and rambling. Bob Dylan’s slipping influence and prestige can be laid to a lot of causes—age, burnout, his conversion to born-again Christianity (and his subsequent retreat from it), a musical hardening of the arteries, an acrimonious divorce (which has had Dylan in his lyrics eyeing all women with squinting distrust)—but Cott isn’t the diagnostician for the job. He’s more interested in shoring up Dylan’s reputation than in coming to terms with its slippage. To give Dylan a dark nimbus of glamour, Cott charges the air with erudite dazzle.
Unfortunately, most of Cott’s connections are kooky. “Like Bertolt Brecht, Dylan wanted to make each member of his audience aware of all the elements in a situation….” “And strangely, Dylan’s ‘philosophy’ is also uncannily similar to that of the sixteenth-century Chinese philosopher Li Chih, who has been called the ‘greatest heretic and iconoclast in China’s history.’ ” Once Dylan’s “philosophy” has been made scrutable, Cott ponders his “religion,” or religion. “Religion, someone once said [who?], is what a person does with his or her aloneness. And as the sixteenth-century French philosopher wisely wrote….” His constant lunging at the nearest analogy brings him even to the point of comparing a Dylan song to Meyer Schapiro’s description of a painting by Van Gogh.
My favorite Cott device, however, is the Unbidden Reminder. “In thinking about Bob Dylan and his protean and mercurial ways, I’m reminded of a saying of the late-eighteenth-century Hasidic master Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav….” “And in thinking of Bob Dylan and his concern with the conflict between faith and unbelief, I’m reminded of a poem by the eleventh-century Persian Sufi poet and philosopher Omar Khayyam….” Because Cott is always being reminded of something somebody once wrote about somebody else, he doesn’t ever look four-square at Dylan’s work and think about it. He doesn’t try to determine whether something is good, bad, failed, or achieved.
What sent Bob Dylan’s career off the rails was Renaldo and Clara (1978), a nearly four-hour cinéma vérité pastiche in which Dylan revealed himself to be not a seer or the voice of a generation but essentially just another smug, bored, full-of-himself rock star with an entourage. The movie had a souring effect—it made you want to drive Dylan’s exhorting whine out of your head, forever. To Cott, Dylan moves through the movie like a Renaissance king and we groundlings were foolish to spurn it and him. That’s Jonathan Cott, the last true believer, waiting for the gates of Eden to swing open and admit the holy few. But Bob Dylan no longer embodies salvation any more than the Rolling Stones embody damnation; those days are gone, and they’re not worth mourning. Rock stars no longer need or deserve to be put upon a pedestal and exalted; this mythopoeic approach has had it.
November 22, 1984