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Knee Deep in the Blues

March 18, 2004

H. Andrew Schwartz
Michael DeMocker

Penning a decadent, elegant odyssey about the "World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band" takes its toll -- especially if in so doing one physically and psychologically endured the Rolling Stones' late-1960s lifestyle. In The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones (A Cappella Publishing), venerated rock journalist Stanley Booth (G '64) grew to be a peer of the band, barely lived to write about his exploits, but emerged on the other side with a book widely considered unrivaled among any ever produced within the genre of rock journalism.

In addition, for more than 40 years, Booth has chronicled with uncommon distinction seminal moments in the careers of such rock and blues legends as Otis Redding, Janis Joplin, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Gram Parsons, B.B. King and Al Green. His long, strange trip to the world of rock 'n' roll was not as direct a path from his graduate work in art history at Tulane as one might expect. Overt, defacto and often brutal segregation in New Orleans at the time made it impossible to sample the city's trove of live music except in the protected confines of venues such as Preservation Hall.

"When I lived in New Orleans the racial climate was so vicious," Booth said, relaxing at his current home in Brunswick, Ga. "The cops once busted a party we had [off campus] in grad school because we had a black Dixieland band playing, so in their mind the party was integrated. You could go to the Quarter to Preservation Hall to see music but I had no idea anything else musically was going on because it was strictly not available. The cops would bust you if you went to a black club."

Still, Booth appreciates much about his time in New Orleans. "New Orleans is unique -- those trees, Audubon Park, the Zoo, the Pearl Oyster Bar, Martin's Wine Cellar -- all these wonderful things, but the racial atmosphere then was really the height in that era of serious violence. It's now a much sweeter place. It's not like it was and the South is not like it was, and I'm delighted about that."

Born in Waycross, Ga., near the Okefenokee Swamp in 1942, Booth spent his childhood ensconced in a climate where racism circulated in the "air one breathed." Despite the specter of inequality growing up in Georgia, and later as a teenager in Memphis, Booth was able to plunge into the blues music that so infused black culture.

"I was incredibly fortunate that my parents had all these great records," says Booth. "At 3 years old I was doing Al Jolson impressions. Later, the radio station WAYX in Waycross sold off all its 78s and I was getting them at a dime a pop. Now that there are thousands upon thousands of blues recordings it's hard to realize what it was like then, when it was a rare treasure to find a really good blues record."

Powerfully taken with the blues and realizing art history wasn't his calling, Booth left Tulane and returned to Memphis, hoping to pursue a career as a writer. Back within reach of Beale Street, the blues was too enticing a subject to ignore. "The music was precious," he says. "There's something so essentially American about the blues. It's a fundamentally powerful and poetic music. There is a poetic clarity to the blues." After writing articles for Playboy and Esquire about such pioneering figures as Elvis and bluesmen Furry Lewis and B.B. King, Booth's career took off and the grip of the blues proved addictive.

Blues power struck Booth with an even greater force when he saw a young British band performing in Memphis in 1965. The Rolling Stones, formed in London in 1963 by blues- struck musicians Keith Richards, Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, were on their first American tour. Booth realized the Stones had grown up scrounging for rare blues recordings as he did, and they were able to convey the music's essence in a way few previously had.

Moreover, he thought they had the ability to sustain their initial success. "Most of the time you think something is so good it will last forever and it usually doesn't," recalls Booth. "Clearly, the Stones were very dedicated to the blues and very idealistic."

His interest piqued, he followed the band to London. Meeting the Stones there through their publicist and later spending time with them in Los Angeles, Booth quickly gained the band's trust. They became fast friends over a common obsession, and though the Stones were famous, Booth had blues connections they didn't. "I had something of value to them," he says. "I'd lived in Memphis all these years and they had B.B. King's records, but I could introduce them to B.B. So they had a use for me."

Booth's friendship -- and utility -- translated to an authorization by the Stones to write a book about the band's 1969 U.S. tour. Immersing himself in the tour with the same intensity as the Stones themselves, Booth witnessed an indelible and controversial episode in the band's history: a chilling death during the Altamont Speedway free concert.

Planned as a follow-up to 1967's revolutionary Woodstock festival, the music festival to be held at the Altamont Speedway in California is, on hindsight, seen as the symbolic end to the peace-loving hippie movement that defined the late '60s. The Rolling Stones were to headline Altamont, which also featured such rock royalty as the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. Incredibly, the Hell's Angels motorcycle gang, known for their Harley-Davidson hogs and violent, drug-laced and booze-fueled lifestyles, were brought in as security for the event. Drugs, alcohol, rock, and Hell's Angels proved to be a recipe for disaster set to the ironic soundtrack of one of the Stones' popular hits, "Sympathy for the Devil."

In the middle of the action stood Stanley Booth. As the San Francisco Bay-area spectacle swirled into a psychedelic bloodbath, Booth saw firsthand Hell's Angels mauling people in the audience even as the Stones delivered one of their most memorable performances ever despite having to stop on several occasions for frontman Mick Jagger to try and calm the crowd. When the set ended, 18-year-old Meredith Hunter was dead after pulling a gun and subsequently being stabbed to death by the Hell's Angels.

Carrying Keith Richards' guitar to the stage and assuming a spot behind the amplifiers, Booth became forever associated with Altamont and his account of the incident. "There were 500 Hell's Angels there, and they were determined [to wreak havoc]," says Booth. "And there were 300,000 hippies who were like lambs led to the slaughter. The hippies were stoned, but the Angels were stoned and ugly. It was 'Night of the Living Dead.' It was like being in combat -- you just really did not know from one second to the next whether somebody was going to take an intense dislike to you for some reason and cut your head off."

Booth's expose of Altamont and of the Rolling Stones tour and early history stands as a singular, timeless, artful literary work about an exciting time in musical and cultural history. It was called The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, and it almost killed Booth before it was finished. Chronicling the Stones' entire 1969 tour and the events leading up to Altamont, True Adventures weaves in subplots both haunting -- the dismissal and subsequent drowning of founding member Brian Jones -- and creative. Amid the mayhem of that year, Booth witnessed the band's most critical period as the songwriting duo of Jagger and Richards produced new, exciting music steeped in the blues of the American South. The resulting output included albums that would become instant classics, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. But the harrowing incident at Altamont would cast a black shadow around the Stones for years to come.

Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Wexler, a legendary record executive and producer of Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Professor Longhair, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, Duane Allman, Solomon Burke and scores of others, has known Booth for more than 40 years. Wexler says Booth is virtually peerless in his field and has inspired "a cult" following in the United States and abroad. "It is a freemasonry of Boothians embracing college professors, folklorists, ethnomusicologists, old men of the blues and nondescript hedonists," Wexler said in an interview from his home in New York.

"Stanley made rock journalism intellectual," affirms Jim Dickinson, the highly accomplished Southern and progressive rock/blues producer and musician, who met Booth when they were both undergraduates at Memphis State. "He uses language the way no pop writer has ever used it -- he's the Faulkner of rock journalism."

In writing True Adventures Booth coexisted with the Rolling Stones in a way no other journalist ever has. Booth became a primary character in his own narrative and a peer of the Stones, traveling, living and partying with a band known for its excesses. Often, Booth and Keith Richards saw the sun come up together after hours of listening to the blues and experimenting with drugs.

In True Adventures Booth recounted his experiences with Richards:

"I've got something in here that might interest you," Keith said after the bellman left. Going into the bedroom, sitting down on the bed, he opened a drawer of the bedside table and took out a couple of capsules filled with white powder.

"No, not me," I said.

"Huh?" Keith said looking up. "I've seen you do coke." Then he saw I was joking and opened the caps into two piles on a small tray.

"This is heroin," Keith said. "I don't do it very often, just take it when you get it -- keep it around, you get hung up on it."

He split each pile in two and sniffed two up, using the gold bamboo he wore on a gold chain around his neck, then handed me the tray and bamboo and headed for the living room. I inhaled the other two mounds of bitter powder and followed. Keith was in a corner threading a tape into his recorder, which was old and gray and looked like something John Garfield would use to call Dane Clark in a World War II jungle picture."

A fixture on the Stones scene, Booth appears alongside the band in several key moments in Gimme Shelter, the documentary film of the 1969 tour. There, Booth can be seen jumping on an escape helicopter as the Stones left Altamont, and dancing in a San Francisco hotel room with Richards and Jagger.

His presence in his own book about the Stones only adds to the reader's sense of actually being in the moment. "Stanley on assignment does not just cover the story, he lives the story," Wexler says. "He is of a stature that he can put himself into the book and pull it off. You've got to have moxie to put yourself in the story without it becoming an egomaniacal misadventure. He has the ability to put himself in the story and make you part of it."

Despite the harmonious relationship between Booth and the Stones, according to Mary Lindsay Dickinson, a writer and Jim Dickinson's wife, "Stanley really suffered for his art." It took Booth 15 years to complete True Adventures. Drug addiction, disillusionment and depression took their toll after Altamont. In an accident or attempted suicide (Booth says he's not sure which) Booth fell off a Georgia cliff, "smashing his face and breaking his back." When he recovered, Booth insists he became forced to emerge as a "different person" in order to write the book.

"Things just didn't work out the way we hoped they would work out," says Booth, the collective "we" being the Rolling Stones and the hippie generation of followers they helped spawn. "We thought there was a great groundswell of intelligence and morals that was going on and we thought we were a part of it. We really had the feeling that there were thousands of people in this country and others that thought there should be no more war and racism. And we proved to be impotent, essentially powerless."

It was a hard lesson for everyone. "After that tour the Stones went back to England and shortly thereafter found that they had to get out of the country or go broke, basically [due to excessive taxation]," Booth adds. "After that we started getting busted. I got busted, Keith got busted again, and again, and again for drugs. We just had enormous personal problems -- we couldn't be saving the world because we were in too much trouble. At the same time we had to go on and continue to create art. We were just barely hanging on and surviving.

"Survival is a brutal pursuit at times," Booth continues. "For a long time I didn't have the slightest idea what I was doing. I knew the ending [of True Adventures] but I didn'tt know how to get there. I felt so bad about it all and took on guilt that was not my own. I felt as if I had a certain responsibility and needed to take the book as seriously as I could. The thing I loved about the Stones is they were such serious young men."

Jim Dickinson, who Booth introduced to the Stones in Muscle Shoals, Ala., at a recording session there in 1969 for what would become the band's Sticky Fingers LP (recounted in True Adventures) and who subsequently performed the memorable piano riffs featured on the band's brilliant song "Wild Horses," suggests an alternate, mystically soaked explanation. His theory involves the primal intensity of the music the Stones were creating. "Stanley got close to something that anybody else would've perished from," Dickinson says. "Music like that doesn't want you that close to it."

Rolling with the Stones and living to write about it may be Booth's greatest coup, but there have been many other accomplishments, including his biography of Richards, Keith: Standing in the Shadows (St. Martin's Press), and Rhythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South (Vintage). He's written for Esquire, GQ, Playboy, Rolling Stone and virtually every publication that matters in the pop world and, in the process, has crossed paths with the most influential musicians of the last century.

Before touring with the Stones, Booth spent a week in 1967 with Otis Redding during the last days of the legendary singer's life. On assignment for the Saturday Evening Post, Booth observed the recording sessions at Stax studios in which Redding composed "Dock of the Bay." The following weekend, Redding died in a Wisconsin plane crash. In Rhythm Oil Booth described how the soul man's posthumous hit song unfolded.

"Sittin' in the mornin' sun -- "But I don't know why he's sittin'," Otis says, rocking back and forth as if he were singing. "He's just sittin'. Got to be more to it than that."

He pauses for a moment, shaking his head. Then he says, "Wait. Wait a minute.'

"I left my home in Georgia, Headed for the Frisco Bay.'"

He pauses again, runs through the changes on his fractured guitar, then sings: "I had nothing to live for, Look like nothing's gonna come my way."

"I still haven't gotten over the loss of Redding," Booth laments 36 years later. No matter how much time has passed, he remains obsessed with music and musicians.

Asked to identify his best-liked New Orleans musicians Booth begins to cascade a long list of names: "Red Allen to start with the As, Louis Armstrong, Ellis Marsalis, the Neville Brothers, Ivan Neville, Allen Toussaint, Walter Nelson, Fats Domino and Dave Bartholomew, and Toots [Washington] and Fess [Professor Longhair]. Man, you could go on and on. Buddy Bolden!"

Asked if the Rolling Stones rate favorably in a historical context alongside the greatest musicians of all time in New Orleans and elsewhere, Booth answers in the affirmative. "There were times when the Stones were as great and original as Louis Armstrong and his Hot Fives," says Booth.

Today, Booth maintains friendships with the Stones, but says some of the changes surrounding the band are unwelcome in his view. "It's all so different now," he says. "There's no way that what I did before could ever be done again. That's not necessarily a good thing. All the Stones now [individually] have their own lawyers and managers. When I went on the road with them it was just us, and like five other people."

Musically and aesthetically Booth says the Stones' latest tour, and particularly 2003's HBO simulcast from Madison Square Garden in New York, spotlighted a disturbing trend. "Keith's and [drummer] Charlie Watts' performances were good and [guitarist] Ronnie Wood is underrated. But what in the hell happened to Mick? He used to be able to dance so well -- he really hasn't been himself in years. It's rather bizarre.

"Mick was so fluid -- we used to dance together in the studio all the time. His gestures now are the gestures of a control freak. He's got weird looping motions that he makes with his hands now like he's telling someone to stand up and sit down. He really is terrified of appearing ridiculous and, consequently, guess what? Keith [still] moves fantastically, Keith is fantastic. He is such a triumph."

As in the case of Keith Richards, who has overcome drug addiction and indicated at the HBO concert that he's "happy to be anywhere" nowadays -- the fact that Stanley Booth is alive and well should also be considered a victory. Best of all, he says he's now happier than he's ever been. Married to the poet Diann Blankely, Booth watches the tide roll in and out as he writes from his home office in Brunswick overlooking a marsh about 20 feet from the Atlantic Ocean.

"My life is so good I can hardly recognize it at times," Booth says. And he continues to work. He recently wrote about Memphis blues for British GQ and is writing a biography of influential country rocker Gram Parsons, who hung out with Booth and the Stones during much of the '69 Stones tour and is a featured player in True Adventures. Recently, along with Academy Award-winning actor Benicio Del Toro, Booth was interviewed for an upcoming Tom Thurman documentary about director Sam Peckinpah.

But however good life gets, and however much writing he continues to do, Booth isn't worrying about outdoing what he's done in the past. "Aretha [Franklin] was once doing a recording session in Miami at Criteria studios and catching some static from one of her sisters," Booth says. "She turned to her sister and said, 'Look I just want to do my little thing and get out of here and be cool.'

"That's basically what I'm trying to do with the rest of my life."

H. Andrew Schwartz (A&S '90) is a Washington lobbyist, a rock 'n' roll journalist and is at work on a biography of New Orleans piano wizard Professor Longhair. Schwartz lives in Bethesda, Md., with his wife, Amy Goldberg, and their two sons.


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