1969 was the year of “Swinging London,” Muscle Shoals soul music, and mammoth free rock concerts at the Isle of Wright, Woodstock, and the Altamont Speedway in Northern California. You really had to be there. Well, Stanley Booth was, embedded with Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Gram Parsons and the traveling rock ‘n’ roll circus known as the Rolling Stones. Booth survived the experience — just barely — and he lived to tell the tale. And what a glorious tale he has to tell, full of swagger and strut, but also laced with sorrow, lost chances, and the blues — just like the music of the Rolling Stones.
At their height, the Stones played the blues like no one else on earth, and Booth traveled with the band as they barnstormed across America in ‘69, from the Hollywood Hills to Madison Square Garden to the terminus point of the tour, the free concert debacle at Altamont Speedway, a searing event that has been described by observers and pundits as the nightmare that ended the dream that the 1960s represented to so many. Booth captures the Altamont scene from his perch behind a speaker on stage during the Stones’ set, and his account of the both concert and the furious mayhem unleashed by the Hells Angels at the show is unmatched.
But I am getting ahead of myself. Altamont is the finale of Booth’s book, The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, which has just been republished to mark the 50th anniversary of the band. (The book also boasts a terrific new introduction from Greil Marcus that is worth the price tag on its own.)
True Adventures originally took Booth more than 15 years to write, as he struggled with drug addiction and its complications, as well as other personal demons. The publishing history of True Adventures was equally tortured; the book was first published in hardcover America in 1984 under the title Dance with the Devil, a title forced on Booth by the publishing company. Although it must be said that, given the goings on that Booth recounts, Dance with the Devil was an inspired moniker for the book, Booth finally got the title he sought when he released the paperback edition in 1985.
Regardless of the title, the book sold poorly upon publication, but it did receive effusive praise from serious rock critics like Peter Guralnick and Robert Palmer. It has been bouncing in and out of print until this new edition. All the while, the book has been a cult favorite for Stones aficionados.
The Stones’ 1969 tour was well documented even before Booth’s book, as it was the subject of the Maysles Brothers’ classic documentary film, Gimme Shelter, which is frequently hailed as one of the greatest rock documentary films ever made. Needless to say, I came to True Adventures with some skepticism. But Booth assuaged my concerns with an in-depth account of the tour that rivals Gimme Shelter every step of the way. Indeed, at times True Adventures even outpaces the famous film, particularly in sections like the minute-by-minute coverage of the recording sessions at Muscle Shoals that produced classic tracks like “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar.” Booth’s writing is so vivid in this section that you can almost taste the Jack Daniels and hear the vintage piano of Memphis legend Jim Dickinson.
True Adventures documents the 1969 tour in detail, but Booth also traces the evolution of the band, devoting special emphasis to band’s founder, Brian Jones, who passed away in his swimming pool in London only months before the ‘69 tour began — after having been unceremoniously dumped from the band by Jagger and Richards. According to Booth, Jones was a ghostly presence throughout the tour, and he also haunts the book. I know of no better account of Jones’ short life and untimely death than Booth’s.
Indeed, Booth manages to bring the entire band, including the deceased Jones, to life in True Adventures, warts and all. Keith Richards laconically observes on the book’s jacket: “Yeah, that’s how it was.” That is the special beauty of Booth’s book — it manages to bring you so close to the famous rock band that you feel like you can almost touch them, and yet it always maintains enough distance so that you can still hear the author’s voice. I strongly urge anyone with even a casual interest in the Rolling Stones to pick this book up and, as Booth puts it, ”hear the band play.”