Stanley Booth on life on the road with the Rolling Stones

Stanley BoothWhen we meet Stanley Booth in a drawing room at Durrants Hotel in London’s Marylebone he immediately apologises for his persistent runny nose.  “I don’t know why,” he says by way of an opener, “I haven’t done any cocaine.”

He may be a slight 70-year-old with snow-white hair now, but in his time Booth has hoovered up more than his fair share of high-grade narcotics. A music writer who knew every American great from BB King to Otis Redding, Booth somehow talked himself onboard the Rolling Stones’ infamous 1969 American tour and ended up becoming friends and late-night sparring partners with Keith Richards himself.

He didn’t just live to tell the tale, he wrote the book on it: The True Adventures Of The Rolling Stones, a stone-cold classic of music writing which took him 15 years to complete. For his part, Keith Richards called Booth the band’s “writer-in-residence” and said of the report, “Stanley Booth’s book is the only one I can read and say, “Yeah, that’s how it was””. Here, Booth talks frankly about witnessing the murder of a Stones fan at Altamont, the difference between Mick and Keith’s attitude to women and the iconic jewellery he unintentionally inspired. How did you first meet the Stones?
Stanley Booth: I had an editor at Eye magazine who commissioned me to do a piece about them in 1968. I came over here to London and went to the Stones’ office. I told them I was from Memphis and that I knew people like BB King and Furry Lewis, so they never thought of me as a critic. At first I wasn’t interested in writing a book about a rock’n’roll band, but then Brian Jones died and I found that compelling. Brian was 27 and his death was a mystery. I wanted to get to the bottom of that.

You’d already written about a host of legendary artists before you came to England. How did you end up in the studio with Otis Redding?
I got a commission from the Saturday Evening Post, of all places, to do a piece about the Memphis soul sound. I went over to Stax and I remember I was outside taking some notes when this white Lincoln limousine pulled up at the curb. Otis Redding got out of the back. I introduced myself to him and then we went into Stax together. I spent the whole week with him. I’ll never forget watching him and Steve Cropper record “(Sittin’ On) The Dock Of The Bay”. I was there for the writing and recording – they cut ‘Hard To Handle’ and half a dozen others as well. It was thrilling.

Unlike most music books, yours reads like a novel. What inspired you to write it that way?
I was a great fan of Capote’s In Cold Blood and also Gay Talese. He was the guy who really taught me how to do what I do. I don’t find him very morally appealing, but he was a hell of a writer. He had a beautiful, wise and talented wife but when he wrote Thy Neighbour’s Wife he was going around screwing 19-year-olds in massage parlours. I found that very unappetising.

What was it like to be on tour with the Stones in 1969?
It was exhilarating! Those shows were just awesome. I watched the Stones play live every night You couldn’t do it today. In those days everybody was together. We were one little force, maybe eight or ten of us altogether. We all trusted each other and we didn’t have personal problems. We developed personal problems later. When they started having people like Capote on the tour in 1972, he said, [In whiny Capote voice] “There’s no story!” I thought: “Oh, thou fool!” I knew there was a story, because I was writing it. Capote was not equipped to understand or deal with the Rolling Stones.

William S Burroughs was supposed to join that tour as well, wasn’t he?
Burroughs was really above the fray, but he was very helpful to me. He lived in London at Duke Street, St James and I’d go and see him at his flat. He gave me a lot of good advice. We talked about Scott Fitzgerald, whose work he valued very highl, and he told me to read Carlos Baker’s book about Hemingway. He also told me not to smoke hash in front of the window. Those were both pieces of good advice. Uncle Bill was aware that he was a very famous junky, probably the most famous junky in the world at that time.

What was the biggest misconception about the Stones?
That they were motivated by some sort of satanic influence. People think they hired the Hell’s Angels for the concert at Altamont. Nobody hired the Hell’s Angels. There were half-a-million people there and 500 of them happened to be Angels. It was a hopeless situation as far as security was concerned. It was really one of the most terrifying experiences of my life. I was right behind Keith’s amps when I saw this Angel kill Meredith Hunter. This 18-year-old black man was right in front of the stage with his white girlfriend. The Angels don’t like black people anyway. Some Angels kept pushing Meredith away from the stage. At some point he reached into his coat and pulled out a nickel-plated revolver. He signed his own death warrant. That was not the right thing to do. He didn’t live another five minutes after he pulled that gun out.

Did the Stones know immediately what had happened?
No, I don’t think they had any idea. They just knew it was a very bad scene with a lot of violence. We saw Angels hitting people over the head with lead-weighted pool cues, using them like baseball bats. After Meredith died the Stones played for another hour-and-a-half and they played a brilliant, brilliant show. It was an heroic performance on the part of the Stones. At that point we assumed that several people had died. We saw so many people knocked down and pounded on.

What was a typical night with Keith like?
It depended on what we had. If we had cocaine, we’d do cocaine. If we had heroin, we’d do heroin. Not injecting, but snorting the light brown powder. It was most gratifying. Speedballs were good stuff. I don’t look for inspiration in drugs anymore. I still smoke grass, but that’s different. Grass is a vegetable. Keith and I spent a lot of time together with nobody else around. He had a tape-recorder that looked like a World War II radio. He had blues songs that I’d never heard, like “Shave ‘Em Dry” by Lucille Bogan. “Oh Daddy, won’t you shave me dry / you can grind me, Papa / grind me ’til I cry.”

Would Keith have been as inspired without drugs?
He used drugs to stay awake. The Stones would work for days on end, and you couldn’t do that without some kind of fuel. Keith wouldn’t have been the same without them, of course.

What’s your favourite memory from that time?
I had some very pleasant days at Keith’s house in the south of England. After a certain amount of time Anita would throw you out, which I never particularly appreciated, but she was really hot in those days. Really fucking beautiful.

What did you learn from being in the studio with the Stones?
They inspired me by example. I’d never seen any band work as hard as the Rolling Stones. They really inspired me to work harder as an artist, or in my attempt to be an artist. At Muscle Shoals they cut three tracks: “Wild Horses”, “You Gotta Move” and “Brown Sugar” and they played for three days straight. At the end of the session Charlie went back to the drum-set and started playing again. Keith said, “Look at that! That’s a rock’n’roller.” At one point [Atlantic Records President] Ahmet Ertegun called me at my motel room at the Holiday Inn and said, “If you guys have any dope you better flush it because the cops are going to try and bust the session.” That was a shame. I wasn’t about to flush no dope away!

After Keith’s Life, do you think Mick will ever write a book?
Fuck no! When I was working on my book my editor, a fatuous and callow young man, called me and told me that Mick had signed a contract for $2m to write a book. I told him that Mick wouldn’t do it. Sure enough, a few months later Mick gave the money back. I didn’t consider it possible for one minute that Mick would write a book. He’s got too much womanising to hide.

Was Keith’s attitude different?
Keith was not a womaniser. He would show up with a girl occasionally but Mick indulged himself in fornication to an unpleasant degree.

As well as the music, the Stones have had a huge influence on men’s style. What did you think of the way they looked?
Well, I had the original skull ring! I was walking down the King’s Road one day in about 1970. There used to be all these wonderful shops and I passed this little store that had a lot of silver in the window. It reminded me that when I was a little kid I’d had a cowboy comic book with a skull ring advertised on the back page. It had stones in its eyes that glowed red like fire in the daytime and blue like the stars at night. So I bought the skull ring and wore it that night to a Stones session. Keith saw it and immediately copped the idea. I’ve never gotten any credit for that! I don’t have the original one anymore. [Pause] I broke it on the head of a whore.[laughs]

Originally published by British GQ.