Tuesday 27 February 2007

And Sitteth At The Right Hand… [On Tour With The Rolling Stones]

APRIL 29, 1976. FRANKFURT, GERMANY: When I meet Dwayne he is busy crumbling golden-coloured hash from a thumb-sized block into a small, functional pipe. Like almost everyone in the first 30 feet of audience Dwayne is American and like them he wears an embroidered denim shirt covered with badges of his favourite groups, as though this hip uniform will offset his very short hair. Dwayne and his buddies are stationed at a local US Air Force base. Which one Dwayne won’t say, because what he is doing is not only illegal but can get him court martialled. But hey!, we’re about to see The Rolling Stones!

Dwayne is from a no-nothing town, where he’d be today if he hadn’t been drafted. Fortunately, the Viet Nam War is over - his older brother went and a shadow came back, eyes permanently full of tracers and incomings. Not that Dwayne has avoided carnage – he worked at the local munitions factory and one day a building blew sky high and to get out he had to scramble over some people who weren’t so lucky. But in 1976 military service means a career opportunity instead of a place where every step really is a dance with Mr. D and not an inane lyric.

Of course Dwayne’s favourite Stone is Keith. He is: The Riff, The Rhythm, The Rebel Without Rules. Dwayne looks at me with eyes that have seen death and as the sweet Moroccan smoke pours from his lungs he says, “Hell I’m here for the same reason you are, right? Because they’re the greatest rock and roll band in the world.”

* * *

When we enter journalist Charles Shaar Murray’s hotel room he is gluing together a generous joint. The contents of the mini-bar crowd a small round table and he gestures to the bottles in invitation. “We’re on the road with The Rolling Stones!” Charles is doing the natural thing; the Stones’ reputation is an undertow pulling us from the shores of sobriety, but he is willing to help us past the shallows and reefs to the outer depths because he is also playing that rockcrit game: I can get drugged up, hang with the stars, be a Rebel Without Rules, and still write a better story than you.

We drain the bottles and smoke the joints. Our Stones-view is clear: Keith is the world’s most elegantly wasted human being – some of us even dress like we raided his laundry basket. Mick is a social-climbing hypocrite. The new album ‘Black And Blue’ is the work of an oldies band – Charles has just mauled it in print. But that’s OK, because they’re The Rolling Stones. “We” are the UK’s rock critics, the elite with Born To Analyse Rock & Roll tattooed on our arms. We sneer at hacks like those from the two London papers the ‘Evening Standard’ and ‘Evening News’, who have been promised yet-to-happen interviews with Jagger and relentlessly shadow each other, neither wanting the other to get the scoop. We will get the story just by swimming in the depths.

* * *

Shortly after a purple scarf is placed on the drum podium the lights go down and the band walks out. A spot picks out Keith as he cranks up the intro to ‘Honky Tonk Women’ and then BLAM! It’s loud, it’s awesome, it’s the Greatest Rock and Roll Band In The World!

The band stands still, working the music, leaving Jagger out front to pout and swagger, shimmy and blow kisses and do all those Jagger things. The stage is a masterpiece in white, which the band slowly starts to use in their various stage roles of running, jumping, standing still. The sound is dreadful, at first all rhythm, then painful slabs of trebly guitar. Jagger works really hard at being Jagger, interspersed with showbiz shtick that we’ve never before seen in rock and roll: manhandling a dragon, fighting a huge blow-up penis that half-heartedly erupts from the stage floor, swinging on a rope. It’s ok, but it doesn’t look cool until you see it frozen in photos. Do the Stones think that playing the world’s most dangerous music is no longer enough?

The old hits remind us why we’re alive; the new, ordinary songs from ‘Black and Blue’ pull us back from Olympus. Jagger talks to us, prods us – “C’mon Frankfurt!” – trying to find the magic thread in an off night, but he does it using a preposterous Negro accent and the unwanted thought creeps into view that, really, the singer is a bit of a tosser.

They end with the crowd pleasers of ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and ‘Street Fighting Man’, played fast and messy. Then, in the midst of the noise is a huge out of tune twang and Keith is...let Charlie Murray describe it: ’You know the riffs: that when Keith Richard comes into the room rock and roll walks in the door. Yeah, well rock and roll just fell on its arse.’ Mick looks back and with an ‘oh dear’ expression minces over, swooping on the move to pick up the dropped plectrum and hand it to Keith, who is sitting with splayed legs, hammering away with his fingers.

* * *

We are ushered into Keith and Ron’s suite – large, high-ceilinged, matching bodyguards at the door. In the centre an open flight case holds two Fender amplifiers, a cassette deck on top of one playing Furry Lewis, Robert Johnson, Burning Spear. In a corner Ron lounges on an ornate couch. Against the wall on the other side Keith holds court with a group of journalists and I kneel on the floor directly to his right. The chair looks like a throne and he’s draped over it like discarded clothes, holding in his right hand a foot long slab of turquoise, flat on the upper surface and jagged on the underside. If he puts it down it will tip over and spill the contents of the flat side, which he’s not going to because it holds what looks like a Himalayan range of cocaine. It’s a dull, flat white powder – pharmaceutical cocaine, almost impossible to get, manufactured just down the autobahn in the Swiss laboratories of Merck AG.

While he talks he twirls a small square of neatly cut cardboard, using it to cut fastidious lines out from the mountain range and then, using a silver tube on a silver chain around his neck, casually snort them up between sentences. We’re there for 30?, 45?, 90? minutes. In this room someone has pushed Time’s pause button. So ask a question; Keith will answer.

“Too much technology makes it more and more difficult to record rock and roll properly -snff!- In Russia they spend so many roubles on black market records and there’s a very big scene in South America but when you try to do a tour there there’s so many problems -snff!- I miss singles but there’s not a singles market anymore -snff!- We never sat down to write singles, we sat down to write songs -slice, chop, shape- I never listen to white bands because white drummers don’t swing, except for Charlie Watts.”

While Keith talks the mountain range in his hand becomes a mountain, a hill, a bump, a dusty memory. Nothing seems to change: his speech remains slow and relaxed, his body flops like tomorrow’s washing and he sounds coherent. Only the half-baked thinking betrays him. And just when you think, God he’s boring, he’ll say:

“I was reading a history of Bill Broonzy nicked from Hendon Library the other day and there was a little bit there where he said that if he were to put a band together again he’d have pot smokers instead of drinkers. They don’t forget their notes and they’re on time.”

Suddenly there’s a frisson of excitement. Another pile of cocaine is on the slab, Swiss Alps-sized this time (an appropriate metaphor given the persistent rumour that every six months he gets his blood changed there), and he’s neatly parcelling out eight even lines. And there are eight people around him…Keith is going to get us high! Now if there’s one immutable truth in this palace of self-centredness it’s that Keith Richards is not going to share his drugs with a bunch of journalists and sure enough, as he -snff!- continues to talk he -snff!- casually snorts -snff!- all eight lines.

Charles ambles over, kneels on the floor and licks Rizzlas. Naturally, Keith chats to his new friend until Ron walks over to hold a card in front of Keith, on which is scrawled: You’re talking to Charles Shaar Murray. With a show of boneyard teeth Keith challenges, “Your review was rubbish.”

Charles calmly rubs thick crumbs of black hashish into the waiting Silk Cut. “I stand by what I wrote.”

“You need to hear it again.”

“That’s ok, most of my friends think it’s awful as well.”

“You need to widen your circle of friends.”

It’s bizarre to watch this schoolboy bickering – a rock god trading insults with a critic. As if our opinions mattered.

Charles has a smoke and passes it to Keith. When he hands it to me it’s a roach. Keith is defending ‘Black And Blue’, but no explanation can redeem it. Indeed, the story that it was assembled during 1974 and 1975 as an audition for guitarists to replace Mick Taylor damns it further. It’s just released and it’s already over a year old – rock and roll is about next week. Tellingly, the cover photo is by a celebrity snapper-du-jour, the first time the Stones have followed fashion instead of leading it.

For some months I have been following four urchins busy working out what rock and roll in the Seventies should sound like and this seems the right time to speak up. “Keith, there’s a band in London called the Sex Pistols.” He looks bored. “They think you’re old and should stop playing and get out of the way.” He jerks forward, ultrasheen eyes glaring and just below the surface a volcano is erupting.

“Just let them try,” he snarls, jabbing the joint at me. “We’re the Rolling Stones. No-one tells us what to do. We’ll stop when we feel like it.” Emotion spent, he sinks back into his throne, realises he’s holding a roach and passes it to me.

Indefinably, a wave of charisma washes through the room. In the doorway stands Mick Jagger. He is stationary, hands on narrow hips, head slightly tilted and looking up, the King ready to acknowledge our worship. Only everyone looks up, thinks, Oh right, Mick, and goes back to what they’re doing. His shoulders slump and he stalks over to the couch. No-one goes over to him. In our journalistic japery we’ve assigned them roles like some clichĂ© vaudeville gang; one critic had said earlier, “Who gives a shit what Mick Jagger thinks about these days?”, and it seems to be true.

But we do care what Keith thinks and as he tells us he wipes his nose with a finger and scrapes it off on his trouser leg. A foot from my eyes, stuck to the corduroy, is a thick line of cocaine mixed with a little snot and for a mad punk minute I think of leaning forward and with a quick “Excuse me Keith”, snorting it. But manners prevail and I wonder how much more pharmaceutical-grade powder is lodged undissolved in his nose.

Charles is now on the couch sharing a joint with Ron while Mick broods next to them. Cutting through their talk come the distinct Jagger tones, now clothed in Cockney, “I fort your review was blaahdy stoopid.” Charles ignores him and Mick repeats himself. Same result. Mick sulks, then gets up and talks to a mountainesque heavy, who in turn talks to a record company man and then it is announced: we must leave. Charles is now building joint number four and continues work while we’re shepherded out. Keith follows.

“Jagger,” he sneers with contempt, “ wants to go over a few songs and change things around. But later on we’ll go up to Billy’s room. There’s going to be a party”

He waits and chats while the joint is finished and the touch paper lit. Charles savours his work with a connoisseur’s appreciation, watching the smoke exhalations, small-talking to Keith, having another draw, finally handing it to Keith, who opens the door, backs through it and with a cheery “See you later,” waves the incriminating hand and shuts the door.
* * *

Three weeks later, the Stones start their first English tour since 1973. Driving to London after a show in Stafford, Keith drives his Bentley off the road. As the press jubilantly report, the police search his car, find “a substance”, arrest and then release him on bail while forensics determine what it, “obviously a drug” according to the police, might be.

Their canter into London for six nights at Earls Court triggers press adulation. Hold the front page – Mick Is A Godfather! Mick Meets Princess Margaret! Every night sees a private party, from pubs to Sothebys. And Ron Wood has his salary held while Deltapad, a management company, sues Promotone Productions over causing Ron to breach contract by playing with friends. A few miles away in a crummy club, fifty people watch a scrappy group called the Sex Pistols work on a sound to change the world.

© 2006, Jonh Ingham

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