Steven Ward’s August 2000 interview with the great Stanley Booth, another out-of-the-blue coup for Steven. Incidentally, a few months ago, on a family excursion, I travelled for the first time ever to the deep south, including Waycross, Georgia, which was practically down the road from where we stayed. Every time we passed the sign leading to Okefinokee Swamp — we never did make that turn, sadly — I couldn’t help but mutter to myself, “Wow, we’re in Stanley Booth country now.”
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The True Adventures of Stanley Booth
E-mail interview with the Stones’ greatest chronicler
By Steven Ward, August 2000
Stanley Booth is one hell of a writer. The evidence is clear once you pick up his book on the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones . Many writers and Stones fans feel that Booth’s tale is not only the definitive book on the Stones, but one of the definitive rock books, period.
Why? Like I said before, Booth is one of hell of a writer. Also, because a younger Booth actually was there. He went to parties, sat in on press interviews, ate dinner, did drugs, and drank and toured with the band during one of their most creative periods–after Brian Jones died, but before Exile on Main St. took shape. Booth was at Altamont during the filming of Gimme Shelter and the stabbing death of Meredith Hunter. He also witnessed the awe-inspiring, passionate performance the Stones gave after Hunter passed away–maybe the only way the band could deal with the evil and destruction that was growing out of the community that was the free concert’s audience that day in 1969.
But Booth is much more than a guy who followed the Stones around in the late ’60s. He’s an intellectual Southerner that learned to read before he was three and wrote his first novel at nine. A voracious reader who is as comfortable with Twain and Faulkner as he is with Eastern philosophy scribes, Booth is a man consumed–passionate about good writing, and not just music writing. As the Waycross, Georgia native says in the interview below, he does not have much use for people who write “about” music. He writes stories about people. His history of the musicians who represent the South, Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South is about to be re-released in October by Da Capo Press. Run out and buy it. Booth is currently working on a biography about his buddy and fellow Waycross native, Gram Parsons.
Below are some of Booth’s thoughts on rock journalism, the Rolling Stones, favourite books and authors, and the answer to a question many people like to pose to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards today: “Can you ever be too old to rock and roll?”
Steven: The first thing that pops into my mind is, do you still keep in touch with any of the Stones and what do you think of the last few albums and tours?
Stanley: Yes, I still keep in touch with the Stones, though we do go for long periods without communicating. This happens when friends grow older and have kids and grandkids.
The Stones still do more or less what they used to, but history has changed the context in which it happens. The Stones’ actions will probably never again carry the weight they bore in 1969. I don’t enjoy the big stadium shows, and I find the precision of the later tours off-putting. Keith, Charlie, Ronnie, Bobby Keys, are still great. But I prefer the earlier Stones records, up through Tattoo You, I guess. On that album Sonny Rollins plays more and better than any Rolling Stone ever played on anything.
Steven: I know you grew up in Georgia. Give me some bio info connected to that experience. How old are you, where exactly did you grow up, etc.?
Stanley: I lived in Georgia from 1942 till the end of the fifties, seventeen years. I was born in Waycross, near the Okefinokee Swamp, a heavily Protestant area with many blacks and many white racists. In fact practically all the whites were racist to some extent. Racism was in the air one breathed. Physically it was a great world for a boy–pine trees, alligators, horses. I lived for a time in a turpentine camp in the pine woods near Waycross and even when I didn’t live there, stayed there a lot with my grandparents. I thought it was Heaven until one of the black woods hands tried to stab my grandfather. I was five years old then and it opened my eyes to the fact that the world wasn’t perfect.
Steven: When did you discover you had a love of music and writing?
Stanley: I learned to read at a very early age, before I was three. I always loved books and wrote in them before I could read them.
Steven: Do you remember the age you were when you decided to become a writer and the books and authors that might have been behind that decision? Stanley:I wrote a novel when I was nine. I loved Perry Mason (whom I knew not from TV but from a book of my Aunt Blanche’s called The Case of the Negligent Nymph) and wrote a novel, or what I thought was a novel, in a blue composition book. When I was fifteen I made a conscious, serious decision to try to become a writer. I thought I might fail but at least I could die trying. That’s what I’m still doing.
Steven: First you decided you were going to write a book about the Stones.
Stanley: Well, not exactly. Many things happened before I decided I was going to try to write a book about the Rolling Stones, among them the death of Brian Jones, which made the story infinitely more interesting.
Steven: By the time you were finished, you really not only captured the Stones between hard covers, you captured a chunk of your own autobiography as well. Was that done on purpose when you set out to write the book?
Stanley: I did have the intention of writing about myself and others in the book, such as Gram Parsons, in the same spirit as its ostensible subject, the Stones. I wanted to write a book that readers could walk around in and know what it was like to be in London in 1968 or America in 1969. I felt that I had to treat celebrities and non-celebrities alike or I’d be writing publicity.
Steven: Many music writers (including heavyweights like Peter Guralnick) and non-music writers (like middleweight Robert Stone) call your Stones book one of the best, if not the best, rock book ever written. How do you react to that kind of praise?
Stanley: If Guralnick’s a heavyweight, I’d say Robert Stone is an Immortal. Stone’s ten times the writer Guralnick is. I appreciate praise from any source but never do anything to seek it out. Basically I write for myself. I mean if it pleases me it should be good enough for anybody. I’m hard to please.
Steven: Do you think your personal story, which is woven into the book, helped set it apart from the hundreds of other books about The Stones?
Stanley: What sets The True Adventures apart is that I can write and I know what I’m writing about from first-hand experience.
Steven: It seems to me that a Southern boy from Georgia was the perfect person to tell the real story of the Stones since the South was the real inspiration for everything the Stones aspired to musically. Do you agree with that?
Stanley: I was the best person to write the book partly because I was Southern, but there were many other reasons.
Steven: Did you feel like you and the Stones had some sort of bond or did you feel like an outsider looking in?
Stanley: A writer is always an outsider even in his own family. But sure, the Stones and I had bonds. For one thing, I knew such people as B.B. King and could introduce the Stones to him. They had a use for me.
Steven: The book takes place around the time of Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers-era Rolling Stones. What the heck took so long. The book did not come out until 1984–almost 15 years later.
Stanley: In order to write the book, I had to become a different person from the foolish young man who went on the road with the Stones. That took a while.
Steven: The original title of the book was Dance with the Devil.
Stanley: The original title of the book was The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. Somebody at Random House dreamed up that other title and believe me, I hated it. About five years later the actor Kirk Douglas published a novel at Random and the title was, you guessed it, Dance with the Devil. Somebody there loves that title and intends to keep calling books that until one’s a hit.
Steven: Was the new title for the reprint your idea and what do you think of it?
Stanley: When the book came out in England, spring ’85, the publisher, hating Dance with the Devil as much as I did, gave it my title. The book did very well in England, better than here, so when Random House’s paperback imprint, Vintage, published the book, they reverted to my original title and it’s been called that ever since.
Steven: Your other music book, Rythm Oil: A Journey Through the Music of the American South is about to be re-released in October by Da Capo Press. How did that happen and are you excited about it?
Stanley: I’m not sure how it happened. Da Capo got in touch with my agency and arranged the republication. They have a distinguished list and I’m delighted to be on it.
Steven: I understand you are currently working on a biography of Gram Parsons. Did you read Hickory Wind by Ben Fong-Torres and are you approaching Gram’s life story from a different perspective?
Stanley: Ben F-T’s a newspaperman from San Francisco who thinks there are a lot of things around Waycross called “swamps” instead of one big one of 680 square miles. Yeah, my perspective will be different, I expect.
Steven: You were never a rock critic were you? You were more of a rock feature writer, right? What publications have you written for throughout the years?
Stanley: I’ve written hardly any criticism. I don’t understand people who listen to records and write about them. I write stories about people. I’ve worked for most of the thieves in the periodical business: Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, Granta, the Saturday Evening Post,Musician, Guitar World, Request, StereoType, Mojo, Smart, Grammy magazine, the Atlanta Weekly, Creative Loafing, I can’t remember them all.
Steven: Who are your favorite rock critics and writers, and do you still read rock journalism?
Stanley: Greil sends me his books to proofread, or used to. I don’t read any others. I reviewed Guralnick’s Godawful Elvis II for Playboy. If I want to read somebody writing well about music, I’ll read Otis Ferguson, Henry Miller (Colossus of Maroussi) or Jack Kerouac (On the Road). Or a great book by a great musician, Art Pepper’s Straight Life.
Steven: Many are saying that rock journalism is dead. That’s because writers like Lester Bangs and Richard Meltzer (for the most part) are gone and most newspapers and magazines have a rock critic which has killed off much of the experimental writing that was happening in the ’70s. Do you agree with that?
Stanley: I think rock is dead, and thank God. Rock journalism was never anything worth paying attention to.
Steven: Who are your favorite authors and books?
Stanley: Were? Nay, sir, I know not “were.” My heroes ARE Homer, the poets and prophets who wrote the Bible, Lady Murasaki, Basho, Issa, Shiki, Lao Tzu, Chuang Tzu, the authors of All Men Are Brothers and The Dream of the Red Chamber, the authors of the sutras, the author of the Gilgamesh epic, Geoffrey Chaucer, William Shakespeare, Christopher Marlowe, Saint Thomas More, the Cavalier poets, the Romantic poets, Cervantes, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jonathan Swift, Henry Fielding, Laurence Sterne, Edgar Poe, Walt Whitman, Stephen Crane, Robert Louis Stevenson, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Flaubert, Maupassant, Yeats, Mark Twain(!), Joel Chandler Harris, Jane Austen, E.M. Forster, Denton Welch, Hemingway, Faulkner (Bill and John), Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, James M. Cain, Isak Dinesen, Eudora Welty, Flannery O’Connor, Evelyn Waugh, Nancy Mitford, P.G. Wodehouse, Vladimir Nabokov, Berry Morgan, Cormac McCarthy’s first five novels, Mary Hood, Kandia Crazy Horse, Tim Gautreaux. And many others.
Steven: Are there any new bands or music that you listen to now that are giving you the same kind of thrill the Stones did back in the 60s?
Stanley: I love the North Mississippi All-Stars. I love Bobby Rush, Marvin Sease, and Lynn White. I love Ellis Marsalis, Dr. John, Allen Toussaint, Calvin Newborn, Harold Mabern, George Coleman, Col. Bruce Hampton, Unknown Hinson, Toni Price, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Billy Joe Shaver, Bill Parker, Ben Robinson. Music itself is not today what it appeared briefly to be in the sixties.
Steven: Do you think the Stones are too old to rock and should gracefully walk away from the stage and recording studio?
Stanley: Anyone who saw Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters–or Furry Lewis, Bukka White, Fred McDowell–knows that when you get too old to rock, you’re ready for the grave.
Steven: My last question: Was Charlie Watts as cool, jazzy and dapper back in the old days as he appears today?
Stanley: Charlie has grown cooler and more dapper with each passing decade.
Purchase Stanley Booth’s books: