What message would you get if you were fifteen years old, standing in a cloud of marijuana smoke inside a crowded, cavernous hall, face reflecting the red and blue and yellow lights, watching Charlie hit the drums as hard as he was able, Bill slide his tiny hands over the skinny neck of his erect light-blue bass causing a sound like booming thunder, little Mick stare with wide eyes as if he were hearing an earthquake’s faint premonitory quiverings, Keith bend over his guitar like a bird of prey, Jagger swoop and glide like some faggot vampire banshee, all of them elevated and illuminated and larger and louder than life? A few years later, a New Yorker writer would observe, “The Stones present a theatrical-musical performance that has no equal in our culture. Thousands and thousands of people go into a room and focus energy on one point and something happens. The group’s musicianship is of a high order, but listening to Mick Jagger is not like listening to Jascha Heifetz. Mick Jagger is coming in on more circuits than Jascha Heifetz. He is dealing in total, undefined sensual experience of the most ecstatic sort.”
By the time that was written, Mick had sung “Midnight Rambler” in pink top hat and tails; after Altamont, the Stones would for reasons of self-preservation turn toward comedy. But in 1969, few people at Madison Square Garden on Thanksgiving Day thought that what the Stones were doing was a performance.
...The people inside Madison Square Garden on this Thanksgiving had, most of them, lived through a time of cold war, hot war, race riots, student riots, police riots, assassinations, rapes, murders, trials, waking nightmares. But Keith, Mick, Charlie, Bill, and the new guitar player were impersonating the Rolling Stones, and the audience were impersonating their audience, both of them at the moment a great success. Dancing under the circumstances (“Oh, Carol! Don’t ever steal your heart away—I’m gonna learn to dance if it takes me all night and day!”) seemed to have a transcendent value. Many people thought then that dancing and music could have a major role in changing the structure of society. They may have been naive, but they were much more interesting than the sensible people who came along later. The Stones would tour the United States every three years for a long time to come, and the value of dancing would never be less than transcendent, but at Woodstock, only a few months before and a few miles away, music had seemed to create an actual community. There was—at this time, for many members of this generation—a sense of power, of possibility, that after Altamont would not return.
He is strongest when writing about the music — the history of it, the business of it, and the experience of it. Booth’s believer’s passion results in all sorts of luminous insights into the enterprise: “The Stones’s show was not a concert but a ritual; their songs . . . were acts of violence, brief and incandescent.” And later, “Making love and death into songs was exactly the Stones’s business.” Booth tells a story in which “Each night we went someplace new and strange and yet similar to the place before, to hear the same men play the same songs to kids who all looked the same, and yet each night it was different, each night told us more.” He suggests that “In the sixties we believed in a myth — that music had the power to change people’s lives. Today people believe in a myth — that music is just entertainment.” He writes about what it was like backstage and what it was like in the audience, what it felt like when things really clicked and what it was like when they did not.
The backstage view is, of course, the main draw to a book like this, and Booth offers anecdotes intriguing, disgusting, and amusing. He writes about a comely woman in the studio audience during the taping of the The Ed Sullivan Show who does not succeed in getting taken advantage of: a minion picks a “big blond in buckskin” to visit the boys backstage instead. Booth writes of leaving the studio with a friend, “the pretty little girl in the brown outfit ahead of us, smiling, lucky to be left with her dreams.” He reports on how, a couple of days after a recording session, the Stones “made more money than they had ever made in one day by recording a television commercial for Rice Krispies . . . .” In one particularly delightful scene, Booth describes Jagger on his hotel bed after a concert, exhausted, eating Chinese food, and taking flack from others for his smelly socks:
Mick drew his feet up under him . . . and began talking to me about the future, where to live, what to do . . . . “I’ve got to find a place to live, got to think about the future, because obviously I can’t do this forever.” He rolled his eyes. “I mean, we’re so old —we’ve been going on for eight years and we can’t go on for another eight. I mean, if you can you will do, but I just can’t, I mean we’re so old — Bill’s thirty-three.”