November 4th, 2011 at 11:00 am
We conclude our focus on Second Read: Writers Look Back at Classic Works of Reportage, edited by James Marcus, with some excerpts from Ted Conover’s essay on Stanley Booth’s reporting on the Rolling Stones during their 1969 tour, collected in his book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones. One of the issues Conover explores in the essay is Booth’s efforts to balance his closeness with the band, particularly Keith Richards, and maintaining a necessary journalistic distance.
Here are some excerpts from the piece:
What Booth captures so well is the particular energy of the time. The style is sometimes Beat, Kerouacian—there’s a sense of experimentation under way. And in that, True Adventures achieves true oneness with its subject: like the Stones, Booth is full of aspiration, trying something new, unsure where it will take him. And that, in retrospect, is I think the book’s great resonance for me, and its promise for any young writer: take these chances, it has continued to tell me, and some of them will pay off.
The Random House cover photo of the author, apparently taken years later, showing him neatly groomed and wearing coat and tie, made you wonder how on earth he hung out with the Stones. But a much better shot of Booth and Keith Richards at the end of the new edition shows him long-haired and modish, bandanna around his neck, perhaps backstage somewhere, looking like maybe Keith’s brother. (Throughout True Adventures he seems to connect more readily with Keith, and, indeed, years later he published another book about only him: Keith: Standing in the Shadows.)
This photo is a valuable addition because it lets you see how close Booth got to the band, how much he identified with them. And by contrast, how little common ground he felt with other journalists on the Stones’ trail. Take, for instance, Booth’s descriptions of the Stones’ press conferences and interviews with the correspondents of various well-known media. The distance between these accomplished people and the author is fascinating. Instead of participating in these scenes, he simply observes cannily, letting the reporters’ superficial questions and the Stones’ sound-bite answers speak for themselves. It’s all summed up by a sentence which, when he wrote it, must have given Booth great pleasure: “When the Newsweek talk ended and the reporter left, we all decided to have lunch together on the Strip.”….
Another peril of participatory journalism is exposure to a subject’s vices—drugs, in the case of the Rolling Stones. Drug use was part of the ethic of the times. “Practically everybody who got near the band in those days got drug-addicted,” a friend whose family was in business with them told me. Booth comments on it (and has joked that the book was so late because he had to wait for statutes of limitation to expire). And yet Booth also, in being so firmly “embedded” with the Stones, seems unaware of what he’s being swallowed up by—or, at any rate, unwilling to struggle against it. Booth, with Richards apparently as his source, maintains that in the early days the Stones took “no dope of any kind. . . . But in 1969 things had changed. It would be impossible to endure a world that makes you work and suffer, impossible to endure history, if it weren’t for the fleeting moments of ecstasy.” And so we have the drugs, and the justification for them. By the seventh paragraph of the tour, Booth is taking up a roadie for B. B. King on his offer of a sniff of heroin and then describing how particularly sexy Tina Turner and the Ikettes looked when he was high, how it figured in with the work (“People talked to me but I went on writing, no one could reach me in my Poe-like drugged creative sweats”). Marijuana is omnipresent, starting on page four. In one passage, Booth, tripping on LSD, describes a policeman in a roadside café, “all dark blue, black leather, and menacing devices.” The cop, on his radio, receives a report of a crime committed by a black teenage girl. “The cop said he’d be right there, his tone loaded with sex and sadism. The only way he could be intimate with a black girl was to punish her. After he left, the place still reeked with his lust, if you had taken acid.”
After all these years, I finally see that drug use probably explains the book’s hallucinatory opening (where else do you get, “All the little snakes are asleep” and the suicides with stakes through their hearts?), and I can see it behind some of the book’s luminosity and its inscrutability. Booth makes clear that drug addiction was, indeed, one of the reasons the book took so long to complete; withdrawal, he writes, brought on epileptic seizures. But it apparently wasn’t the main one. In the new afterword he lays the blame mainly on changing times, on the end of the sixties, on the rise of Reagan and yuppies and greed. He claims:
“I had to become a different person from the narrator in order to tell the story. This was necessary because of the heartbreak, the disappointment, the chagrin, the regret, the remorse. We had all, Stones, fans, hangers-on, parasites, observers, been filled with optimism there in the autumn of 1969 . . . we believed that we were different, that we were somehow chosen, or anointed, for success, for love and happiness. We were wrong.”
Elsewhere in the afterword, he writes that he had to overcome depression and “domestic upheaval.” “So torn was I that at times I begged for death and for years tempted death almost constantly, at last throwing myself off a North Georgia mountain waterfall onto the granite boulders below, smashing my face, breaking my back.”
What to make of this? Cynically, I now wonder if such a talented writer simply requires a dramatic explanation—for himself, as much as anyone—for his book being nearly fifteen years late. But a better part of me appreciates that journalism approaching this level of art might necessarily exact such a price: If you take Booth’s explanation at face value, his time with the Stones becomes a kind of parable about participatory journalism. The book was a stand-out because Booth involved himself so fully not just in a band tour but in the passions of a generation. And yet, as the world changed, there was no way for that participant to write the book until he became somebody else and could look back on his experience as a thing apart, something that happened to a different person in a time long lost.