In-flight orgies and TV sets from hotel windows? It's mostly a myth but the reality was no less strange. An interview with Robert Greenfield, author of the book Stones Touring Party; this appeared in The Word, June 2010.
The Rolling Stones’ American tour of 1969 is held up as the symbolic end of the Sixties’ dream, capped as it was by a disastrously nasty show at the Altamont Free Festival. But their next US romp, in 1972, was in a way the Shape of Rock to Come. It sealed the band’s reputation as a live act – but also as the louche gods of Seventies decadence, swaggering across the land in an orgiastic riot of groupies, drugs and stadium-sized delusions of Divine Right.
One document of the tour is Robert Frank’s film Cocksucker Blues, withheld from public viewing at the Stones’ command. Thankfully, for a thrilling account 1972’s shenanigans, we do have a classic book called Stones Touring Party, written by a then-26-year-old journalist, Robert Greenfield, and now re-issued for all to see (Aurum Press, £9.99).
“I stayed in the hotels with them,” says Greenfield today, recalling the enviable access he was allowed. “If you were on the tour they treated you as though you were working with the band. In terms of access, though, there were rooms within rooms. There were rooms into which I didn’t go because people were using heroin and I wasn’t part of that inner circle. But there were no other pre-conditions. I still have my notebooks. But there was no reason to keep anything out.”
He’d come to know the band through working for Rolling Stone, at that time an important conduit for Jagger and co: “They were still playing to the counter-culture. Rolling Stone was the counter-culture magazine so they would communicate to their audience through that. I understood that we were living in the same world. Life magazine was quote-unquote the straight media, and would be held slightly at arm’s length.”
With a discreet manner and a keen observer’s eye, Greenfield used his vantage point to masterly effect. He confirms, however, that a few of the tour’s legendary events were not quite real. In Denver a TV set was indeed thrown from a hotel window by Keith Richards and sax-player Bobby Keys, but it was all staged for the camera of Robert Frank. Similarly set up for Cocksucker Blues was an orgy aboard the Stones’ private DC-10: “It was complete fiction, there was never sex on the plane. There were never groupies on that plane. The only people on that plane were the ones who were on the road with us. So those segments are completely – well, you can say they were false. But they may be artistic… It speaks to Jagger’s taste, because Frank is recognized as one of the greatest photographers who ever lived.”
Jagger, like some Roman emperor, surveys the debauches of the tour with cynical amusement, but also carries the band’s responsibilities in a way that Greenfield came to respect: “Based on what happened to Keith and how out of it he was, the reason that band survived is not only because of the music, it’s because Mick became the businessman, because he ran everything. The Stones had such terrible business experiences, they’d made such awful mistakes, that Jagger had to learn how to do this. He saw to it that the Stones didn’t go down.”
The book is packed with great character sketches. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts are impressively self-contained, each with their own strategies for surviving the madness around them. Mick Taylor, the young guitarist drafted in to replace Brian Jones, is clearly not a Rolling Stone at heart: “Really a lovely guy and a brilliant blues player, but I think he realised he did not want to get caught up in that maelstrom. The proof of the pudding is the way that Ronnie Wood [his successor] does fit in. It’s a difference in sensibility.”
The 1972 tour ends with a huge, high society party in New York that somehow spells the end of the counter-culture, and the triumph of show business. Amid the dead-eyed revellers, you sense a Great Gatsby-like absence – rock’n’roll itself, still paid lip-service but by now subservient to the unimaginable wealth it has learned how to generate.
Greenfield at least emerged with his sanity intact. “The worst thing that can happen to you,” he reflects, “is having to leave the world of the Stones. The withdrawal was like having the bends; your life was so bad compared to the way you’d been living with them. But I didn’t want them to change my life, because what I wanted to do was write. I survived because I was working; you can’t be at the centre of the action and write about it, you have to be outside watching. I had a hell of a great time but I didn’t get crazy. I wasn’t there to get rich, get famous, get high, which so many people were.
“It rarely improved your life. It’s not like people came into the Stones’ world and left it in better shape. Most of them left on their knees, they’d got so fucked up… At that time, all rock’n’roll credentials were personal. If you didn’t hang out, you weren’t going to be around for long. And why I was allowed to hang out, I have no idea. I was just kid from Brooklyn. I was fortunate. I look back now and I was in the right place at the right time.”