Goodbye, Johnny B. Goode
The Stones say farewell to England in 1971
by Don Stradley
"At close range," Robert Greenfield writes of Mick Jagger, "his personality was just as addictive as any of the most powerful drugs known to man." This may be true, but there's little in Ain't It Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile that supports such a statement. The Jagger described by Greenfield is a moody 28-year-old who is moving into the role of rock royalty as the band embarks on a farewell tour of the U.K. Jagger is like a kid from a wealthy family who knows he can get away with a lot and not have to pay the consequences. His hubris is admirable, for Greenfield's chronicle takes place in the blurry time after the Altamont Speedway disaster, when the Stones are being stomped in the charts by Chicago and Blood Sweat, and Tears, and Keith Richards is beginning his 1970s drug downfall. For those who think Richards is the heart and soul of the Stones, Jagger was ready to dump him for the versatile and ultra-funky session player, Jesse Ed Davis. I can't vouch for the addictive quality of Jagger's personality, but he was definitely a bandleader with whom you couldn't fuck.
Early in Ain't It Time...we're given a description of England in 1971, which was apparently one miserable cold-water flat after another, where "most people feed sixpences into into a coin-operated electric heater mounted on a wall while wearing as many layers of clothing as possible." No wonder the Stones were looking to leave. Greenfield, at the time a new writer at Rolling Stone, talks his way into joining the tour, but he's no Hunter S. Thompson. His approach is wide-eyed neophyte, as he's constantly made to feel unworthy and out of place. Yet, as the band hits such destinations as Glasgow, Newcastle, Liverpool, and Bristol, he rides the whirlwind. The venues, most of them decrepit music halls, all seem to be leaking; the Stones and crew travel by train and look on with suspicion at Jagger's new bride, Bianca, wondering if she's another Yoko Ono. Meanwhile, Greenfield hides in bathrooms, taking notes.
In many ways it's the typical rock band on tour diary, with Greenfield giving us details about the shows, and the mini-dramas that pop up, most having to do with Keith Richards' being late (or missing). Any amateur psychologist would say Keith was trying to sabotage his career. He was perhaps realizing how much control Jagger was asserting, and possibly feared he might end up booted from the group, ala Brian Jones. That Richards never missed a show is a testament to his love of the music, but that he constantly tested Jagger's patience says something. I doubt he'd ever admit it, but I think he wanted out of the band. The crowds couldn't have been fun for him, either, even in his junked out stupor. Greenfied writes of one London gig that the "super hip and spaced out" audience members "dance only because they think this is what they are supposed to do."
This is Greenfield's third book about the Stones, and it's not entirely successful. The second half is mostly a less than fascinating account of his staying at Richards' mansion in the south of France, trying to get his host to sit still for an interview. This stuff might be good dinner talk, but it's not great reading. The book's first half, however, is near brilliant. It catches the group at the moment just before the likes of Truman Capote and Andy Warhol started turning up backstage. The band was still young enough that Charlie Watts' father saw him off at the train station at the tour's start, but jaded enough that Watts spent most of his time before gigs sitting in hotel lobbies, watching Doctor Who. Watts, not surprisingly, comes off as the Stone one might like to know personally, a gentle, smart chap with impeccable chops. Jagger, too, makes an impression. Less for being, as Greenfield felt, a sort of lascivious, champagne swigging, man of mystery who might smash a window when angry, but as a professional who still takes bad performances to heart, one who no longer listens to Chuck Berry but is still a rocker, expending energies that would destroy most mortals, and still turning up the next night, on time, to do it all again.