Amidst the publication of the obligatory commemorative biographies in this, the Rolling Stones' fiftieth anniversary year, the re-issue of Stanley Booth's powerful, gonzo-style account of the band's 1969 U.S. tour that culminated in the horrors of Altamont, is both timely and provocative.
Originally published in 1984, True Adventures took fifteen years to write and apparently almost killed the author in the process. Booth doesn't hold back in describing the toll that his experiences with the Stones and the trauma of writing the book took on him and if there is occasionally an air of smugness and narcissism that creeps into the writing it's more than justified by the depth and clarity that he brings to his account of the Stones' beginnings, the downfall and demise of Brian Jones and life on tour during what was arguably the band's heyday. All these elements are woven compellingly into the narrative. Charlie Watts and Keith Richards are especially forthcoming on the band's early days and with access to Brian Jones' father and Anita Pallenberg, Jones' sad story is given a sensitive and poignant treatment.
But the meat of the book and the event that propels it is the ground-breaking U.S. tour in November of 1969 which has assumed mythic rock'n'roll status. Perhaps in order to retain a degree of sanity, but also by way of illustrating the level of dysfunctionality surrounding the preparations for the tour Booth writes almost cathartically about the frustrations of trying to get his book authorised by the Stones and his contract confirmed in time by his publisher, and he returns to this theme regularly throughout the first 250 pages. Of course drugs and women feature prominently in his story and Booth's closeness to the action, his chummy relationship with Mick, Keith and Charlie (Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman have but bit parts in this saga) and his unflinching portraits of their chaotic business entourage and less salubrious hangers-on all contribute to the sense of drama and disorder that seems to prevail for most of the time.
As the tour unfolds we get a show-by-show, hotel-by-hotel chronicle although one gets the impression that the band and their 'management' have a diminishing appreciation of just how powerful an effect their music is having on their audience and how their superficial anti-establishment stance is being taken far more literally than they ever intended. This tenuous hold on reality reaches some kind of apogee during the ill-fated free concert tacked on to the end of the tour that was meant to be a gesture of appreciation and a riposte, one imagines, to influential writer Ralph Gleason who had earlier complained of the high ticket prices at their shows, but instead turned into a nightmare of violence and death and came to represent the nadir of the era of 'peace and love'.
Booth's account of the Stones at Altamont is the most intense part of the book; it's completely riveting and still, to this day, disquieting not just for the brutality exercised by the drug-addled Hells Angels and the shocking murder of Meredith Hunter but also because of the Stones' response to the uncontrollable mayhem unfolding in front of them. Jagger's attempts to placate the crowd, as reported by Booth, were platitudinous bordering on incoherent and their total incomprehension of what was happening is sobering to say the least. Lessons were learnt of course and Rolling Stones tours became bigger and more grandiose as they made the transition from renegade band-on-the make to well-oiled rock'n'roll business machine. But they were probably never more potent, vital and downright dangerous as they were at this time — at the tail end of the 60s. Booth gives us a tantalizing glimpse of what made them so and provides a snapshot of a defining moment in rock'n'roll history that remains as sharp and focused as when it was first made.