Gary James' Interview With The Author Of
"STP: A Journey Through America With The Rolling Stones" and
"Exile On Main Street: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones"
When it comes to The Rolling Stones, Robert Greenfield knows what he's talking about. He's the author of STP: A Journey Through America With The Rolling Stones and Exile On Main Street: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones. He did an in-depth interview with Keith Richards for Rolling Stone magazine back in 1971. We spoke with Robert Greenfield about the band that's known as "The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band", The Rolling Stones.
Q - Robert, I think I grew up reading your books, STP: A Journey Through America With The Rolling Stones.
A - (laughs) Well, what I can tell you for the record about STP is what I've come to learn is it's probably the book that was most stolen from public libraries all across America. (laughs) I've met so many people, mainly men, "Dude, when I was a teenager I read that book and I kept it in my room." I guess that's some kind of odd tribute to the book, but, thank-you.
Q - That book was probably the first inside look at The Rolling Stones. It wasn't until the early 1980s that you started to see this whole category of Rock biographies and autobiographies on bookstore shelves.
A - It was actually the first book that was ever written and published, first full-length book about a Rock 'n' Roll tour.
Q - There you go!
A - It had never been done before. The next one was Bob Greene, who was a Chicago newspaper guy and he wrote a book called Billion Dollar Babies about Alice Cooper. But, no one had ever done this. Publishing was not what it is today. It was still very straight. The tour was such headline news that someone took a chance on it and I'd like to say I got a mid four figure advance which speaks to the day. It was the first one of it's kind. And of course I've written two more books about The Stones.
Q - Where does this fascination of yours for The Stones come from? Were you a fan of the group growing up?
A - I don't have a particular fascination for The Rolling Stones which sounds bizarre to say. I loved their music and everybody did who was growing up in that era. It was all singles on the radio. I never bought a Rolling Stones album as a teenager or a young adult. I was in London working for Rolling Stone magazine and The Stones were about to go on what was their Farewell Tour of England. They were about to go in tax exile in the South of France and record "Exile (On Main Street)". I had a friend who ran the magazine. A very small bureau. I said to him, "I want to cover the tour." "It's a great idea." One of the formative things I read in my life was Michael Lydon's astonishing piece about the '69 tour that appeared in Ramparts. Michael was a great writer. That was ground breaking. No one had ever been inside a tour like him. That tour ended in Altamont. It was chaos. So, I had been impressed. I read that back in Brooklyn where I was growing up. So, Andrew Daily (of Rolling Stone) and I had lunch with Jo Bergman. She was running their (Rolling Stones) office. Back then it was like, "No problem. Yeah, just come on. It's all good." I got to go on the tour. Nobody knew who I was. I was never introduced to anybody as being from Rolling Stone and I spent an incredible ten days with them. They were in Glasgow and Newcastle and Liverpool and Leeds. They were so astonishing on stage. So, if I have a fascination with them it began because I couldn't believe how great they were to see on stage. Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins were playing piano on alternate tracks. They had Jim Price playing trumpet, Bobby Keys playing sax and just them. They were not to be believed. I had been going to Rock concerts since I was fifteen years old. I'd done my Master's thesis on the Apollo in Harlem. So, it wasn't like I had never seen anybody work before. They blew me away. From that I wound up doing the Keith Richards interview in the South of France with him in May of that year. The tour was in March. Then I became like the Rolling Stone magazine Rolling Stones beat guy. I was with them when they were finishing up "Exile" in Los Angeles and then got to go out on that '72 tour. So, I kind of ingratiated myself into the scene and I was acceptable to them. God knows why.
Q - When you were on tour with The Stones for that British tour, how were they getting around then? By plane?
A - Great question. So, the English tour is in March '71, the American tour is in June '72. It's just about a year later. On the English tour I remember the first gig was in Newcastle and they got on a regular train and I got on the train with them. They sat in regular compartments with regular people. They took a plane to Glasgow, but it wasn't a private plane. Keith almost got thrown off the plane for bringing his dog aboard. They flew British BEA it was called, an airline I don't think exists anymore. England is small. Keith arrived always late for every gig. He got there himself, but Mick would usually come by himself as well with Bianca, but they went by train. We took a bus to a gig from the train station. There was no security. None, okay? Then a year later it was like an army invading America. They had a private plane. They had security guards. They had a floor in each hotel you couldn't get on out of the elevator unless you passed inspection. Back then that was the difference between England and America.
Q - Were you then flying on the same plane as The Stones in 1972?
A - Yeah. No one paid. Rolling Stone didn't pay for me. I stayed in the hotels with them. I never paid. Rolling Stone never paid. They (The Stones) picked up the expense.
Q - Wow!
A - (laughs) Another era.
Q - Is it true that years later if you wanted to fly in that plane you had to be approved by Mick Jagger?
A - I think it was like that back then (1972). Jagger approved of me. He liked the article I had written about the English tour. Everybody thought the Keith Richards interview was ground breaking because he'd never spoken at length to anybody. That was Keith introducing himself to the world. And so, I was part of the inner circle of The Rolling Stones.
Q - Did you ever meet Brian Jones?
A - No. He was dead. That's another good question, Gary. Brian was dead by the time I got to London, but it was close. I got to London in the Spring of 1970. Brian had died in July of '69. But he was still around. He was still present, like the show store in Chelsea at Yellow and David where I got my high school Rock 'n' Roll boots. That's where Brian had gotten his boots. When I talked to Keith in the South of France it was the first time he had ever spoken about Brian's death. So, it was very recent, but I never did meet Brian.
Q - Did Rolling Stone ever dispatch a writer to England to investigate the death of Brian Jones?
A - No. Many years later I was asked by Playboy to write a long article on Brian. I did an extensive amount of research and yeah, there's all this stuff. Even in the interview Keith suggests that he always thought that one of his (Brian's) bodyguards could have punched him in the chest. Brian was a strong swimmer. Why did he drown? He was so loaded and so distraught that having been asked to to leave the band because he could not come back to America for the tour because of all the drug busts. He had been dysfunctional for so long. He was not playing anymore in the studio. It was one drug bust after another. He had lost Anita, who had been his girlfriend, to Keith. So no, Rolling Stone never investigated his death, but a lot of people have and have never been able to really nail it down.
Q - But you got the impression from Keith...
A - That he felt something had happened. He always did.
Q - That's about as far as it went. He never said he was going to look into it?
A - No. It was a different era. A different time in the world. They were outlaws. They were all so loaded. Keith and Mick could deal with it, but Brian never could.
Q - You write, "Keith Richards is the greatest rhythm player in Rock." Wait a minute. What happened to Brian Jones? Wasn't he the rhythm guitar player in The Rolling Stones?
A - No, not really. I would amend that by saying Pete Townshend is right there as well if we're talking about White Rock, English Rock. Brian was a formative influence in Keith playing guitar. Mick and Keith first saw Brian when he was solo and playing bottleneck by himself in a Blues club, the Ealing Blues Club. Brian's deal was he wanted himself and Keith to sound like they were playing the same guitar. At that point in time Brian was kind of a lead guitar player. It was hard to say who was the lead guitar and who was the rhythm, but Brian taught Keith how to play rhythm and lead and then Keith out-stripped him as a guitar player.
Q - How would you rank John Lennon? He was a rhythm guitar player.
A - I have more respect for John Lennon as a genius in every way, but I hate making lists. You always exclude somebody. I guess it was me seeing Keith on stage. Here's the thing about Keith; he drove the band. Everybody followed him. Charlie looked at Keith to see where he should be and if Keith didn't like what Charlie was doing, which happened a lot, he would charge over to the drum kit and he's be playing rhythm like, "Charlie pick it up!" Everybody I interviewed told me without Keith that music doesn't exist, all of The Stones music. He's the driving musical force always in their stuff.
Q - How about on the record "It's All Over Now", is that all Keith? Is he playing both lead and rhythm guitar?
A - I would say yes, but it's another really interesting question because these days we have access to all their music. You can hear it on Spotify and Sirius and I can hear it in stereo and I'm often in my house and I'm listening and I'm trying to hear, 'cause I know Keith, I can usually tell if it's Keith because his rhythm stuff is so Black Blues oriented, so Rhythm And Blues oriented. Brian had that background as well, but he faded really quickly as a significant musician in the band, okay? He was playing sitar. That was a big thing for them, but Keith had pretty much taken over 'cause he was writing with Mick. Brian couldn't write and he didn't sing. Keith could actually sing really good harmony back then. So, that kind of made the music Jagger/Richards.
Q - I recently interviewed drummer Kenny Aronoff. He told me of a conversation he had with Jagger in which Mick said, "No Charlie Watts, no Rolling Stones."
A - I can't argue with that. Charlie plays a unique role in that band. He's straighter than them always. His whole background and outlook is as a Jazz drummer. That's Charlie's deal. He's incredibly talented technically. He can play anything and everything. Bill Wyman gets neglected, but he was real good. It's hard to separate the elements. It's the unique blend of Keith's wild, crazy, onstage persona and the way he played, and Charlie being measured and holding it together as well on some level, if that makes sense. The bottom is always there because of Charlie and Bill.
Q - It's been awhile since I read your book STP.
A - Don't worry about it.
Q - Did you have access to Charlie Watts? He doesn't talk much.
A - Okay, so these are tales from the crypt here. We went to Dallas and we were all freaked out. It speaks to how long ago it was. We were freaked out because that was where Jack Kennedy had been killed, right? We went to Dealey Plaza. We looked at the grassy knoll. We were all like, "Whoa! Where are we?" I don't think there was a show that night. Annie Leibovitz and I and Charlie Watts went out, in my memory to like a student bar, a college bar. We sat there eating pizza and drinking beer and Charlie couldn't have been happier. That's who he was. He was so lovely as a human being and so funny. At the end of that tour I gave him a copy (of a book). I asked him and he never read it, Beneath The Underdog, Charlie Mingus' book. Charlie Watts' idol was Charlie Parker. (laughs) Do you know what I mean? He was a different guy. All of that made The Stones what they were. But he was great to hang out with. He was a riot, Charlie was.
Q - You just have to wonder what his thoughts would be about The Stones over the years. He sat back there playing the drums.
A - Oh, yeah. He saw it all.
Q - He saw all the changes.
A - He also punched Mick Jagger in the fact one night. He put on a suit, went to Jagger's room and punched him in the face after Jagger had insulted him. So, these guys are not one dimensional. (laughs)
Q - That's when Jagger said, "Where's my drummer?" and Charlie said, "Where's my singer?"
A - Charlie is the least violent guy I ever met. I never saw him angry, okay? About anything. So, God knows.
Q - The Rolling Stones are a group. I know Mick Jagger gets all the attention because he's out front.
A - And rightfully so on some level, but Keith gets all the attention now. Keith's legend is so big that the two of them are equal at this point.
Q - I always bring up Brian Jones because...
A - He created the band! Without him there would be no Rolling Stones. He blew them away. He was light years ahead of them musically.
Q - He was the best dressed. He was the best looking. He actually had a unique look.
A - He was the best looking. He was the teen idol, the one the girls went crazy for first, okay? The point is well taken, but Brian lost his girlfriend to Keith and he lost the band to Mick and then he lost his life. It's a Rock 'n' Roll tragedy.
Q - A tragedy not only because he's been forgotten!
A - I guess, well, yeah. He's been dead for forty-eight years. It's unreal.
Q - Why did The Stones get rid of of Eric Easton and Andrew Look Oldham and go with Allen Klein?
A - Well, you gotta separate those. Eric Easton was a very straight-laced, traditional English business music manager. He never related to 'em. They signed a deal with him. Oldham, who had a show on Sirius/XM and really knows music, was very creative and was a crazy as they were. He got crazier than them. They were in Chicago and he had a gun and was talking about killing himself. You know, you can't become a Rolling Stone when you're with The Rolling Stones and I think he became a Rolling Stone and they got rid of him, but if you look at the music they put out while he was there, and he was in the studio with them and kind of did a lot of producing for them. He inspired their look and the way they dressed. Oldham was a genius at that point, but he didn't last beyond a certain era.
Q - Signing with Allan Klein was probably not a good idea.
A - Terrible idea. Horrible idea and they never really got themselves out of it. They lost the royalties to a lot of songs on "Sticky Fingers" 'cause they'd been written while Klein was managing them. It was a regretful deal.
Q - Think about it, there were not a lot of "name" managers The Stones could turn to.
A - Right, and they needed to be extricated from Decca (Records) and they had a terrible record deal and they wanted to move on. They finally found Marshall Chess and they formed Rolling Stone Records and they found Ahmet (Ertegun). That was the right guy. Ahmet was the guy and Marshall was the guy in that period. But then Marshall didn't last either. They burned through people.
Q - Was "Exile On Main Street" that important of an album for The Stones?
A - Well, it's considered their great masterpiece. Was it important back then? The tour was more important because Ahmet used the tour to cross them over into the world of society in America, to cross them over into the world of show business in America, to have them play huge arenas. They were no longer outlaws. After the '72 tour they were The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band." When the album came out, most people didn't know what to say about it. It was confusing. It was too big. It was too much. They were playing in a variety of different styles. It certainly isn't "Beggars Banquet", which is probably their greatest transitional album. I always say, and there are other bands you could say this of, not many, they made three great albums back to back, "Beggars Banquet", "Let It Bleed" and "Sticky Fingers". And now, funnily enough, it's "Exile" that has been acclaimed as their greatest work.
Q - Had "Exile" never been recorded, what would that have meant to The Stones?
A - They would've had to come out with something. They owed Atlantic product. (laughs) They need money, Gary! That's not to be neglected. They're in it for the business. They need money. They need to tour. They need to generate income. Whether they need a double album at that point, they certainly never did another one, which I think that says something.
Q - I believe we've sort of touched on this in the interview, but did you like The Rolling Stones off stage?
A - I loved Keith. I fell in love with Keith. I never spoke to him on the English tour because he was off on another planet, but then I lived with him in his house for two weeks while doing the interview and spent another week transcribing it. I was there like three weeks with him basically, constantly, and he was so authentically himself. He so didn't care what anybody thought of him. He always treated me so well. I never had a cross word with him. Mick was a different kettle of fish. Keith said, "Mick's a great bunch of guys." (laughs) I got on well with Bill. I really loved
Mick Taylor. He was a sweet human being. But I was twenty-six years old, not star struck, but how could I not be happy being on tour with The Rolling Stones? (laughs)