Old Gods Almost Dead: The 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stonesby Stephen Davis
The saga of the Rolling Stones is the central epic in rock mythology. From their debut as the intermission band at London’s Marquee Club in 1962 through their latest record—setting Bridges to Babylon world/i>
The acclaimed, bestselling rock-and-roll biographer delivers the first complete, unexpurgated history of the world’s greatest band.
The saga of the Rolling Stones is the central epic in rock mythology. From their debut as the intermission band at London’s Marquee Club in 1962 through their latest record—setting Bridges to Babylon world tour, the Rolling Stones have defined a musical genre and experienced godlike adulation, quarrels, addiction, legal traumas, and descents into madness and death_while steadfastly refusing to fade away. Now Stephen Davis, the New York Times bestselling author of Hammer of the Gods and Walk This Way, who has followed the Stones for three decades, presents their whole story, replete with vivid details of the Stones’ musical successes_and personal excesses.
Born into the wartime England of air-raid sirens, bombing raids, and strict rationing, the Rolling Stones came of age in the 1950s, as American blues and pop arrived in Europe. Among London’s most ardent blues fans in the early 1960s was a short blond teenage guitar player named Brian Jones, who hooked up with a lorry driver’s only son, Charlie Watts, a jazz drummer. At the same time, popular and studious Michael Philip Jagger–who, as a boy, bawled out a phonetic version of “La Bamba” with an eye-popping intensity that scared his parents–began sharing blues records with a primary school classmate, Keith “Ricky” Richards, a shy underachiever, whose idol was Chuck Berry. In 1962 the four young men, joined by Bill Perks (later Wyman) on bass, formed a band rhythm and blues band, which Brian Jones named the “the Rollin’ Stones” in honor of the Muddy Waters blues classic.
Using the biography of the Rolling Stones as a narrative spine, Old God Almost Dead builds a new, multilayered version of the Stones’ story, locating the band beyond the musical world they dominated and showing how they influenced, and were influenced by, the other artistic movements of their era: the blues revival, Swinging London, the Beats, Bob Dylan’s Stones-inspired shift from protest to pop, Pop Art and Andy Warhol’s New York, the “Underground” politics of the 1960s, Moroccan energy and European orientalism, Jamaican reggae, the Glam and Punk subcultures, and the technologic advances of the video and digital revolution. At the same time, Old Gods Almost Dead documents the intense backstage lives of the Stones: the feuds, the drugs, the marriages, and the affairs that inspired and informed their songs; and the business of making records and putting on shows.
The first new biography of the Rolling Stones since the early 1980s, Old Gods Almost Dead is the most comprehensive book to date, and one of the few to cover all the band’s members. Illustrated throughout with photos of pivotal moments, it is a celebration of the Rolling Stones as an often courageous, often foolish gang of artists who not only showed us new worlds, but new ways of living in them. It is a saga as raunchily, vibrantly entertaining as the Stones themselves.
From the Hardcover edition.
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Read an Excerpt
The Rollin' Stones
Yes, I will be famous. No, I won't make thirty. Brian Jones
I Will Be Famous
It would later seem ironic to many that Brian Jones, Wild Man of the Sixties, came from Cheltenham, the old Regency-era spa town in the Cotswolds whose springs had dried up long ago. Cheltenham was known for its bourgeois conformity and legions of the retired. It was a hotbed of rest. Cheltenham Ladies College was the most proper girls' school in Britain. But there was another side to Cheltenham that owed a lot to the American air bases nearby. The town had five movie theaters, ballrooms where bands played, coffee bars for hanging out. A clever boy like Brian could easily get an idea of the world waiting beyond the provincial beauty of the West Country.
Lewis Brian Hopkins-Jones was born on a winter Saturday night in 1942, during the dark days of the war. Father worked in the aircraft industry, mother played and taught the piano. Pure Welsh stock on both sides--a race of singers, musicians, poets despised by the English for being the descendants of the true Britons they displaced in Arthurian times. Brian Jones was a short, strong, charismatic blond kid who pulled one in with his soft, well-spoken voice, intelligent eyes, and blond hair, his famous tool for seduction. He could get a girl pregnant with the toss of his head.
There was something else about Brian, something dark and alluring. "Brian possessed a hidden cruelty," Mick Jagger would later say, "which in a way was very sensual."
Did well in school. High I.Q., top grades in literature, math, physics. Strong at sports: the "little Welsh bull" that Keith would later describe. Nine O-level passes by sixteen in 1958--quite respectable--but skipped school, laughed at the teachers, and was often caned. An aggressive little guy: one didn't mess with his girlfriends. Brought up in a musical family, he showed uncommonly early promise as a piano student (he was the only Stone with a proper music education), could read music, played clarinet and sax. Got a Spanish acoustic guitar for his seventeenth birthday, which he mastered within weeks. Hobbies were trainspotting and jazz records, which led to New Orleans blues singer Champion Jack Dupree's trenchant, down-home Blues from the Gutter album, which opened the door to the future.
Some who knew Brian Jones thought of him as two people: soft, charming, intelligent one day; a nasty little bugger the next. Sometimes both in the same day, the same hour. The Stones saw it all as they grew up with him in his twenties: the tantrums, mysterious illnesses, "absences," general bloody-mindedness.
Bill Wyman thinks Brian suffered from undiagnosed epilepsy.
Brian started playing sax in local groups when he was fourteen. The Bill Nile Jazz Band. The Cheltone Six. The Ramrods. He was the cool kid in the proper collar and tie, blowing alto saxophone and making eye contact with the girls. All he had to do was look at one hard enough, and soon she had something in the oven. Brian Jones as Bran, the Welsh fertility god, a stocky little sprite with a long green penis. The first girl to have one of his many illegitimate children was Valerie, aged fourteen. Good morning, little schoolgirl. Brian wanted an abortion, she wanted the child, which she put up for adoption at birth. Word got out, huge scandal in Cheltenham. The girl refused to see him again, and Brian's parents, socially destroyed and unable to cope, asked the seventeen-year-old father to move out of the house.
In 1959, Brian's father took him to London for a job interview with an optical firm. Brian was hired and he moved into a one-room flat. But he hated it and spent days in the music shops hunting for records by his blues heroes: Sonny Boy Williamson, T-Bone Walker, and especially Jimmy Reed, the youngest and most successful Chicago bluesman of the 1950s. He quit and went home, moving in with his friend Dick Hattrell. But Cheltenham was too hot for Brian. The parents of the girl he impregnated ran him out of town, and he set off for a tour of Scandinavian blondes with his Spanish guitar on his back. Out of money by early 1960, his brains thoroughly screwed out, he returned home again and tried to settle in. One night he went to see a band play in nearby Guildford. A young married girl, only twenty-three, caught his eye. He took her home, made love to her once, and his second child was born nine months later.
To support his blues studies, Brian got a job in a factory, which he quit after he was hurt in a car accident. His leg was injured, and a front tooth knocked out. For the rest of his life, Brian covered his mouth with his hand when he laughed. So he hung around Cheltenham's beatnik coffee bars, waiting for something to happen. He met a pretty sixteen-year-old beautician named Pat Andrews, and together they began work on Brian's child number three. He was eighteen years old, a scuffling young blues apprentice struggling to survive.
Chris Barber played Cheltenham in 1960, and Brian was there. Barber's blues guest that night was Sonny Boy Williamson from Helena, Arkansas, an imposing blues giant in a London-bought homburg and a two-toned gray flannel suit that he had tailored as his vision of an English gentleman. Sonny Boy blew harp with a vengeance and a bottle of bourbon in his back pocket. Brian noticed that his huge mouth was roughly callused from years of playing the harp, and that Sonny Boy sang through his harmonica, his hoarse vocal passing through the metal instrument, honing his voice like a razor so it hit the microphone with an extra metallic slash. Brian's future as a bluesman was settled that night.
He kept scuffling, working as a bus conductor in Cheltenham and other jobs. He and Hattrell moved in with some art students, and soon Pat Andrews was pregnant. Brian started seeing other girls. Their son was born in October 1961, and Brian named him Julian, after his jazz hero Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. He tried to visit Pat and the baby every day until her furious mother started beating him over the head with her umbrella when he showed up.
In December 1961, on a long English winter night just before Christmas, Chris Barber's band was playing Cheltenham Town Hall. For over a year, they'd been playing at the famous Marquee Club in Soho every week, with Alexis Korner and Cyril Davies doing electric blues between Barber's sets. Brian went with Pat and Dick and was mind-blown by the Korner-Davies blues set. He used his local musician's street cred to get backstage, and charmed Alexis into a private drink at the Patio Wine Bar across the road after he dumped Pat at home and got his guitar.
Brian connected with his future mentor in the back room. Korner knew what time it was, saw a glimmer of what was coming, gave Brian Jones his phone number and address, and invited him to London. He and Cyril were leaving Chris Barber to put their own blues band together, and maybe this kid could help.
Brian and Pat visited London in early January 1962, and Brian spent several days listening to Alexis's record collection. Rock music's equivalent of St. Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus occurred when Brian first heard Elmore James's stunning electric slide guitar version of "Dust My Broom." It was raw, soulful, and charged like a shot of battery acid. Jesus! Back in Cheltenham, Brian borrowed enough to buy a cheap electric pickup for his guitar. Unable to afford an amp, he converted a German tape recorder and ran the guitar through the speaker. He made a bottleneck slide and spent the next months obsessively listening to blues jams and learning the slide. By March, he could make his guitar whine like a tigress in heat.
That's when he saw the little ad in the London music paper Jazz News for Alexis Korner's new band, Blues Incorporated. "The Most Exciting Event of the Year." And it gave directions: Ealing Broadway Station. Turn left, cross the zebra (pedestrian stripes), and go down the steps between ABC Teashop and the jeweler's. Saturday at 7:30 p.m.
That morning, Brian hitched to London. It was March 17, 1962.
Alexis Korner needed a drummer to form a Chicago-style R&B group. He found one playing cool jazz in a Knightsbridge coffeehouse, the Troubadour.
His family called him Charlie Boy. He was born in 1941 in North London as the bombs were falling, the only child of a lorry driver for the railroad. The family moved to Wembley after the war, when the now-crowded London suburb was still farmland. Charlie grew to be a shy, unassuming teenager: focused, hardworking, short of stature, somewhat pampered by his parents. He lived at home until well into his twenties, and his father bought his clothes for him.
When he was ten, Charlie heard Earl Bostic's "Flamingo" on the radio, and it woke him up. The next year, he heard Chico Hamilton playing drums on Gerry Mulligan's "Walkin' Shoes" and started beating on pots and pans. His first instrument, a banjo, he bought himself at fourteen. He took it apart, converted the banjo body into a snare drum, and built a stand out of a Meccano kit (called an Erector set in the United States). In 1955, his parents bought him his first drum set for Christmas, and Charlie began playing along to jazz records. He hated rock and roll; was instead obsessed by cool jazz. He saw himself, at fifteen, as Miles Davis, standing outside the Village Vanguard in an Ivy League suit, waiting to go on with 'Trane and Philly Joe Jones.
He left school at sixteen, studied graphic design at Harrow School of Art in the late fifties, and in 1960 got a job in a London ad agency, where he learned lettering and poster design. He was making a little money, which he spent on smart clothes and Charlie Parker records.
Charlie Parker. Bird. In 1939, improvising on his alto saxophone, Parker had fallen through the chord changes of the standard "Cherokee" and discovered bebop, the free-flowing and inspired jazz that grew into a hipster cult whose trademarks were the beret, the goatee, and the needle. Bebop was the cutting edge of music, and its players--Bird, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus--were the artistic astronauts of the time. Charlie Watts loved Charlie Parker so much that, in 1961 at the age of twenty, he wrote a children's book called Ode to a High-Flying Bird, with little illustrations that told the bebop story in a sweet, innocent style.
Summer 1961. Charlie was playing drums with brushes behind a little Thelonious-style combo at the Troubadour when Alexis Korner came to sit in and play some blues. Korner took his little portable amp and hung it on the wall behind Charlie, who, though not particularly assertive, got up and took the amp off the wall. If it had to be amplified, it wasn't going to drown the rest of the band. Alexis liked Charlie's impeccable time and swinging approach, which recalled Papa Jo Jones of Count Basie's orchestra. Alexis asked Charlie to join the blues group he was putting together for bandleader Acker Bilk. Charlie instead went on a Danish tour with veteran bebop reedman Don Byas, a cool gig for a twenty-year-old.
Back in London, Charlie Watts met Alexis Korner again and joined the first lineup of Blues Incorporated in late January 1962.
But Charlie Watts was confused by Blues Incorporated. They wanted a Chicago-style backbeat, but Alexis and Cyril Davies were fighting (as they usually did) about how heavy it should be. Davies wanted a blues shuffle; Alexis wanted it to swing.
"It was an amazing band," Charlie said, "but a total cacophony of sound. On a good night, it was a cross between R&B and Charlie Mingus, which was what Alexis wanted." Korner had seen Mingus's band, the Jazz Workshop, in action in London around 1960. Mingus, protean New York jazz bassist and composer, ran his shows as rehearsals, demanding his players redo passages that he didn't like. Now Alexis Korner wanted a similar band that could develop its own audience and even a wider blues scene. The regular lineup and auxiliary musicians in the club could be joined by anyone from the audience with enough bottle to get up and wail with the best cats in London. Korner knew, from run-ins with young talent like that Brian kid in Cheltenham, that there were young blues fanatics out there, just drooling for the chance to get up and show their stuff.
Charlie Watts was bemused by the whole disorganized lot. "When I first played with Cyril Davies, I thought, 'What the fuck is happening here?' " Watts had never heard an amplified harmonica before. Everyone was coming from their own special interest in the blues. "I didn't know what the hell was going on." During the winter of 1961, Korner, Davies, and Watts jammed together, joined by other Korner recruits, as they tried to line up club dates for the new group.
But nobody wanted to hear it. The club owners felt threatened because their clientele wanted jazz, and these guys were playing the blues, considered primitive and uncool. Korner tried to book Blues Incorporated on the National Jazz Federation's circuit of clubs and was bluntly told to get lost. The excuse was "acoustic only," but this was war. If blues got big in England, the jazz clubs would go out of business. Money, jobs, and prestige were at stake, and so the jazzers tried to suppress Korner's new movement. It provoked a lot of bitterness in London over the next two years.
Finally Korner found the dank underground barroom down piss-smelling stairs under a tea shop at the end of a tube line in the western London suburb of Ealing. They set it up as a club, strung a tarp under the skylight to keep the stage from flooding when it rained, and charged five shillings membership admission. The Ealing Club could hold about two hundred.
March 17, 1962. Blues Incorporated made its debut with eight musicians: Korner on guitar, Davies on harp, Watts on drums, jazz guy Dick Heckstall-Smith on sax, plus bass and piano. There were two singers: Long John Baldry, a tall and blustery young blues shouter, and Art Wood, a softer vocalist in the Mose Allison style. Starting at about eight o'clock on Saturday night, they played electric blues for a small group of fans. Attracted by the Jazz News ad, Brian Jones showed up with his friend Paul Pond, whose blues group Brian had briefly joined in Oxford.
Brian had his guitar and asked Alexis if he could sit in with the band. "Not tonight, mate," Korner said. "Come back next week and you're on."
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
STEPHEN DAVIS is the author of numerous books, including the New York Times bestsellers Hammer of the Gods: The Led Zeppelin Saga and Walk This Way: The Autobiography of Aerosmith; and coauthor of Fleetwood, the memoirs of Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood. His journalism has appeared in Rolling Stone, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, and many other publications. He lives in New England.
From the Hardcover edition.
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