THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT THE ROLLING STONES
In Praise of The Sun and the Moon and The Rolling Stones & A Candid Discussion with Author, Rich Cohen
There must be hundreds of books written about the Rolling Stones. Conservatively, I have read about twenty to twenty-five, half of which I would deem good, and less than a third great. Rich Cohen has managed to write a spectacular one. It is aptly titled; The Sun and the Moon and the Rolling Stones, taken from something Keith Richards told the author in 1994 when he was covering the band for Rolling Stone. You see, like me, Cohen, and a preponderance of humans inhabiting this spinning sphere, we don’t know a world without the Stones. What we’re talking about here is the abiogenesis of rock and roll; the subatomic atoms of modern pop and rock, the DNA of global youth culture.
Here is Cohen’s remarkable achievement; he explains this phenomenon in a most novelistic way; deconstructing the characters and framing the period dominated by the Stones with great care. His is a story of many Rolling Stones; the blues cover band, the British avant-garde, the neo-American hybrid, the faux-celebrity-junkie-chic marauders, a reinvented, reconfigured reflection of rebellion, and, of course, rock star excess. It is throughout all this explaining that Cohen dives into personal experiences with the band, as a kid, as a teen, as a reporter, as an historian. Each expression is a unique one, and some even deal in contradictions; like all great heroic literature.
It is a fascinating read; treading the difficult balance of appealing to the casual observer and a rabid fan.
How the hell did he do it?
“I had to basically pretend I was writing fifty years from now and everybody’s dead and worry about the consequences later,” Cohen explains over the phone from his Connecticut home, the enthusiasm in his voice quite evident in the pace in which he recalls the journey. “I thought, ‘It’s such a huge story and every book is right in the middle of it, but if you can sort of step back and write about it like you would write about World War II or Winston Churchill, then you can see what things meant and how things happened and see the whole picture.’”
To drive this point home, Cohen casually notes the inspiration of a Wallace Stevens poem, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird”. “If you can get a lot of different angles on something you can ultimately get something that’s alive and in-depth,” he continues. “So if you can see the Rolling Stones from the point of view of a kid, from the point of view of a rock journalist, from the point of view of an older guy, and then from the points of view of Maryanne Faithfull, from the point of view of reporters covering Altamont, and you can put all that together and you can get a complete picture of them.”
The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones puts an epic into tidy perspective, another pretty impressive feat, all boiled down to the two figures at the eye of the storm, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards – childhood friends, confidants, combatants, and co-conspirators; growing up together in the cauldron of infamy. “To me, what’s interesting about Jagger and Richards is that it’s the completely typical friendship we’ve all had,” says Cohen. “You have these friends when you’re young and you want to be together all the time, you live together, and then at a certain point, you grow up and you’re not together anymore. And so much of their music came from them being together; hanging out for hours and hours and coming up with these songs, and once they grow up, they’re not together any more, and the music changes.”
Cohen captures two seemingly insignificant slices of life that act as lasting portraits of the two men; Richards playfully lecturing a business man on an airplane about life and Jagger chasing corrupt manager, Allen Klein, wanting to beat him up. I wondered if he had found these characteristics – Keith, the libertine braggart, and Mick, the myopic pragmatist – prevalent when he met them in the 1990s. “Absolutely! But exaggerated,” he says. “All of the trouble that they’ve had, it’s all there from when they first meet. It’s just two completely strong personalities that are complementary, but clash. It is calculating in a good way and necessary for the survival of that band.”
Pressed further, Cohen provides deeper insight into the gears that makes the colossal machinery rumble along mostly unimpeded for five decades: “If Mick was going to go in a swimming pool, he would go look at, figure out the depth, and then take off his bathing suit and jump in. Keith would just run and jump in without looking… in all of his clothes. It’s like two totally different kinds of guys. And right at the beginning, when I first met them, Keith’s got his doctor’s bag. He’s taking whatever he’s taking. He’s playing the guitar. He’s saying crazy, cryptic things. He’s laughing. He’s smoking. And Mick is sitting in the trailer on the phone talking business. And you need that guy. That’s why the Rolling Stones are still playing. And also I don’t think Jagger gets enough credit for insisting, right from the beginning when Brian Jones only wanted to hire him, “I don’t go in without Keith.” He’s always brought Keith along in that way.”
The book’s most poignant moments centers on a uniquely Stonesian trait; the absorption of people and places to fuel their music and enhance their image before blithely casting them asunder; the cold brilliance of which cannot be ignored when discussing the band’s lasting influence on the whole of Western culture for half a century. “They have to make this decision,” he says. “What are they willing to sacrifice for what they want, which is basically wealth, fame, and to be rock stars?”
This begins, according to Cohen, when the band decides early on to jettison original member Ian Stewart on the premise that “he doesn’t fit the image’, as put down by young hipster manager, Andrew Loog Oldham. It is a ruthless moment Cohen says causes the Stones to “lose their soul”, which happens again and again with such influences as original roommate, James Phelge, Jagger’s girlfriend, Maryanne Faithful, the band’s witchy matriarch, Anita Pallenberg, and the feeble but talented Graham Parsons. Eventually it would happen to Oldham, and tragically to founding member, Brian Jones, who would be kicked out of the band after years of deteriorating drug abuse and eventually drown in his pool at the age of twenty-seven.
“It’s very obvious what happened to Brian Jones,” Cohen recounts to me in a matter-of-fact tone. “He had this idea for a band and the band became more successful than he planned on and he lost control it. Not because of any evil thing, but because people identify with the singer. It’s just the way it works. You know, you go to a Frank Sinatra concert; you’re looking at Frank Sinatra. You’re not looking at the Count Basie Orchestra. So the singer becomes the star.
“Then Mick and Keith write ‘Satisfaction’ and that’s it. And Brian Jones is sort of now a second tier figure in his own band. And then you mix in all the other stuff, which are Anita Pallenberg and the LSD and his paranoia and his own probably pretty bad personality. Now you got a guy, who doesn’t actually kill himself, but he basically puts himself in a situation where he can easily die, over and over again, and then one night he does die. And what the Stones did was they realized at a certain point that they couldn’t hang onto him, they couldn’t save him, and he was just dragging them down… so they got rid of him.”
Once again, the fascinating aspect of The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones is its intriguing compartmentalizing of the Stones career through its early incarnations of blues, psychedelia, country-rock, stadium rock, and on and on, that is broken up in two stages by one tragic event; Altamont. The chapter, which the author calls the book’s anchor, is riveting, and puts in motion Cohen’s perspective style; as it gets beneath the surface of the tragedy of a myopic counterculture disaster rife with drug-addled violence that ends in the fatal stabbing of a gun-wielding kid by the Hell’s Angels.
Stirring first-hand accounts from stage manager, Sam Cutler, doctor, Robert Hyde, who carried away the mutilated body of the twenty-two year-old, Meredith Hunter, the late Albert Maysles, whose film cameras imprinted the carnage forevermore in the seminal, Gimmie Shelter, and many others provide new insights into what is arguably the mythical epoch to not only the Stones story, but that of the 1960s and the latter half of the twentieth century. “After getting all these stories you wind up with what I saw as this kind of kaleidoscopic scene at the end of the 1960s that was so intensely covered at the time, and now when it’s written about it’s either written about too closely or not at all,” Cohen reasons. “It’s like there’s no stepping back and looking at it like, ‘What really happened?’ and what it really meant without getting emotional about it.”
The book’s most poignant moments centers on a uniquely Stonesian trait; the absorption of people and places to fuel their music and enhance their image before blithely casting them asunder
Another device Cohen uses wonderfully in the storytelling is his trips to the places that “created” the Stones, like the original, putrid Edith Grove apartment, where Mick, Keith and Brian dreamed up their destinies, and most notably the infamous Villa in the South of France called Nellcôte, where Richards convened the band in tax exile to record arguably the Stone’s, and the genre’s, finest statement; Exile on Main Street. The author describes his impetuous trespassing, as he jumps the fence and sets the haunting mood of this once mystical hub of rock debauchery, camaraderie, and creative discovery. It is something Cohen believes is ingrained in the entire Stones legacy.
“One of the great things that’s key to the Rolling Stones is they have great taste,” he says. “They started out copying really good music, and that’s what they did for everything. If you look at Mick Jagger, and the art that he would have around him, in his house, its great art. Like years before you’d hear of painters, he knows this guy’s a great. That means when they would go work, they’d do it in great places.”
Cohen knows about those kinds of places, as he, Jagger, and master director, Martin Scorsese hit it out of the park with the dynamic and spot-on depiction of New York City’s smoldering hot-bed of musical reinvention for HBO’s Vinyl. Just as in the series, the characters of The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones are at once inspired and later possessed by their surroundings, coming to define them forever.
I pressed Cohen on whether he felt intimidated to give the Stones a pass on some of the wincing points of their careers, which he most certainly does not, in the glare of the friendships he had built with drummer, Charlie Watts or especially the working relationship with Jagger.
“You have to decide, are you loyal to Mick Jagger, or are you loyal to the reader?” he says. “I’m going for the big thing here. I can tell you everything I know. And the fact is if you really love these guys and love this music and get deep, deep into it, you just come across these things you have to struggle with. Not going to Brian Jones’ funeral; I just can’t understand that. Even if you hated him, how could you not go to his funeral? And there’s no way I can’t look at that and not comment on it. It’s like the Tom Wolfe line; ’A man in full.’”
This is what Rich Cohen has brought to the lexicon of the Rolling Stones; a uniquely first-hand account of fawning fandom and hard journalism, a place for the clamor to be silenced and the mass of gathered information to be digested.
“It’s the good, the bad, and the ugly,” he tells me in conclusion. “It’s not a portrait of a saint, and they wouldn’t say they’re saints. So you got a lot of sin in there too, and if you don’t write about the sin, then it just becomes bullshit. It becomes propaganda and then it’s not good.”
The Sun, the Moon and the Rolling Stones is not merely good; it is, again… spectacular.