Unfortunately there’s no way to insulate yourself from the bad things around you that doesn’t at the same time insulate you from the good things around you. A wall protects but it also imprisons. Every fortress is also a jail.
- Philip Slater, The Chrysalis Effect: The Metamorphosis of Global Culture


The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones

Rich Cohen

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Jul 24, 2016
Category: Biography

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Heat Wave? Sunscreen! Anthelios with Mexoryl.

CONVENTION PROGRAMMING, WEEK 2: A balanced diet requires several food groups. In a week when your media diet will be heavy on politics, I’m offering some cultural protein. Starting here…

You don’t care about The Rolling Stones?

Read this book anyway.

Were you sentient when Kennedy was assassinated? Then you watched the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show and, later, the Stones. You lived through Chicago ’68, the endless Vietnam War, Nixon, yellow ties on investment bankers, AIDS, Clinton and Monica, 9/11, Dick Cheney — and in every decade, the Rolling Stones.

Chris Rock says your musical taste is fixed in whatever year you first had sex. Bet there was a Stones song that year. Bet you know it. Bet you’ll understand what Keith Richards meant when he told the author, “You tell me. What’s it like to live in a world where the Stones were always there? For you, there’s always been the sun and the moon and the Rolling Stones.”

And whatever you don’t know, I bet you know about the disaster at Altamount.

But I’ll bet you don’t know — I didn’t, and I know a lot about the Stones — who that guy is, standing on stage eight feet from Mick Jagger at Altamont.

Rich Cohen knows. That guy was a Hells Angel. He was stoned, probably on acid, clenching and unclenching his hands, primed to hurt or kill Jagger. And that’s no exaggeration. “I stuck my pistol into his [Keith Richards] side and told him to start playing his guitar or he was dead,” the leader of the Angels recalled. “He played like a motherfucker.”

“The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones” is a motherfucker of a book. Rich Cohen was born in 1968, when the Stones were, in a creative sense, just a few years from becoming their own cover band. In 1994, when he was 26, Rolling Stone magazine sent him to Toronto to watch the band rehearse. Charlie Watts, who rarely expresses enthusiasm, liked him a lot. Jagger and Richard were amused by him. And thus began the kind of access that groupies and fans only dream of. [To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Why did Cohen have that access? Because he understood the power of rock music when it mattered, when you marked your personal development in what you took away from the records you loved. (Read the excerpt below. That’s passion. Commitment. And really fine writing.)

Why did I love the writing? Because it’s not fancy. Not literary. Just exact, the way you’d say it to a friend on a night when you’re uncommonly articulate. Like…

Jagger: “He’s the ego that became the world. He stands before millions but the millions don’t exist. At the center of the universe, Mick Jagger dances alone.”

The Stones: “a group of buddies who started as kids and kept on forever.”

Mick and Keith: “Keith would always question Mick’s commitment. Mick loved the blues in the way of a rich kid: like a hobby.”

The band’s appeal to the young Rich Cohen: “Their music suggested a dangerous world of drugs and liquor and all manner of sin I looked forward to trying myself.”

Why, despite disappointments, Cohen cherishes the band: “I felt about the Stones as you might feel about the girlfriend you did everything with first. Yes, we fought. Yes, we split up. But always, and forever, and who knows?”

Keith: “There’s a kind of reassurance in talking with Keith. There’s nothing you’ve done he’s not overdone — nothing you’ve suffered he’s not survived.”

Cohen on Jagger, now: “An old man defined by sex is a strange thing.”

If you’ve read “Life,” the Keith Richards memoir, you know some of the story. Cohen goes deeper. How their first manager masterminded their first hit. The creation of “Satisfaction,” the hit that made them a brand. Drugs and the drug busts. Brian Jones as genius and jerk. The four records from 1968 (“Beggars Banquet”) to 1972 (“Exile on Main Street”) — “perhaps the greatest creative stretch in the history of rock n’ roll.”

But this isn’t a fan boy’s book. Cohen has a surgeon’s eye, and the chill leaps off the pages. How the band fired Brian Jones, who promptly died. How the band got rid of Gram Parsons, who soon died. Altamount, the end of the party and the start of Keith’s addiction. The squalor of the chateau in France where they recorded “Exile.” And the business that followed the end of their creativity: “A Stones show has become a Broadway revival… It wasn’t love that brought Mick and Keith back together, but calculation… They’re like a bitter married couple who stay together for the kids. Or maybe the money is the kids… When you see Mick and Keith onstage, you’re seeing actors. It’s heartbreaking.”

There are some chapters about music that are way inside. Feel free to skip them. But there are many more that will have you turning pages fast, breath quickening, brain not quite believing. Long before the end, you’ll understand what this band achieved – “a revolution with ten hands, four chords, and a groove” — and who you were when you were young and full of dreams. .

When it happens, it happens fast.

I was sitting on the stoop of my West Village apartment, waiting without knowing it. In the summer, the city smells like trash. The streets are desiccated, empty. It seems as if everyone has gone off to the mountains or the sea, leaving the ne’er-do¬wells to haunt the redbrick alleys. Then, just like that, I was carried away by the Rolling Stones. It was akin to my childhood dream of running off with the circus. The midway. The strong man. The Ferris wheel revolving against the flat Kansas sky. In 1994, I was twenty¬six years old and the Stones were crossing America. I’d been assigned to report on the tour for Rolling Stone magazine. I’d been bored, but I was not bored anymore.

In the next two weeks, I crossed half the continent. I stood in the corners of a dive bar as the Stones played their warm-up gig, got drunk in arenas open to the sky, dozed in hotel lobbies and dressing rooms, leaned against a speaker at the edge of the stage as the band played its encore, saw my country through rock star eyes, airports and towns becoming an insubstantial blur—¬only the next show was real. I sat beside Keith Richards on the Stones plane, goofed with Mick Jagger, who made fun of my hair when it was long and more fun of my hair when it was short, talked to Charlie Watts about New Orleans and the Civil War, then sat in his hotel room listening to jazz. I drank whiskey with Ron Wood and Bobby Keys when they got word that their friend and colleague, the pianist Nicky Hopkins, had died in Nashville. Keys grimaced, then tossed back four fingers of Jack Daniel’s, eyes filled with tears.

In New York, we stayed fifty blocks from my apartment but a hundred miles from my old life. It had been summer. Now it was fall, glittery Manhattan, the endless avenues. I spent one long day at Radio City, watching the Stones rehearse for the MTV Video Music Awards. The appearance was to goose sales of their new album, Voodoo Lounge, but for the musicians it was just a quick hit between somewhere and somewhere else just like it. I didn’t even go by my apartment, nor see friends. The circus had stopped in my town, but I was different, having been remade by proximity to the greatest sword swallowers, high-wire artists, and sideshow freaks in the world.

I hung out with the band instead, lingering backstage as Keith Richards and Ron Wood traded acoustic licks on Hank Williams tunes, sat in the empty theater as Mick Jagger snaked down the aisle, playing the sinewy harmonica intro to the single “Love Is Strong.” On the way back to the dressing rooms, I had an encounter greater even than my childhood encounter with Joe DiMaggio before an old-timers game—¬the Yankee Clipper shouted at reporters, “Can’t you sons-of-bitches see I’m naked?” Behind the curtain, Jagger and I bumped into Bruce Springsteen, who regarded us warily. It was a look I’d seen in high school on the faces of rival linebackers. There was a mumbled exchange, a comparing of notes. Mick introduced me as his “good friend.” As we went away, Jagger shrugged, playground-¬style, whispering something like, “Well, you know, Bruce, he gives a very long concert.”

That night, after the show, Virgin Records threw a party for the Stones at the Four Seasons hotel on Fifty-seventh Street. Empty at midnight, it was packed by two, crowded with rock stars who’d once filled posters on my bedroom wall. There was music, leather, eye shadow, Spanish heels, gin. Mick’s publicist told Mick that Steven Tyler wanted to have a picture taken—“just the two of you.”

“What do you think?” asked Jagger.

“Give it a miss,” said the publicist. “Tyler wants people to think Aerosmith is up with the Stones, whereas, in fact, I mean, come on, Mick!”

The publicist talked about a New York Post article on the band’s recourse to body waxing. It had been written by a reporter who’d covered the Stones for years. “She’s enjoyed life on the inside,” said the publicist. “Let’s see how she likes life on the outside.”

One of the Stones’ people pushed me against a wall and asked me to “come upstairs and blow a joint.”

Slipping away, I found myself in a circle of rock-’n’¬roll masters: Steve Winwood of Traffic; Jim Capaldi, the band’s drummer; Ron Wood; and Keith Richards. Though each had his own identity, they seemed to share a single face. Creased and beaten, aged like leather, pounded by abuse into a kind of beauty. An old guy getting a close look at Jagger once said, “You have more wrinkles than I do!” “They’re laugh lines,” said Mick. The guy guffawed: “Nothing’s ever been that funny.” But the guy was wrong—¬there has been something that funny, mainly, the joke that this generation of rock stars played on fate, which had them marked for lives of quiet desperation in factories and insurance firms but instead set them up like medieval princes in frock coats and buckles—¬a life that for centuries had been the sole entitlement of the debauched nobility.

Each man in that circle had electric energy and strung¬out glory—¬drank too much, stayed out too late, brain fried and fingers gnarled, but my God, could they play. These were the last of the great rock stars, a species that’s going the way of the snow leopard. Those who survive are precious and strange, relics of an ancient dispensation, that era when the music mattered above all else—¬when you believed the next album would clarify everything. The men in that circle were human expressions of that belief, heroes who established the revolution, then followed it to the end. They stood laughing and drinking, telling dirty jokes. “Did you guys hear the one about the pianist who was playing songs for his producer?” Capaldi asked. “He plays two beautiful songs, saying, ‘The first is called “My Dick Is Long” and the next is called “My Penis Is Huge.” ’ Then he goes to the bathroom. When he returns, the producer says, ‘Do you know your fly is open and your dick’s hanging out?’

“ ‘Know it?’ says the pianist. ‘I wrote it!’ ”

Richards leaned back and roared. “ ‘Know it? I wrote it!’ ”

As the men laughed, it hit me. I’d always sensed there were people somewhere having more fun than me. I’d always believed there was a better party. And there was! And I’d found it! No need to check my messages, look over someone’s shoulder, wonder where to go next. I was at the center of the best party in the world. For the first time in my life, I was exactly where I wanted to be.

“What about you?” Capaldi said. “Do you have a joke?”

I told him I did not, that I was, in many ways, humorless.

Steve Winwood looked at me, really looked at me, for the first time. A legend of British rock, author of “Back in the High Life Again” and “Higher Love,” and before that a driving force behind the Spencer Davis Group, Blind Faith, and Traffic, Winwood was forty-¬six with tousled hair and a needle-¬sharp face. When I told him I worked for Rolling Stone, his sharp eyes became accusatory. “You know, you’re a bastard,” he said, suddenly. “A nasty bastard. I’ve been waiting years to tell you that, and there it is! You nasty bastard!”

“Hey, Stevie, do you know this kid?” asked Ron Wood, surprised.

“Hell, yes, this bastard has trashed every solo album I’ve ever released. You think there’s no life after Traffic?” Winwood went on. “What was I supposed to do, lay down and die when the band broke up? Well, I won’t die for you. No, I won’t die for you.”

There was an awkward silence, then everyone cracked up. It got an even bigger laugh than “Know it? I wrote it!” Taking my arm, Keith said, “You’re crazy, Stevie. You’re talking about fucking nineteen seventy-four. This kid was six years old! What does he know about Traffic?”

“You do know Rolling Stone is a magazine, not a person,” Wood added.

Just then, I had my second epiphany. Time would always separate me from these guys, from this generation. I’d missed everything: 1964, 1969, 1972—those were the years that mattered. I’d been born too late. Whatever happened had happened already. I’d spent my entire life trying to reach this party. By the time I got there, everyone was old. Belatedness: it’s the condition of little brothers and sisters, the sons and daughters of old parents, third children who showed up just in time to see a cigarette floating in the last cocktail of the night. It defines my generation. We’re pinched. Above us, the baby boomers, who consumed every resource and every kind of fun. Below us, the millennials, the children of the baby boomers, who’ve remade the world into something virtual and cold. The boomers consumed their childhood, then, in a sense, consumed our childhoods, too. They overimbibed, lived to such excess there’s nothing left for us but to tell the story.

Time distanced me from the Stones, but it gave me something, too. Perspective. Coming at the end means being able to comprehend the entire story. Rock ’n’ roll was more than just a million garage bands; more than just Top Forty radio; more than just A&R men and record companies. It was an attitude and an age. The Stones were the greatest band of that age, and in a way the only band that mattered, because, in them, you had both the ultimate and the ur, a group that can stand for all the others. If you tell their story, you tell the story. But you need perspective to do it. You have to know the end to understand the beginning. Evening light. Venus in the east. The story of the boomers told by Generation X. The Stones are a train rolling across a valley. I can see every car, the first and the last, the engine and the caboose, which gets smaller as it goes away.

I would travel with the band on various tours, first as a writer for Rolling Stone, then as the screenwriting partner of Mick Jagger. We were working with Martin Scorsese on a script about a fictional record executive, whose rise and fall would encapsulate the era. I got stories firsthand and was able to test ideas with the world’s greatest front man, though Jagger tends to diminish his own role. He abhors the temptation to turn singers into gods, the fate of John Lennon seemingly never far from his mind. Yet it’s clear the Stones were, for a time, the avant-garde, which is one reason Jagger keeps his mouth shut. If you live audaciously, don’t brag. Over time, it became obvious to me that what began with a magazine story was turning into something more—¬an epic and an obsession, a saga in which a handful of musicians stand for the longings of a society.

I began to seek out witnesses who could fill in the gaps, explain puzzles, add color. I tracked down colleagues and friends of the band; competitors; pioneers; precursors; producers and engineers; drug buddies and assistants; record men; girlfriends of the one-¬night variety and those more akin to common-law wives. I read memoirs, biographies. There’ve been dozens, perhaps hundreds of books. For people involved with the Stones, no matter how briefly, the experience tends to be the most vivid of their lives. I watched documentaries and listened to the records again and again. I looked at pictures. The Stones were among the most photographed people of the twentieth century. I went to places that loom large in their story: houses where Mick and Keith grew up in Dartford, England; the pub where they first performed; the apartment where they lived in squalor one cold winter; the club in Richmond where they became a sensation; the swank flats and estates they purchased when they’d made it; Olympic Studios in Barnes; Chess Records in Chicago; the Altamont Speedway; Joshua Tree National Park; the mansion in France where they recorded their greatest album; the clinic in Switzerland where Keith Richards kicked heroin. I kept a handful of questions in mind: Why was this music important? Why do the soap-¬opera adventures of the Stones still fascinate? Can rock save your soul? Is it a religion? If so, why did it go the way of Zoroastrianism? Should we worship the life or the message? Is there a graceful way to get old?

That night at the party in 1994, the Stones struck me as decadent. They were an oldies act, which is less about biological age than about spirit. The Stones had become predictable. Invention had given way to repetition. They were doing what they did because it’s what they’d always done. At the beginning, they imitated black blues musicians. At the end, they imitated themselves. And yet, even at the most tired shows, before the most jaded crowds, you could still, now and then, just for a moment, catch a glimpse of what they had been: a revolution with ten hands, four chords, and a groove.

Short takes

Bastille Day. I’m not in Paris. But Sophie is.

French women are a world unto themselves. And the women of Paris? More so. In
“Sophie the Parisian: Her dictionary of L’art de vivre,” Nathalie Peigney channels “Sophie,” who knows all things Paris and shares her knowledge as if you were her best girlfriend. The subjects of this A-Z guidebook/dictionary look like the obvious (shopping and fashion, the city and its psyche) but Peigney’s point-of-view is her own: the “art de vivre.” Champagne, seduction, the education of children — simply dressed, seemingly discreet, her Sophie explores the paradoxes of the sophisticated life. If you read it aloud, you can almost hear her accent. Which is, of course, charming. [To buy the paperback from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Summer is the best time to read John Cheever.

You’re sitting in a beach chair with his Collected Stories— the book, not the Kindle. At your elbow, a cool drink. There’s a breeze. Time slows.

Start with the first story in the book: “Goodbye, My Brother.” It’s about a WASP family with one of those big houses on the bluffs of Nantucket. The family’s three grown sons, a daughter, a mother, various spouses and kids have assembled for a late-summer vacation. Swimming, drinking, family dinners, club dances, game nights at home: This reunion should look like a Ralph Lauren commercial. Why it doesn’t: Lawrence — the youngest brother, the one who “looks like a Puritan cleric” — has arrived.

We all know people like Lawrence, people who try “to spoil every pleasure.” We endure them because we don’t see much of them. But to share a house with Lawrence, to have your two weeks of vacation darkened by his omnipresent scowl — it drives the narrator, an otherwise mild-mannered high school teacher, to spill the blood of his blood.

Lawrence departs in a huff on a gorgeous late-summer morning — not that, from the ferry, he’d see its beauty. And the narrator? The ending of his relationship with his brother is inspiration for a final look at much more than a family drama. Here’s the last paragraph:

Oh, what can you do with a man like that? What can you do? How can you dissuade his eyes in a crowd from seeking out the cheek with acne, the infirm hand; how can you teach him to respond to the inestimable greatness of the race, the harsh surface beauty of life; how can you put his finger for him on the obdurate truths before which fear and horror are powerless? The sea that morning was iridescent and dark. My wife and my sister were swimming — Diana and Helen — and I saw their uncovered heads, black and gold in the dark water. I saw them come out and I saw that they were naked, unshy, beautiful and full of grace, and I watched the naked women walk out of the sea.

And then you start to read the next story….

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Trump: What’s the Deal?

25 years ago, I wrote a documentary about Donald Trump. He huffed and puffed, and the documentary was never shown. He’d kill it again if he could. But “Trump: What’s the Deal?” is now available on iTunes. The new trailer gives you the idea right off: “The old Trump. The new Trump. The same Trump.