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Old Gods Almost Dead:
David Dalton Talks to Stephen Davis,
Author of the First Full-Dress Biography
of the Rolling Stones in Twenty Years

Dalton: You got a lotta nerve. Don’t you know that writing a history of the Rolling Stones is second only to writing a biography of Dylan (your next presumptuous project, no doubt)? Don’t you realize the rabid horde of Stones Taliban will denounce you, will issue fatwas against you? And especially given the supercilious tone in which you have chosen to write their sacred history.

Davis: Dylan bio—great idea. Last night an interviewer told me Dyl had signed a book contract. Have you heard this? Maybe you'll get the gig! Maybe I will! No way Dyl's gonna write it himself. Good Dyl interview in new Rolling Stone.

Important to register that it is high time for a Stones biography. Wyman, Booth, and Norman all end in 1969. Dalton (First Twenty Years) ends in ’82. About five years ago I sat down and listened to all the Stones albums—it took a week—and realized that the songs, from England's Newest Hitmakers to Bridges to Babylon, told a story that was like an old fashioned quest saga. Then there was a story about the telling of that story—the manner in which the music developed and the records got made and the performances played out. Then I had a lively luncheon with Anita in New York and she said that she thought comparing rock stars to gods was a totally valid idea, and we were off. Three years following Stones footsteps in England, Morocco, Jamaica, California. Some talked with me, others wouldn't. Read everything, listened to a lot of music, rediscovered unintentional masterpieces like Flowers and December's Children. Had a lot of fun, also heartache, doubt, rejection. Am crushed you found the narrative tone supercilious—Kirkus used "bombastic," which I prefer. The tone I was aiming for was somewhere between fanzine groveling and [Albert] Goldmanesque hatred and contempt.

Just kidding, Dave. I really love the Stones. They're more than just a rock band, obviously. They opened up the world of hip for an entire generation, and I think the culture owes them a lot.

But they still have to answer for Emotional Rescue. I agree with youse there.

Well, of course what I actually meant by supercilious was "adult slagging" really. Most Stones snipers, Nick Kent, Lester Bangs, et alia, have taken the street-urchin, cheeky-bugger approach. Yours, if I may say, is more, er, from en haut rather than de la boue. But don’t let me interrupt you, do go on.

Money and ambition drove the Stones, not the Jagger/Richards bond. But the story of their childhood friendship developing into a great art adventure was touching and inspiring to me. Their bond provided the unity needed to break through the many barriers and obstacles that fate threw in their path, and poor Brian never had a chance. As for the dissolution of the bond, a biographer could date it to the Performance shoot, as Keith seems to value loyalty very highly, and probably isn't the forgiving type. Others, Stones insiders, date the final break to the scandalous events around the firing of a longtime Stones associate in 1982. I had some truly excellent though quite sleazy material on this, but Random House's lawyers made me cut it from the published text for fear of a libel suit.

Call me immediately and tell all! But, seriously, it’s interesting that the fracture in the Stones monolith came from Donald Cammell’s pervy, portentious, bubblegum-Borges movie—don’t get me wrong I love the scaly thing—and that it in turn was inspired by the Stones darkside. In other words, Mick and Keith proleptically described, through a glass darkly, of course, a poète maudit future in which they would soon enough find themselves. But how would you describe the dynamic between M&K exactly?

Dr. Freud would have described the dynamic between MJ and KR as "Hostile Dependency."

The After-Life-of-Brian quandary. Marianne once described the role of the post-Brian second violinists as basically that of a go-between (and Keith babysitter)—something Mick Taylor was apparently unable to fulfill. Go-between, because Mick and Keith—despite, or maybe because of, their hipster street creds—are cursed with the Brit inability to say what they really feel (cue Rex Harrison song from My Fair Lady). How would you describe the function of the hired help after the demise of Brian?

Mick Taylor was hired as a soloist, and he did well for at least three years before Keith got bored with him. Ron Wood was a catalyst, foil, go-between, butt-boy and, later, convenient scapegoat. He certainly wasn't a musician of the caliber of Charlie Watts or Keith, but he was funny in the tuning room and actually fetched drinks for people. His was an impossible job, as Brian Jones found out.

One of Keith’s refrains was that the Stones would go on playing forever, like old bluesmen. They are still playing but somehow this didn’t quite work out the way they imagined—in other words they have seemed for the last couple of decades to have become a sort of tribute band to themselves. Is there a time limit for rock groups after which they dissolve or become oldies bands?

Term limits for rock bands? Maybe not a bad idea. Are the Stones really cynical nostalgia merchants? Yes, and far out. In ten years people will be paying a thousand bucks a ticket to see Mick, Keith and Charlie playing in clubs on stools like Muddy Waters in his 70s. Mick's harp playing will only get better, by the way.

After Exile on Main Street the Stones principle strategy seems to have been jumping to the head of the parade—reggae, disco, etc . Did they lose their moxie, run out of ideas/riffs or did they become less adept at fusing themselves onto other peoples material (unlike their brilliant splicings of purloined material in the ’60s—"Satisfaction"/"Dancing in the Street," "Paint It Black"/"World Is Empty Without You."?

After Exile, the Stones turned to funk and reggae, but the rhythm section wasn't up to it. Jamaicans say only illiterates can play in true reggae time, and funk-feel was way beyond what the Stones were capable of. (Keith had better luck with this on his two solo albums, using a black batterie [French for drums. Can extend to rhythm section as well].) So of course the music suffered. To compensate, they turned into a ballad group—"Angie," "Fool To Cry"—and managed to stay on the radio. Fascinating combo of steel-hearted careerism and occasional quality aesthetics somehow got them through the 70s and over a hump where they morphed into an institution and living exemplar of Rock, now "Classic Rock."

Let’s add Some Girls to the list of classic Stones albums, their last gasp in many people’s opinion, a last desperate lunge to avoid the Old Fartdom label punk was sticking them with. But you have some revisionist theory that Undercover is a great album. Please tell us your reasons for this. Also, for those of us who gave up on them after (and during!) Emotional Rescue would you give us your personal highlights of the latter day Stones.

I agree with youse that Some Girls (1978) should be seen as the last great Stones album, but would plump for under-rated Undercover (1983) as a very good record that was also the last true Rolling Stones album in that they were still speaking to each other and working in the same studio. "Undercover" and "Too Much Blood" were interesting "long form" experiments that could have gone further had Keith not hated them. After Undercover, Stones albums were patched together and over-produced with horns and choruses, and then without Wyman at all and The Munch doesn't really cut it, do he? That said, I'm still very fond of Keith's two albums, parts of Steel Wheels, half of Stripped (the Stones' template for the future), and most of Bridges To Babylon, which some think a great album, and it does sound great when you're doing 180 kph on the autobahn.

You mentioned to me when we spoke that this book wasn’t for us, meaning old farts, old Stones watchers, people who remembered "Walking the Dog," etc. Who is your book intended for, then?

Old Gods was really written for people born in the ’60s and ’70s. The first Stones album they bought was Flowers or Hot Rocks Volume 2. They didn't live through the Brian Jones era, and only know him as a photograph. They never heard of Solomon Burke, Irma Thomas, Andrew Oldham, David Bailey, or Phil Spector. The younger ones think Courtney Love is rock music's main Byronic hero of action and experience. This book is for them—and for "us" too—the veteran Stones fan who wants to have a bit of fun with his memory.

You have focused—quite rightly—on the Stone molls, Marianne Faithfull and Anita Pallenberg. What do you see as their contribution to the Stones? And, why, after hooking up with these two beautiful, intellectual women did they settle ever afterwards for bubble-headed models?

Marianne and Anita made the Rolling Stones, beginning in 1966, and of course destroyed them a few years later, so it is crucial to focus on their roles as muses, inspirers, collaborators and co-deities. And I don't think its quite fair to reduce J. Hall and P. Hansen to bubble-headed models. Rather, they were stable American geishas who provided blonde children and reliable arm candy, and in truth, rather than "settle" for them, Mick and Keith were probably real lucky to get 'em.

I see what you mean. If we slag those two intelligent, sophisticated women of exquisite taste and comportment we won’t get invited to Mick’s tree-trimming party. Forget I ever said it. Let’s move on. Frequently people who write books about the Stones are stoned fans—I’m thinking of Stanley Booth … and meself, perhaps—but you maintain a quizzical, bemused objectivity throughout. What is your assessment of them, man; can’t you come out and say it, fer crissakes, and stop hiding behind this sois-disant detachment of yours?

At the end of the proverbial day, what was it all about? In my view the Stones rank among the great transforming artists of the 20th century. They're up there with Picasso, Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, Godard, Dylan, Beatles, Warhol, etc. To make this claim seem valid, one needs a bit more detachment than is expected from a common "fan" or aficionado. Old Gods isn't an exercise in public relations, but an attempt to understand the Stones in the context of their times and to use the techniques of the epic to show how important they have been.

Sorry I asked!