The first section of Robert Greenfield’s short, engaging book about the Rolling Stones, “Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye,” feels like a mistake. The author, who during the early 1970s worked in the London bureau of Rolling Stone magazine, provides readers with a day-by-day account of the Stones’ March 1971 tour of their native England.
Greenfield, then 25, was on assignment to cover the Stones on the road, and in the text, he combines I-was-there accounts, in real time, with italicized, contemporary reminisces of band members, accompanying musicians, producers, sound engineers, and two omnipresent girlfriends, Anita Pallenberg (Keith Richards) and the soon-to-be Bianca Jagger.
A world-famous cast of characters, yet on this tour, the Stones and their entourage travel by train, from town to town, as if it’s 1964, before #1 singles, drug busts, Hyde Park, Altamont, and the breakup of the Beatles, which left you-know-who as the top rock group in the world. Never again would the Stones be so accessible and available to the public, fans, and detractors alike. By the next year, the band was in the process of becoming Rock Gods, having released the massive-selling albums “Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main St.” and engaging in all kinds of excesses during a tour of America that included a night at Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion in Chicago. (Greenfield wrote a book about that tour as well, “STP: A Journey through America with the Rolling Stones,” still in print some 40 years later.) It was the post-1971 version of the Rolling Stones that English punk rockers would ridicule by the middle of the decade that gained the attention of Richards in particular.
Conditioned to think of the band that way, I found it an unexpected pleasure to read Greenfield’s charming anecdotes of the comparatively ordinary life led by the Stones on what was announced at the time as their farewell tour of Great Britain. For me, two stories stand out. There was the morning in Newcastle when various members of the group were having breakfast in the hotel dining area as “a steady stream of gray-haired little old ladies, Irish chambermaids, and middle-aged waitresses came up to offer them menus and tissues as well as any bit of paper on which they can lay their hands.” As Greenfield relates, the collected Stones obliged every one of these polite, if unlikely, autograph seekers. Then there was the time in Liverpool when Mick Jagger and his girlfriend, Bianca, fast becoming one of the most famous couples in the world, were sitting in a quiet hotel dining room, preparing to engage in that very English tradition of tea at 4 p.m. As Mick and Bianca make small talk, and stare into each other’s eyes, here comes an unimpressed, aged waitress bringing a tray of tea, toast, jam, and china. “Catching sight of Mick for the first time as she begins sliding a cup and saucer onto his table, the waitress suddenly straightens up and exclaims ‘You! The last time you were here, you didn’t pay the bill!’
“Laughing out loud, Mick explains to Bianca that when the Stones played in Liverpool in 1966, a group of hysterical teenage female fans broke into the tearoom while he was there. Forced to flee for his life, Mick did in fact leave the bill behind. Promising the waitress he will not be doing this again today, Mick promptly charms her into serving him and Bianca tea.” You can read millions of words about the Stones, as I probably have, without coming upon a story like that.
There are inevitable feelings of disbelief, mixed with a dash of regret that comes from reading about an exceptional rock and roll band, at the height of its musical prowess, performing gigs where the best seats are going for the equivalent of $10. To the Coachella crowd, which apparently has no problem spending hundreds if not thousands of dollars for a package that includes a choice location and various indulgences, the admission price must seem as remote as the Charleston and flappers.
In 1971, the Stones were at their career best, on stage and in the studio. Fans who saw the group on this tour heard for the first time unreleased songs such as “Bitch,” “Brown Sugar,” and “Wild Horses” along with concert staples “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” and “Midnight Rambler.” Greenfield offers short, crisp reviews of the shows; the brilliant, the very good, and the rare not so good. In the case of the last, a gig in Liverpool, the group convenes afterward for a backstage therapy session. The bass player Bill Wyman is especially upset that the lackluster performance disappointed fans who had been waiting for hours with incredible anticipation to see the Stones. Wyman suggests in his understated manner that Richards’ frantic, last-minute arrival to the show is to blame. The chastened co-leader of the group tries to explain that he was the innocent victim of various transportation mishaps, while the others listen in silence.
March 1971 takes up 121 of the book’s 196 pages. In the second section, entitled “Aftermath” (Greenfield has an irritating habit of invoking Stones lyrics and references into the text), the author recounts time he spent a few months later at Keith Richards’ house in France. This stay resulted in a lengthy interview that ran in Rolling Stone; Greenfield’s hanging out with the Stones in Los Angeles in the spring of 1972 as they frantically finished the mix of “Exile”; and his being embedded with the band in violent Kingston, Jamaica, at the end of the year, where the band recorded the mediocre album “Goats Head Soup.”Although this part of “Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye” lacks the spark and coherence of the tour account, Greenfield supplies some good material, including a frustrated Mick Jagger handing the rough tapes of Exile on Main St. to engineer Andy Johns and demanding that he finish mixing the entire double album in two days. Johns spent the next 48 hours straight on the task.
By the end, Greenfield has demonstrated his salient point; during 1971 and 1972, the once incomparable and unshakeable team of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards became damaged beyond repair. In no particular order of importance, Mick got married, which Keith thought was a very bourgeois thing to do; Mick’s wife and Keith’s girlfriend—also the mother of his child—couldn’t stand each other; and Keith’s unreliable work hours, fueled by rampant drug use, clashed with Mick’s sense of order and professionalism.
Unlike John and Paul, the differences didn’t lead to a clean break, but with few exceptions, the magic and music of the Stones were never the same. Perhaps, although rock in general was moving away from the group’s rich R&B sound in the early 1970s.
In the new world of Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, David Bowie, and Neil Young, it’s doubtful Jagger/Richards could have produced another “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” or “Brown Sugar.” This makes it all the more remarkable that in 1978, long after Greenfield stopped spending time with the Stones, they released one last great album, Some Girls. But that’s another story.