The Sun & The Moon & The Rolling Stones.
By Rich Cohen. Spiegel & Grau, 2016. Hardcover. 381 pages.
Review by Francis DiMenno
Cohn has most of the serious credentials deemed necessary to write about “The Greatest Rock Band in the World.” In spite of having been born in 1968. (Which is actually good; it gives him a certain necessary generational distance to balance his overarching enthusiasm for the band.) He has written for both Rolling Stone and The New Yorker. He has also collaborated with Mick Jagger and filmmaker Martin Scorcese on the HBO drama Vinyl. And, need I add mention yet again, he is an ardent Rolling Stones fan; albeit one who has written extensively about and gotten to know most of the individual members of the band in most of its incarnations, as well as having conducted extended interviews with the people who helped make them what they were, including Chris Barber (father of the British skiffle movement); Marshall Chess (son of the famous Chess Records impresario), Bobby Keys (saxophonist and sometime band sideman), Rock Scully (Grateful Dead manager who was involved with the selection of the site for the infamous Altamont concert), and many others. Cohn even takes the time to track down the nephew of their swindling manager, the notorious Allan Klein.
Early on, Cohn delves into the influence which the early British Blues scene had on the formation of the band, and how Jagger and Richards happened to meet the golden boy, brilliant and doomed, named Brian Jones (previously known as Elmo James). Much is made of how Brian was probably destined to become an acid casualty from the time of his very first trip. He was not the first, nor would be be the last, to be sucked into the sinister vortex of drugs, sex, and other assorted debaucheries which came, first to define, and eventually to at least partially subsume, The Rolling Stones. What made the fall of Brian Jones so tragic was that he was exceptionally talented. Listen, for instance, to the slide guitar on “No Expectations.” The trouble with Brian was that he started a band which was intended to serve as a homage to the American blues: “Brian was the band’s spirit. It was his vision, his dream; a blues engine….” However, the rise of The Beatles and the concomitant British Invasion (which Cohn hardly mentions as such) buried that dream. Because the endless money to be had from selling out made Jagger and Richards see dollar signs. If only they could write their own songs, like the Beatles. If only they could produce a number one hit – which they eventually did with “Satisfaction,” a song which, legend has it, came to Keith Richards in a dream. If only they could make it to the top – then there would be no more starving in an unheated apartment, and no more scuffling from one half-filled provincial venue to the next. Instead, they could tour to sold-out stadiums swollen with screaming pre-pubescent girls.Instead of mere musicians, they could be stars. But poor Brian wasn’t exactly with the program; he wrote songs, which the band rejected, and saw his dominant control of the band’s trajectory slip out from under him. He became moody; erratic. He began missing practices and gigs. When the band fired him, he was already far more than halfway to being dead. So his early death, at 27, which occurred in circumstances which are still murky nearly 50 years later, was perhaps merely inevitable. Brian had a death wish. According to Cohn, “I’m not saying he committed suicide. I’m saying that he put himself in a position where he could easily die.”
Cohn is equally good on the the minutiae regarding the Altamont concert; he is scrupulously careful to relate the side of the story told by Hell’s Angel head honcho Sonny Barger; perhaps too much so. Again, the circumstances surrounding the death of Meredith Hunter, who, we are informed, was no angel, remain enshrouded in mystery. Did he pull out a gun because he was preparing to shoot a member of the band – or because he was surrounded by menacing, murderous, and thoroughly drunk motorcycle gang members? Cohn gives us all sorts of side details which you may not find elsewhere, in more standard biographies. Apparently, the Rolling Stones were practically shamed into giving a free concert in the first place because critic Ralph Gleason laid a major guilt trip on them owing to the high ticket prices for their shows.
We also learn from Cohn that Ry Cooder was the one who taught Keith Richards the open tuning that he used for many of the band’s most memorable songs, notably “Honky Tonk Woman.” And that Gram Parsons – another doomed soul – was the one person most responsible for imbuing the Rolling Stones with an appreciation for American Country music. This is a fact which, Cohn archly observes, is most likely all the more true simply because Mick Jagger denies it so vociferously. Exhibit one: “Country Honk.” Cohn takes a side trip to chronicle the last days of Parsons, and it is a harrowing story. Keith Richards may not be directly responsible for his dissipation and his early death, but Cohn implies that he surely bears some blame.The author is certainly not shy about pointing out the band’s myriad experiences with illicit drugs, which, after all, formed a large part of their sinister mystique. (The only part of the book which made me question the author’s credentials was his casual mention of teens smoking the high-potency “Thai Stick”…in 1967. Possible – though not likely.)
Cohn is particularly good at chronicling the band’s “golden run”: Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street. A run which was, he implies, in part made possible by the absence of their friends and rivals, The Beatles. In those chapters, his obsessiveness regarding the Stones pays off. However, rather than trace the trajectory of the band’s slow decline into irrelevance and nostalgia, Cohn simply informs us of it by omission. He deems Some Girls the last great Rolling Stones album and declares that Tattoo You, which was partially assembled from out-takes form that record, was “the last true Stones album.” (He certainly has a point.) This is not a biography, per se, and not exactly a memoir; it’s more in the nature of an exploration of a mystique, and a clarification of the legends and folklore which surround the band. When it comes to the major landmarks defining how the band came to be – details which every fan knows (or should know), Cohn leaves few stones (so to speak) unturned. All in all, this is a book which any Rolling Stones fan, even a casual one, and particularly an obsessive one, will read with great pleasure.