The Rolling Stones have been rolling with the cultural scene for so long that they've in some sense become its embodiment. Two new books on them confirm the band's status as an institution and take its importance for granted.
Both see Altamont -- the disastrous concert in 1969 at which a young man named Meredith Hunter was clubbed and knifed to death by Hell's Angels while the band played -- as the crossroads of the Stones' turbulent career. Both treat Brian Jones, the founding-member guitarist who drowned in his swimming pool a few weeks after being fired from the band, also in '69, as their story's central symbolic figure. Outside of that, however, the two books couldn't be more different.
"Symphony for the Devil" by Philip Norman -- the author of "Shout!," one of the better Beatles books -- is the conventional biography. A good re- porter, Norman provides clear and thorough accounts of the basic Big Moments: If you want to follow the twists and turns of the 1967 drug busts that sent Jones over the edge and nearly brought the band to a standstill or understand the bad planning that culminated in the chaos of Altamont, this is a trustworthy place to start.
But I've never read a book about rock 'n' roll that showed less feel for why the music is worth caring about in the first place. The Beatles were pure pop, essentially benign. But the Stones are nothing but rock -- curiously detached ambassadors for a world view that confronts ultimate things, the limits of sex, craziness and death, in the form of a good time. If you're not receptive to the music on some level, then you and they simply aren't worth each other's time.
On a magazine-profile level, Norman isn't all bad: A remark like "Mick Jagger is an idol, but Keith Richards, the band's musical bedrock is a hero" sums up the contrast between the remove of media celebrity and the involvement of rock stardom rather nicely. But that sort of involvement is just what Norman can't share or appreciate fully. His lack of empathy for his subjects extends to their culture: When he characterizes the radical movements of the '70s as "a cloud of irritant pollen soon blown away," he's indulging an ad hominem distaste, not advancing an argument.
All the things that Norman doesn't understand -- about milieu, subjective engagement, and rock 'n' roll's gamble with emotions -- make up the heart of Stanley Booth's "Dance with the Devil." Booth traveled with the Stones during the ill-fated 1969 tour, and just how ensnaring that experience was can be gauged from his having wrestled for more than a decade with his book about it. Starting out as a journalist, he quickly came to live in the world according to the Stones -- sharing Keith Richards' drug stash, joining dressing-room sing-alongs with Jagger and, at Altamont, scrambling with the others for the helicopter that lifted the stars away from the havoc they helped wreak.
Booth is a tough witness -- he's fully aware of the risks and costs of this demimonde but refuses to be horrified. His Jagger and Richards aren't symbolic projections but people he comes to learn about as he lives with them.
His biggest accomplishment may be to have documented how, from the inside, exoticism -- or horror -- can become mundane. His version of Altamont is as graphic and feverish as Norman's is balanced and distanced, but his most telling comment on why it matters is in showing how, for the Stones, it quickly turned into just another episode.
For Booth, the only valid way of writing about rock 'n' roll is as spiritual autobiography -- and his descriptions of how his own life fell apart aren't just the most vivid passages here, they're also the ones that tell us the most about the Stones. "Dance" is unsettling, but it doesn't go far enough. There's a promise of a look into some even more scabrous heart of darkness, but it somehow recedes. The problem with a book like that, as Booth well knows, is that no one has ever come back alive to write it.