Chapter Fifteen


In December 1971, the Stones were back in LA, recording at Sunset Sound and planning the following year’s tour. But while Mick and Bianca were living in domestic semi-bliss with their baby, Keith and Anita were disintegrating. Addicted to alcohol and cocaine as well as heroin, they needed urgent professional help or would not survive. At Mick’s insistence, they were flown out of California and deposited in Montreux, Switzerland, where Keith would submit to stringent detoxification while strung-out Anita gave birth to their second child.

Once the tax-exile year was over, the entire band shifted to Switzerland to rehearse. Exile was released on 12 May, Mick’s first wedding anniversary. The album was an instant hit, and remains a classic. Mick’s marriage, on the other hand, had only seven more years to run. The following month they were in Vancouver, embarking on their seventh North American tour to promote the new album. They faced with trepidation their first US performances since Altamont two and a half years earlier, not knowing what reaction they would get in the flesh from their fans.

The Stones Touring Party, the ‘STP’ as it became known, was the most hedonistic of their career. Orgies at the Playboy mansion, free-for-all crew screws on the private jet, drug smuggling, gun-toting, the works. They have striven to play it down since, but there were witnesses, some of whom wielded cameras. The raffish scofflaws were well on their way to going down in history as black-hearted outlaws. Their fans, most of whom appeared content to live law-abiding lives, seemed to adore them for it. The harder the Stones played, the greater the fans worshipped them. Wasn’t it simply about the music, or were the songs merely the soundtrack of an Excess-All-Areas lifestyle that their followers could hardly imagine, let alone experience? If so, perhaps we should question the concept of the vicarious thrill. Why were the world’s most outrageous rockers revered for the kind of extreme behaviour most ordinary mortals would rather die than risk … if you take my meaning? Is it because most would do exactly as they did, given half the chance, if they knew they could get away with it? Some would. But surely most would be content simply to sit back and enjoy the view. In which case, is it fair to call the Stones a bad influence? Isn’t that akin to suggesting that watching a Bond film incites moviegoers to hurl themselves from tall buildings or go around gunning people down? To say that the Stones were only rock’s equivalent of cinematic escapism is to forget a fundamental difference: that the action heroes in thrillers are acting. Their antics depend on the magic of special effects. The Stones were living it up and getting down and dirty for real. There would be consequences.

‘They were just living the dream,’ deadpans David ‘Kid’ Jensen, the popular Canadian-born former BBC Radio 1 and Top of the Pops presenter who first met the Stones during his tenure at Radio Luxembourg. Eighteen-year-old David relocated almost five thousand miles from home to the Grand Duchy in 1968 to host his own show, and championed the band from his first day at the station. They invited the baby-faced DJ, whom David Bowie once tried to pull in the back of a cab, to join them at various points around the world. I joined him and his Icelandic wife Gudrun at their home for tea, to reminisce.

‘I might have been the first to call them “the greatest rock’n’roll band in the world” on air,’ David suggests. ‘I went to the Bahamas to talk to them; they flew me down there. They also asked me over to stay with them at the Georges Cinq hotel in Paris. I remember I ended up with an ear infection, couldn’t fly, and had to stay an extra two days. They were, as always, generously accommodating. I later caught up with them in Philadelphia.’

When Mick Jagger asks you to join him on the tour plane as the Stones dashed around the United States, you don’t argue, reasons the now seventy-two-year-old Parkinson’s sufferer.1 ‘This was the band’s private plane, with (graphic designer) John Pasche’s iconic red tongue and lips logo emblazoned on the tail fin. My presence was not wholly popular, with American record producer (and Rolling Stones label boss) Marshall Chess making clear that I wasn’t welcome. I know this because the seating arrangements on the small aircraft meant I witnessed every heated word. Chess and Jagger had this terrible, flaming barney about it. But the interview that Mick gave me afterwards was fantastic.

‘On touchdown in Philadelphia, a police escort accompanied us as we sped through the streets to the Spectrum, a huge ice hockey venue which had gained a reputation as the home of the biggest rock names. When I asked Bill Wyman where I might sit to watch, he generously handed me an Access All Areas pass and gestured to the stage: “Sit with us.” I did, witnessing a performance from the greats from a vantage point just a few feet behind them. On occasions since, I catch vintage footage of the gig with the camera panning round to catch my young face sandwiched between Mick and Bill.

‘After the concert,’ remembers David, ‘it was onwards to Pittsburgh, from where take-off was delayed. Given this was a private plane, airport procedures were a little less formal and we disembarked for the wait. Killing time, one of the guys got out a football and the band invited me to join in a kickabout on the runway. A career in radio offers many surreal experiences, but little compares with playing football with the Rolling Stones at midnight at a Pittsburgh airport.’

It was the flight after that one that caused the controversy. Heading from Pittsburgh to New York for their four shows at Madison Square Garden, the final performance scheduled for Mick’s twenty-ninth birthday, some of the roadies indulged in an in-flight gang bang. They were cheered on enthusiastically by many of those on board, including Keith and Mick. The very young girl engaged in the exercise may not have taken part of her own accord.

‘I was aware of what was going on at the back of the plane,’ admits Jensen. ‘Walking up the aircraft at a very quick pace were Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts, the rhythm section. I looked round and saw a lot of people leaning forwards over the seat in front of them. I realise now that it was to get a better view. And it suddenly occurred to me why Marshall Chess was so anxious that they should not have any press or promo on the plane. Truman Capote, his friend Princess Lee Radziwill (the sister of Jackie Kennedy) and Andy Warhol were also with us. Capote was writing a piece for Rolling Stone magazine and Warhol was capturing everything on his tape recorder. I’ve often wondered what they made of it. Some of the band members had children with them. Certainly Bill was trying to shunt his little boy Stephen up to the front, away from what was going on. And I can tell you exactly what I saw: Keith Richards and his doctor pouring cartons of orange juice over two naked girls; and Keith having sex with another man.’

This was all being filmed, alarmingly, for a fly-on-the-wall documentary following the Stones on tour. Directed by lauded art photographer Robert Frank, one of whose images graced the cover of the Exile album, it was intended for cinema release. Frank’s vérité approach involved the use of several cameras which were left lying around, so that members of the entourage could lift them at random and start shooting whatever was going on. As well as the sex scenes, the footage features Mick Taylor smoking marijuana with some roadies, Jagger snorting cocaine backstage, a sequence in which he films himself getting ready to masturbate, and a young groupie injecting herself with heroin in a hotel bedroom.

‘One of the rules when making the movie was that none of the people in the Rolling Stones could say no,’ explains documentary director Paul Justman, who was an editor on the film. ‘If they said no, then Robert put the camera down and he left. There wouldn’t be any anger or anything. It would be like, “OK, you guys have given up and said no to me. Get someone else.”’

Once they’d come down off their cloud and had a chance to review the footage, the band were appalled. Not in anyone’s imagination was such a film going to enhance their image and repair the damage done by Altamont and Gimme Shelter, as it had been intended to do. They wanted it scrapped. Frank disagreed, insisting that his film be released. Thus, so the story goes, did they find themselves immersed in a legal scrap. A court order was said to have been awarded, preventing the film from being screened unless the director himself was present – because the film had to be viewed in the context of his work, not that of the Stones. Frank died in September 2019, aged ninety-four. Does his estate have a say? What now?

Many claim to have attended screenings, including one during the mid-1990s at the Anthology Film Archives in New York. It was also shown at London’s Tate Modern in 2004, as part of a major retrospective of Frank’s photography and film work, entitled ‘Storylines’.

‘It’s such a time capsule of what life was like behind the scenes in 1972,’ commented the film’s editor Susan Steinberg. ‘I’ve always wanted to get it released and seen. What was controversial at the time is now history.’

A bootleg of the film is available on the internet. My most recent search turned up as US DVD for seventeen US dollars, with the following description:

‘The Rolling Stones 1972 tour on film. Whew, wild movie! Sex, drugs and rock’n’roll! Songs: “Cocksucker Blues,” “Brown Sugar,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Uptight” (with Stevie Wonder), “Happy,” and “Street Fighting Man.” Keith and Mick snort up and hit the stage. Sin and debauchery. Girl shoots up. Keith tells Mick it’s best to snort coke through a rolled up dollar bill. Bobby Keyes [sic] and Keith toss a TV off their hotel balcony. Dick Cavett asks Bill Wyman, “What’s running through your nervous system right now?” Many, many amusing scenes!

Cast of “characters” includes: Bianca Jagger, Tina Turner, Stevie Wonder, Dick Cavett, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Ehmet [sic] Ertegun, Marshall Chess. Once you see it you’ll know why the Stones decided to stop its theatrical release!’

‘Other bands played at being rock stars,’ muses David Jensen. ‘The Stones always had the edge. They were doing it for real. Not all of it was admirable, much of it was hedonistic and downright debauched, but you take the rough with the smooth in this game. Standing in the wings onstage with the Rolling Stones, you felt like a Rolling Stone. Their energy was all-pervasive and addictive. Going to the gig with all the outriders, sirens going, lights blazing, thousands of kids screaming, eating their rider food backstage for several nights in a row, it was all amazing and it didn’t get better. Maybe I considered things a little differently once I had kids.

‘It struck me at one point that they weren’t the most handsome band in the world, and that this was actually a major breakthrough. Suddenly, you didn’t have to be a pretty boy to make it. In that respect, they did rock’n’roll a great service. No one really talks about this. I wonder if they ever realised.

‘You’d have to say, though, that things were much more cavalier in those days. The extreme lifestyle, the excessive drug-taking, the underage groupies, they would never get away with all that now. But you know what? The Stones, right? Wow. I breathed the same air as them. Great band, great music, they’ve stood the test of time. Mick Jagger seems younger now than he did twenty years ago. They have grown old disgracefully. It all adds to the allure.’

But when he thinks about them from this vantage point, sixty years after they began, David finds them an unlikely set of people: ‘As bandmates and as friends. Can they even be friends, at this stage in the game? And you have to ask, in 2022, at what point does the corporate gig lose its appeal? Five hundred pound tickets going for thousands on some of these secondary ticket broker sites. You get there and the band are stick men a mile away on a barely visible stage. There’s a delay in the sound. A bottle of water costs ten quid. You’re not getting home any time soon, maybe not even until the early hours of tomorrow, because the traffic jams out of the venue are so bad. What’s it about? Isn’t corporate rock the very definition of the Emperor’s New Clothes? And in any case, are they a band any more, or are they only a memory? Do they even exist, or is what we see when we go to the show all in our minds? Personally, I try to think of them as they once were, a bunch of young musicians who were dedicated to the preservation of the music they had chosen to play. Especially Brian Jones, so young and so idealistic. Who once sat in my radio studio in his Afghan coat. He was experimenting with Arabic music, and he impressed me no end with his knowledge. They were unruly and uncontrollable, but they did live the dream.’

Are they still living it?

‘Yeah, I think so. I’m sure Mick Jagger still goes to bed at night thinking, “What do we do next?” As mature as they are (or are they?) they continue to flirt with their legend and their reputation, and they keep on taking risks. I can’t help but find that admirable. We know that nostalgia sells because people want to re-live their youth. The Stones exploit that, and we let them. They are rock’n’roll mercenaries with a legacy that is so deep, so widespread and so exciting that you have to hand it to them. Thanks to them, old age is cool. It’s getting a second wind.’

At a party at impresario, rock manager and film producer Robert Stigwood’s house in November 1974, Mick Taylor told Mick Jagger he was leaving the Stones. Did anyone quit the Stones of their own volition? the latter had the temerity to ask. The man in Keith’s Bentley beside him had no answers … especially not to the invitation to replace him. Ronnie Wood was spoken for.

Prospective substitutes came and went during the first few months of 1975 before the Faces plucker came aboard as a temp, ahead of their 1975 Tour of the Americas.

‘It was such a shame that Mick Taylor left the band,’ commented David Ambrose, former head of A&R at EMI. ‘It happened because he and Jagger were having sex. Their relationship destroyed him, and he left quite suddenly. Whatever he says now, and they are going to deny it, aren’t they, that was the reason. Jagger must have feared for the future of the band at that point. Who were they going to get who was as good as him? Because Taylor was as good as Eric Clapton in his day. Taylor completed the Stones’ sound.

‘Ronnie Wood was never up to it, not in my opinion. He’s one of these people who is quite everything. Quite a good artist. Quite a good guitarist. But he doesn’t do it with the love, the passion that the others have. I’ve always felt he’s just going through the motions. You can replace Ron Wood, he is the master of none. He can put his hand to something, but he’s a terrible songwriter. He wrote ‘It’s Only Rock ’n Roll’? With Jagger, yes. I rest my case. He is dispensable. The only ones who are not are Mick and Keith. Only they are the Rolling Stones. Without them, it dies. The reason they keep on going is because Jagger has a lot of wives, girlfriends and children to support. They don’t sell any records to speak of. They get PRS off the radio, but it’s pennies. Like PPL.2 Touring is about merchandising money, mainly. It’s not ticket sales. Twenty pounds for a T-shirt costing fifty pence to make: that’s where the dough is.’

It was during the mid-seventies that rumours began to surface of drug-addled Keith getting his blood changed at a clinic in Switzerland. Ambrose remembers it well. ‘It was true,’ he insists, ‘but it didn’t start in Switzerland. I used to go to a guy on Seymour Place near Baker Street, right near the swimming baths, where they did blood transfusions routinely. Everyone went. It was Ken Lawton’s practice. He was a psychiatrist. He also did psychoanalysis and faith healing, the laying of hands, on me. I got really hooked on it. He said I had a massive Oedipus complex. He was probably right. It was one of his colleagues who did the transfusions there. A number of my close friends were in there all the time having it, and I heard that Keith Richards had his done there too. It made sense. I mean, why do you have to go to Paris or Geneva all the time when you can get it done down the road on Seymour Place? This was the pre-eighties, pre-AIDS era, remember, when you could still do such things safely and cheaply. Get rid of all the heroin in your body and start again.

‘I hear that Keith goes to church now, and that he has a good relation-ship with God. I’m sure he talks to Keith Richards the way he talks to anybody else. God does have a choice.’

Beaky, crow-coiffed, pleat-faced Ronnie had to thrash guitar for the Stones for more than a quarter of a century before they stopped referring to him as ‘the new boy’. The former art student, Faces and Jeff Beck Group guitarist who co-wrote ‘Gasoline Alley’ and ‘Every Picture Tells a Story’ with Rod Stewart, and who composed and recorded extensive solo work, would not become a full-blown partner until Wyman called it a day in 1993. Formerly married to model Krissy Findlay, he took Jo Karslake as his second wife in January 1985.

‘I got the world exclusive on their engagement,’ remembers former journalist turned publisher John Blake. ‘I was having lunch one day with Ronnie and Jo at Joe Allen’s when I was on the Sun. While I was in the loo, Ronnie took my tape recorder and said into it, “I’ve just asked Jo to marry me, and she said yes.” I didn’t know about it until I got back to the office and found this revelation on there, which of course was a great scoop.

‘They then invited me to the wedding. It was at Marylebone Register office, then off to some weird church in Buckinghamshire for the blessing. I remember they were all ducking down behind the pews, doing coke. Photographer Brian Aris was there doing the pictures, and I was going to write something. All the Stones were there except Keith, who they were expecting, because he was his old mate Ronnie’s best man. He arrived late, with a face like thunder. Then he spotted me.

‘ “John Blake?” he raged. “What you fuckin’ doin’ ’ ere?” “Ronnie invited me,” I said gingerly. He was not what you’d call pleased to see me, because I’d done a book with his dealer, “Spanish” Tony Sanchez [Up and Down with the Rolling Stones). “I’ve got a Derringer in my boot, and I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you,” he growled. I was so scared, I just burst out laughing. “Don’t fuckin’ laugh at me, boy. I’m gonna kill you!” he insisted. What can I say, I lived to tell the tale.’

John landed yet another Stones scoop two years later, when Mick’s ‘wife’ Jerry Hall was charged with possession of marijuana in Barbados. The then thirty-year-old model had only asked her butler at their home in Mustique to send her over a few personal effects. When she went down to the airport to pick up her package, she was arrested. The drugs must have been a plant, but there was panic.

‘A load of us jumped on a plane and went out there,’ said John. ‘I went for the Sun, and Baz Bamigboye came for the Daily Mail. It was February, the weather was shit back home, the judge kept adjourning the bloody court case so we had to stay there. What a drag. The case being sub judice, we couldn’t write anything, so we had to try and amuse ourselves in other ways. Which I did, by learning to scuba-dive. In the end, the judge dismissed all charges and Jerry was free to go. Mick had supported her in court throughout the ordeal, which was good of him. Afterwards, Mick gave me his exclusive interview, because I got on well with him, and Baz got the interview with Jerry. So it all worked out, we got what we came for.

‘It was at that point that Mick told me all about the problems he was having with Keith. “There he was, staggering around on smack for years, and now he’s clean and he’s telling me what to do,” said Mick. “Having carried him for years and years, he’s now trying to boss me around.” It was the root of all the trouble between Mick and Keith, that would resurface regularly well into the future.’

Mick preferred it, it seems, when he had the shop to himself.

After twenty-three years together, the Woods’ marriage hit the rocks. Ronnie, a former heavy drinker, turned to the bottle again towards the millennium. He suffered a major mid-life crisis in 2008 at the age of sixty-one, leaving Jo for Kazakhstani-born Russian model and waitress Ekaterina Ivanova. The twenty-year-old was forty-one years his junior. They met in the London club Churchill’s, and played out their tempestuous relationship across the tabloids. She kissed and told of their cocaine binges, claiming that he first gave her the drug only hours after they met; that he was sucking fifty fags a day and guzzling litre bottles of spirits, more often than not rum. Was this a man on a mission to do himself in? He clearly didn’t like what he saw in the bottom of his glass. Her attempts to get him to AA meetings, she lamented, were in vain. The dishevelled pair traded accusations of assault and acrimony. Ronnie entered rehab. The so-called ‘evil Goblin King’ and his ‘cute little gold digger’ eventually went their separate ways, but Ronnie never went home to his wife. Jo divorced him. Reality television claimed the coquettish Russian, who entered the Big Brother house for series seven in 2010, the year of contestants Stephanie Beacham, Vinnie Jones and Alex Reid. It was a predictable descent after that for ‘Katia’. She did a few topless spreads for girlie mags, then faded away.

‘Going out with an older man can be quite different,’ she said in 2012, ‘but [Ronnie] had the mentality of a fifteen-year-old. He didn’t even teach me to sing.’

There was Brazilian model Anna Araujo and shop assistant Nicola Sargent before Wood pulled himself together. He met and fell for theatre producer Sally Humphreys, a sensible former head girl and drama school graduate only thirty-one years his junior, and made her his third wife at the Dorchester Hotel in December 2012. Ronnie had two best men, Rod Stewart and Paul McCartney. Sally’s new husband was two years older than her mother and a year younger than her father, both retired classical musicians. She herself is only a few months older than Ronnie’s daughter Leah. Their twin daughters were born in May 2016, making Ronnie a father of six. A cancer survivor who still paints and draws prolifically, who has written three autobiographical books and bred racehorses, he has kept himself busy. He announced with pride in 2021 that he has been sober for ten years.

‘Woody’s fabulous,’ Bill Wyman told my late friend the journalist and producer John Pidgeon in 1978, just after the Stones’ ‘farewell’ US tour. ‘He’s made this band come back to life again, more than anybody else, I think. Mick Taylor was a fabulous musician, he really was. So quick and clever at inventing something or learning something … as far as I was concerned, he was the best musician in the band. Technically brilliant. But when [he] was in the band, it became three groups of people … he’s been away from the band for a long time now, and he hasn’t got his shit together. That happened to Stevie Winwood a bit too, but now he’s making great music.3

‘[It] will last as long as we have fun, as long as it’s worthwhile, as long as it doesn’t become a drag and a bore and an obligation … as it was getting to be for me, three or four years ago. Now I’ve got a new lease of life, a second wind, and it doesn’t cross my mind ever to leave the band or that [we’re] going to break up. And touring, doing shows, getting on the road – Keith thinks that’s the most important thing, and he’s probably right …The more you work on the road, the better you play, and the better the next session gets, and the next tour …’

But going on the road is exhausting, as Bill concedes. ‘A lot of people get really fucked up … [they] can’t handle it without getting into something else to manage to do it. Some people can, some can’t. Living in suitcases, living on bad food, not getting laundry done – all them stupid things that have to be part of living, getting your bloody jacket pressed or your socks washed, sitting in these boring rooms when you’d rather be at home; but then the next day knowing the reason was because you’re just having a great time on stage for two hours and you’re glad you’re not at home. Fortunately we can now afford to live in better hotels, in nice suites, and have a video machine and a good sound system and friends popping by, and it becomes a bit more like home and life. But if it didn’t – like those early days, man, you really had to be dedicated to get that together, to go on the road for forty-six cities and stick to it, manage to stay on the road with bad hotels and bad organisation. When you’re big, you can sort it out and make it a lot easier – have days off and eat better food – but you can become very wasted on tour. Mick loses pounds. I haven’t got many to lose, but even I lose pounds and I don’t even sweat on the stage.’

Ronnie wasn’t the only Stone to suffer a devastating midlife crisis. Charlie Watts, the abstemious one, became so heavily addicted to booze and drugs during the eighties that Keith took it upon himself to intervene. Pot, kettle? It was rich, coming from the junkie who had dodged so many scrapes and life-threatening scenarios; who had been hanging around death’s door for the past twenty years, boozed to the hilt and smacked to the nines to the point that NME had voted him ‘Most Likely to Die’ ten years in a row during the seventies; who was fond of taking tequila on his cornflakes; who, when asked what was the strangest thing he had attempted to snort, snapped back, ‘My father. I snorted my father.

‘He was cremated,’ Keith revealed of Bert, Richards Snr, who, er, snuffed it in 2002 at the age of eighty-four. ‘I couldn’t resist grinding him up with a little bit of blow (cocaine). My dad wouldn’t have cared, he didn’t give a shit. It went down pretty well, and I’m still alive.’

As he added, almost slyly, ‘Keith Richards has got to do everything once.’ He was, he admitted, really disappointed when he fell off the ‘Most Likely to Die’ list: ‘Some doctor told me I had six months to live, and I went to their funeral.’

But did the snorting his dad thing really happen?

‘There were headlines, editorials, there were op-eds on cannibalism, there was some of the old flavour of Fleet Street indignation at the Stones … There were also articles saying this is a perfectly normal thing, it goes back to ancient times, the ingestion of your ancestor,’ reflected Keith in Life. ‘So there were two schools of thought. Old pro that I am, I said it was taken out of context. No denying, no admitting.’

So was it true?

When the story looked in danger of going too far, Keith penned a memo to his assistant to explain the scandal’s genesis. Having kept his father’s ashes in a black box for six years, he said, because he couldn’t bring himself to scatter him – the longer you keep them, the harder to let go – he eventually got around to planting an English oak tree, with the intention of committing Bert to the soil underneath.

‘And as I took the lid off the box, a fine spray of his ashes blew out on to the table. I couldn’t just brush him off, so I wiped my finger over it and snorted the residue. Ashes to ashes, father to son. He is now growing oak trees, and would love me for it.’

But Charlie was something else. Charlie was the sensible one, the voice of reason, the one upon whom the others could count. The backbone, the metronome, the one who was there when all else failed. Now here he was, heavily addicted to alcohol, amphetamines and heroin. No one saw that coming.

‘It got really bad,’ admitted Watts, remembering the day he passed out in the studio. ‘I lost consciousness, and that was so unprofessional. Keith was the one who dealt with me. Keith, of all people. Who I saw go through every state doing anything and everything. He was kind. He said to me, “That’s the kind of thing you do when you’re sixty”. Looking back, I think it was really a midlife crisis. I became a completely different person in 1983, and didn’t leave until 1986. I nearly lost my wife and everything over my behaviour.

‘After two years of speed and heroin, I felt very sick. My daughter told me I looked like Dracula. I almost killed myself. I wasn’t that badly affected, I wasn’t a junkie, but giving up [drugs] was very, very hard,’ he told the Observer in 2000. He also said that falling drunk down the steps of his cellar and breaking his ankle while trying to retrieve yet another bottle of wine ‘really brought it home to me how far down I’d gone. I just stopped everything – drinking, smoking, taking drugs, everything, all at once.’

Charlie was diagnosed with throat cancer in 2004. After a course of radiotherapy, he recovered. The clock ticked on.

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