Who wouldn’t want to go on tour with their favorite band? Getting to hang out by the side of the stage watching them perform, sitting in the car next to them as they are sped to their next destination, privy to their private backstage foibles. It’s a dream that almost never comes true. But for Robert Greenfield, in 1971, it did happen. Music journalists in the seventies had somewhat of a carte blanche with the musicians they were covering, something that is just unheard of in today’s world.
Flash forward forty-three years and Robert Greenfield is sitting in his office talking to Glide about the two weeks he spent with the Rolling Stones back in March of 1971. He was a young journalist then for Rolling Stone Magazine’s London bureau, trying to find his solid ground in a burgeoning journalism business in the rock & roll capital of the world. The Stones were still THE band, post-Brian Jones, pre-Exile On Main Street, and needing to get the hell out of the UK before the country took all their hard-earned money. Mick Jagger was nestled snuggly within the bosom of socialite Bianca, who was tugging him in the direction of millionaire parties and better stage costumes. Keith Richards was embroiled deeply with Anita, the dirty drugs not wholly apparent yet to those who did not run in his immediate circle. Mick Taylor was still young and shy, yet no longer an ingénue; his days as a brilliant shining diamond in John Mayall’s blues band still a fresh memory when he was quickly whisked up into the Stones’ whirlwind. Bill Wyman was virtually ignored but Charlie Watts, now he was the rock they all leaned on. And Ian Stewart? Although he had been heartlessly demoted to roadie and in-the-back piano player, he was still the one they needed almost as much as they needed Watts. This is the palm of the hand that Greenfield found himself sitting in that spring.
Ain’t It Time We Said Goodbye is Greenfield’s third spin into the Stones orbit and this short little tome is probably his most personal, as he intersperses words from the past with words of the present, shedding new light on what was really happening. Writing in the moment can sometimes be done with blinders on. In other words, you see what you see so you write what you see. Hindsight can be a writer’s best friend or worst enemy. But for Greenfield, he blends them together so seamlessly that it’s as if you were sitting in a café chatting about the good old days. It feels that personal, the way he has arranged his tales. With glimpses of Gram Parsons, Bobby Keys and photographer Michael Cooper, sitting down with this book makes for a perfect way to spend a lazy weekend.
This is your third book on the Rolling Stones. What makes this one different from the other ones?
(laughs) That’s a good question. It is my third, and I think, my final book about the Rolling Stones. What makes it different is that I’m in it for the first time. I’ve never liked writing about myself and didn’t ever push myself forward when I was around them. I always tried to just be an observer, be a reporter, and watch what was going on. This is, as you know, an account of their 1971 Farewell tour of England. They were going into tax exile in the south of France. So the book itself comes from the notebooks, the original spiral bound notebooks that I kept for forty-three years, something like that. And as I began detailing what happened on the tour, I realized that it needed more perspective and it needed another voice, so the book itself was written as it occurred during the tour and then I interject myself now with what I’ve learned about what was going on there since. So it’s very much a dialogue between someone who back then was twenty-five and a half and is now a good deal older.
The real point of it is, and you don’t realize this until you’ve become older, is how clueless I was about so many things back then in my own life (laughs) and everybody else’s life, but as I point out in the book, the Stones were geniuses at this and by this I mean, I was twenty-five and a half, I had just come to London to work for Rolling Stone Magazine, and the Stones had been internationally famous already for at least five years. And even though they were completely out front about everything and I was there with them in the cars and in the dressing rooms and in the hotel, they had learned how to hide what was really going on in their lives. I mean, during the course of the tour I had no idea that Keith was using heroin. It wasn’t apparent. It wasn’t the kind of stuff that anybody knew about except those who knew about it. So by going back and forth, I was able to reveal what was in fact hiding under the cover of night on this tour.
You said you were working for Rolling Stone’s London bureau. How did that come about?
I had been freelancing in New York City and not getting anything published. I would send articles that I had done about events in New York to the Village Voice, which was what everybody read and it was the counter-culture paper in New York. It was so immediate and very powerful and astonishing people were working for it. And I would not hear back from them and then I would call them and ask them to return the article. We’re talking back in the days when you typed an article and maybe you had a carbon and maybe you didn’t, and they would have lost it. I couldn’t get anything going for myself in New York and then at one point I sent something that I had written to a woman named Loraine Alterman, who later was Peter Boyle’s companion, the actor. She ran what was called the New York bureau of Rolling Stone. I never met her, I never saw her, I never went to the office, and she wanted to hire me to work in New York but at that point in time, it was so difficult for someone my age to live in America. The political situation was so impossible, things were really bad and things were pretty bad in New York. It was pretty grim in New York in 1970, and I said to her, “No, thank you, but I’m leaving. I’m going to go to Europe. I don’t know where I was going but I was going to London and I don’t know what the plan was. I was just leaving.” And she said, “Oh well, you could work for Rolling Stone in our London bureau. There’s a job there. We need somebody.”
And then I showed up there and it turned out that the man who was then running the London bureau had actually been saving that job for his younger brother, who later became a very good friend of mine and I worked with him for a long time. He didn’t care for me particularly. I was pretty much a hippie at that point and he wasn’t. I did a couple pieces for Rolling Stone while I was there. I spent a terrifying day with Ginger Baker, who went crazy on me for no reason but nothing I wrote ran and it wasn’t working and I guess after about six weeks or so I left again. I just left and spent the next three months wandering through Europe.
Then I came back to go to the Isle Of Wight Festival in 1971. I wanted to see the music and I was carrying a letter from a magazine that has long since gone out of business identifying me as a reporter. I got a press credential and I wound up running into a guy who had come late to a press conference and asked me what was going on and I gave him everything that had happened and he was really grateful and he turned out to be Andrew Bailey. He had just been appointed as the new head of the London bureau of Rolling Stone and that was how I started working there. For a long time I was still on a freelance basis. The first real piece I did for them out of London was about Elton John, cause Elton had just broken in America, Tumbleweed Connection was about to come out, and I went to see him play at a press preview in the afternoon and then interviewed him. I think it was like the first real piece about him that ever ran in America.
But I would do an article every two weeks, usually 2000 words, for a ridiculously small amount of money and then eventually after a year or so, I became the Associate Editor of the bureau. But there were only four people working there (laughs). It was a two room office and we basically had a lot of freelancers supplying us with articles. But we sent a lot of stuff. I mean, London was then still music city and we generated a lot of copy that would run in Rolling Stone. The edition that was published in England was distributed throughout Europe and you would find it in head shops in Copenhagen and Amsterdam (laughs). It was read pretty widely through Europe.
Were you a fan of the Rolling Stones before you went on this assignment?
I, of course, grew up with their music, as everybody did in that era. I had seen them on Ed Sullivan, I was well aware of everything they had done pretty much. I had never seen them in concert. I mean, they had been in New York at Madison Square Garden in 1969. I was well aware what had happened at Altamont. But I can’t say that I was particularly a fan of their music, no.
Who were you listening to?
Like so many people from my generation, I began with folk music but then because I guess where I lived, I don’t know why, I very quickly got into soul music, black rhythm & blues. I would go to the Murray The K Rock & Roll Shows at the Brooklyn Fox and see astonishing people, The Temptations, all the Motown acts, Marvin Gaye. I actually did my Masters Thesis at the Columbia Graduate School Of Journalism about the Apollo Theater. I spent a huge amount of time backstage and hanging out at the Apollo. So I was kind of obsessed with black music, which was what the Stones were obsessed with. So I was connected with the music that had formed their music. I was as amazed by James Brown as Mick had been when he and Keith saw James Brown for the first time. That was really my musical background at that point.
This was a few years after Brian Jones had died. Did you feel his presence still hanging around or had they completely moved on from him by then?
A really fantastic question. When you’re in your life and you’re that young, and I was pretty naïve as well, you don’t really understand what’s come before you. You don’t know the history that preceded your presence with the band so the insanity over the fact that I was there about a year and a half after Brian died, it’s crazy. I mean, I bought a pair of rock & roll boots at the same shoe store that I later learned Brian did. It’s a small world in London and Chelsea. But on the tour, the answer is no. I had no sense of that. Ian Stewart, the original Stones piano player who became their roadie, was the only one who spoke to me about Brian on that tour.
The book, as you know, also goes on to my time at Nellcote when they were recording Exile and then in LA and the American tour and then seeing them in Jamaica when they’re trying to record Goat’s Head Soup. When I lived at Villa Nellcote for two weeks with Keith and began doing the Rolling Stone interview with him, that’s when it came out about Brian. What’s interesting to me is that Keith at that point had such a different feeling and such a different set of emotions about Brian than he seems to have adopted later on and the way he deals with him in his own book, there was so much regret then, there was so much loss. I mean, on some level at Nellcote, the ghost of Brian Jones was walking in those hallways. And the reason I say that is, and this point is made in the book, is that in terms of what Mick was watching and everybody else, it definitely was the kind of fear of, is Keith walking down the same path that Brian took? It wound up killing Brian but Keith is, as we know, a horse of a different color (laughs).
What was the first thing you noticed when you entered into their world?
It was a sense of invulnerability, that when you traveled with them you were exempt from the rules of human behavior (laughs). Not that I acted out or did anything crazy, I just watched them, nor did they act out or do anything crazy. I mean, the great thing about that English tour is how mellow it was. They hadn’t toured England in five years and all these teenage girls who had gone crazy for them were now kind of older, and people got married earlier in London back then, especially if you were working class, and many of them had kids now. So the relationship between the band and their fans was so one-to-one there. It was very much what I had seen at the Apollo where all the great soul stars were so receptive to their fans; they talked to them, maybe not James Brown, but everybody else. There was an incredibly different relationship and the Stones had that with the English fans.
But again, the point is and seems so stupid now, they never ordered anything that was on the menu. I’d never seen anything like this. Like if you went to a restaurant, you ordered from the menu. They were, you know, “Can you have the chef …?” “I would like ..” and sometimes it was something very simple, sometimes it was something very complicated, but I mean, what guy in the kitchen was not going to make whatever the Rolling Stones wanted to eat at that moment. So that’s why for me, it was a life experience, like, wow, this is an entirely different world. I’ve never lived in this world before.
There is a funny story in the book about when Mick is in the hotel tea room.
Where he had run out on the check beforehand (laughs). Well it speaks to the fact that England was so different then. A woman who had worked in that tea shop five years ago would still have that job because that’s the way it was. She worked at one job her entire life in England and you were lucky to have the job and you just showed up all the time. But what that story really is about is how radically it all changed in five years. That the last time he’d been there, the teenage hysterical, screaming girls were running through the tea room trying to tear his clothes off and now he could sit there with Bianca, who was about to become his wife, and have a very civilized moment because, well, the world had changed and he had become such a part of the English culture. It’s really interesting and five years is not that long a time but it was a big difference between 1966 and 1971.
Did Mick Taylor seem like part of the band or was he still maybe looking like an outsider?
Well, it wasn’t a question at that point of him seeming like an outsider, because of his musicianship, he was such an extraordinary player. They played two shows a night. I stood on the stage next to the piano for every show and Mick Taylor was an extraordinary blues player. He was so elegant and he was incredible, just a great guitar player, but was very shy and very reserved. Rose, who was with him at that point, who had given birth to their daughter, was much more outgoing, much easier to talk to. Mick was very, very, very English in every sense of the word. The outsider thing gets more protracted at Nellcote while they’re recording Exile and Mick Taylor and Keith are starting to butt heads. Mick Taylor gets songwriting credits for “Ventilator Blues” but not for anything else. I mean, “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” is all Mick Taylor, sounding very much like Santana, playing fabulously. Then on the American tour, it’s all so crazy, everybody is trying to survive, but it really is when they are recording Exile, and so much of the work was done in LA after they leave Nellcote, that Mick Taylor starts to lose his desire to be a member of the Rolling Stones, which I guess now is really hard for anybody to understand.
Of course, he’s been taken back in now, which is probably good for him, but now or since then, it’s all become so much more about fame and money. Back then, it was about being an artist and as an artist/musician, he didn’t feel like he was able to do what he wanted to do with the Stones. He was limited, he was just playing the solos, the audience didn’t really care about what he was playing. It just speaks to how different the sensibility of the musicians was back then and has since become.
But his work with Mayall is breathtaking.
Thank you, that is so brilliantly said. I mean, look at the tradition of guitarists that he is in with Mayall. Look who came before, right. He’s with Mayall when he’s sixteen and he’s utterly fucking brilliant. The late Andy Johns, who I adored, was one of the funniest human beings that ever lived. Andy sat there in the truck with Jimmy Miller, they’re both dead now, and recorded hours and hours at Nellcote. And Andy Johns insisted to the end of his life that Mick Taylor was as brilliant a musician as he had ever heard in the studios. So there you go. We have the same opinion (laughs). And he was one of the sweetest human beings. I mean, Mick Taylor was genuinely a lovely human being.
I wanted to ask you about Ian Stewart
Oh Stu, we have to talk about Stu. Stu was one of the great people in rock & roll, and everybody who encountered Stu in rock & roll knew that. He was one of a kind and what often gets overlooked is that he was a hell of a piano player, in the genre that he chose to play piano in. In other words, he wouldn’t play any Chinese chords (laughs). That’s what he called them. But the barrelhouse stuff, the honky tonk stuff, I mean, I stood at the piano with Stu when he replaced the great Nicky Hopkins, who I consider the greatest rock & roll pianist of all time, hands down, no conversation about it. No one could play like Nicky. But when Stu played with the band on stage, he was still great and it was the fact that he never changed, he never cut his style to suit the fashion of the year. Stu always told you what he thought of you. Stu was always straight out with everyone. And Stu saw everything. Stu was on stage at Altamont. Stu was there when they destroyed all the band’s equipment during a riot somewhere in Europe. He was an extraordinary figure.
He drove me through the mountains from Newcastle to Manchester, I believe I have that right, and then he drove me through Mississippi to New Orleans. He drove me through Mississippi from Alabama to New Orleans, and you know, the image of this guy is that he hated planes. He drove from one gig to the other, that’s what he was. He had driven them for years in his Volkswagen Bus when they were playing all these little church halls. They don’t make them like this guy anymore, they never will. What’s great about Keith’s book Life is the way he recognizes who Stu was, what he did for the band. Yes, they would have stayed together without him but he and Charlie Watts were the rock solid foundation of the Rolling Stones.
I was going to ask you who you thought was the true heart & soul of the Rolling Stones.
It was Stu and Charlie together because they were so similar. Neither one had ever taken acid, neither one had ever changed, they both dressed the way they had before they became Rolling Stones. You know, Mick and Keith are the two great mercurial geniuses, there’s no doubt they’re musical geniuses. They’re brilliant onstage. But in terms of day-to-day and getting through the day, surviving in the studio, sooner or later everybody in the band would wind up talking to Charlie. And Charlie was always there for everybody and Charlie listened to everybody. Everybody loved Charlie. He was the connection. And everybody felt that same way about Stu. So because a band is usually a spectacularly, dysfunctional family, you need a couple people who are grounded and these are the two who were the most grounded.
You mentioned earlier about the Isle Of Wight Festival. What were your highlights of the festival?
The thing to remember is that I went to the second one. I wasn’t at the first one. Joni Mitchell was astonishing. She had just come from writing Blue and was on stage by herself in front of a couple hundred thousand people. She had problems with the audience and had to quiet the audience but she was amazing. The Who were astonishing. Hendrix was there and I thought he was awful. I was right below the stage. He died a few weeks later but I was very disappointed. I had never seen him before and I was very disappointed in his set. I have since learned Leonard Cohen was there. I was asleep (laughs). Sometimes you have to go to sleep. The Moody Blues were great. I’m trying to think who else.
Did you see Free?
Did I see Free? I can’t believe you asked me that (laughs). I went to a Top Of The Pops, I got snuck in. I wrote a piece about there were people, young teenage girls were OD’ing, and Muff Winwood, Stevie’s brother, who may have been managing Free, snuck me in with the band and I was hanging out with Paul Rodgers and Paul Kossoff. I have never seen anybody, well, I have, but Paul Kossoff was so stoned and so loaded, and then later died, but I don’t have a distinct memory of seeing Free there. Who else was there? Do you have a list? (laughs) Why would you know that Free was there? That’s insane. Isle Of Wight was in 1971. Let’s see who was there and see who I remember (laughs). The Doors were there and I thought they were awful. I thought it was really bad. I saw Kris Kristofferson, John Sebastian, Terry Reid. Miles Davis was astonishing. Jethro Tull was incredible. They were fabulous. It was pretty amazing. It was out of control. The people broke down the fences and stormed the festival. It was a free festival. It’s never really been written about but the Isle Of Wight is extraordinarily beautiful and there was an incredible beach right below where the festival was and there were hundreds of naked people on the beach. And the dope smoking and maybe it’s like that at Bonnaroo but somehow I don’t think so (laughs)
In your prologue, you said you had spent that summer wandering around Europe “in search of true love, spiritual enlightenment and some kind of career as a writer.” You found the writing but did you find the other things?
Well, I found the writing because it was early enough, and I’m going into detail here that I never have, but I went to Copenhagen to see a woman that I had been in love with years and years before; many years before. And that did not work out, and that’s okay. It had been, let’s see, three years or four years since we had corresponded and she was a wonderful person. But, I don’t know, I guess because I was there, I wound up going to Malmo in Sweden, which was a ferry ride, and did an article about the American Army deserters who had in protest to the Vietnam War had gone to Sweden and were living in Malmo. I sent that in directly to Rolling Stone in San Francisco and that was the first piece I ever had in Rolling Stone Magazine. I got paid seventy-five dollars for that, and then it was enough money. So yeah, I kind of began my career with Rolling Stone by wandering through Europe. In terms of true love, no. In terms of spiritual enlightenment, I don’t know, maybe some. Actually I was going to go to India. I was going to do the whole thing that people were doing back then and I sat in the Rome train station for like, I don’t know, twelve or fourteen hours trying to decide what to do: Go to India or go back to London for the Isle Of Wight? And I think fortunately for myself, I wound up going back to England for the Isle Of Wight.
You know, I can tell already, you are one of these people who are about the music. I came to this kind of conclusion when I was working on my book about Ahmet Ertegun, The Last Sultan. You know the line is whether people really love the music or not. If they really love the music, especially the record business, you can excuse all kinds of bad behavior, because they were doing it cause they love the music. My problem with a lot of what’s going on now is that the people in this business seem to love the money more than they love the music. But back then, that was really all that mattered. I think the reason I was able to gain some level of acceptance with the Rolling Stones was I was as crazy about the music that they were crazy about. It’s all I cared about. I think it keeps you alive. I really do (laughs)
After reading your book, I went back and really listened to some old Elmore James and you can hear the Rolling Stones sound in Elmore James. Brian Jones loved Elmore James.
I was asked after I finished this book to do a very long essay for a book. There were astonishing photographs taken for Beggars Banquet, staged, very elaborate, very colorful photographs that have really never been seen. So this is a book of those photographs but it’s also my writing about the making of Beggars Banquet and that’s when the Stones come back to their roots. You know, they’d just done Satanic Majesties, which is a critical disaster. Everybody says this is awful, it’s fake Sgt Pepper, why are they making psychedelic music, this is not who they are. And on Beggars Banquet, you hear what Keith is playing on a lot of those songs. It’s just a direct transference, the other point that has been made constantly, and Mick Taylor is part of this as well. It took the English musicians of that generation to reintroduce the black blues to white audiences in America.
For someone who is going to the Apollo then, to be honest with you, you didn’t see blues musicians at the Apollo. You saw soul musicians. You saw the Five Stairsteps, you saw Patti LaBelle & The Blue Belles; you saw pop/soul acts. The blues circuit was purely in the south. That’s why Bill Graham could put on Albert King, BB King, Freddie King; that’s why Bill could present the blues to white stoned audiences in San Francisco because the English musicians had already started bringing this music to the attention of a brand new audience. They kept the blues alive. That should not be ignored ever.
I stood behind Pinetop Perkins as Muddy Waters and his band worked in a pub in Hampstead. I don’t know how many people but it was in the back. I mean, to see Muddy Waters five feet from me and he was astonishing. Again, living in England back then, I saw Freddie King; not a lot of people saw Freddie King because he was less known. Howlin’ Wolf was so big. So all the blues guys, their careers were resuscitated and many of them came over and worked and were able to make money in England. And you have to give the Stones, as well as those other bands who were playing that stuff back then, credit. You got to go with Mayall. Mayall, following in the tradition of Alexis Korner. Alexis Korner is the father of English blues but Mayall is the one who just brings it to America. Then he’s finding Eric Clapton and one after another.
Peter Green, oh my God, what a player
Aynsley Dunbar was playing drums with him at one point
The Aynsley Dunbar Retaliation. I can’t believe you know of him. I saw Aynsley Dunbar and he was extraordinary. All these people were kicking around London and I would go to two or three shows a week. I was so fortunate, as I look back on it now, that everybody came through there, you could see everybody. It was such a great city to be in at that point in time. That I could get on the Rolling Stones tour, I could never have done that in America. It was just a different world.
What’s next for you?
It’s hard to know. I’m actively seeking another project (laughs). I have things that I’m working on and I have stuff that I’m trying to get done but I don’t really have another book in the mix right now.
Do you write regularly for a magazine?
No, I don’t. I don’t know if it’s interesting but once I left London, I wound up in LA and I kept doing pieces for Rolling Stone. My time of service with Rolling Stone ended after the 1972 tour and I have not had a real job since then (laughs). So if there is anybody out there looking for someone, I am available (laughs)
But I spent almost two years in London generating a piece every week, two thousand words. It wasn’t like I had that many negative experiences, I didn’t. Most people treated me incredibly well and were super gracious. The Stones certainly almost always were incredibly nice to me and never had a bad moment with them – except for Mick telling me I had not taken any notes (laughs). But that’s Mick and he was fine the next time I saw him, you know. He didn’t hold any grudges cause he’d forgotten what he’d said. He didn’t care, you know. But I got to the point where, I don’t know, I guess I wanted to do other things. I wanted to write novels, I wanted to write screenplays, I wanted to write plays. And the scene also changed. It got very big, got very corporate, the drug thing got very nasty, really nasty, and I guess I kind of moved past wanting to actually talk to these people.
But getting to talk to Pete Townshend for the Bill Graham book was one of the great experiences of my life because he is so brilliant and he’s such an astonishing person to talk to. So yeah, there are always exceptions to the rule. Would I be happy to sit and talk to Keith again for fourteen hours? You bet because there is no one like that. I wrote Burt Bacharach’s book [Anyone Who Had A Heart]. Burt, if only for the music, is one of the greats and what I found out that nobody seems to have understood, is that Burt’s not really a songwriter, he’s a composer. He wrote the music. But he also was above and beyond or the equal of Phil Spector in the studio. He produced, he arranged, he brought instruments into popular music that no one had ever heard before. He’s a guy who has a complete catalog. When you hear a Bacharach song you know it’s Bacharach. There is no one else who could have come up with that stuff. So people like that continue to be of great interest to me. I don’t know how many of them are left.
Any last words?
You know, in the beginning you get the true characters. You get the ones who don’t fit, the outlaws who had no choice but to do this for the rest of their lives. But you get people, and I love Jimmy Fallon, and all he ever wanted to do was the Tonight Show. When he was twelve years old, and you get this with pop musicians as well, they’ve been working on their careers since they were twelve so they don’t have that much life experience or they don’t have extraordinary stories to tell and that’s just the way it is. Some do, some don’t, but in the end, it’s still the music. I still love hearing new music. I always want to hear new music. I want to be exposed to new music. And we are fortunate that there are still a lot of great people who are working, the Stones among them.
And Charlie is still back there keeping that beat
He is in fact and it’s not really understandable. I mean, it really isn’t, that a drummer who I guess has got to be seventy by now, and the fact that they still can make their music on stage and that people want to see it, there is something to be said for that.