‘Ain’t it Time We Said Goodbye’ Is a Reader’s Digest-like Condensation of the Rolling Stones Story

Veteran Stones scribe Robert Greenfield captures a band, and its key relationship, in turmoil and on the cusp of change.

Let it not be said that Robert Greenfield does not know how to milk his material for all it’s worth, and then some. Ain’t it Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile is his third account of the Stones’ adventures in the early ’70s: it follows S.T.P: A Journey through America with the Rolling Stones and Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones.

His latest chronicle mainly focuses on the band’s ten-day 1971 British tour, when they played two shows a night in many of the same small- to mid-sized venues where they had begun their career. That’s skimpy material for an entire book, and Greenfield evidently knows it. So he’s padded out what might have been a compelling magazine feature with recyclings from his earlier books, as well as from articles he published in Rolling Stone, including a 1971 interview with Keith Richards.

To eke out the book’s barely 200 pages, Greenfield throws in bits of old and new interviews with the Stones and people who were, and in some cases remain, in their orbit. He also employs a contrived device to stretch his material further, interrupting his main narrative of the Stones in the ’70s with italicized passages that purport to “amplify and clarify what I have since learned was really happening” during those times. He tries to sell these present-day interpolations as “a continuing conversation” between his youthful self and the “cranky and cynical senior citizen I now somehow seem to have become.” But, with a few exceptions, they’re superfluous and not especially revealing.

Still, the book often is entertaining enough, not surprising given its characters − for whom “colorful” hardly covers it − and its evocation of a time when rock still had some countercultural edge and “the greatest rock ‘n roll band in the world” hadn’t yet become a multimillion dollar corporation. Readers who may be unfamiliar with Greenfield’s oft-told tales of Stones debauchery, internal turmoil, and thrilling performances might welcome the Reader’s Digest-like condensation, and Greenfield serves up some new stuff, including tasty gossip, to keep longtime Stones fans (like this reviewer) interested.

In 1971 Greenfield, an American born and raised in Brooklyn, was a 25-year-old journalist working in the London office of Rolling Stone. The Stones were planning a “farewell tour” of their homeland before departing to the south of France to get out from under a heavy tax burden and to record, under what turned out to be chaotic conditions, the double album many now consider their masterpiece, Exile on Main Street. Greenfield accompanied them to every gig on the tour, their first in Britain in five years, beginning in Newcastle and winding up in London.

Greenfield maintains that 1971 signaled a crucial transition in the band’s history. “What both Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were truly saying farewell to on this tour was not just Great Britain but also the way in which they had related to one another to this point in time.” Although most media accounts − including Keith Richards’ memoir, Life− cite the ’80s as the decade when the “Glimmer Twins” began to fall out personally and creatively, Greenfield says it was in the early ’70s that their relationship “was about to finally fall apart, never to be repaired again.”

From Greenfield’s account, it’s clear that class tensions alienated Richards from Jagger. His wealth and louche lifestyle notwithstanding, the Stones’ guitarist still identified with his family’s working-class roots and socialist politics.

Jagger, who oscillated between epater le bourgeoisie and unabashed embourgeoisement, was, in the early ’70s, increasingly fascinated with high society. His marriage to Nicaraguan socialite Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias, in a Catholic church, no less, disgusted Richards, and his partner, the Swedish model and actress Anita Pallenberg. The fiercely bohemian Pallenberg despised Bianca; Greenfield recounts a pre-concert incident when “Anita shoots her [Bianca] a killing look and hisses, ‘Fucking bourge-oise cunt voo-man!'”

For Jagger, it was Richards’ heavy drug use and resulting unreliability that fractured a bond that both likened to a marriage. Greenfield reports that at one point, Jagger was so exasperated by Richards that he was ready to replace him with Jesse Ed Davis, a Native American guitarist and much in demand session player.

What may really surprise readers, though, is that the Stones, who now make millions from their elaborate precision-tooled tours, were (relatively) broke in 1971. Greenfield notes that while Jagger and Richards had their songwriting royalties, the band owed “an incredible amount of money” to the British tax authority. On their farewell British tour, they traveled to gigs on public transportation and stayed in less than luxe hotels.

Greenfield draws on bassist Bill Wyman’s recollection that 34,000 fans saw them on the tour, whose total gross receipts amounted to “just a bit more than $60,000.” Once expenses were deducted, “the remaining sum was split so many ways among the Stones and their supporting cast of musicians that it seems clear even now that money was not the motivating factor for these shows.”

Unlike later years, there were no throngs of reporters in 1971 – Greenfield was the only one covering the entire tour – and the Stones’ shows were barebones events; no elaborate stages or lighting effects, just a band, nearing the peak of its powers, playing their asses off. But just a little more than a year later, when the Stones toured to promote Exile on Maine Street, all that changed.

Whereas Greenfield was the only correspondent assigned to the Stones in 1971, a huge press corps accompanied the band in 1972. (Rolling Stone fired Greenfield from the Exile on Main Street tour and replaced him with that noted rock writer Truman Capote.) And if the farewell to Britain was a low-key, even modest affair, the next year’s expedition across America “was a military campaign of the first order, a rock ‘n roll version of General Sherman’s March to the Sea that enabled the Stones to cross over into a brand-new market that would continue to expand exponentially with each passing year.”

Throughout Greenfield Ain’t it Time We Said Goodbye, comes across as a reliable narrator with excellent recall. (Although he didn’t take notes while with the Stones because he wanted to be unobtrusive, he says he spent “a good deal of my time… going to the bathroom so I could scribble down everything I had just seen and heard.”) But not always – his account of how the Stones’ famous lips and tongue logo came about contradicts what Richards told him in the 1971 Rolling Stone interview: “…now that we’ve got Rolling Stones records, with the Kali tongue … nobody’s gotten into that yet, but that’s Kali, the Hindu female goddess… she stands there, with her tongue out.”

That interview, available online (Rolling Stone, 19 August 1971), is well worth checking out. Richards, then all of 28-years-old, was freaked out by the prospect of turning 30. “I can’t even imagine what it’s like, to be 70”, he tells Greenfield.

RATING 6 / 10