Old Gods Almost Dead: the 40-Year Odyssey of the Rolling Stones book by Stephen Davis reviewed by Colleen Carey

How do you write a 560-page book about the Rolling Stones without using the word “egotist”? Stephen Davis, the author of a new chronicle of the rock legends, tries to get by with “artist” instead. His very authorized biography perpetuates the Stones myth as much as it recounts its formation.

A book this large would presumably have a hard time perfectly fulfilling our expectations about a band so notorious for so long. But Davis has learned a great deal about presenting scruffy musicians with hyped personas in his earlier books on Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, and Aerosmith. He’s a skilled selective historian: stick close by the band’s nice guy, name a lot of other glitterati, and don’t tell us anything we couldn’t have guessed already.

A terrible bandmate, a worse husband, and a genius businessman: that’s really all that needs to be said about Mick Jagger. Davis, thankfully, doesn’t drown us in Jagger’s bilious domineering and hard-hearted greed. In 1977, Jagger paid temporary band member Ian McLagan twenty dollars for months of work, and this was long after the Stones started making ends meet. Current bassist Ron Wood was also kept on salary for seventeen years until, over Jagger’s objections, he was finally made a “junior member.” Davis tells just enough for us to conclude that had Jagger finished his London School of Economics degree instead of starting the Stones in 1963, he would have made a mountainous pile anyway.

The canny biographer knows to leave the talking to Keith Richards. While he may look like “month old cat litter,” as a London critic wrote in 1999, Richard’s amiability and witty epigrams surely keep the band together as much as Mick’s greasing of the cash flow. His drug abuse was—and possibly still is—beyond all reckoning. Davis chronicles him cautiously using again in 1997, then trails off genteelly. Regardless, Richards has dallied at death’s door for decades. “I’ve studied this shit,” he says of dope. “I’m a walking laboratory. I’m Baudelaire rolled in with a few other cats.” Nearly as notorious among the roadies was his reverence for shepherd’s pie; he once pointed a loaded gun at someone who had taken a nibble. And Richards has a charming habit of stealing his bandmate’s girlfriends; for example, Jagger’s longtime girlfriend Marianne Faithfull revealed years later that she had slept with Richards one night, and that he was the best she ever had. Richards responded with glee, “I’m a lover, you see, I’ve been trying to tell people that for years.”

Davis lists the Stones’ social milieu in catalogues of Homeric proportions. He rattles off the Beatles, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Clapton, Dylan, Warhol, The Band, The Byrds, Bourroughs, and Ginsberg in the introduction alone. A show wasn’t a show without an afterparty, and like an old gossip, Davis makes sure you know who showed up, who did the drugs, and which chick was Mick’s chick. And much is made of the Stones’ relationship with Dylan; quoting a Dylan riding on junk and speed in 1966, Davis reports him saying the Stones, who he then considered the best rock and roll band around, had slipped to the Hawks, the first life of The Band. “You guys may be the best philosophers, but the Hawks—they’re the best band.” Davis tells us this with a self-importance that only makes Dylan’s mocking (or, at best, drugged ramblings) all the more poignant. Mr. Dylan’s tastes are well known to lie in other directions. His “Like a Rolling Stone”, which the Stones blushingly heard as a love song, was described by Dylan as “a piece of vomit.”

Davis dutifully recounts the various transfers of management that brought the Stones to the white giant stage of their stardom without analyzing the evolution in the music business the Stones’career spans. From close, friendly management by an easygoing friend, the Stones eventually walked into a world of forty-page contracts, limiting clauses, and micromanaged image promotion. Davis credits “quality aesthetics” and “artistic validity” for their pop immortality, but calculated marketing surely is the real engine of their successful comeback, and their early popularity is best explained by Mick’s “bum wiggles” and a laudable intuition of their society. “They were the right band for the right time,” as early band member Ian Stewart recognized after being kicked out in 1963 for “being a geezer-type” (age: 25). Davis seems to shy away from any look at the Stones’ eras, losing a chance to have a go at Swinging London, Vietnam America, or a Europe in social revolution (and the other three decades of their career). Whatever their artistic vision, the Stones let the fluidity of their eras define it; they stayed on the hottest edge of the sexual revolution (drummer Charlie Watts is rated among the top five in England for one-night stands), did drugs before it was fashionable, got back to the Delta blues while it was still Jim Crow in the South, and helped bring the youth culture to life in Europe (the Stones were #1 in Paris during the summer just preceding the 1968 student revolt, and they are occasionally cited in accounts of the Velvet Revolution of 1989).

Perhaps the most notable legacy of the Stones is the creation of the rock star lifestyle. Without their infamous antics, diligently reported by Britain’s overdeveloped tabloids, the archetypal rock star might look like Bob Dylan or even Paul Simon. The lineage is direct: when rock came back in the 80s, all those indistinguishable bands took their cues from the early Stones, down to the tight leather and big hair. It’s not a coincidence that Davis’ funniest anecdotes could be scenes from This is Spinal Tap. The nubile vapid women, the feckless and drugged musicians, the homerotics, the harried producer: they all show up in Davis’ biography.

As far as Davis’s style, it is either “an infinite bummer” or “echoes the exalted distant stars,” depending on how much you like “operating in a super-heated continuum of hype”. His overwrought metaphors and fanciful descriptions are either unreadable or the only way to talk about larger-than-life characters. He lauds “2000 Light Years from Home,” on the album Their Satanic Majesties Request as “an oscillating theremin [sending] faint signals from Aldabran, clearing Mick’s ship for a landing.” An entire book of such “high-degree psychedelia to the max” becomes profoundly annoying. Other odd choices are his sporadic appropriations of the great poets, such as: “another generation of bluesmen slouching like some rough beast toward London, waiting to be born.” A model girlfriend is (inaccurately) compared with “gray-eyed Minerva”. Davis seems to have thought his book should irk the establishment as much as the Stones did.

The title is taken from a Graves poem which Davis prints for us on the inside cover, and the true quotation is “Old gods almost dead, malign,/ Starving for unpaid dues”. Davis, while obediently writing about the Stones’ artistic urge, appears to have his head on straight about the band after all. Doubtless Mick, busy with his kids, his scorned women and their righteous fury, and new business ventures, skimmed right through it before saying, “Alright, brilliant, here’s your twenty dollars.”