Gimme Shelter: Snapshots from the Road

By the end of the summer of 1969, my life with the Rolling Stones had taken on a fairy-tale quality. The Stones were the Lost Boys and I was Wendy. True, Brian Jones had died. But even his death had occurred at a storybook locale—Christopher Robin’s house by the Heffalump Wood. We gave a free concert in Hyde Park with butterflies and junior Hells Angels. That summer in London was calm, even sunny, with Mick away filming Ned Kelly in Australia. I knew from experience that those moments wouldn’t last. As in the Monty Python vernacular—I always expected the Spanish Inquisition. It distorted my sense of reality for years afterward.

The storm of protest and violence in America and the riots in France had not really affected London life. There had been one big antiwar rally at the American Embassy. Comparatively speaking, it was very orderly, very English. We didn’t watch daily body counts on television. We didn’t have brothers or boyfriends who were human numbers in a life-or-death lottery. Everyone was against Vietnam, but it wasn’t our war. “Us against them” usually meant rock stars harassed by the fuzz or Her Majesty’s customs officers over the possession of illegal substances. So when we set out on our journey from this sleepy London town, it was to a country very different from the America the Stones had toured three years earlier.

As my friend the ace photographer Ethan Russell put it, “It took a while to figure out that we were traveling around America without one adult person.” Actually, there was one. Stu. Ian Stewart. Original Rolling Stone. Piano player. Golfer. Group conscience. Loved and missed. He thought the rest of us were crazy.

Aside from Stu and the band, the touring party consisted of Astrid, Bill’s girlfriend; Ronnie Schneider, who oversaw the whole tour, booked the dates, and handled the money; Sam Cutler, personal tour manager, who handled the Stones; and Tony, who provided security. Chip Monck and his indefatigable crew, who literally got the show up and running, were always ahead of us. Ethan Russell was our photographer; Stanley Booth and Michael Lydon, both writers. I came to realize, after five years of touring with the Stones, that one wild card turned up on each tour. In 1969, it was John Jaymes. He arrived with an offer of unlimited Dodge cars. He ended up supervising transportation.

“There’s really no reason to have women on tour unless they’ve got a job to do. The only other reason is to fuck,” said Mick. I had a job. It was to smooth out the edges of tour madness. (Translation: It was to make things function—by renting houses; hiring cooks, a doctor, several lawyers; dealing with ticket requests; scheduling interviews; making sure Mick connected with everyone he wanted to and finding reasons to keep everyone else at bay. Gracefully.)

On October 17, the band arrived for rehearsals and cultural adjustment. In Los Angeles, we rented a large, hotel-like house on Oriole, above Sunset, which served as tour planning headquarters. Charlie, Shirley, and Serafina Watts stayed there, along with the worker bees. People who wanted tickets, interviews, acknowledgments, endorsements, proximity, or just to hang out came and went all day and most of the night. The phones rang incessantly.

Mick and Keith and Mick Taylor were lodged at Stephen Stills’s house in Laurel Canyon. This allowed them more privacy. Bill and Astrid rented their own house for the same reason.

We held a press conference at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel on October 27. Writer Ralph Gleason had written a piece criticizing us for the high ticket prices. We hadn’t anticipated that. Perhaps as a consolation, the suggestion of a free concert came up. It was, after all, the year of free concerts.

From November 2 through the fifth, the band had full-scale rehearsals on the set of They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? at Warner Bros. Studios. Mick had sent messages from Australia that he wanted a new look for the tour. I was to find someone who could create drama, theater. Chip Monck, more than just “the voice of Woodstock,” was the obvious choice. He integrated the straight local union crews with his unconventional team, dubbed the Carnegie Tech Mafia—the Crew Who Could Do Anything. He put them to work together on huge Trouper and Super Trouper lights. Chip brought intense, saturated lighting to arena rock and roll. Pools of vivid color heightened the onstage Stones drama and gave it tremendous impact.

On November 7, we flew to Denver and then on to Fort Collins. Big Sky country. The out-of-town tryout. “The World’s Greatest Rock-and-Roll Band” took flight. It had been a long time. No matter how insane it had been or would be to work for the Stones, it was all worth it when they hit the stage.

Upon our return to L.A., John Jaymes appeared at the airport with the aforementioned cars. He told us he had an offer from Dodge to supply us with unlimited rentals for the rest of the tour. In the spirit of the times, we didn’t think too deeply about this. Anyone who could drive just grabbed a set of keys and took off.

The next night was the real opening night, at the L.A. Forum. The pressure to be a part of this audience was intense. The crowd was stupendous. The show was magic. The Stones were back.

Bill Graham promoted the Oakland Coliseum date. There was the legendary picture of Bill giving the finger in the dressing room. (To us?) Why was Bill so angry then? Was it because Ronnie had asked him before the tour if he’d ever done anything big? Was it the ticket pricing? Because the shows started late, finished in the middle of the night? I recall Ronnie chained to a briefcase with the night’s take. Or am I imagining this?

Because there were no flights out of Phoenix after the November 11 show there, we chartered a 707 to bring us back to L.A. Since we had the plane anyway, we decided to stop in Las Vegas for a midnight gamble. The first casino was Circus Circus, a barn of a place and eerily silent. A loudspeaker announced the Stones were in the house. The zombielike players barely looked up. We moved on. With no cabs in sight, we walked down a long stretch of desert road, strung out like the final moments of The Seventh Seal. Eventually, we reached a safe haven where we lost money happily until the witching hour of 4:00 a.m.

The first thing to remember about rock touring is that you are encased in a bubble, and the outside world is relevant only if it interrupts the travel flow. If you’re not actually onstage, your life is dominated by getting to the gig and eating. A good rule is to grab whatever’s going while you can. Aside from food, that includes sex, drugs, sleep, and laundry.

We arrived in Dallas to discover that the hotel had already rented our rooms. After a momentary panic, we found other accommodations and scrambled over to the Quality Inn. The groupie bush telegraph was ahead of us. When I answered the knock on Ronnie’s door, a blonde with straggly hair announced, “I’ve got a pound of butter in my purse. Where’s Mick?” She was the Dallas Butter Queen. Groupies had titles then.

The next day, the logistics really started to fall apart. Our goal was to get from Dallas to Auburn, Alabama. The group split up and took separate commercial flights to Atlanta. From there, a small plane had been chartered to fly the band directly to the gig in Auburn. I gave up my seat to Ethan so he could work en route. The rest of us—Stu, Michael, Stanley, and I—rented a car and prayed we’d make it on time.

We either were lost, needed directions, or . . . maybe it was just instinct that made a police car pull alongside us. Stanley, as the only southern native, was aware of the perils of driving through the South with out-of-state plates. And holding (grass). Stanley knew what to say to an Alabama cop.

We made it to Auburn. The tiny chartered plane had been without heat, and the Stones, Sam, Ethan, and Ronnie had been freezing on their trip. Ethan concentrated on banishing any thoughts of Buddy Holly.

The touring party flew to Detroit on November 24. Staying in L.A., I spent the day cleaning up the houses and frantically trying to find the (eighteen or so, by now) missing Dodge cars. The cars had littered the driveways of the houses we used. They seemed as disposable as Kleenex. We had abandoned them in airport lots. Forgotten them when we got back to L.A. from the gigs. Several of the groupies and other assorted drivers who had shepherded us about assumed we wouldn’t miss a few. I think they figured that if we left town without reclaiming a car, it would become theirs by default.

Finally, Glyn Johns and I fell onto a red-eye to New York. I drank too much tequila. We arrived at the Plaza so early that someone was still sleeping in my bed. The last date of the scheduled tour was in the mud of a West Palm Beach festival. I said good-bye to the guys and went to San Francisco for a few days off. There was going to be a free concert.

December 6. Altamont. I was there. The simplistic thing to say is that we had traveled from an English fairy tale to an American nightmare. The truth is a much longer story. Stanley wrote a book about it. The Maysles brothers made Gimme Shelter.

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