Swampland: Stanley Booth: Can I Get A Witness
Stanley Booth: Can I Get A Witness
Can I Get A Witness
The True Adventures of Stanley Booth
By James Calemine
Jack Kerouac was a writer. That is, he wrote. Many people who call themselves writers and have their names on books aren’t writers and can’t write—the difference being a bullfighter who fights a bull is different than a bullshitter who makes passes with no bull there. The writer has been there or he can’t write about it. And going there he risks being gored. To write they must go there and submit to conditions they may not have bargained for. The only real thing about a writer is what he has written, and not his so-called life.
…The only answer to this is that people without hope do not write novels. Writing a novel is a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay. I’m always highly irritated by people who imply that writing fiction is an escape from reality. It is a plunge into reality and it’s very shocking to the system. If the novelist is not sustained by a hope of money, then he must be sustained by a hope of salvation, or he simply won’t survive the ordeal. People without hope not only do not write novels, but what is more to the point, they don’t read them. They don’t take long looks at anything because they lack the courage. The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience, and the novel, of course, is a way to have an experience.
The silver hair calls to mind an aged wisdom. Without knowing him, you’d never realize this southern gentleman—dressed in khaki pants and tweed jacket, sitting in the passenger seat of your truck, riding up Highway 99 towards Darien, Georgia, to eat alligator tail—is living testimony to the severe price that one must pay for the sake of his art. You wouldn’t know that this man, Stanley Booth, epitomizes the survivor. In pursuit of his craft, Booth traveled with the Rolling Stones, overdosed at Graceland, suffered epileptic seizures while withdrawing from drugs, broke his back, went to jail, crushed by a lumber truck on the Memphis-Arkansas bridge, assaulted by Hell’s Angels at Altamont, and written legendary music books.
No writer documented the progression of American music and its musicians with first hand accounts like Booth. His stories travel in music history from the slave days into 20s jazz through the blues decades into present day music affairs, and he paints the historic and cultural backdrop during each musician’s era. There is no substitute for Booth’s storytelling.
In May of 2000, Booth’s classic The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, was republished, with a new Afterword written by the author. Also, in October of 2000, Booth’s second book Rythm Oil, an indelible collection of music essays, was reprinted.
Despite obscurity in the mainstream literary/music/pop culture—where hack journalists write tell-all books and make large sums of money from rehashing old articles and interviews. Booth knew almost all the people he’s written about, including Elvis Presley, B.B. King, the Rolling Stones, Furry Lewis, Gram Parsons, Al Green, Dan Penn, Spooner Oldham, Aaron Neville, Hank Crawford, Ernest Withers, Lash Larue, Bobby Rush, James Brown, Dewey Phillips, William Bell, Sam Phillips, Rufus Thomas, Sam the Sham, Mose Allison, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Carla Thomas, Booker T & The MGs, Bill Eggleston, Phineas & Calvin Newborn, Fred Ford, Charlie Freeman, Gerald Wexler, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Otis Redding, Little Richard, Jim Dickinson, Marvin Sease, Bobby Rush, Alex Chilton, and Bukka White.
In time, Booth traveled from his native South Georgia to Memphis, London, Los Angeles, New York and many nameless juke joints to preserve and document the stories and accomplishments of talented American musicians. Booth once wrote: “The blues is subtle; its appeal lies, like most pleasures, beneath the surface.” No one describes the nebulous line between obscurity and fame better than Booth.
Sitting at one of Archie’s small red Formica tables, drinking sweet ice tea, I thought how appropriate it was to be sharing gator tail appetizer with a man who killed his first alligator at the age of twelve. After all, Stanley Booth still keeps a pistol next to the typewriter.
Irvin Stanley Booth Jr. was born on January 5, 1942. He was the only son of Stanley and Ruby Booth, who lived in Waycross, Georgia, a small South Georgia town sixty miles from the coast and thirty miles from the swampy Florida state line.
Booth’s grandfather worked for a Naval Stores Company, and Booth’s early youth was spent in a turpentine camp, an isolated world of gum barrels, pine trees, and swamp.
In those swamplands young Stanley began to perceive hidden shadows in “paradise and within myself.” At five years old, he witnessed a black man named Frank Porter, a man who worked for his family, attempt to kill his grandfather by stabbing him. Booth would later tell me, “I loved all those people in the turpentine camp—the whites and the blacks—but I soon discovered something else was going on.” Booth learned darkness always loomed close.
The swamp’s floating islands, which shift with each footstep, earned it the Seminole Indian name, Okefenokee (for which there are 77 different spellings) meaning “Land of the Trembling Earth”.
“I loved the swamp country,” Booth said, and he later wrote of his childhood there, “At times I was afraid, but nothing in the woods was as frightening as what I would find in the outside world.” In a 1969 review of fellow Waycrossian Gram Parsons’ old band, the Flying Burrito Brothers, Booth wrote: “Memphis, Birmingham, and Atlanta are Southern, but they are nothing like Waycross: people around Waycross think of Atlanta the way you and I think of the moon—a place that, though remote, might possibly be visited by us or our children.” Times have changed, but not much.
Booth also wrote in the same article about the Land of the Trembling Earth: “Men have walked into the swamp—where even the pretty little plants eat meat—never to be heard from again. The people, dealers in, among other things, pine trees, tobacco, peanuts, sugar cane, moonshine whiskey, trucks, tractors, new and used cars, bibles, groceries, dry goods, and hardware; in isolated farms on swamp islands: in turpentine camps deep in the woods, like Dickerson’s Crossing, Mexico, the Eight Mile Still; in unincorporated settlements like Sandy Bottom, Headlight, Thelma; in towns like Blackshear, Folkston, Waycross; from banker to bootlegger—all share two curses: hard work and Jesus.”
The Booths moved from Waycross to Macon, Georgia, when Stanley was sixteen years old. In 1959, he graduated from Sidney Lanier High School for Boys, where he marched and carried an M1 rifle. That year the Booths moved again—this time to Memphis, Tennessee, where Stanley Sr., was an insurance executive. Booth wrote: “I knew little about the place other than it was on the Mississippi River and had an association with the kind of music I liked. I soon learned that Memphis was, if anything, even more ‘Southern’ and puritanical than Macon, with no liquor served by the drink and almost no integration. Restaurants, taxis, hotels, parks, libraries, movies, all were segregated. Blacks still sat in the back of the buses. Whites who wanted to hear black music went to an all-white club called the Plantation Inn across the river in West Memphis, Arkansas, and listened to a singing group called the Del Rios or to Loman Pauling and the Five Royales. My first experience on Beale Street was being thrown out of a Ray Charles concert at the Hippodrome for sharing a table with some black classmates from newly integrated Memphis State University.”
In 1962, Booth hopped a greyhound bus to San Francisco, soaking up works of Jack Kerouac and Miles Davis, meeting Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alan Watts, and scored his first lid of marijuana.
The same year Booth graduated from Memphis State, where he studied art history, and went on to graduate school in New Orleans at Tulane University, only to return to Memphis without taking a degree. As he put it: “I left school because it distracted me from writing—or maybe because it didn’t. I enjoyed living in New Orleans, but lack of money and the bad feeling I had about the racial climate there led me back to Memphis. An ironic move.”
In the summer of 1964 Booth returned to Memphis. during this time he became a black belt and began to teach karate. In late 1965, Booth took a position with the Tennessee Welfare Department.
Appalled by the system, Booth quit the welfare department in 1966 and wrote a novel in eighteen days about Memphis' racial disturbances, predicting the act of military tanks patrolling resedential streets that occurred two years later.
Then Booth met bluesman Furry Lewis. Booth's friend Charlie Brown ran a club in Memphis called the Bitter Lemon where Furry would sometimes play. Booth got to know Furry and often accompanied Lewis, who worked for the Memphis Sanitation Department, while he swept the streets hours before the city awakened. Lewis was a kind of mentor to Booth. Several years later Booth explained their street level project: "This guy I knew named David Mays and I took an overdose of LSD one night, and we became so brilliant that we developed the War on Poverty: Memphis Area project South Summer Workshops Program. Over the years it cost the government millions of dollars. The first year, I taught writing, and Furry taught music, and made a thousand dollars for working for six weeks, two hours a day, you know. For years afterwards he would say, 'Stanley! What ever became of the guvment?' (Laughs) Because the government money was so good, you know."
Booth's story called "Furry's Blues", published in Playboy magazine, won Booth Playboy's best nonfiction writer in 1970, when Booth was in the process of writing a book about the Rolling Stones.
During this time, Booth attended the funeral of bluesman Mississippi John Hurt with his girlfriend and Furry Lewis. Unprepared, Furry and Booth were asked to eulogize the great John Hurt. Booth later wrote: "I may have even gotten an amen or two." At the end of the year, Booth and his bride were married by his friend Charlie Brown.
In early 1967 Booth spent time at Graceland with Elvis Presley concerning a story he was writing about the King. The piece was published in Esquire and turned out to be the first serious article written on Presley. Booth was so trusted that Dewey Phillips (who either called Booth Birdbrain or Elvis) gave him an overdose of Darvon at Graceland.
Booth later wrote that publishing the Elvis article--whose first line in the original version reads, "Talking about eatin' pussy"--made him a professional journalist, something he never wanted to be.
Soon Booth began writing about musicians working for Stax studios, including Otis Redding and Booker T & the MGs. Booth was in the studio with Redding in 1967 when he recorded "Sittin' On the Dock of the Bay". Two days later, after Booth said goodbye to him in the studio, Redding was killed in a plane crash in Madison, Wisconsin. Booth's extensive research in pain had just begun.
During this period, Booth was keeping time with another freak behind music, Memphis producer-musician Jim Dickinson. He and Dickinson met in Memphis and spent much of their time, as Booth put it, "Talking about music and shining the light of conciousness towards the dark end of the tunnel."
It was Dickinson who gave Booth his first definition of soul: "You hear soul explained in terms of oppression and poverty, and that's certainly part of it--no soul musician was born rich--but it's more than that. it's being proud of your own people, what you come from. that's soul."
Booth then wrote a story for Eye magazine on B.B. King, and during one of the last interviews for the article, B.B. and Booth drank bourbon for breakfast--an interview that took place the day after Robert Kennedy's assassination.
Booth would later write: "Having written about Furry Lewis, Elvis Presley, Otis Redding, and B.B. King, I slowly awoke to the realization that I was describing the progress of something, a kind of sexy, subversive music."
Booth's pursuit became an intense path of seeking out and writing about one great musician after another. Booth's definition of the trail he was wandering down was, "As B.B. shows us, the blues' origins are in human need, the desparate cry of a kidnapped and orphaned people, singing in a foreign tongue a sorrow song that proves in the end to be redemptive, transcendent, spiritually liberating in the realest kind of way, ultimately life-changing for performers and listeners alike."
In September of 1968, Booth went to London for Eye magazine to write about the Rolling Stones. The story Booth was writing turned out to be Brian Jones' last drug trial. it was suggested by certain publishers Booth should write a book about the Rolling Stones, but Booth was, in his own words, far too "serious and high-minded."
Booth was hesitant to write about the Rolling Stones, not only because "They were rock and rollers, but young, rich, and white." It was, of course, Jim Dickinson who told him the Stones "were bound to be good ol' boys."
Having always been a country music freak, Booth took an interest in the Byrds' classic country album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo, during his London stay. Rodeo was influenced heavily by Gram Parsons--whom Booth had not met--but Booth's mother taught at the same junior high school Gram attended in Waycross. Years later Booth wrote of Parsons: "He'd lived in Waycross between 1946 and 1958; I'd been there for most of those years, but we'd gone to different churches, different schools. Gram's friends were my friends' younger brothers. We just missed each other."
In the spring of 1969 Booth reviewed The Gilded Palace of Sin, by Parsons' band, the Flying Burrito Brothers. Booth wrote: "The album's ending somehow summons up a vision of hillbillies and hippies, like lions and lambs together in peace and love instead of sin and violence, getting stoned together, singing old time favorite songs. Perhaps Parsons, coming from the country, feels more deeply than most of the strangeness and hostility of the modern world, but he speaks for us all. Gram Parsons is a good ol' boy."
Stones secretary Jo Bergman called Booth in Memphis on July 3, 1969, to inform him Brian Jones drowned in his swimming pool. From that moment on, in pursuit of the story, Booth plunged into the wicked vortex of the Rolling Stones.
Fall, 1969. Political unrest fills American cities. Cultural lines are drawn. The Stones flew to Los Angeles in October to rehearse for their upcoming tour, and Booth joined them three days after they arrived. Thus began his true adventures with the Rolling Stones.
Booth was at the house the Stones were renting when, in his words, "The back door opened and in walked a gang of men. Tall and longhaired, they stood for a moment in the center of the room as if posing for a faded sepia photograph of the kind that used to end up on posters nailed to trees: The Stones Gang: Wanted Dead or Alive," though only Mick Jagger, standing like a model, his knife blade ass thrust to one side, was currently awaiting trial.
"Beside him was Keith Richards, who was thinner and looked not like a model, but an insane advertisment for dangerous carefree Death--black ragged hair, dead green skin, a cougar tooth hanging from his right earlobe, his lips snarled back from the marijuana cigarette between his rotting fangs...one of the others, with dark hair frosted pale gold and a classic country western outfit from Nudie the Rodeo Tailor, I remembered seeing on the television and record covers--he was Gram Parsons, and he came, so I heard, from my hometown, Waycross, Georgia, on the edge of the Okefenokee Swamp. We had not met, but I reviewed his band, the Flying Burrito Brothers new album The Gilded Palace of Sin. I had no idea he knew the Stones. Seeing him here, finding another boy from Waycross at this altitude, I sensed a pattern, some design I couldn't make out, and I got up to speak to Gram Parsons, as if he were a prophet and I were a pilgrim seeking revelation."
The 1969 Stones tour ended with Altamont. the Maysles Brothers--Al and David--filmed a documentary called Gimmie Shelter, following the Stones from the East Coast down to Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where they recorded "Brown Sugar", "Wild Horses", and the classic Fred McDowell song, "You Got To Move", and then to the disastrous Altamont. Booth makes a small appearance in the film, and escaped Altamont with the Stones on a private helicopter. Parsons and Booth were the last two people to climb on the chopper.
In Muscle Shoals, Booth invited Jim Dickinson to the Stones recording session and introduced him to the band, who needed a piano player on a song called "Wild Horses", which ended up on Sticky Fingers.
The 1969 tour was successful and groundbreaking tour for the Stones--excluding Altamont. All the while Booth dueled with parasites and agents of all kinds, who made every attempt to distract or discourage him from writing the book.
In the coda of The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, Booth explained: "Following the tour that ended with Altamont, I went to live in England and stayed until, after a certain weekend in Redlands, I decided that if Keith and I kept dipping into the same bag, there would be no book and we would both be dead."
Booth returned to Memphis from England, and his interest in the medicine cabinet increased. He began working on the Stones book--the first draft of the book was uncapitalized, unspaced, uncorrected--and the publishers loved it. Expectations were high, but soon Booth became burdened with distractions.
The experience of being so close to the Stones would come with a price. Jo Bergman told Booth--long after it was too late--that an astrologer advised her that Booth would write his book, and that it would cost him everything except his life.
In early 1971 Memphis law enforcement officers discovered cannabis sativa plants growing in Booth's vegetable garden. When his home was raided and searched, other substances were found, and seven felonies resulted. If Booth had received the maximun sentence on all seven counts, he could have been sentenced to 140 years in prison.
Fortunately for Booth, Memphis had an enlightened Attorney General who realized Booth was a writer, not a drug dealer. Booth was let off with a fine and a year's probation. After that, Booth went into hiding. For almost ten years, he lived in a log house his parents owned in the Boston Mountains of the Ozark Plateau in Newton County, Arkansas. It was the same area Jesse James and the Younger brothers had hidden in.
During the Rolling Stones 1972 American tour, Booth went on the road with the Stones again, but things had changed. People like Princess Lee Radizwell and Truman Capote were also traveling with the Stones. Booth later wrote of the '72 tour: "It was an ugly scene full of amyl nitrate, Quaaludes, tequila sunrises, cocaine, heroin, and too many pistoleros, and it left me with more material than I could ever use. At its end, I weighed about 100 pounds." Booth then disappeared back into the hills.
In January of 1973, Booth's friend, Charlie Freeman, a Memphis session, guitarist, and founder of the Mar-Keys, died. Freeman had gone on the road with Jerry Lee Lewis and Slim Harpo, and had been the guitarist for the Memphis band, the Dixie Flyers, which also included Jim Dickinson. The Flyers cut records with musicians like Carmen McRae, Ronnie Hawkins, the Memphis Horns, Delaney and Bonnie, Aretha Franklin, Taj Mahal, Little Richard, and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Booth wrote an obituary for Charlie Freeman in Rolling Stone called "Blues For the Red Man". Booth published the story under the pseudonym the Okefenokee Kid. At Freeman's funeral Booth met Fred Ford. Ford--a phenomenal Memphis saxophonist (Ford barked like a dog at the end of Big Mama Thornton's original "Hound Dog')--who often played with Phineas Newborn, became another frame of reference for Booth's writing. Booth remained dedicated to forsaken talents in the mean streets of Memphis, like the Newborn family.
The Newborn Brothers, Phineas and Calvin, sons of master drummer Phineas Sr., could play the entire range of western musical instruments. Phineas, a pianist, could rival the best players around. When Memphis legend W.C. Handy became too old and frail to play the annual Memphis Blues Bowl black high school football game, he passed on his trumpet to Phineas Newborn.
Around the time Charlie Freeman died, Booth's long relationship with his companion of ten years came to an end. Days darkened. Booth later described the personal signpost, noting that he "entered into a deep depression that I would not escape till I had gone crazy, had fits, married two more times and came back to (excessively) robust health." In September of the same year, Gram Parsons died of a morphine and tequila overdose in a motel near Joshua Tree, California.
By 1975 when the Rolling Stones came to Memphis, Booth no longer had the heart to go across town and see them. The Stones book was still not complete. Booth was in the Ozarks the day Elvis died. One of his marraiges ended the same day. "I guess she figured it was a no win situation."
On March 24, 1978, Booth, dosed on acid, fell from a north Georgia waterfall. In the fall, he smashed his face and broke his back. In time he became addicted to painkillers. Booth told me of that period: "I never thought i would write again--it was terrible."
On July 3, 1978, Booth's only child, Ruby Elenora was born. Distractions of fatherhood soon added to his complications. Booth later went to Elvis' doctor, George Nichopoulos (he wrote a chilling story about Dr. Nick called "The King Is Dead! Hang the Doctor!"), who told him, "It looks like you survived a war." Booth later wrote: "After a year I tried to stop taking the drugs my doctors prescribed. I tried twice, and twice had grand-mal seizures, full-scale epileptic brain-fries, blind-rigid, foaming at the mouth, fighting off unseen enemies, screaming, turning into a hydrophobic wolf."
In 1979, starting to recuperate, Booth accompanied Fred Ford and Phineas Newborn to Europe for the Montreaux Jazz Festival and other European shows. Booth lost his most inspiring friend in October of 1982, when Furry Lewis died at the age of 89. He later gave insight to the wicked zone of originality where hipsters and parasites run in: "The night Furry died I saw that fat yellow moon and I knew it would carry him off. The funeral was crowded, lots of TV cameras and speeches by people who never knew him, who couldn't find his house with a police escort. Never mind."
Booth's frustration began to mount. As great talents and friends died neglected, years rolled by, and Booth began to live and suffer in lonely obscurity--much like the poverty-stricken blues musicians he wrote about for so long. With death all around, Booth knew he had to finish the Stones book, as he said, "Because I would rather have died than let go of it before it, not I, was ready. I thought it might be the last thing I ever did, if I ever managed to do it, and i wanted to make it right, or as close as I could make it."
In 1984, Booth's Stones book was published. Much had changed in America during the fifteen years since Altamont. The book survived for years in paperback in spite of confusion concerning its title. The book received good reviews, but sold few copies due to lack of promotion, as Booth explained in the Afterword (a severe literary lesson) of the reprinted edition: "I called the book The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones all the (considerable) time I'd been writing it. some genius at the publisher's got the inspired notion of calling the first hardback edition Dance with the Devil. (Editors generally don't give a damn what writers think their books should be called, and in any case are usually frustrated writers themselves, desperate to demonstrate what they sincerely believe to be their superior creativity. Young, unpublished writers should consider yourselves warned).
"Well, that edition came and, owing to the publisher's excellent marketing skills, disappeared muy pronto. Because the book did quite well in the UK under its real title, the American paperback was called The True Adventures. The funny part is, a few years later the same publisher put out a novel by the actor Kirk Douglas, and it was called Dance With the Devil. Somebody at that publishing house really likes that title and may keep calling books that until one is a big success."
Even Keith Richards said: "Stanley Booth's book is the only one I can read and say, 'Yeah, that's how it was.' Stanley is a lovely guy--he's got an eye. That book took longer to write than the Bible."
Booth's parents had retired and returned to South Georgia. Booth waited for the Stones book to be published and then he followed his parents, taking up residence in Brunswick, Georgia.
Now past his toxic nightmares and the Stones book no longer serving as an albatross, Booth began to focus on gathering stories he'd written and known long before he met the Rolling Stones. He began to compile all the music stories he'd written since he left the Swamp of South Georgia, almost twenty-five years earlier.
Your humble scribe met Booth in 1986. I'd read The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones two years earlier as a sophomore in high school in Brunswick, Georgia. I was amazed, having always loved language and music, how the book fused all the aspects of art intertwining with culture, politics, music, literature, and the lives of artists struggling in pursuit of their craft or folly.
I was astonished to discover Booth lived thirteen miles from where I grew up on St. Simons Island, Georgia. It would be like meeting a legend--perhaps it would be possible to even obtain advice for a young aspiring writer. Any mythical notions concerning the craft of writing would soon evaporate.
During this time, Booth began researching a book he is calling The Pea Patch Murders, a novel based on actual murders that occured near Waycross. Booth's great uncle solved the crime. Booth also began compiling and cultivating autobiographical stories he is calling Alligator Alibis revolving around a young boy growing up in the South Georgia swamplands.
I've spent many commonplace days with Booth: driving through dangerous neighborhoods looking for the remotest barbecue shack, haggling with crazy women, listening to obscure jazz and blues records, and drinking. Some extremely uncommon days: a 911 call, a Keith Richards concert, a lawsuit, and a savage journey to Memphis.
"Me and him just like brothers," Furry Lewis would say of Booth, who would later write, "but he would never let me forget who the older and wiser brother was." I adopted similiar traits of deference.
Through the years of keeping time with Booth, I began to understand the cause and curse of an uncompromising artist blessed with talent but dogged by obscurity, demanding revisions concerning terms of success and accomplishment.
In December of 1988, Booth and I drove from South Georgia to Atlanta for the opening night of Keith Richards' first solo tour at the Fox Theatre. Booth hung out with Richards for over a week in Atlanta, Los Angeles, and New York; the interview was published in Playboy. The story, "The Devil at 45" was publsihed in Smart, an ill-fated magazine, and later in a book Booth was calling Rythm Oil.
While researching a story about the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, when Brown was having problems with the Augusta, Georgia, police department, Booth met the woman who spent extensive time with Brown at the time. Little did Booth know, this woman would later sue him for ten million dollars for the story he wrote about Brown.
In July 1990, Booth was invited by one of his old karate students, Jimmy Crosthwait, to hang a one man show of his color photographs at a Memphis art gallery. The photographs were visions of alligators, gravestones, a naked wife, and desolate swamplands, amongst others.
Domestic tribulation caused Booth's then fiancee to refuse his company on the trip. Booth asked me if I wanted to go instead. I'd never visited Memphis, and what better host for a visit to Memphis than Booth? Knowing Booth's self-fullfilling prophecy--his problems with "police, publishers, and women"--should have warned me of the trouble to come. After an eventful visit to Memphis, he informed me he wanted to stop in Atlanta on the way home to interview this woman for a story he was writing about James Brown. What transpired that week would create complications for years to come.
Booth completed the James Brown story, "The Godfather's Blues", at the end of 1991. The piece took two years to write because South Carolina authorities would not allow Booth to speak with James Brown. It would be this story that stalled the publication of Booth's next book.
Booth's second book, Rythm Oil, was published in the United States in March of 1992, which was a year of turnoil. Rythm Oil (intentional misspelling taken from a mojo potion sold on Beale Street) is a book of twenty pieces journeying through America's musical south. Rythm Oil spans Booth's entire career up to 1992.
Rythm Oil begins at the crossroads with stories about Robert Johnson, Otis Redding, Gram Parsons, Charlie Freeman, Al Green, Phineas Newborn, Stax, Furry Lewis, B.B. King, and James Brown. The journey continues onto places like Graceland, New Orleans, Atlanta, and even a story called "Wiregrass", the name for the territory around the swamp he grew up in. Rythm Oil proves a vital resource concerning some of America's greatest music pioneers.
In October of the same year, Booth and Random House discovered the woman Booth interviewed for the James Brown story was suing then for ten million dollars. She claimed the manner she was portrayed in "The Godfather's Blues" appeared demeaning. The woman wanted the story removed from the book, and she demanded royalities from all future sales on the book. The suit was for invasion of privacy. having begged Booth to tell Brown's story, she then sued him when, as she requested, he published it. she told Booth she and Brown were lovers, then denied having told him that. Luckily, booth had tapes, and yours truly as a witness.
The lawsuit diverted publishers energies for any thoughts on promoting Rythm Oil. legal proceedings and concerns began further straining Booth's personal life. No matter how ludicrous the lawsuit, it was quite real.
A horrific legal desperation gripped Booth. He kept a sense of humor, but his frustration was obvious. Lesser talents seemed to prosper all around Booth while he was being sued for telling the truth. In May of 1993, I gave my deposition concerning the lawsuit, serving as the only witness in the case since I had been present for interludes of Booth's interview.
About once a month, I would return to south Georgia and pay Booth a visit. We'd play music, talk literature, shoot pictures in the swamp, analyze classic movies, indulge in fine spirits, and wait for word on the lawsuit. To keep things interesting, every blue moon we might burn furniture in the backyard.
Booth plodded through all the personal distractions, sequestering himself, focusing on The Pea Patch Muders, Alligator Alibis, and research on a collaborative book about Memphis photographer Ernest Withers, as well as various magazine articles.
Booth was still fighting the legal battles of Rythm Oil when he agreed to write a Keith Richards biography. Soon after the book was finished, Booth began having problems obtaining contractual advances. booth wrote the Keith Richards book in forty-four days.
While payment problems heated up on the Keith biography, the lawsuit cooled off. On August 24, 1994, a relieving decision came across in the summary judgement, which stated: "Therefore, notwithstanding the Court's finding the publication at issue was not false as a matter of law, Plaintiff may not recover damages for defamation on the additional ground she has not met her burden of producing clear and convincing evidence of actual malice on the part of either defendant."
Yet another legal battle was in motion, however. Booth was having problems obtaining payment for his Keith Richards biography, which was published in 1994. His agent died, and soon Booth was forced to deal with those in charge of his estate for the fulfilling of the contract. All the while Booth plodded on in austere toil with utmost concern for his craft.
Once asked about the responsibility as a writer, Booth replied: 'I think when I was writing about music I was trying to focus on what was valuable and significant in that tradition. And just describing somebody like Furry, and I'm not done, I hope, writing about Furry in a lot of stories, I haven't yet, but if you just describe what somebody like Furry said, you're doing the Lord's work in a sense as far as the music is concerned, because Furry was the music, in the same way Keith is, you know, but even more so. He was completely identified with his musical style, endeavors, ideas, and that's what makes life, what gives life significance. And if you're lucky enough to have talent, it will really give sustenance and meaning to your life, as long as you do right by it. So I don't think it has anything to do with self-aggrandizement or any sort of selfish motive. I think that if you are given the burden of a talent, you have to deal with it the best you can. And, you know, it really doesn't matter what happens to you while you're trying with it as long as you're doing your best. that's all you have to worry about."
In 1995 Booth began researching and writing a book about Johnny Mercer, the Savannah songwriter. During one of his frequent visits to Savannah, Booth photographed and visited Flannery O'Connor's childhood home, and he wrote a sad and sobering tribute to O'Connor called "Crying In the Wilderness". That summer Booth went out on the road for a few shows with the Atlanta band, the Black Crowes.
Booth is a technical master at word economy. His work contains a strong sense of style, and he operates under no illusions. Your humble scribe has become accustomed to his ruthless editorial eye. He once wrote to me: "You have to love your work, to lavish an insane amount of love on it, and time, and care, and vigilance--to eat and sleep and shit with it until you absolutely know there's nothing wrong with it. You must do this because nothing else will suffice."
In 1969, while writing a review of the Memphis Country Blues Festival, Booth wrote an analogy for blues players, but it serves a pable for all the arts: "By now there must be in the world a million guitar virtuosos; but there are very few real blues players. The reason for this is that the blues--not the form but the blues--demands such dedication. This dedication lies beyond technique; it makes being a blues player something like being a priest. virtuosity in playing blues licks is like virtuosity in celebrating the Mass, it is empty, it means nothing. Skill--competence--is a necessity, but a true blues player's virtue lies in his acceptance of his life, a life for which he is only partly responsible."
In 1996, Booth's friend Lee Baker, guitarist for Mud Boy & the Neutrons--another Jim Dickinson band--was murdered. One more sad casualty in a long line of lost heroes.
Several years elapsed in anonymous work. One festering summer evening Booth and I endured a 911 episode that would cause the hair on anyone's head to stand on end--indeed the statute of limitations have not elapsed to reveal such an incident. It certainly was not an evening for the weak-hearted. We had experienced enough craziness together to understand the other's merciless obstacles. It was only appropriate Booth read from the bible at this correspondent's wedding.
In 1998 Booth's publisher allowed The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones to go out of print. Booth shed light upon the ruthless business: "Fourteen years later the publisher let the book go out of print, making this new edition possible. In all that time they paid me not a dollar of royalties. I made no royalties on the paperback edition, because the hardback had been published so unsuccessfully. The book sold many thousands of copies and generated a great deal of income, but not for me. Children, beware."
In September of 1999, Booth accepted Gram Parsons' induction into the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, an honor that speaks for itself. In Macon, Georgia, at the Gram Parsons tribute, Booth told a story, with an ironic grin, about how every Thursday Gram was defeated at the Palomino Club in L.A. by a guy in a wheelchair singing Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line". Booth remains an expert at irony.
Booth's old friend Fred Ford died in November of 1999, forcing him to write another obituary, serving as a witness to one more fallen hero.
Rythm Oil was reprinted (Da Capo) in October of 2000. A complete book waiting on the horizon is another compilation of Booth's essays called Cowboys, Country Boys, and City Slickers. This book chronicles the lives of : King "Joe" Oliver, Ray Charles, Hoagy Carmichael, Phineas "Little Red" Newborn, Fred Ford, Frank Sinatra, Bireli Lagrene, Jerry Lee Lewis, Waylon Jennings, Miles Davis, Mose Allison, and the Black Crowes.
Booth's Johnny Mercer biography is now halfway complete. This book explores the songwriting world of Mercer from his Savannah origins toward his singular niche forever etched in the songwriting and music world. Booth is also working on a Gram Parsons biography, which is due in 2002.
In all Booth's work, he uses the miracle of language to breathe eternal life into the accomplishments and circumstances of great American musicians, some who died poor, neglected, talented, and forgotten. Booth serves as a voice for these underdog, or underground, musicians.
Booth's writing remains a cornerstone testimony of Sunday morning gospels, minstrel sideshows, sawmills, scaldcat, funeral parlors, wizard oil, swamp water, shotgun shacks, dirt roads, Mississippi churches, Memphis mean streets, bottleneck junctions, catfish, barbecue woodsmoke, gris-gris, juke joints, railroad tracks, traveling medicine shows, stone cold fevers, voodoo practioners, mojo dust, soul food, zombie powder, midnight undertakers, whiskey stills, cut-throat wages, chickenyard fiddles, devil's shoestring, spooky field recordings, Civil War songs, fatback grease, black cat bones, and many other redemptions and temptations buried in American music folklore and fact...