Rich Cohen: The Sun & the Moon and the Rolling Stones

Daft title for yet another book about the longstanding stuff and nonsense that has become the Rolling Stones. The best title ever on a book about them came some years back with the rather dark Old Gods, Nearly Dead. That was a good book. This new one is only ok.

Author Rich Cohen does have the advantage of having been a semi-insider, though mostly that has made him sub rather than objective and, especially, a little too in love with Keith Richards. His first encounter with the Rolling Stones came in the ‘90s when Rolling Stone magazine sent him off on tour with the band.

He was a Stones obsessive in his 20s, they were in their 50s. That’s where this book’s title comes from – an observation by Richards who, on pondering Cohen’s youth said, “What’s it like to live in a world where the Stones were always there? For you, there’s always been the sun and the moon and the Rolling Stones”.

Which is a bit of a so-what moment for me, being closer in age to the Stones themselves. Hell, I saw them play the Invercargill Civic Theatre when I was 14. I have all their albums though there’s only a handful I still play. I always had a feeling that their light dimmed when bass player Bill Wyman left. Sometimes the centre of a great band isn’t always where it seems to be.

In The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones (Headline) Cohen runs through the oft-told history of the band from the fateful encounter of 12-year-old Richard and Mick Jagger and their crusade to bring blues and rhythm and blues to Britain – and, bizarrely, back to the music’s birthplace, America. Into this he weaves his own first-hand experience of the band, some of which is insightful.

He’s especially good on drummer Charlie Watts, who takes a liking to the young writer on that tour. Cohen’s good too on explaining the music. “Charlie’s presence,” he says, “pulled together the loose ends, audio and visual. Perhaps because of his jazz training, his style is unique in rock’n’roll. In most bands, the drummer establishes the beat and the others fall into step. In the Stones, the rhythm guitarist establishes the beat, which the drummer picks up and follows.

“It gives the Stones’ sound a characteristic drag, a kind of musical drawl. You notice it even if you can’t explain why. It’s just the Stones, that idiosyncratic murmur. It’s one reason cover bands can’t quite duplicate the sound: they lack the abnormality.” Cohen talks about watching them rehearse. “Keith started the riff while Charlie was across the room drinking tea. When Charlie finished, he carefully disposed of his trash, adjusted his shirt, crossed the floor, sat down at the drums, twirled his sticks like Shane twirling his pistols, grinned at me, nodded at Keith, took a breath, then jumped in.”

That sort of thing is good stuff. Less good are the slabs where Cohen attempts to weave in his own back story. And I’m disappointed too that he didn’t make more of the other insider advantage he had – his involvement with Jagger and director Martin Scorcese working on the screenplay for the Jagger-produced HBO series Vinyl.

Cohen spent endless nights with the pair across several years,sharing dinners and drinks while pumping Jagger for old rock biz stories to inspire story lines for the series, but he spills very few beans on all of that here. As I said, mostly it’s an old tale re-heated. When it comes to the Rolling Stones, there’s not a lot left to say.