Remembering 'The Rolling Stones On Tour: Goodbye Great Britain'

Rolling Stone reporter Robert Greenfield was 25 years old when the Rolling Stones agreed to have him join them on their 1972 UK tour. To celebrate the magazine's 25th anniversary, he looks back on the once-in-a-lifetime adventure

Kieth Richards and Mick Jagger performing
Robert Knight Archive/Redferns
Kieth Richards and Mick Jagger performing
By |

Twenty years ago, London was a different city in nearly every way. I could hail a black cab on Haverstock Hill, in Hampstead, not all that far from the tiny garret without central heat or a lavatory on Primrose Gardens where I lived, and have it take me all the way through Hyde Park, past Chelsea, and then out beyond World's End for less than a pound – and still have enough change left over at the end to tip the driver.

The trip itself took almost no time at all. Traffic was always light in the city back then, for one very simple reason: Virtually no one in London owned a car. At least no one that I knew, despite the fact that they cost so little used (at the going rate of $2.20 to the pound back then, an old blue Bedford van could be had for around 120 bucks).

The Rolling Stones, 1963-1969: Behind-the-Scenes Snapshots

Even had I wanted to drive on the wrong side of the road, I could never have afforded anything quite that grand. As the associate editor of the London bureau of Rolling Stone, located up the stairs at 28 Newman Street, in the West End, I earned the princely sum of fifteen pounds a week. Five quid a week went for rent. I spent as much again for food. The rest I banked in order to have something set aside for a rainy day. It rained every single day while I lived in London. Every single bloody day.

On a daily basis, there were only four of us in the tiny two-room office on Newman Street, each one as much a friend and a family member to the other as a fellow worker. Andrew Bailey was the editor. On ads, Brian Cookman of Bronx Cheer, a pub band that was either ten years ahead or ten years behind the times. On phones, Fiona Bower, who had been raised to be a lady but could, when the occasion demanded, curse like a stevedore on the docks in Woolwich.

Chris Hodenfield was there playing the part of the boy reporter as only Jimmy Olsen had ever done before. Ray Coleman dropped in only when the mood struck him and he could find a spare moment to take care of all those things that no one else could do.

Late indeed though it may have been for flower power in the U.S. of A. – what with Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix and then Jim Morrison dying off in fairly rapid succession and the National Guard shooting white middle-class kids on the campus at Kent State for no good reason other than they just happened to be there protesting the war – in London to some degree the hippie thing still held sway. By 1971, the operative concept over there had become that of "the underground," reflecting what was going on in America but in a very English way.

It was before any American show ever became a regular favorite on English telly. There was no MTV. Telephone connections to the United States were so bad as to make airmail the most effective means of communication. Yet on a regular basis, rock & roll bands kept departing from Heathrow in order to seek their fame and fortune on tour in the U.S.A. Like some kind of weird lend-lease program in reverse.

No band ever had done this with more success than the Rolling Stones. Having caught the buzz about the coming tour, Andrew Bailey arranged for us to have lunch with Jo Bergman, then nominally in charge of the Stones' London office, located at 46A Maddox Street, in the West End.

At lunch that day, we all drank a good deal of very good wine. Boldly, I told Jo, a lady who pioneered the concept of big hair on both sides of the Atlantic, that all I wanted to do on this particular tour was "just kind of hang out, man, and see what happens." God only knows why she bought it. It was a far more innocent time in the world and in the business as well. In London, credentials were easier to come by, tending to be entirely personal rather than professional. That I wanted to try to do something a little different was good enough for Jo. Giggling as no one else ever could, she said yes, and I began an association with the Stones that over the next two years took me from London to Los Angeles and through North America with them on their 1972 tour.

Photos: Rare and Intimate Pictures of the Rolling Stones

For me, the English tour began as I walked behind Charlie Watts down a platform at King's Cross Station, in north-central London, in order to board the train to the first show. Charlie's father, then still alive, worked for British Rail. He either just happened to be on duty in the station that day or had come especially to see Charlie off. I know he was in uniform. I may be wrong, but I believe he was also carrying some sort of brakeman's lantern in his hand. Casually, as only the British ever could, father and son said hello and then goodbye, wishing each other the best as Charlie stepped on the train. The train pulled out. We were off.

All the way to Newcastle, I sat in a first-class compartment with people who belonged on the tour. People who had real jobs and crushing responsibilities. None of them had the faintest idea who I was. No one even bothered to ask. I was there? There had to be a reason. Soon enough, my specific function would be revealed. If not, well then, that was all right, too.

In Newcastle, we all went to the very modern hotel with a view of the city where everyone on the tour was staying. In the lobby, someone put a room key in my hand. I remember putting the key in the lock, shutting the door behind me and leaping around with a kind of happiness I have known only a few times since. I felt as though I were on my way somewhere fast. I was twenty-five years old. It was the first time in my life I was staying in a hotel room by myself.

After the second show of the night, perhaps the best one of the entire tour, everyone repaired to a hotel banquet room for a midnight meal. I happened to be sitting next to Charlie Watts. The conversation turned to jazz, Skinnay Ennis and "the cat" who played the solo on "And the Angels Sing." Only no one could remember his name. Anyone coming up with the answer would score bonus points.

The song had been one of my mother's favorites, always playing on the radio in the kitchen as I ate breakfast before going off to school. "Ziggy Elman," I said. Charlie Watts shot me a significant look. As the English liked to say back then, "Nice one." At least some of my credentials were in order.

The Stones played in Manchester, Coventry, Leeds and Glasgow. Just the way the Stones ordered food in even the most ordinary places knocked me out. They always knew exactly what they wanted to eat and just how it should be cooked. In their hands, any menu became a work of art.

"Bitch" and "Brown Sugar," two songs the Stones performed for the first time on that tour, played constantly in my mind. I heard them as I rode with Jo Bergman in a car driven by the late Ian Stewart through the Pennines, a range of hills in the north of England. From behind the wheel, Stew kept looking up suspiciously in the rearview mirror at me. I had a beard. My hair was long. Was I not a bloody hippie after all?

Steadfastly, in his most stubborn and infuriatingly lantern-jawed, tight-lipped Scots manner, he refused to stop the car to let me go to the bathroom until I finally made it very plain that this was a real emergency that could in fact result in something very dire happening in the back seat of the car. Right now. That, Stew liked. I had just threatened him, as no true hippie would have ever done. He said I reminded him of Brian Jones, another traveler who could never hold his water for very long.

I remember laughing like crazy while riding in limousines with Marshall Chess, then just beginning his time of service with the band. In time, I got to talk and hang out with Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, Jim Price and even Chip Monck, the onstage "Voice of Woodstock" (or V.O.W., as he was sometimes referred to by those jealous of his position behind the piano, stage left, where in full view of the audience, he would dance throughout the entire set each night while calling light cues for the band).

The only person I never got to meet was Keith Richards. Little wonder. Along with Anita Pallenberg – a woman for whom back then the term sex bomb could have been personally created – their infant son Marlon and the late Gram Parsons, they formed a little subtour of their own, never arriving anywhere on time. Although I did not know it then, Keith's long and very difficult bout with heroin had only just begun.

I finally made contact with him near the very end of the tour in Brighton, where the Stones had been booked to play an oversold, smoky, hellish disco called the Big Apple. For some reason, probably a mistake on their part, Keith and Anita actually arrived at that gig on time, only to find the dressing-room door locked. The corridor was deadly cold. Cold as only a corridor in England could be.

Keith began to curse. As only Keith Richards could. The bloody nerve. Who did these people think they were, after all? Here in his arms lay poor Marlon. A poor and pitiful orphan of the storm. A tiny, suffering child whose cough at any moment might become the croup. Who, just like Tiny Tim on Christmas Eve, might soon be praying for the Lord above to God bless us every one. Sod the bloody promoter. The filthy lout. How dare he? Who did these people think they were, after all?

Keith worked the scene for all it was worth. He squeezed every possible drop of blood from every last line of dialogue that left his then still-unreconstructed mouth. Then he decided the time had come. The time for action. The time for Keith to take matters into his own hands.

The next thing I knew, Keith Richards and I were breaking into the dressing room by using a variety of small implements, a metal comb and a Swiss army knife among them, to take all the screws out of the door hinges so we could then throw the door itself onto the floor. While in the act, he and I never spoke. There was no need. We were partners in a crime being committed in the name of justice, rock & roll style.

The night wore on, getting ever weirder. At one point, a very loaded and deathly pale Gram Parsons asked me to take him upstairs so he could look at the stage. Out we went together into the still-freezing corridor. I pushed open a door that I thought would lead us to the crowded dance floor on which thousands of sweaty kids were smoking hash in order to prepare themselves for the Stones. With me in the lead, the two of us began going up flights of stairs. Endless flights of stairs. There was a door at each and every landing, but all of them were locked. It was like being trapped while changing classes in some high school of the perpetually damned.

By my side, Parsons began to lose it in a serious way. His breathing became labored, his face even more pale than it had been before. This was not cool. At all. Finally, I found a door that was not locked. I shoved it open, and out we both stepped into the completely deserted second balcony of a huge, cavernous movie house. Above our heads, on a screen that had to be twenty feet high and twice as wide, the movie Myra Breckinridge was being shown in very lurid living color. We had gone beyond. We had just entered another dimension. We were now both in the twilight zone.

By this point, reality had become an entirely subjective concept. How could it not be so? I was on the road with the Stones. Doors that I had never before seen were now wide-open to me. I possessed a certain power that could not be explained. Yet everyone felt it all the same. I was somebody by association.

Throughout the entire tour, I made it my business never to let anyone ever see me take any notes. Not a single one. My aim was simple: I did not want anyone to be conscious that I was listening to and recording everything they did and said.

Just before the tour ended in London, Mick Jagger felt the need to challenge me on this point. Nothing personal, mind you. Just Mick being Mick (a full-time job if ever there was one), rattling the bars of my cage in order to find out if anyone was in fact alive inside. Call it my final exam for personal credentials in a world where he was the final judge of everything and everyone.

Backstage at the Roundhouse, Mick Jagger let me know in no uncertain terms that he had my number. I hadn't fooled him at all. For the past ten days, I had done nothing but enjoy myself. I had run as wild and full-out as anyone else on the tour, when in fact it was to work that I should have put my hand. The truth was that I had no real idea what any of this was about. Now, did I?

I mumbled something in my own defense. Then I went home and wrote the piece. Concerning one thing of course, Mick himself was dead right. God, but I had fun. Staying up through the night while careening from town to town with a bunch of crazy people who laughed all the time as the Rolling Stones played kick-ass rock & roll in tiny little trade-union halls, ballrooms and university auditoriums. It was far less a job than a unique shot at experiencing something that I think I knew even then would not come again.

Recently, I found myself at a funeral with someone else who had been on that journey through England with the Stones twenty years ago. The only difference was that since then, he had been on every single tour that both the Rolling Stones as a band and Mick Jagger as a solo performer had done. And by that I mean every single one.

"Wot?" he said in a manner so English that there is simply no way to get it on the page. "That last one we did round England? Gettin' on buses and ridin' ordinary trains? Best tour ever. That's what tha' was. Best tour there ever was."

I thought so then. I still think so even now. Which only goes to show that no matter how thoroughly this world of ours sometimes threatens to go to hell in a handbasket, at least some things never change. One of them being the memories we carry around within us like a raincoat. Even when there is no rain.

This story is from the June 11th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.


From The Archives Issue 632: June 11, 1992