Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: 'Butterfly on a Wheel: The Great Rolling Stones Drugs Bust'

Swinging London’s principal players heaved a collective groan when Donovan was busted for possessing a small amount of hash in 1966. The colorful, creative, bleary-eyed party was about to come to an end now that Rock & Rollers were on the Blue Meanies’ radar. Donovan’s bust was teatime compared to what was about to go down in The Rolling Stones’ camp. The Redlands party of February 12, 1967, is one of those infamous turning points in Rock & Roll history, like the death of Buddy Holly or The Stones’ own Altamont blunder. At the tail end of a lovely day in which Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithfull enjoyed their first acid trips in the vicinity of Keith Richards’s West Wittering home, the cops descended on the dreamy scene. Four long-forgotten pep pills discovered in Jagger’s coat pocket. Heroin tablets in the possession of art dealer Robert Fraser. Richards’s home used for some alleged pot smoking. The Stones were busted, and they weren’t about to get off with the wrist slap Donovan received. During a year in which The Beatles turned the pop world on its cranium with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and The Who, Otis Redding, and Jimi Hendrix became stars at the Monterey Pop Festival, The Rolling Stones were practically out of commission, spending their time in lawyers’ offices, courtrooms, and jail cells. Jagger faced three months in prison. Richards faced a year. Brian Jones’s mid-year bust put the band in further jeopardy.

The Stones’ busts were important on a grander level than merely putting an end to that band. It meant other musicians had to fear police invasion. It meant there was potential precedent of long-term prison sentences for innocuous drug offenses. Judge Block’s initial harsh ruling had more to do with public outrage over The Rolling Stones’ anarchic persona than the severity of their drug use. Public outcry over the decision was tremendous. As expected, The Stones’ musical peers and fans went to bat for them with protests. But they also received support from unexpected sources, most notably conservative editor of The Times William Rees-Mogg, whose famous “Who Breaks a Butterfly on a Wheel” editorial played a crucial role in putting Jagger and Richards’s sentences into rational perspective.

The Redlands bust is an integral chapter in any Rolling Stones biography or Swinging London retrospective, but it has never been examined with the thoroughness of Simon Wells’s new book, Butterfly on a Wheel: The Great Rolling Stones Drugs Bust. Wells spends his first 60 or so pages zooming through the usual account of The Stones’ early years. Then he comes to a halt at Donovan’s bust to home in on the central story. The author crafts a vivid portrait of perhaps the most vivid period in pop history. He details the Redlands party’s acid trip, the intrusive bust, the trial, Mick and Keith’s brief jailing, Brian’s ordeal, and the aftermath of it all intricately. Wells sets out to examine and evaluate all of the myths associated with the infamous affair, and not just the long-ago debunked “Mars Bar” incident, but enduring details, such as David “Acid King” Schneiderman’s role as possible informant. Sometimes Wells resolves lingering questions. Sometimes the mystery persists.

Beautifully written in the mode of In Cold Blood or Helter Skelter, Butterfly on a Wheel unfolds with so much drama and detail that when I reached Mick and Keith’s acquittal I felt like cheering even though I was already well familiar with that outcome. Sadly, Wells’s comments about Their Satanic Majesties Request, the great L.P. recorded amidst The Stones’ legal problems, follow the usual boring, ignorant, negative rhetoric. But that’s a minor problem in a book much more concerned with a legal landmark than music. Butterfly on a Wheel is the final word on one of the most discussed incidents in Rock & Roll history and essential reading for all Stones fans.

Butterfly on a Wheel: The Great Rolling Stones Drugs Bust was published in Britain this past September and is currently available on Amazon UK. Pre-order it from Amazon in the U.S. here.
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