Backstage in South Florida: Avoiding Exile by the Rolling Stones
Keith Richards has lived long enough to talk some smack to Lee Zimmerman
With all the hoopla about the reissue of the Rolling Stones' epic Exile on Main St., I'm reminded of a chance encounter I had with Mick, Keith and company around the time of the album's original release. I was living in St. Thomas Virgin Islands when I had occasion to meet the band during a quick respite from their chaotic 1972 summer American tour.
It was a Saturday morning and my dad and I were driving down another Main Street, this one belonging to the island's capitol, Charlotte Amalie. I happened to glance at a man walking along the sidewalk who looked strangely familiar, but whose face I couldn't quite place. As he ducked into a shop, it suddenly clicked. I jumped out of my father's car and raced back to the store where I had spotted him. When he emerged, I suddenly realized I was in the company of none other than Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, accompanied by their sax stalwart Bobby Keys.
Watts was nice enough to pause for a brief chat, during which he disclosed the fact that the band were taking a brief break and were ensconced on the island overnight. Returning home, I determined to call every hotel on the island in order to discover their whereabouts, hoping for the opportunity to meet and mingle. Surprisingly enough, the first one I called actually affirmed they had one such Charlie Watts in their registry.
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Wasting no time, I made my way to the hotel, which was not far from my home, and ventured over to the beach where I spotted Watts, guitarists Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, and other members of the Stones entourage encamped at the far end of the property. (I later learned Bill Wyman was taking his vacation in Arizona.) As I sat on a lounge chair plotting how to inconspicuously work my way into their inner circle, Mick Jagger suddenly appeared on the opposite side of the beach, strolling back from the bar and towards his compatriots. Despite my nerves, I unhesitatingly jumped up out of the chair as if propelled by sheer adrenaline and abruptly approached him, attempting to engage in conversation with a question about an unruly show they had played early in their tour. Jagger eyed me warily, obviously unsure of my intentions. Nevertheless, he let down his guard giving me an excuse to accompany him back to where the band was encamped.
Unfortunately, once I was in their midst, I became tongue-tied and ended up perched against a palm tree acting like a silent intruder. I was struck by the fact that despite their renegade persona, they all looked surprisingly innocent, innocuous and clean cut -- with the exception of Richards, who true to his outlaw image, looked rather menacing with his bleached hair and leopard spotted bathing briefs as he flopped around in the waves. "What's this, a Pinkerton guard?" he asked caustically after returning to shore and noticing me lingering somewhat obtrusively. "Yeah, right," I said with a shrug, struggling for a response."Yeah right!" Richards mocked me.
I was shaken... not to mention humiliated and embarrassed. "He's all right," Watts assured the others and from that point on no one seemed to mind as I stuck around and continued my somewhat awkward observations. The band was more in a mood to reminisce and Watts, contrary to his silent, sullen onstage persona, seemed to delight in entertaining the other musicians with wayward observations and obscure anecdotes drawn from the band's earlier exploits.
Still, the high point of the encounter occurred when Jagger's then-new wife Bianca sauntered over and joined the group. She and Mick began making out on a lounger, seemingly oblivious to the fact that there was anyone else around. At that point, my self-appointed role as observer seemed to segue into that of voyeur as the newlyweds' smooching became increasing arduous. Eventually they got up and bid their goodbyes, leaving me an opening to strike up a conversation with the new guy in the group, Mick Taylor. He asked me what it was like to live on the island and I replied by saying I couldn't wait to escape. I then queried as to whether they were amply stocked with stash during their stay. "We're all taken care of," he assured me. Good thing, since I was hardly in any position to become a supplier to the Stones. Although if I was properly qualified, that probably would have earned me Richards' respect.
Eventually, everyone drifted off, except for Charlie, who by then had drifted off to sleep on his beach chair. Encounter over, I lingered momentarily, watching Watts doze undisturbed. I was suddenly taken with the notion that the drummer for the most famous rock band in the world could be left so vulnerable -- sans bodyguards, entourage or protection from the public. After all, then as now, a Stone left alone is a rare sight indeed.
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