As The Rolling Stones continue to celebrate 50 years together as a band, plenty of sources have been offering their memories whether it was an encounter in passing or having spent significant time with the legendary and long running rock and roll group. All though much has been written, there’s still a great deal to sift through and even essential details like who was the drummer for the first Rolling Stones gig ever is still up for debate.
That’s why writers, historians, and all around enthusiasts Peter Fornatale and Bernie Corbett have come forward with the expansive and accessible 50 Licks: Myths and Stories from Half a Century of the Rolling Stones. The book is a continuation of the late award-winning broadcaster and author Pete Fornatale’s lifelong love affair with The Rolling Stones of which he was able to share his wealth of exclusive interviews and archives with his son and Mr. Corbett.
50 Licks is a flawlessly executed and detailed encapsulation of the Stones’ times and legacy with a bevy of never before shared anecdotes and musings paired with photos and a visual presentation that connects the entire aesthetic of the band. I recently spoke with the co-authors Peter Fornatale and Bernie Corbett about the research, unknowable factoids, and their personal relationships with The Rolling Stones that drove them to creating such a valuable resource for future fans.
50 Licks: Myths and Stories from Half a Century of the Rolling Stones is available here.
So what was the impetus behind the book aside from The Rolling Stones’ 50th anniversary, how did this come about?
Bernie Corbett: Well it really came about because of my overwhelming desire to be able to do a book with Mr. Fornatale. I had an opportunity to work with Pete and young Pete on a back called “Back To The Garden” which was a 40th anniversary oral history of the Woodstock festival, of which my main contribution was going out Country Joe McDonald of Country Joe & The Fish. This whetted my appetite and got me thinking, “man is there a project I can do with Mr. Fornatale,” and being so passionate about The Stones the 50th anniversary just sort of came knocking.
Plenty of books have been written about The Stones, but yours is a great blend of visual style and oral history. What led you towards this aesthetic?
Peter Fornatale: We came to it along the way. We always knew that we wanted the text of the book to be a mix of narrative, because my father had a number of points in his career where his intersected with The Stones’. So we always knew we wanted his authorial voice in there in regards to the presentation. We also had all these great interviews so we wanted to intersperse that element in along with his story. Then we came across a litany of great photos that people were happy to offer given their relationship with my Dad over the years. With all of these materials in place we had to come up with something that wasn’t just a traditional reading book, and as a result 50 Licks turned into a bit of its own piece of art.
BC: As you can see our vision was that you could have 50 chapters and 50 Rolling Stones songs that went along with them, so I think the book flows in the same way as an album. There’s traditional chapters, sidebars, vignettes, and anecdotes that when trying to weave the story of a band like The Stones, a sort of pastiche style seems like a natural fit.
How did you wade through some of the conflicting stories and rumors, some of which the individual band members themselves still disagree on?
PF: It was kind of mind blowing and crazy to try and do that, and there were times when it was like putting together our own “Rashomon” with varied sources recalling the same event.
BC: One of the things we kind of hang our hat on in the book is getting to the bottom of the first live drummer mystery. As much as Keith Richards’ auto-biography Life got right, we really feel that we really did our research in disproving his theory and presenting our own. We had a great source that could get directly to Charlie Watts, and another one with Mick Avory and they both said that it wasn’t them. So after considering all the evidence we made a strong case for Tony Chapman as being the drummer at The Rolling Stones’ first gig. We were able to work it up to where we’re 90% confident.
Although Mr. Fornatale passed away before the completion of the book, how much was drawn from his enduring legacy as a broadcaster?
BC: Well a huge amount, obviously the foundation of this book came from the interviews he did with the band over the years and they were an invaluable resource. This allowed us to spin off in a bunch of different directions to supplement what we had from him.
PF: Yeah, a whole lot of it came from him and the work that he had done, but there’s also a ton of original stuff presented just for the book. I would say the most important contribution from the archives are the interviews he did with each member of the band some seeing the light of day for the very first time. And Bernie was a great asset in that way as well going out and talking with people Darryl Jones and Chuck Leavell, and even getting Marianne Faithfull who has said she won’t talk about The Rolling Stones anymore.
Was there anything that you discovered while researching that came as a genuine surprise?
PF: One of the biggest things I didn’t know before getting into the book was the level of involvement Brian Jones had even towards the end of his life. The Beggars Banquet album, which I regard probably as my favorite, featured a lot of small, but key contributions from Jones in a time where most assume he had all but checked out.
BC: There’s a couple of things, but I think one of the best stories in the book involves a story Buddy Guy tells about Muddy Waters playing a night at his club when The Stones where in town in 1981. I thought that was a particularly revelatory one that you’ll have to pick up 50 Licks to get the full idea of.
What Rolling Stones related myth or misconception do you think still most follows the band to this day?
BC: When I look back, I think one particular instance where they crossed the line was the stir over the images attached to Black & Blue. We’ve got the promotional poster in the book, and you still kind of wince looking at it and it kind of makes you wonder what they were going for with the shot of the battered woman. That’s one where you kind of scratch your head and try to dig up a deeper meaning to if there is one, because it’s difficult to swallow all these years later.
Digging through the lyrics and the history of The Rolling Stones, did you encounter any interesting cross points where life seemed to be imitating art
PF: One in particular I keep coming back to is “Street Fighting Man” with all the tumult and change going on on a societal level at the time, and even the impact “Satisfaction” had on the culture despite being a song that’s purely about sex. And then in terms of the band itself, I think researching “Gimme Shelter” and finding out that it likely serves as Keith’s response to Mick’s affair with Anita Pallenberg adds a great new dimension to a song that has that level of raw emotion and power.
BC: Also relating “Gimme Shelter” to the Altamont incident, most people think that song was written afterwards as a response. The truth is “Gimme Shelter” was recorded beforehand and played during the concert after Meredith Hunter was already fatally assaulted. It was a literal and figurative death knell in a tragic and cultural sense.
In the epilogue of the book Mr. Fornatale quoted Paul Simon who said, “Preserve your memories, that’s all that’s left of you.” As a Rolling Stones fan/historian, what particular moment in your personal history with the band will you be imparting to future generations as we move to the 100th, 150th anniversaries and so on?
PF: For me, I feel The Rolling Stones have always been there. The were part of the way I was raised. I can picture the wall of vinyl that my father used to have in our living room in our house out on Long Island. I can see my father pulling The Stones records off the wall and playing them and connecting with them. So for me The Rolling Stones had already sort of happened by the time I got to see them in 1989, but they’re such a huge part of the fabric of my life as a music fan that it’s difficult to pin down one specific moment.
BC: My personal story revolved around being able to see them for the first time back in 1975. Some people find their passion at 10, some find it at 80, but I knew after seeing The Rolling Stones live that this rock and roll thing and that band in particular were going to be a huge part of my life going forward. I’ll never forget that moment of the lights going down, “Fanfare For The Common Man” coming over the speakers, and I was sitting right next to the stage in Loge 11 at Boston Garden. I was 14 years old and had just lied about failing Algebra, but when the lights came up and there’s Keith playing the opening chords to “Honkey Tonk Woman” I think back and remember thinking “this is where I belong.”