I’ll admit it. I read a lot of rock books, most of which suck. There are exceptions, of course; Jacob Slichter of Semisonic wrote a beauty, one of the most well-written books about a band being chewed up by the machinery, and Ian McLagan’s is a fascinating peek into the world of two of my favorite bands and a scene I wish I could have been a part of. Even Johnny Rotten has penned a fascinating tome. But there are far too many that just suck out loud. Putrid. Filthy. Worthless. Disgusting.
Which brings me to the topic of James Phelge and his brilliant book about the early years of The Rolling Stones.
I wrote about this book eight years ago when I first read it. Tonight, by a strange coincidence, I happened to get an email from Old Nanker himself. Kismet? Serendipity? Deadline? Pick your reason, but I think you need to hear about this book, after which I hope you run right out and buy it.
James Phelge roomed – in absolute squalor – with Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Keith Richards for over a year starting in 1963. He’s also the “Phelge” from “Nanker- Phelge“, the pseudonym you’ll find credited with writing several of the early Stones songs. When you consider that “nankering” meant making a disgusting face by upturning your nostrils and pulling your eyelids down while making inhuman noises, it makes sense that it is aligned with Phelge, whom Keith calls “absolutely the most disgusting human being you ever met.” Not much of a sales pitch, is it?
But Nankering is one of the most honest, well-written glimpses behind the rock curtain I’ve ever read, and it’s not just because the author was truly an insider to the subject. Phelge is a great storyteller, but wisely never tries to make himself the center of attention, even when the anecdote focuses upon around him. Unlike most hack rock books, Phelge never tries to psychoanalyze others’ unspoken thoughts, recount transcripts of events he was not privy to, or repaint the past using future events. Instead, his unselfish style places you into the scene as a fly on the wall – as disgusting as the floor in this flat – and allows you to savor the moment as an unbiased observer.
You learn that Bill Wyman was never an early favorite, sense when Mick started to make his moves against Brian, and pity Ian Stewart’s ouster from the band, all calculated moves made by young men who wanted success at any cost. Phelge never really takes sides, preferring to let the events speak for themselves; they speak volumes. So do his vivid descriptions of their surroundings, from the dilapidated chip shops and tiny diners to the scum-filled sinks and hallways of their abysmal flat. It’s difficult to put the book down once you start reading it.
Although the book covers only a short period of time, it’s a critical juncture in the band’s history, tracing their leanest years. The Beatles transform from contemporaries to idols and then back to contemporaries as the Stones find their earliest success. The stories about practical jokes played on the other housemates are hilarious, but Phelge also manages to communicate the quiet desperation of the band who skirted with implosion so many times. After sifting through so many horrible tomes written by chauffeurs, drug dealers and security guards trying to stretch their fifteen minutes of association into a tell-all novel, what a refreshing change it is to see a writer not try to make himself the star of the book.
Phelge’s foreword says it all: “If your name is John Grisham or Robert Ludlum, this is what writing is all about, not that tacky crap about lawyers and spies that you two turn out. So eat shit.”
I’d love to hang out with James Phelge. I just wouldn’t want him as my roommate.
(The article above was originally published in Cosmik Debris)