Tag Archives: The Rolling Stones

A Stray Cat Struts: My Life as a Rockabilly Rebel by Slim Jim Phantom

A Stray Cat Struts by Slim Jim PhantomWhen I look at musical biographies I’ve read in the past, from Laura Jane Grace to Tony Iommi to Ginger Wildheart to Frank Turner amongst others, it’s fairly obvious that most have focussed on frontmen or band leaders.

This seems to be a fairly standard trend so, coming to the autobiography of Slim Jim Phantom, most famously the drummer from The Stray Cats, I expected something a bit different, and that’s just what I got.

From the start Phantom makes it clear that his book won’t be a mudslinging ‘needless to say I got the last laugh’ type affair but a look at the positives that his life as a rockabilly musician of note has brought him.

That isn’t to say that it’s all saccharine sweet though as he and his various band members go through their share of problems but, for the most part, Slim Jim finds the good in all the situations, one way or another.

With this approach he makes it clear early on that he won’t engage with the potential fallout of the split of The Stray Cats, so when that comes it’s not a surprise (though later he sheds a little light on the relationships between himself and fellow Cats, Brian Setzer and Lee Rocker).

The Stray Cats

The Stray Cats

Up to the split of that band the book moves in, largely, chronological order tracing Phantom’s life from Massapequa, Long Island, New York to London where the Cats first found fame, through meetings and tours with The Rolling Stones and the kind of encounters and happenings that are genuinely amazing to hear given the speed with which they occur following the trio’s arrival in the UK.

In this we begin to meet some of Slim Jim’s ‘true pals’ who become a major feature of many of the stories and many are household names from the world of rock ‘n’ roll. While this could easily feel like name dropping par excellence, it actually comes across as if our humble narrator is as surprised by many of these encounters and friendships as we might be, including his marriage in the mid-1980s to Britt Ekland!

As the book goes on the stories focus more on specific subjects so there are chapters on Lemmy, ‘The Killer’ Jerry Lee Lewis, George Harrison and other rock ‘n’ roll heroes as well as Phantom’s endeavours in film acting, nightclub ownership and life on and around the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles.

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

HeadCat and Jerry Lee Lewis

Through all of these what makes the book so engaging is the manner in which Phantom writes. It’s as if he is telling you these stories one-to-one, and his enthusiasm for his music and extraordinary comes through strongly in every passage regardless of what he’s recounting.

As the book goes on he becomes more reflective as his hard partying days subside to watching game shows while on the phone with Harry Dean Stanton, spending time with his, evidently equally rock ‘n’ roll, son TJ and later charity mountaineering trips to Kilimanjaro and Everest.

Rockabilly music is never far away though and it’s clear this remains what makes his heart beat and its worth having YouTube handy to look up some of the Stray Cats performances he mentions just to revel in the same things he is.

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

Slim Jim Phantom up Kilimanjaro

What I think this accessibility and enthusiasm stems from is something he highlights and I’ve noticed in my own life that, in a majority of cases, drummers are the members of the band most happy to let down the facade of rock ‘n’ roll life, connect with others and generally are more open and sharing.

Using this Slim Jim lets us into his world in a far less self-conscious way than many other musicians making for a fascinating and easy read that may have a few rough edges tidied but feels honest and true in the way that the best things in rock ‘n’ roll should be.

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Gimme Shelter

Gimme Shelter posterAfter watching Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, and given the circumstances surrounding my watching it which have had something of the feel of the end of era, I headed back four years from Bowie’s iconic concert film to another, that also is said to capture a conclusion, the Maysles Brothers’ and Charlotte Zwerin’s Gimme Shelter.

Famous for capturing on film the Altamont Free Concert of December 1969, Gimme Shelter is more than that. Starting out in New York it offers a glimpse into The Rolling Stones US tour with concert footage from Madison Square Garden and material gathered in the Muscle Shoals studio in Alabama where they were seemingly working on their Sticky Fingers album (which was released in 1971).

The sections of the film from MSG are astonishing in their own right, with the crowd packed to the front of the stage and Mick Jagger a bundle of jittery, untamed energy on the surprisingly small stage. It’s like a less studied version of the performer he has become reacting more fluidly to Keith Richard’s guitar and posing and posturing to the crowd like no other.

In these sequences (and throughout the film) Keith is unrecognizable to the man he is now, but his unique guitar work, playing wild and lose with rhythm and drenched in blues, is as characteristic as ever.

Mick Jagger at Madison Square Garden

Mick Jagger at Madison Square Garden

A standout in these sequences is the (these day comparatively mild-mannered) drummer, Charlie Watts. He has a look of amazingly understated intensity and his tight playing seems to be what keeps the band on track throughout the six songs we see from the New York show.

Intercut with these sequences (along with a track from Ike and Tina Turner) are shots of the Stones, particularly Jagger and Watts, in the editing room of the film watching and listening back to footage from Altamont and audio of some of the radio broadcast reactions to it. Whether you’re aware of what’s coming or not these instantly bring up a sense of something dark impending, and the inclusion of the Hell’s Angels’ Sonny Barger’s response to events is both fascinating and fairly shocking given what happened.

Along with the Stones we get clips of those trying to organise the free concert as it moves venue from San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park to one race track and finally to the Altamont Speedway race track, despite preemptive protestation from various neighbouring land owners.

USA Altamont Rock Concert 1969


Once the Maysles Brothers and Zwerin have shown this rising tension expertly we arrive, along with the band, at Altamont via helicopter as cars line the narrow, two-lane road to the site for miles as an estimated 300,000 revelers head to the concert.

While the directors show the tension of the event building, they do so in a way unlike many documentary makers as, it seems, they are simply capturing the events rather than setting out with an idea of story – though of course the edit must be designed to tell the story of what they saw. Their method gives a feeling very similar to the Woodstock movie, but, while that feels largely summery, happy and a celebration of music, Altamont is clearly something, in its way, far more sinister.

Accompanied by the music the Flying Burrito Brothers and Jefferson Airplane (Santana and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young also played but don’t appear and The Grateful Dead pulled out upon seeing the way the event was going) we see an already awkward event begin to descend into chaos.

Altamont crowd

The audience climbing a scaffold tower

Once the Stones take to the stage just after sunset we see the audience in front of the stage erupt into seemingly spontaneous fights with the Hell’s Angels (supposedly providing event security) clashing with (arguable) agitators in the crowd while those who genuinely seem to be there for the music look on distraught.

The style of the filmmakers, simply to record the events, gives the whole thing a feeling that we are watching it happen live (even though it was nearly 50 years ago and clearly edited) and as Jagger’s face shows the realisation that they’ve lost control and that bright lime green suit flashes from the crowd only to be quickly swallowed again by a mass of men in denim and leather, its clear this isn’t really a concert anymore.

This and the following shots of the end of the concert and revelation that the man in green has been killed would have been enough to capture a tragic, chaotic moment, but the directors then cut back to the editing room and we get to see Jagger’s reaction to it all emphasised by a freeze frame as he leaves the room clearly distressed by what he’s seen.

Jagger on stage at Altamont

Jagger on stage at Altamont

Seeing these events is deeply, deeply, uncomfortable and, to be honest, I’m not even sure the film should have been released given the circumstances. But, what the directors do with the build and coda, which feels like climax of a lo-fi horror movie, is genuinely make this feel like the end of something, the end of an era, so to speak.

Its become cliché to say this documents the day the hippy dream died but, in watching it, there is a genuine sense of that captured in a visceral and vital way juxtaposed with some great, urgent, rhythm and blues music that, in a way, makes the whole thing all the more impactful and gives an amazing context of much of the music, film, writing and art that would follow and mark the move into the more cynical 1970s of fear and loathing.

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