2017/07/02

Sorceress


Anita Pallenberg

The film-maker handed me a photograph.

“Do you know who that is?”

I did, but I knew the film-maker well enough to say “No”.

“Anita Pallenberg” he said, before falling silent. “A dangerous woman,” he added finally.

The pause was for my benefit. It was an invitation for me to speculate as to why an unpublished, private snapshot of Anita Pallenberg would be languishing in an envelope amongst all his other papers.

Considering the sheer volume of personal files in the archive, the answer was pretty obvious. It wasn’t just the heavy air that made the room of documents feel like Bluebeard’s Castle.

The film-maker got to know the Rolling Stones around the same time that Pallenberg had entered the band’s bubble via Brian Jones. Later, when the film-maker was shooting promo-clips featuring Jones out of his mind on drugs, Pallenberg was at the start of an often-toxic relationship with Keith Richards. The film-maker then crossed paths with Donald Cammell just as he was about to shoot Performance (1970) featuring Pallenberg as Pherber. The trail, such as it is, becomes harder to trace at the end of the decade, but when the Stones decamped to the south of France to make Exile on Main Street (1972) an extended entourage followed them. Richards and Pallenberg established a headquarters at the villa Nellcôte, in Villefranche-sur-Mer and in-between attempts to make the album, the area became a focal point for the wealthy, wandering demi-monde who had previously bunkered down in late-60s Mayfair. The film-maker had been moving through the area around the same time working on a series of projects, some connected to the Rolling Stones, some not.

So then, it’s likely he knew Pallenberg or at least that’s what he wanted me to think. But why would he also want me to think she was ‘dangerous’? A lot of people used to tell me the film-maker was ‘dangerous’. What was it about her or, what was it she could do that he could find so threatening?

Pallenberg has always been cast as the sorceress in the drama-cum-soap opera that is the history of the Rolling Stones: a kind of sixties Medea who emanates a black radiance from the centre of the band’s solipsistic world. In the soft edges between the Stones camp and Performance, Pallenberg is the one who seems to have acted the least. We're led to believe that what you see on screen - all the mindgames, the dark psychedelia and the weird rituals -  is how she was in real life. Various Stones biographers have pictured Pallenberg casting magickal spells, discussing witchcraft with Kenneth Anger and of course, there’s the trail of (usually drug-related) human wreckage that seemed to follow in her wake. That said, most of the personalities that made up the Stones’ circle could be described in such terms. So what if Pallenberg sung back-up vocals on ‘Sympathy for the Devil’? They were all into the dark stuff.

It’s OK for the men of the piece to be ‘dangerous’. We expect that. However, it’s different for the women. Pallenberg was an actress and a successful model before she met Jones and Richards. Thereafter she morphed into the essential sixties accessory: the rock star girlfriend. To call her ‘dangerous’ seems to name all the things that she did which didn’t fit into the boundaries of that role, i.e. independence, opinions, ideas and such like. When not called a ‘witch’, Pallenberg is also tagged as a ‘muse’, that’s to say she’s someone that men wrote about or someone who otherwise facilitated men in the production of their work. In later life she was approached to write an autobiography, but all the publishers wanted was the inside story of the Rolling Stones: another book about the men she used to hang out with. The autobiography never appeared, not because she was unable to do it, but because she didn’t want to do it on those terms. When asked, inevitably, to explain herself she refused. Maybe this is why she was 'dangerous'. Pallenberg were more interested in living her life rather than turning it into work with the unquestioning assumption that everyone else would want to see it.  

I looked at the photograph for a while. Pallenberg was smiling. She didn’t look dangerous, she looked friendly, at ease. Then the film-maker took it back. He put the photograph back in its envelope, put the envelope back in a folder and put the folder back on the shelf. One alongside all the others. Without comment he left the room.