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Anita Pallenberg: Queen of the Underground

How the Rolling Stones muse was a rock & roll legend in herself, a style icon and a crucial part of the band’s mystique.

Let’s raise a toast to the late great Anita Pallenberg, queen of the underground, the Rolling Stones muse who gave the Glimmer Twins their glimmer lessons. Pallenberg, who died this week at the age of 73, wasn’t merely Keith Richards’ consort – she was a rock & roll legend in herself, a style icon, a crucial part of the Stones’ mystique. She taught Keith her sinister glare, taught Mick Jagger her wiggle, taught Brian Jones how to wear floppy hats. Look at pictures of Keith before and after Anita – it’s like the difference between Buddy Holly and Jack the Ripper. As soon Keith connected with Anita, he lost his gawky shyness and learned to strut like her, wearing her scarves and shirts and bangles. She was the flower of evil in the Stones’ orbit, the baddest of bad girls – her grin declared she knew more about sin than any of these English schoolboys had ever imagined.

Things tended to burst into flames around Anita. Her friend Marianne Faithfull used to call her “Glenda Hindenburg.” “Loads of people were scared of me,” Anita said in Victor Bockris’ Keith Richards: The Biography. “I guess it was all that savoir-vivre that I had, and I was from Rome and I had traveled and been in New York and I knew all these people, and I was pretty reckless as well. You could see Keith and Mick exchanging looks like, ‘Who is this weird bird?'” That was putting it mildly. As Keith recalled, “She knew everything and she could say it in five languages. She scared the pants off me!”

Pallenberg was a German-Italian actress who had hung out with the Andy Warhol scene in New York before she met the Stones. She appeared in films like Barbarella and Candy, but her most brilliant moment was in Performance, as the dangerous half of Mick Jagger’s imagination. You can hear her in “Sympathy for the Devil” – she’s one of the voices chanting “hoo hoo!” In the Godard film of the sessions, One Plus One, she radiates all her seductive magnetism even though she appears to be wearing a brown thrift-store carpet.

She entered the Stones scene in 1966, when she moved in with Jones. “I decided to kidnap Brian,” she recalled. “Brian seemed sexually the most flexible.” They began to dress alike, as he wore her finery. She cut his hair and dyed it blonder, until they looked like twins – blonde on blonde. The first time he did acid, Brian told her, “Dress me up like Francoise Hardy.” She did. In November 1966, the London press printed scandalous photos of Brian in a Nazi uniform with Anita kneeling at his feet. As Stanley Booth writes in The True Adventures of the Rolling Stones, “Brian and Anita were into blowing people’s minds.” The Stones fancied themselves worldly young men, bad boys, but they’d never encountered anything like her. Their music got more outrageous and flamboyant with her around. In so many ways, she taught them to let it bleed.

That year, Keith moved in with Brian and Anita. What could go wrong? “The first time I saw Anita my obvious reaction was ‘What the fuck is a chick like that doing with Brian?'” Keith recalled later. “Anita’s incredibly strong, a much stronger personality than Brian, more confident, with no reservations, whereas Brian was full of doubts.” As Brian grew more abusive and jealous, eventually breaking his hand on her face, she left him for Keith during a fateful trip to Morocco. They became bosom buddies with Gram Parsons, often taking drug-fueled trips to Joshua Tree to look for UFOs in the desert sky.

In a sense, Anita was the storm the Stones were seeking shelter from.

Pallenberg really earned her sixth-Stone stripes with her star turn in the 1970 film Performance, an essential part of the band’s mythos. Mick Jagger plays a washed-up rock star hiding out in his mansion, living in a decadent menage a trois with Anita and Michele Breton. (The three spend quality time in the bathtub.) When a London gangster comes to hide out in the mansion, Anita seduces him, dresses him up in drag, and ravages his sanity. Anita and Mick shared graphic sex scenes – perhaps not quite faking it for the camera. The day Anita and Mick filmed their bedroom scenes, Keith was on the other side of town, strumming his guitar in an understandably grim mood. The song he wrote that day? “Gimme Shelter.” In a sense, Anita was the storm the Stones were seeking shelter from – her cocky smile promising all sorts of there-goes-gravity chaos, with a jaw as broad as a guitar neck.

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Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg in 1970. “She taught Keith her sinister glare, taught Mick Jagger her wiggle, taught Brian Jones how to wear floppy hats,” Rob Sheffield writes.

All through the Seventies, Anita and Keith tripped through the days at lightning speed, living at a pace that turned other people to vegetables. She was not into discretion. When the Stones flew to Toronto in February 1977, she brought 28 pieces of luggage. For some reason, this caught the eye of customs officials, who found drugs in her bags, setting up the bust that nearly ended the Stones. “Anita is a great, great woman,” Keith told Rolling Stone in 1981, after they split up. “She’s a fantastic person. I’ll always love her. I just can’t live with her, you know?”

Pallenberg kicked drugs and remained hilariously flippant about the boys in the band. As she put it, “What I think is that the two of them, Mick and Keith, are going to have to face each other eventually. They should get married. Mayor Koch should marry them.” In her later years, she got into gardening (which was fitting for the muse who helped inspire “Dead Flowers”) and kept acting. She was brilliant in her 2001 role on the cult-classic British sitcom Absolutely Fabulous, in a memorable episode where Edina saw visions of God and the Devil. Marianne Faithfull played God; Anita, of course, played the Devil. A fearsome force to the end, which is why the rock & roll world will never forget to put roses on this bad girl’s grave.

When I got the news of her death, I was at a Nick Cave show in New York City, which was really the perfect place to mourn a bad seed like Anita – I sang “From Her To Eternity” extra loud in her honor. Rest in peace, Anita Pallenberg. Blow away, dandelion.