"Life,” Biography of Keith Richards, 2013
The Rolling Stones are the most long-lived top rock band in the world. In the U.S. the Dead, the Band and Springsteen give them a run for their money. The Beatles flared and died too quickly, as did many other monster groups. Dylan, and perhaps Neil Young are still the kings of the singer-songwriters, but their groups are not a “band” per se, as Young does not always play with Crazy Horse. It is to be seen if any of the current crop of blues-rock groups like the Black Keys, the Alabama Shakes, Jack White’s various bands, Drive-By Truckers, Kings of Leon or even bands like My Morning Jacket or the Decembrists can reach the same level. It is doubtful.
Richards was and is key to that artistic success. He provided the classic riffs to many Stones songs like "Sympathy for the Devil" and “Honky Tonk Women." And came up with some of the key lyric choruses like “I Can’t Get No – Sa-tis-fact-ion” and "Wild horses - couldn't drag me away," though Jagger was the word-wizard for most Stones songs. The Stones, if you remember, were the ‘bad boy’ alternative to the Beatle choir boys – at least initially. This book details many of those problems – drug busts, tax issues, court appearances, many incredibly close scrapes with the law and the cops, rowdy shows, destructive hotel stays, odd hangers-on, groupies, contentious relationships, guns, knives, dealers and drugs. Lots of drugs. Keith was a heroin addict for 10 years, kicking it finally in the early 80s. He’s not proud of it – too much – but he does manage to point out how he could ‘handle it.’ Careful use, good quality, cold turkey, etc. He claims while recording it enabled him to work and record and not fall asleep and ignore all the chaos surrounding the band.
You grow to like Richards in this book as a person – in spite of his clichéd public persona. He explicitly says he was living the ‘outlaw’ life – though its not sure how much of a role the fans played in that. But it seems Keith – or “Keef” – in reality IS that non-lethal outlaw. Clothing was castoffs from his girlfriends sometimes, which grew into his gypsy wardrobe, unlike Charlie Watts, the ex-jazz drummer, who wore Savile Row suits . Richards tried to live the life of a music pirate, and somehow succeeded in his own estimation, all because of music. Richards was surrounded by lumpen artists, wealthy patrons, druggies, people who dabbled in criminality and he had perhaps more money than he knew what to do with. Richards grew to hate the police, of course. He bought or rented houses in Jamaica, Switzerland, France, Turks & Caicos and the U.S. Anyone else would have spent much more time in jail, but his connections, status and lawyers always kept him out of totally serious trouble.
What is really key to this book is the music – always, for Keith, it was the music. Richards grew up in a hardscrabble town on the southeast edge of London, along the Thames. Both he and Jagger came at it as record collectors first. They studied Muddy Waters, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, Chuck Berry, JL Hooker – all the American greats. They bought records directly from Chess in Chicago. They lived in squalor and only thought about music. If you are a music ‘junkie’ than this book will keep you high.
They picked up cheap instruments, running them all through one amp, doing covers of American blues, R&B and some country. Keith liked to record on cassettes, simple 8-track studios, basic equipment using a few mikes in simple rooms even after that initial period. They only wanted to be a cover band, the best blues band in the UK, until Andrew Loog Oldham locked them up and made them write a song. “As Tears Go By” was the product of that first lockup, but it was so un-bluesy they were embarrassed. They let Marianne Faithful record it first instead.
The enduring mystery is why did some working class British boys become so attracted to U.S. blues music that they dragged it out of the racist prison it was locked into in the States? This was 1962! Many British bands - Savoy Brown, Fleetwood Mac, the Moody Blues, Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, Ten Years After - all started out trained on the blues. Even today, European visitors to the Mississippi Delta museums and sites equal or outnumber American visitors. WTF? (See review of “In Search of the Blues,” below.) As a kid, our group listened to obscure Delta and Chicago blues in our little house in the southern prairie of Minnesota in the mid to late 60s Little did we know it was being done in many other places. One of our compadres named himself “Blind Northfield Slim” – even though he could see well enough and was white as the sun.
Richards describes his ‘come to Jesus’ moment when he discovers ‘open tuning’ using 5 strings on the Telecaster guitar, removing the bottom sixth. I’m not a guitar player, but this tuning allowed him to get a jangle that helped the massive Stone’s riffs sound like they did. He says he first learned this open tuning on the guitar from Ry Cooder, but just for slide guitar and expanded it to rock guitar. Later he taught the tuning to Ike Turner, of all people. The pupil teaching the master, as Richards would put it.
There are great nuggets in this book. The band name came from Muddy Waters, not Bob Dylan. These guys worked constantly for years – either touring, recording or preparing to do both. They had very little time off. Jagger and Richards were on the same wavelength and could write songs quickly, starting with bits and pieces of melodies, riffs or lyrics that just grew like weeds. On an early tour they went straight to Chess’ 2120 South Michigan Avenue to record in Muddy’s studio. “Street Fighting Man” was written about the May 1968 revolution in France. When the Stones recorded “Exile on Main Street” in the chateau Nellecote basement in France, Richards worked constantly, many times all night, with a top crew. Bobby Keys, who’d played on many U.S. R&B records with Delaney & Bonnie and Derek & the Dominoes; Mick Taylor had joined; Jimmy Miller and Andy Johns were doing the producing and recording. They used a mobile studio, one of the first ever. They later wrote and recorded the great songs “Wild Horses” and “Brown Sugar” at the legendary Muscle Shoals Alabama studio on the fly. Richards lays the fuckup at Altamont primarily at the doors of the San Francisco City Council, who refused the use of Golden Gate park, and then the Hells Angels.
There is the required gossip about Mick Jagger and the constant strife over Jagger’s overweening attitude. Richards describes Jagger as a brother, but not a friend. He goes through his side-work with various Jamaican bands, a film he did with and about Chuck Berry; his solo project, the “X-Pensive Winos,” the odd upbringing of his son Marlon; his romance with Anita Pallenberg and eventual marriage to Patti Hansen; relationships with Brian Jones, Mick Taylor and Ron Wood, his troubled relationship with is father etc. There is a lot of name-dropping of prominent cultural figures in the 60s, 70s and later, not just in music. Although it’s not really name-dropping when you are a ‘name’ yourself. Richards comes off as the loyal ‘band’ member who wanted to keep it together, a true friend and honest partner, in spite of all his fucked-up drug or emotional tantrums – which he does not dwell on, as he can barely remember them, or chooses not to.
Richards said the Stones didn’t make money until the tours starting in the early 80s. Like many rock acts, they were being ripped off by various promoters, managers, etc. He claims record royalties only paid the overhead. And so those giant stadium tours took off.
As the Kinks sang about in one song, they got out of the ‘factory’ and into music, only to enter another factory, the music industry. Richards made that factory his own, which is rare. While this is not a political book, the Stones were key in undermining bourgeois culture for awhile, and even the frozen culture of the Soviet bloc, as his comments on Vaclav Havel and a recent book have noted. (The book is "How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin: The Untold Story of a Noisy Revolution") Rock has always had working-class roots and this book certainly shows that. Long Live Rock & Roll!
And I bought it as a discount out of Mayday Book’s music section.
July 1, 2013
"Summertime ... and the livin' is easy..."