Friday, December 30, 2011

Book Review - Life by Keith Richards

Keith Richards

It seems unnecessary for an unknown peripatetic hack to review a book released in May of 2010, especially a blockbuster universally acclaimed by all of the big name publishers like the Wall Street Journal, Rolling Stone Magazine, Time, the New Yorker and all the rags from Washington to San Francisco. I do not for a minute believe I can add anything relevant to the discussion of Keith Richards spectacular autobiographical sketches about his life and times as a rock & roll superstar. I just need to do this. Like a voyeur peeking through a window I’m driven by a need to learn the naked truth about the rock & roll I’ve clung to for most of my life. Perhaps the adventures and foibles of Keith Richards would reveal a truth about myself and answer a question about why on earth would such a simple art form resonate so deeply with me for most of my adult life.
The first chapter forgoes the typical biographical beginnings. Instead of getting a glimpse of Keith when he was only a gleam in father’s eyes, Richards takes us back to 1975 to Fordyce Arkansas and an infamous cocaine bust by the local authorities. This was the age of hopefulness led by President Jimmy Carter. The Nixon/Hoover axis of paranoia was gradually declining in America. The conditions were right for Keith to get off without much of a penalty in this almost surreal keystone cop comedy of errors that included a drunken judge, an enraged police chief, a bag filled with $5000 cash, and worldwide TV coverage. In the end the Judge ordered that Keith and Ronnie wood hold a press conference with their arms around the judge, Case closed; a classic outcome.
The book shifts back to Richards’ early life growing up in the Dartford marshes in England with his quirky yet loveable parents Bert and Doris. Richards readily admits that his childhood experiences were a bit different. He was an only child and his parent broke up quietly as mom took on a live-in lover. Bert eventually left and Keith transformed himself from a choirboy to a school rebel. He was expelled from Dartford High School for smoking, ditching the graduation assembly and simply not doing his work. In an unlikely turn of events Richards befriended an art instructor to help him enroll in Sidcup Art College. The seeds were set for Keith Richards and the Rolling Stones.
The book starts picking up steam in Chapter 3 when Keith meets Mick, Brian Jones, and Dick Taylor (the Pretty Things) and they share their love for American blues and rock & roll. These young upstarts had a purist attitude and approach to music that served them well in terms of the immense learning curve that awaited them.
In 1962, the blues scene was in full swing. One of the biggest groups at the time was led by Alexis Korner. They were booked to do a BBC broadcast on July 12th, 1962 and asked Keith if he could fill in for him at the Marquee Club. This was an historic first performance of the Rolling stones with core members Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Brian Jones with Dick Taylor on bass and Mick Avory (The Kinks) on drums. They did several blues classics including Dust my broom, got My Mojo Working, and Confessin’ the Blues. Richards’ characterized the experience as “flying without a license.”
Richards had the foresight to keep detailed journals throughout his career with the Stones. He also asked family and friends to contribute the correspondence between them to help flesh out the story of his life , to recapture the memory of successes and near misses as well as his unrepentant ironic writing style. His humor and whimsy are supple, dark and laugh out loud funny. It gives the reader the sense that you’re sitting in the kitchen with Keith just lazy talking the truth. We also find out that Richards famous nickname Keef appeared at this time (1963).
The pace accelerates in 1964 when the Stones hook up with Andrew Loog Oldham. Initially and oddly enough, Oldham wanted to remake the stones in the Beatles image – no long haired dirty, rude rock & roll ruffians. This lasted exactly one time, an appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars, after that the stones embraced the dharma of the unclean rock & roller. In 1964 they released a series of popish ballads Not fade Away, Tell Me, Play With Fire. An American tour was set up and Keith Richards met one of the loves of his life - Ronnie Spector. It was a soul-deep relationship that endured years apart and distance between. They even recorded a song together on 9/11 entitled Love Affair. Richards describes the explosion of creativity within the Stones camp from 1964-66, culminating in the incredible LP Aftermath. He gives Jack Nitzsche credit for his talent, ideas and “enormous importance” at this stage in the Stones career. Then came “Satisfaction” – it elevated the Rolling Stones to Beatlesque superstardom. Mick wrote the lyrics and Richards created the famous riff using a Gibson fuzz tone pedal. Keith revealed that for years he had difficulty playing Satisfaction onstage. He felt that he could never get the sound quite right, it sounded “weedy.”
In 1965, Oldham left and Allen Klein began to manage the Stones career. It worked quite nicely at first with Klein exploiting the Stones “hoodlum” image as a sharp contrast to the clean “mummy’s favorites’ Beatles. Both images were manufactured and both were false. Richards compares the relationship between Klein and the Stones to the micro-management of Elvis by Colonel Tom Parker.
Richards spends some time giving Brian Jones his due – his musicality i.e., the marimbas on Under My Thumb ,the sitar on Paint it Black and so on. But he also minimized Brian’s role in the formation of the band. Other sources close to the band have consistently reported that Jones was the leader of the Rolling Stones in their formative years. He also confirmed his opinion that Mick Jagger is a world class lyricist. I agree.
One of the most interesting segments in the book are the ones that focus on the Stones music and creative process, Richards provides a fascinating discussion about the open tuning method whereby a guitar is simply pre-tuned to a ready-made major chord. He learned this technique from Don Everly (The Everly Brothers) , an adept rhythm guitarist, who used open tuning on Wake Up Little Susie and Bye Bye Love. Ry Cooder showed Richards the open G tuning (though it was used almost exclusively for slide guitar). Richards fiddled with it for a while until he felt constricted by the bottom string, it seemed to just “get in the way.” So he took it off and used the fifth string (the A string) as the bottom note. He states “The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes – the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart.” Keith’s discovery is responsible for the sound he created in Honky Tonk Women, Start Me Up, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking and other great Stones songs. In fact, those fans who grouse that the Stones haven’t created an original riff in years are right, at least partially. It’s all due to Richards’ open tuning style.
Richards wrote in length about the Stones’ infamous 1972 Exile on Main Street Tour. It was an incredible success musically despite the excessive use of drugs and alcohol. I had tickets to the Detroit show and was eagerly anticipating it. I had never seen them live and from Beggars Banquet onward I was a quietly devoted fan. But it was Let it Bleed and Exile on Main Street that took me over the edge of rabid fandom. I became a true believer. Unfortunately, I contracted a serious case of mononucleosis. I was in bed for several weeks and lost 25lbs. When my friends came back from the concert, I asked them if they liked the show. They responded, “Best show we’ve ever seen.”
Richards recalled a life that had unparalleled ups and downs - dreamy love excursions to Paris, Barcelona, Tangiers, Morocco as well as times spent addicted and shivering in a drug shack and resorting to the use of dirty street drugs. He talks about his intense and passionate relationship with Anita Pallenberg and a nightmarish ending that they both survived, somehow. For Rolling Stones aficionados these love stories may seem like turning down a side street and getting momentarily lost. It is a bit less interesting than the real love story in this tome – the Jagger/Richards relationship. Richard’s criticisms of Jagger are venomous, viscous as if a core wound cut a deep chasm between unfaithful lovers. It is a story about a deep unresolved love. Richards ambivalence toward Jagger runs throughout the book. He seems confused by his own tangle of complex feelings of love and betrayal. But then, Richards also defends Jagger, vowing he would never allow anyone hurt his dear friend, he’s rather do it himself (nudge, nudge). He also hints at a rapprochement, a resolution of the conflict between them.
One the eve of the Rolling Stones 50th year together, the Stones camp is talking about the possibility of an extended tour. I’ll be there
In the meantime, buy this book. It’s one of the most honest and detailed rock & roll biographies I’ve ever read. It is a page turner of the first degree.

Bo White

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