Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Off-Topic: Torn & Frayed -- Keef's Book

Ladies and Gentlemen:  Put your hand over your heart and tell me that you’ve never, ever wanted to be Keith Richards. 
“Life,” by the patron saint of Getting Away With It, is harrowing and funny and sort of, well, sweet. The back cover photo, which I think is Keith now, or Keith at least sometime in the last decade, isn’t exactly unretouched. But there is black dirt caked under the hero’s fingernails, and that kind of says it all.
My copy was delivered the day before last week’s snowstorm started, and so I got to spend a few days in Keith world. I came away from it with the impression of the artist, someone who, like Robert Johnson, seemed born to play. Yet he speaks of his grandfather Gus, a working-class bon vivant and musician, who bought a guitar and put it on top of his piano, so the grandson could see it;  just see it. No suggestions were made. No lessons were urged. One day the boy picked it up. 
Richards (and his collaborator, James Fox) knows what we want to hear about; the drugs, debauchery, the women traded around, and so on. He writes about all that all very matter-of-factly, and then suggests another book (Stanley Booth’s “True Adventures of the Rolling Stones”) for those who want to delve further. It's not his real interest. 

He recounts the early days, thusly: “We needed to work together, we needed to rehearse, we needed to listen to music….You we supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson….Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.” 
Success came relatively quickly to the Stones, a few of years of squalor and scuffle, and then “Satisfaction” hit big and worldwide. That opening riff -- Richards writes about how he dreamed it, sat up on the edge of the bed, played it into a cassette recorder, went back to sleep, and had no memory of it in the morning. It was delivered, like a gift. 
Richards gets all nerdy, as is his privilege, to tell us exactly and at length how he did it. How he filtered the black Delta blues and gave them back with a twist. Who he learned from. All his favorite obscure records. The exact mechanics of an open five string tuning. I’ve read some reviews that get a little impatient about all of this; obviously, if you’ve never played a guitar chances are it would bore you, but this is what he does. It’s his art. This work, not his other art: survival.
That art appears to be inborn, too. It seems that Keith only needs to sleep a couple of times a week. He’s set to 78 in a 33 1/3 world (look it up). It was this, he tells us, that led him to heroin. The need to come down to everyone else’s speed. To focus. To work; always, all about the work.
Well, ok; Keith, if you say so. He takes great pains to tell us: don’t try this at home. Everything he had, the coke, the smack, was “pure pure pure.” He attributes the fact that he’s still alive to that. Later on, after kicking for the last time, he calls heroin “the most seductive bitch on earth.” It was all true. And it was a good time. In that sense, he’s unrepentant, my favorite quality in this age of tearful guilty televised confessions and much-too-public oft-repeated P.R. generating rehabs. 
There is, though, a lot of sharing here, especially as concerns Mick: he misses his mate, he says, and then rips Mick a new one. I’ve always felt that the Stones greatest album, (imho) “Exile on Main Street,” came from tension between the two, with Mick being pulled into a sort of parasitic Continental aristocracy and Keith wanting to stay down and dirty. Well, ok, but anyone who’s ever had business or any other sort of dealings with a junkie might have a thing or two to say; we’ll see. In the meantime, the honesty here is appreciated, but here’s the thing. He’s an immensely rich and privileged rock star, and has been one for so long that he’s, um, a little out of touch. One of my favorite passages is when the bashful suitor goes to meet his fiance, Patti Hansen’s, family.
“….I’d been up for days. I had a bottle of vodka or Jack Daniel’s in my hand,
And I thought I’d just walk in the house with it….It was just a question of
getting the family blessing.”
(dinner commences, and one of the Patti’s sisters remarks that Keith may
be a little too drunk to play a particular song.)
“….bang. I went berserk….And smashed my guitar on the table. It could’ve
gone either way...I could have been banished forever, but the amazing thing 
about this family is that they weren’t offended.”
Well of course not! Isn’t that just adorable? The charmed Mr. Richards thinks it’s all just, well, normal!
Carry on, Keef. 
“Life,” by Keith Richards (with James Fox) is available wherever books are sold; ISBN 978-0-316-03438-8 (hc)
Photo of Keith Richards from Google Images.


Bloody Frida said...

Did you see the recent interview with him (I think it was on CBS Sunday Morning?) He was ADORABLE - talking about his gardening.

Love Keef - yes I do.

And were you able to see him during his New Barbarians tour (1979 I think)?

Wonderful post - this book is on my must-read-soon list! Thank you!

Olfacta said...

Hi BF -- No, I missed that -- darn.

I've seen the Stones a few times -- the last time being the "Bridges to Babylon" tour -- sometime in the late 90's maybe? Can't remember. Oh well.

tarleisio said...

This has been on my must-read list for a while, simply because it's Keith-Effing-Richards, man - and what's not to like? Also, last year I read Ozzy Osbourne's autobiography, which was an unexpected pleasure, and Ozzy and Keith share certain similarities in the wretched excess department...;-) So between 'Life' and Patti Smith's 'Just Kids', I have plenty to look forward to!

Vanessa said...

Great review of what promises to be a fascinating account of Keef's life and doings!

My other half only reads biographies of musicians, so this is doubtless on his list, not least because he used to be in a Rolling Stones tribute band called "Stoned Again" (or "The Strolling Bones" whenever they played Butlins, a family-oriented holiday camp.)

Then I was at a posh London function gig with them once, where a couple of the band were enjoying a spliff backstage. When a policeman suddenly walked into their dressing room, they offered him a drag, thinking he was one of the guests in fancy dress...needless to say, the band was late getting home that night.

And I can't begin to tell you how much my other half does NOT look like Bill Wyman, even - or especially! - in a black wig.

Kathryn said...

Hand over my heart, I never wanted to be Keith Richards. Dating myself I suppose, I thought the Stones lost their soul, in all senses of the word, after Brian Jones died.

I might want to be Patti Smith still, though. She certainly seemed to start out modeling herself on Keith Richards (and Robert Mapplethorpe on Mick Jagger). I like the direction Patti Smith life took better than Keith's.

Nonetheless, there is a very funny perfume line in Keith's bio: "Wow, when I changed from Old Spice to Habit Rouge, things definitely got better."

Olfacta said...

Hi tarleisio -- I haven't read Ozzy's book yet. I did meet him once though, and he was very gentlemanly and nice. So go figure...the stories though!

Olfacta said...

Butlins Holiday Camp! Now I know I've heard of that place somewhere before...the scene you describe is perfect. "Life" reads something like a Keystone Kops spectacular -- a bust on practically every page!

Olfacta said...

Hi Kathryn -- I was still pretty young when Brian Jones died, so I know the band mostly through the original members and others passing through it. I do think that Bobby Keys was/is the best rock sax player evah...and yeah, the line about Habit Rouge -- I thought about including that but decided it would sound kind of forced, like, it's a perfume blog, gotta say something about perfume! So I left it out. I figured somebody else would quote it, so, looks like you're it, hey, thanks!

brian said...

Keith Richards! I want to read this too. Keith has been central to so many of the sixties stories I've read: Marianne Faithfull, Kenneth Anger, Brian Jones, Donald Cammell, the Stones. But I've never read directly about him, from his point of view. And from what I'm hearing I know it's really going to fill in a lot of the bigger picture. Off to track it down...

Lucy said...

People keep rediscovering the old delta blues thru the old British invasion bands, and the RS were one of the ones that held most closely to the aesthetic, good at teaching us about our own. Good for him he had fun and had a lot of freedom all his life, the reason people want to be him, I am sure, among which a lot of his own blues heroes I am sure. I always thought it was really sweet he had such big library, a true military history buff, and the blond family in CT in the background. Somebody's got to live the fantasy life, right?

ScentScelf said...

Sounds like a true autobiography, then; the leopard not hiding from his spots--even if some are camoflaged even to himself. Healthy shakes of both reverence and reality; nice to see in a review, and an approach to a talented, very famous, very human being.

Did we talk about his interview with Terry Gross before? He was rather impatient with certain ground that he felt had been covered before there, too; well sure, they fought, he said--you want to hear more about that, go read so and so's book. Here's what *I* want to talk about.

Unrepentant. Through and through.

Liou said...