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.