Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Mark's Bookshelf: Keith Richards' Life

I honestly can't imagine anybody not wanting to read this book. That seems like a kinda really crazy, out there statement, but Keith Richards is an ICON, all caps, that has remained prominent, and largely respected, for over forty years. Think about it. There's at least one generation before mine that embraced The Rolling Stones, and probably a couple after.

Through all that Keith represents a purity of rock and roll, blues, and music in general, that his position so close to Mick Jagger, as an antithesis, only reinforces. Yes, many people have written off The Stones, they have written off Mick Jagger, but I honestly feel no one writes off Keith Richards. There's something real an honest about the way he carries himself. A personality that goes beyond being wealthy beyond anybody's dream, and feels hardwired into the music he makes. Keith knows he's successful, and his money means he can do anything he wants, but what he wants to do is make music. As he, himself, points out in final pages of this book, if he and Jagger were named Count Basie, or Buddy Guy, no one on God's green earth would make comments about them needing to retire.

Yes, the title is painfully generic and uninspired, it's the weakest thing about the book, if you ask me. Life, whoo-hoo! Although, it also kinda fits with the no-frills attitude that Keith has cultivated and nurtured over the years. It also has to be said that it's not nearly as bad as Bill Wyman's Stone Alone, which sounds like somebody thought it would be clever, and it just isn't.

There is a co-writer credited on this book, James Fox, and I suspect that most of the "writing" consisted of interviews with Richards, and others, distilled into a narrative. However, the tone and feel of the book is so conversational. It feels like you're sitting down and chewing the fat with Keith Richards. That's either a great testament to Fox's talent, or Richards was more intimately involved than I give him credit for. Maybe the book even represents, in the main, a transcription of Keith's responses to questions. It really doesn't matter, at all. The book feels like Keith, and that's what you take away from it.

I also have a certain faith in Keith Richards' honesty. He's one of those people where you get the distinct impression that he really just doesn't give a flying fuck, and not just because he says that he doesn't, his actions bear it out. As you read the book, it becomes clear that he's not overly concerned with making himself look as good as possible. He's well aware of his reputation, and hides from none of it.

Case in point; he relates a story of going to a Jamaican whorehouse to write songs. Bringing two working girls into the room, and asking them questions about their life and work, and using that for some tracks on, if I remember correctly, Bridges to Babylon. This is actually fairly recently, well after his marriage to Patti Hansen. I honestly didn't even question it, and it's because he doesn't feel like he has to defend it at all. He's said earlier in the book that he's never paid for sex, and that's of no interest to him. You want to get high and mighty about what happened in that brothel bedroom? Go ahead. Keith doesn't care.

Honestly, that attitude, which is repeatedly on display as you read, makes me believe everything Richards says in this book. There's something about a person that can say things like the above, and never once pull a "I know you'll never believe this," or try to explain themselves in some way. With this book, Keith just moves from one event to the next, believe it or not, because he's on to the next thing. I, at least, feel it's all factual from his point of view.

I'm sure there's things in this book that will alienate some people. Especially those who have the belief that Brian Jones was some sort of lost genius that the Stones threw away, and they've been shit ever since. An attitude that, personally, I feel Exile on Main Street just destroys. Keith is not kind to Jones, basically writing him off as a guy who indulged to the point he couldn't do his job, and who, in the early days, attempted to manipulate the situation to make himself seem like the most important member of The Rolling Stones.

For me, this whole thing comes down to one thing, Richards and Jagger wrote the songs. Jones didn't. Even if what Keith writes is solely from his point of view, and may miss other factors,  Jones never stepped up and came up with any of those classic riffs. Keith did. So, myself, personally, I'm always befuddled by this "Cult of Brian Jones."

He also gets into the relationship between Jones and Anita Pallenberg, prior to Anita leaving Jones and taking up with Keith. Apparently, Brian Jones had a bad temper, but, after a row with Pallenberg, would be the one with bruises and black eyes.

I have to admit, that made me laugh. Keith basically says one did not screw with Anita Pallenberg. He ought to know, as their relationship was extremely long, especially for two junkies.

Oh, yes. Keith spends plenty of time on his addictions, his arrests, his attempts to clean up, and his ultimate success. It's another element that tells my gut that this man is simply speaking the truth. In an age where celebrities spend so much time apologizing for past misadventures, Keith never, ever does. The closest he gets is saying that he doesn't recommend the life of a junkie, and claiming that the only reason he's alive is because he only took high-quality, pure stuff. It's as good a theory as any, I suppose.

And then, of course, there's Mick. As the book moves on into the 80's, and Keith has gotten off the smack, he talks about what he refers to as "World War III," between himself and Mick Jagger. You do get a sense of the love/hate dynamic between the two, as Richards will say awful things about Jagger, but then immediately make it clear that no one else better talk shit about Mick around him, because they are mates. Personally, I found the idea that the rest of The Stones, at times, refer to Mick Jagger as "Brenda" to be among the funniest things I've ever heard.

One of the interesting things that comes up is the idea that this may have sprung from Richards' own addictions. In the 70's, Richards was out of it (but functioning within the band, a point Keith makes very clearly, as opposed to Brian Jones), and Jagger was left in a position of running things. He got used to it, and he liked it. When Keith came back in the 80's, and was interested, and able, to be involved with decision-making, the writing was on the wall for the friction in the relationship. Again, Keith doesn't apologize, his attitude is that he's back now, and he's not going to accept getting shut out.

Of course, it didn't help this all happened about the same time that Jagger was trying to break free of The Rolling Stones as a solo artist. Apparently, the deal Jagger made piggybacked Mick Jagger solo records on the The Rolling Stones record deal, meaning Jagger got more for his solo records, because they were tied to Stones albums. You can tell Keith is still livid at this.

I could go on and on about the Jagger/Richards relationship, it is one of the most fascinating things you'll find within these pages. However, I think, at this point, it's fair to say if you're interested, pick up the book. I think Keith's candor jibes with the public facts.

The book is filled with all sorts of interesting tidbits. There's several pages devoted to Richards discovering the joys of five-string guitar in open G tuning, which I fond really interesting as a player. (His advice on trying to play Stones songs in regular tuning? "Good luck, pal!") A section about his fall from a tree, and resulting brain/skull injury, near the end of the book. Top that off with a recipe for Bangers and Mash. It's simply an entertaining read. Like I said, it feels like having a nice chat with Keith, and, honestly, I can't think of a better compliment for a autobiography.

I will also say this, I'm almost tempted to grab the audio-book version of this. Why? It's read by Johnny Depp, as well as Richards himself, and Joe Hurley. Yeah, that's a lot of voices, but there's something about the idea of Depp reading Richard's life story that seems fitting. It might just be dull, but somehow it seems not.

I think this is a book completely worth reading. Like I said at the top, I can't imagine anyone not somewhat interested in what goes on in Keith Richards' mind, and I think this book, however it may have ultimately been crafted, does that very effectively. There's not many times you feel like you can "get to know" a true icon, but this book felt like that to me.

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