Sunday, March 6, 2011

Keith Richards' Life

Keith Richards' Life: what a lively romp of a book. I'm not sure how much Richards wrote and how much "co-writer" James Fox is responsible for. There are indications throughout, though, in excerpts from Richards' journals or letters, that the man has a way with words -- at the very least, at the level of a phrase or sentence.  It's also clear that he's bright, creative, well-read, fairly thoughtful but also impulsive, and that he's both fierce and funny and very loyal.  I can't imagine a lifestyle that includes so much of the drugs, the fast cars, and, especially, the fighting (I don't tolerate violence well), and even less can I imagine having a friend like Richards -- our lifestyles and social circles are so vastly different (mine would bore him silly). But I can easily imagine liking him, after reading his book, and I guess that surprised me. My biggest association with The Rolling Stones is the Altamount fiasco (more properly, perhaps, the Altamount tragedy, given that someone died), and I've always seen that as an outcome of the group's collective arrogance.  My perspective has definitely been changed by this account.

Probably what won me over, despite an introductory chapter that seemed to enforce my original perception, is Richards' account of his childhood and early family life in post-war Britain.  His working-class family, the council housing, the vigorous characters, the street and school life -- so much resonated here with my dad's background in northern England, although my dad was older enough that he joined the Merchant Marines in '42 as a 15-year old, the year before Keef was born. Still, the after-effects of WWII kept Britain on rationing well into the 50s, and although huge social changes were in the air, economic, material, physical, and technological changes were slower. Even in the 1960s visiting my grandma in Middlesbrough, I remember the Rag 'n' Bones man driving his scrap-laden cart, coaxing his horse from behind, calling out for scrap, "Rags 'n Bones, Any rags 'n' bones for me today." My father had no inclination to listen to The Stones, or rock'n'roll in general, but I would have loved to chat with him about episodes in Richards' childhood that I know would have resonated with him.

The description of the early audiences as "armies of feral, body-snatching girls" and of the genuine fear the band experienced trying to get into their cars and safely away after a concert is well worth reading -- as is Richards' analysis of the social phenomenon they tapped into:
It was like somebody had pulled a plug somewhere. The '50s chicks being brought up all very jolly hockey sticks, and then somewhere there seemed to be a moment when they just decided they wanted to let themselves go. The opportunity arose for them to do that, and who's going to stop them? It was all dripping with sexual lust, though they didn't know what to do about it. But suddenly you're on the end of it. It's a frenzy. Once it's let out, it's an incredible force. You stood as much chance in a fucking river full of piranhas. They were beyond what they wanted to be. They'd lost themselves. These chicks were coming out there, bleeding, clothes torn off, pissed panties, and you took that for granted every night. That was the gig. It could have been anybody, quite honestly. They didn't give a shit that I was trying to be a blues player. (138)

I also found Richards' analysis of the effect on popular music of recording technology, the way this gave access into the field to those who would have otherwise have been excluded by their inability to read or write music. Being able to listen over and over, to isolate and identify a technique, to match a note or a key, this, he believes -- and articulates credibly and thoughtfully -- made a huge difference.

Overall, in fact, Richards is very satisfying in his articulating of music -- the process of playing, or song-writing, or working with a band. How to finally master a riff, moving it from a sound heard to a technique mastered and then back to a sound, produced. The difference between musicians. The character of instruments.

Of course, as I say the book is a huge romp, filled with so many episodes far beyond the scope of my lifestyle, and a seductive read for that -- There's enough sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll to keep you page-turning, but there are gentle and convincing and moving character sketches as well. The drama of Richards' first marriage, his obvious love and respect and then frustration and pity and anger for his wife, the worries, sometimes just barely visible on the page, but a palpable tension between much other action, for his children. Then his love and partnership with model Patti Hansen  -- I enjoyed, especially, the description of her family first being introduced to her new boyfriend!

And, since I don't have all the time in the world to talk about this juicy fat book (550-ish pages), I'll close with this illuminating passage about a songwriter's perspective:
You might be having a swim or screwing the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you're thinking about this chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell's going on. You might be getting shot at, and you'll still be "Oh! That's the bridge!" And there's nothing you can do; you don't realize it's happening. It's totally subconscious, unconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, "I just can't stand you anymore" . . . That's a song. It just flows in. And also the other thing about being a songwriter, when you realize you are one, is that to provide ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You're constantly on the alert. That faculty gets trained in you over the years, observing people, how they react to one another. Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant. You shouldn't really be doing it. It's a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter. You start looking round, and everything's a subject for a song. (183)
His candidness about a songwriter's self-distancing reminds me of some lines in Derek Walcott's Another Life, when he speaks of  an early love, a schoolgirl who makes his "head roar[] with hunger and poems," makes "his hand . . . trembl[e] to recite her name" -- so that even as he is adoring her, he is wanting to put pen to paper. You shouldn't really be doing it . . . 


  1. You've made me reconsider this book. I didn't have any interest in reading it because I've never been a big fan of the Stones or Keith Richards (give me Springsteen any day!), but now I'm reconsidering. Another music-related book I've got resting on my to-read pile is Patti Smith's Just Kids, which I've heard is great. Have you read that one? Laura

  2. It's funny, I've never read a rock star bio. I read historical biographies and literary biographies - and spouse reads endless bios of political figures - but when my list of books I want to read is threatening to take over my life, somehow rock stars don't make it ... But if I ever change my mind, this sounds like the one to start with!

  3. Laura: This was actually a Christmas gift for Pater and given his longstanding disapproval of The Stones (he'd also be more favourable to Springsteen, absolutely) I'm surprised we both enjoyed it so much. I'd say it's as much/more for the cultural history it provides as for Richards' bio specifically.

    And I absolutely have to read Just Kids, altho' I haven't even ordered it yet -- we saw a wonderful exhibit of her art, notebooks, etc., in Paris a few years ago. Again, it's a book that speaks to a cultural moment as much as to specific lives.

    Tiffany: See above! I actually haven't read biographies much at all, but I'm being drawn to them more and more lately.

  4. You're right about these books being about a cultural history as much as being about the person. I think that's why I want to read Patti Smith's book. Not so much because I am a fan, because I never paid much attention to her music/art, but because of her chronicling of that particular period in that specific time and place.

    I recently read an older biography, Them by Francine Du Plessix Gray (have you read it?) and it was the chronicling of that particular time in history, particularly the post-war New York cultural scene that I found most interesting and enjoyable about the book.


  5. I haven't read that one, Laura, and I don't know much about that time/place moment -- although I'm intrigued to think about what connections I might be able to make between that and the cultural (NY) history I read in Can't Stop Won't Stop (a history of hip-hop) -- the kinds of social changes Robert Moses effected by his sweeping (almost literally) moves.

    Again, in this case, hip-hop wasn't my interest but the specific cultural history fascinated me.

    Thanks for the recommendation of the Duplessix Gray bio. the list will never be completed!

  6. Hip-hop? It amazes me the wide variety of books you read and enjoy! You are a true renaissance woman! Laura

  7. That hiphop book was a real stretch for me, but I read a good review of it and found it fascinating.