Monday, March 7, 2011
Keith Richards – Life Review
Keith (Keef) Richards is the riff master. His 547-page memoir (written with James Fox) reads like a series of guitar riffs with thoughts meandering from one to the next.
The first third of the book is the best part. Keith Richards revisits his childhood and the formation of the Rolling Stones with lots of detail. I really couldn't put the book down. Here are the highlights:
His mother, Doris, was very important to him. He spends a lot of time in the book on his childhood. He worships his mother, Doris, who bought him his first guitar. She ends up helping raise his first daughter. He didn't do well in school but managed to get into an art school where he could spend time focusing on the guitar.
Mick Jagger, who lives a few blocks away and is prosperous enough to actually buy a few records, and Keith love the blues. The two form a bond: "We both knew we were in a process of learning, and it was something you wanted to learn and it was ten times better than school."
The Rolling Stones were the world's greatest rock band between 1966 and 1973. Keith says, "I used to set up the riffs and the titles and the hook, and Mick would fill in. We didn't think much or analyze....Take it away, Mick. Your job now. I've given you the riff, baby." He achieved the unique guitar sound of the Stones by removing his E string and playing in an open tuning. He spends a great deal of time discussing his musical influences and paying tribute to many of them. This is good stuff.
Keef should have spent more time talking about the music, though. One wonders if he doesn't remember a lot of it due to his drug usage. Some of the biggest Stones albums like Tattoo You are barely discussed. Great songs like "Shattered" and "Get off of my Cloud" aren't even mentioned.
When he does write about how songs come together, its great reading. It gets a bit better when he's writing about the albums late-80s/90s. He offers more details, presumably, because he was off heroin and remembered more.
Jagger and Richards obviously have a long history. Richards has high regard for Jagger's skills as a performer and song writer.
The best parts of the book deals with his slow estrangement from his longtime partner, Mick Jagger. Richards concedes that Jagger ran the business of the Rolling Stones from the late 60's while his focus was on heroin. When he finally kicked heroin, he was strangely indignant that Jagger continued to make decisions as he had all along. Why Jagger would suddenly think Keef was interested after not caring for so many years remains a question mark.
When Mick broke away from the Stones and makes a solo record: "It was like 'Mein Kampf.' Everybody had a copy but nobody listened to it."
Keef is quite bitter and whines about Mick's interest in Society, his egomania, his insecurity, his promiscuity, and even his small penis (was this necessary, Keef?). All of this pettiness and smallness makes Mick Jagger look like a saint for putting up with him for so long.
In the South on their first trip to the U.S., a black musician told Richards how to cope with life on the road: "Smoke one of these, take one of these." Keith would move on beyond weed, Benzedrine, and cocaine to heroin. Heroin enabled Richards to work around the clock for days. He didn't take heroin for pleasure but it helped him cope with fame.
Keef did drugs with a number of people including John Lennon, his ex-wife Anita Pallenberg (who had sex with Mick, Keith, and Brian), and John Phillips who he regrettably shot up for the first time.
Richards felt betrayed that Mick recorded solo albums and wrote with other musicians but he did the same thing with Gram Parsons ("the only guy I ever slept with"). Later in the book, he speaks of how it helps him grow musically when he works with other musicians. Which is it Keef?
He also didn't like Jagger playing Rolling Stones songs on his solo tour. Yet, he played Rolling Stones song on his tour with the X Pensive Winos. Why is it ok for you, Keef?
He comes off as a crude and vulgar ruffian at times. For example, later in his career, he and a friend go into a bar with a DJ. When the DJ persists in playing Rolling Stones tunes, Richards flashes a knife at the DJ. Other times, like when smuggled a stray dog home from Russia, he is sweet.
He mercilessly rips Brian Jones and especially Mick Jagger but is willing to forgive anybody else for their flaws.
There are many myths revolving around Richards. He didn't have his blood transfused in Switzerland although he may have had some blood filtering done. He did snort his father's ashes.
Some tales are made up by Keef. For example, his trial in Toronto was completely fabricated.
In another part, he claims that he was confronted on a narrow ledge in the Atlas Mountains by a rocket-carrying truck and four police motorcyclists where he drove straight at the police escort and heard, a moment later, both truck and rocket exploding miles below.
I guess I'm saying that the reader should not believe everything written in the book.
People like Ronnie Spector, Jim Dickinson, Andrew Oldham, and Bobby Keys contribute with their versions but none of the Rolling Stones added anything.
But the final section just falls apart and can be skipped. He tells the reader of mundane stories about his various travels, how to make bangers, knife fight techniques, and such. I guess that is fine but I would have preferred more about Bill Wyman (who is barely mentioned), the death of Brian Jones, Altamont, the 1972 tour, Toronto, and how songs were made. Again, maybe he forgot all of this.
After wading through the 547 pages of Keith Richards' Life, I have to admit I have more questions than answers.
Go here for things learned from the book.