Thursday, June 23, 2011

the meaning of life

"What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people's hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at last get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you're playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people."
I was brought up in a Beatles household. My mom played Lucy on the Sky with Diamonds as our lullaby at bedtime. I never really heard the Rolling Stones until I was much older, on the radio. I didn't buy a Stones album until Some Girls, which is still my favorite Stones album. A college roommate had Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, which I helped to wear out, but I still never really knew much about the band. While in art school in NYC I rode an elevator with Mick Jagger once, but I never saw Keith in person.

So I'm not sure why I have been intrigued to read Life, Keith Richards' autobiography that he wrote with James Fox, ever since I heard it was coming out, but I was. Throughout the book "Keef" keeps reminding the reader how he came from the wrong side of the tracks and wasn't as educated as people he met along the way, like longtime flame Anita Pallenberg, but the man has a wonderful way with words. His writing is entertaining and well, musical. The book is also available in audio format, with Keith reading excerpts and Johnny Depp doing the bulk. Talk about a dream team.

Life begins with Keith talking about his post-war childhood (he was born in December of 1943) in Dartford, Kent, England. He really brings the area and era to life, with his tales of troubles at school and relationship with his parents and maternal grandfather, Gus, who helped to introduce him to music by fostering a love for musical instruments, especially stringed instruments. Richards' introduction and then love and obsession with blues music is fascinating. He immersed himself in all kinds of music, from Bix Beiderbecke and Sarah Vaughan to Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. When he met Mick Jagger, who was also nursing a similar obsession, it was like coming home. He wrote about Mick in a letter to his aunt: "You know I was keen on Chuck Berry and I thought I was the only fan for miles but one mornin' ... I was holding one of Chuck's records when a guy I knew at primary school 7-11 yrs ... came up to me. He's got every record Chuck Berry ever made and all his mates have too. ... Anyways the guy on the station, he is called Mick Jagger . . . the greatest R&B singer this side of the Atlantic and I don't mean maybe."

The Glimmer Twins quickly became inseparable. The nascent Stones began to play together, always trying to learn how to play better. In the beginning the two really didn't have much ambition with their music, apart from a desire to perfect the playing and performing of their musical heroes' songs. They didn't have any original songs, which is why the Beatles gave them a song, "I Wanna Be Your Man." Their manager, Andrew Oldham, literally shut the pair in a room together one day and told them not to come out until they had written a song. Oldham knew that the only way to break through, to really succeed in pop music, was to sell songs and play original material, like the Beatles. It took them a while, but Mick and Keith did just that. It wasn't easy, but once they clicked, it was alchemy. Their first song was "As Tears Go By." Not bad for a first effort.

Life is full of anecdotes about the road - sex, drugs and rock and roll. As far as sex was concerned, he was very different from pal Jagger. When the Stones first hit the big time, the girls were just as frenzied as they were for the Beatles, "Nothing like ... three thousand teenage chicks throwing themselves at you. Or being carried out on stretchers. All the bouffants awry. Skirts up to their waists, sweating, red, eyes rolling. That's the spirit, girl. That's how we like 'em." Where Jagger may have taken advantage of the endless stream of women, Keith wanted companionship, but sometimes not much more, "I've never been able to go to bed with a woman just for sex. I've no interest in that." He didn't lack for companionship - he had a long-term relationship with Pallenberg, but when he was on the road, he was apparently drawn to a more motherly kind of gal, as he writes about the positive aspects of groupies, "Flo, who I've already mentioned, was one of my favorites ... we slept together many times, never fucked, or very rarely. We just crashed out or stayed up and listened to music. A lot of it was to do with music."

There are many times in the book when Richards refers to women as chicks or bitches, but it never seems misogynistic. He talks in the vernacular of life on the road, where the sheer numbers of women must have been staggering. And so many had one agenda - to screw a rock star. In his private life he had two very long-term relationships, first with Pallenberg, with whom he had three kids (one died in infancy) and later with Patti Hansen, who he married and had two daughters.

As he slid into songwriting, so did he slide into drugs, following the inevitable road from grass to cocaine (pharmaceutical-grade only he stresses) to heroin. Richards' drug intake was prodigious. He was hardly a junkie on his own, as heroin usage is usually a shared experience and is dependent on others. But he managed to use it for a decade, and then, finally to kick it. He never glorifies his drug use, but he doesn't apologize for it, either. He's always the rock star, always the artist, always observant, “I never particularly liked being that famous ... I could face people easier on the stuff, but I could do that with booze too. It isn’t really the whole answer. I also felt I was doing it not to be a ‘pop star.’ There was something I didn’t really like about that end of what I was doing, the blah blah blah. That was very difficult to handle, and I could handle it better on smack. Mick chose flattery, which is very like junk — a departure from reality. I chose junk.”

Jagger is mostly in the background throughout the 547 page book, until the penultimate chapter, which begins, "It was the beginning of the '80s when Mick started to become unbearable." The rest of the book is occasionally peppered with his irritation with his "best mate," ... Do you know Mick Jagger? ...Yeah, which one? He's a nice bunch of guys." At times their rivalry got downright juvenile, but then, they were boys together. Richards can't resist a jibe about a retaliatory fling he had with Jagger's long-time girlfriend Marianne Faithfull, "While you were doing that, I was knocking Marianne, man. While you're missing it, I'm kissing it." Funny for a 60-something year-old man to still feel hurt and pissed enough about Jagger sleeping with his "old lady" Pallenberg in 1968. Tell us how you really feel, Keef.

Reading between the lines, a lot of the problems between Jagger and Richards can probably be traced back to Richards' drug use. When Keith was a junkie it was probably very difficult for Jagger in the beginning, and then he began to pick up the slack, handling the business of the band. Richards refers many times to Jagger suffering from L.V.S., Lead Vocalist Syndrome. Surely Jagger's ego is enormous, but to be fair, how must he have felt, after being essentially in charge and picking up the slack for over a decade, when Keith cleaned up and suddenly expected to take over?

Keith's drug use and dependency was a constant. He'd go through withdrawal and then immediately go right back on the stuff. Some of his strategies to ensure a fix are downright hilarious, especially a story he told about ensuring he could shoot up as soon as he got off a transatlantic flight and arrived in New York, "When I traveled I would wear a hat and use a needle to fix a little feather to the hatband, so it was just a hat pin. ... I'd go down to FAO Schwarz, the toy shop right across Fifth Avenue from the Plaza. ...  buy a doctor and nurse play set, a little plastic box with a red cross on it. That had the barrel and the syringe that fitted the needle that I'd brought. I'd go round, 'I'll have three teddy bears, I'll have that remote-control car, oh, and give me two doctor and nurse kits!'"

Keith, as much as anyone, is amazed at his experience with drugs, "How was all that music produced - two songs a day written on a heroin habit, on what appeared to be high energy?" But Richards also talks a lot about rock and roll, and his writing about music is fascinating. Even though he explained it in great detail, I'm not sure I completely understand his five-string open tuning and its impact on music and musicians, but I do recognize that the songs he talks about using that technique sound unique. He also explains why he prefers to play with another guitarist, their playing "weaving" together. He makes me want to start downloading not just Stones' tunes, but things he has done solo and with other artists, and to listen more closely again to one of my favorite albums, Tom Waits' Rain Dogs, where he played guitar and sang backing vocals (I didn't realize or remember he was even on it.)

Life is a wonderful read, a real glimpse into what it was like to become a rock and roll star, in a way and a world that can never be repeated. It's also about a true artist, a man who loves music more than anything.  Keith Richards is someone who has had a very unusual life, out of the mainstream, and lived to tell the tale. And he's witty and intelligent. Rock on, Keef.

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