Keith gets his ya ya out…
Brian, engineer Ron Malo, Loog and Keith, Chess Studio, 1964.
Panic In Norway, hosing down the fans.
Little Red Rooster, 1965. “Brenda” Jagger takes a beating in Keith’s autobiography Life.
“Shooting up the charts…” Little Red Rooster again, this time on Ready Steady Go.
Seven years later
At the risk of boring the readership of this blog to tears with yet another posting on the Rolling Stones, I can’t help but throw my 2 pence in on Keith Richards’ autobiography- Life (Little, Brown 2010, co-written with James Fox who only gets an editor’s credit, which is I imagine why Nick Tosches and Stanley Booth both passed on the job) a subject you may already be sick of since Keith’s been hitting the promotional highway rather hard, and many of you must already be suffering from Stones overload in the wake of the Exile On Main Street re-issue hype.
Me, I never seem to get sick of the Stones, and have been playing the Genuine Black Box bootleg constantly since it fell through my mail slot last summer. So what’s the word on Life?
Had I never read a book on the Rolling Stones, Life would probably be one my favorite rock’n’roll books of all time. The problem then, is not so much the book, but the fact that I’ve probably read every book on the Rolling Stones ever published, and there’s been some good ones (Tony Sanchez- Up and Down With The Stones, Stanley Booth’s The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman’s Stone Alone, Marianne Faithful and David Dalton’s Faithful stand out off the top of my head as favorites). But like I said, I have a couple of shelves worth of these things, and that’s not including photo books. What’s left to say? Well, there’s only a few untold stories here (an early romance with Ronnie Spector, which is not as much fun as Josh Alan Friedman’s take on the same subject a decade later, see Tell The Truth Until They Bleed), a lot of wild and woolly party tales, and of course, just seeing it all from Keith’s point of view. Oh, and the music itself, which normally I’d say is the most boring part of any rock’n’roll read, but in Keith’s case, it’s my favorite part of the book. He explains why his open G guitar tuning style only sounds right with five strings, and just how it works. He also explains Jimmy Reed’s unique way of making his resolving d7 chord (which he learned from Bobby “Honey” Goldsboro)– he simply played one note on the D string and left the A string ringing, instead of making the whole chord! A lazy man’s road to genius. At this point I’d like to say, I disagree with Keith’s deciphering of Reed’s lyrics to Caress Me Baby. According to Keith, the line “Don’t pull no subway/I’d rather see you pull a train” means “Don’t go on dope, dont’ go underground, I’d rather see you drunk or on cocaine”, the way I read the line, it means — don’t leave (“don’t pull no subway”), I’d rather see you get gangbanged (“I’d rather see you pull a train”). The term “pull a train” slang for a gangbang was still in use when I was in high school in Florida in the early 70’s, and I think my translation is correct. Gangbang of course still meant group sex back then, not drive by shootings. For more on Keith and Jimmy Reed, (he has mastered the Jimmy Reed sound), I refer you back to my posting of his 1981 Jimmy Reed session.
The Stones’ career is given Keith’s once over in the sort of blurry way he saw it from the inside, the earliest years go by at 100 miles per hour, drug busts and screaming teenagers await everytime Keith attempts leave the recording studio or concert hall. The dope years are fun to read about, but don’t sound like much fun. To be honest, there are better junkie memoirs out there (Art Pepper, Dr. John). The dope stories make up on a small part of the book, and he writes more about the tribulations of trying to score drugs more than he does about taking them.
Life covers nearly all of the most famous Stones stories which are of course the foundation of their legend — living in squalor in Edith Grove, the riot in Blackpool kicked off by Keith kicking a punter who was spitting at him in the head, the Redlands bust ( finally putting the Mars bar rumour to rest), Swinging London and its fabulous characters– Robert Fraser, Michael Cooper, et al, the fateful trip to Morocco that sealed Brian Jones’ fate and won Anita Pallenberg’s love, the making of Exile On Main Street, Charlie Watts changing into his best Saville Row suit to punch out Mick Jagger for referring to him as “my drummer”, all great stories, and Keith’s versions add a bit of inside detail, but seem to stick to the already written script. It’s funny what Keith decides to add to the oft told stories, and also what new stories he adds to the legend– bringing in Kate Moss to testify to his attempting to dismember with a sword a guest at his daughter’s wedding who stole the onions for his Bangers and Mash (Keith includes his recipe for the same dish), his own holding up a show in Toronto until the culprits who ate his Shepard’s Pie are brought to justice (admitting he never eats before a show anyway, just wants to have it there in case he gets hungry), breaking down the door to Truman Capote (“Truby”)’s hotel room, and the like. These stories are all pretty funny, many new to print. He also dedicates two sections of the book to the story of the Wingless Angels— a rasta-gospel vocal group whose Keith produced 1997 LP was one of his greatest musical triumphs (and his best album since Exile) and was criminally ignored. In fact today it’s out of print, although soon to be re-issued in a package with Vol. 2, but since it’s out of print, here’s a few tracks– Morning Train, Rivers Of Babylon, and Keyman A Capella to wet your appetite for the re-issue.
In Life, Keith’s friends, band and family can be treated harshly or with incredible tenderness– Stash Klossowski de Rola is “basically full of shit”, while legendary bearer of sealed bottles of pharmaceutical Merc cocaine, the late Freddie Sessler is– “Totally horrible, revolting. Absolutely over the top, stupid at times” but “totally solid” and someone Keith obviously still holds in high regard. Even Tony Sanchez, whose Up and Down With The Rolling Stones ended every paragraph with “you bastard, I thought”, comes off looking okay. No hard feelings there. But forgiving doesn’t pay back seven million dollar advances, and Keith knows what his audience wants. More than dope and celebrity stories, they (we, ….me) want to read about what a jerk Mick Jagger is. Jagger, who is referred to variously as “Brenda”, “Disco boy, “Her majesty” or sometimes just “the bitch” takes a major beating in Life, one he probably deserves. For those keeping score, Brian Jones, Donald Cammell, Ron Wood and Anita Pallenberg also get spattered with various degrees of shrapnel. After Jagger, Cammell (director of Performance) gets it the worst–“the most destructive turd I’ve ever met…utterly predatory… “. Much of this I guess is just giving the audience what they paid for. We go see the Stones to hear our favorite songs, and to hear loud guitars playing Chuck Berry licks rather sloppily, and we buy books like this to read about what kind of assholes people can be. Rock’n’roll brings out the worst in some (most) people– on one hand it keeps performers infantile, while on the other inflating their egos beyond comprehension. Keith sees this all with fairly clear, if sometimes pinned eyes, and in recalling what he’s seen, and lived, he delivers the goods. I mean, not many writers get a seven million dollar advance (and Little, Brown and Co. obviously have high hopes for this book, the initial first printing is said to be three million copies). I used to think it was a put on, a way to get press in the years they weren’t touring and that Keith and Mick were having drinks somewhere laughing at the whole thing (“Yeah mate, then I call you a “Prince imitator”). After reading Life, I don’t think that’s the case. I think Keith really does hate Jagger in a way you can only hate someone you once loved. This all may end up backfiring on Keith. Is it my imagination or were the audience booing Keith during his two numbers on the Stones HBO live broadcast a few years back? The show, coming hot on the heels of Keith’s press attacks on Mick for accepting a knighthood (hey, Graham Greene turned one down just for the record, and so should any artist), I’m pretty sure the crowd were booing Keith for attacking Mick. Us old time Stones fans like to think the reason the Stones can’t make good records anyore is that Jagger wants them to sound current and up to date, something the Stones never used to care about. The best new music the Stones have made since 1981 are a few good Keith tracks like 40 Licks Am I Losing My Touch. Live, they started sounding like a Vegas act around the early 90’s, as Bob Dylan astutely noted, when Bill Wyman left they really stopped sounding like the Stones.
There are few surprises in life and in Life, one being that Keith likes Jackson Browne, another is Keith crediting Ian Stewart putting the Stones together, not Brian Jones, but like I said, had I never read a word about the Stones, I’m sure every word here would have held some sort of enlightenment.
Keith ends the book wondering– “How come I could get a great drum sound in Denmark Street with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound like someone shitting on a tin roof?” I’ve been wondering that out loud for twenty five years now. While on the subject, the above images come from the newly published The Lost Rolling Stones Photographs: The Bob Bonis Archive 1964-1966 (!t/Haper Collins, 2010), a collection of amazing pix from their first American tours taken by their American road manager Bob Bonis. It makes a nice perfect companion piece to Keith’s book.
Addendum- Bill Wyman imagines Mick’s response to Keith’s book here.