Life, an autobiography by Keith Richards, with James Fox
Little, Brown and Company, 2010
Keith Richards is full of surprises. Of all the Rolling Stones, I would have thought him the least likely to pen a book. He did not strike me as the literary type. But it appears he is. He describes himself as a “voracious reader.”
And why should this be a surprise? I’ve enjoyed his interviews over the years. He has always managed to say something highly insightful about the creative process, not just music, not just rock.
Though it does feel odd to review a book that has had, and will continue to have, such huge sales. It reached the New York Times bestseller list before the ink was dry. This is not a book that needs me to champion it. I’m doing this review more for my benefit than Mr. Richards. Everyone has a number of elements that have become such a vital component of their personality that if it were somehow taken away, somehow removed, they would not be the same person. For me, that would be the Rolling Stones. Remove the Rolling Stones from my life, and I would not be me. Not the same life.
I was a little disappointed when I discovered the book had been co-authored. But when I began reading the book, it became stunningly apparent that this book is not ghost written. Ghost written books are perfunctory and tame. Style does not enter into it. The words are transparent. The words are simply there to convey all the juicy tidbits of a celebrity’s life. They must in no way distract from the information. Style gets in the way of that. Style insists that we see the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That we feel the world as a singular experience, not a generality. “A work of art,” observed Susan Sontag, “is a kind of showing or recording or witnessing which gives palpable form to consciousness; its object is to make something singular explicit.”
This, happily, is the case with Life. The language is rich. It has in no way been diluted by the ministrations of a ghost writer. It is most certainly Richards’s own voice. I recognize it through the words. His style of talking. Which is warm, spontaneous, colorful, and richly detailed. He brings the same level of artistry to his language as he does to his music.
I read this book over a period of several days. I would read it until my eyeballs hurt. Much of this has to do with the fact that the music of the Rolling Stones has been in the background of my life for four solid decades and I have had a raging curiosity about what went into its making. I am not a musician. I love music, but I don’t have the vocabulary to describe it, nor the expertise to even fully understand what an octave is, or an A minor from a C major. Richards is brilliant at describing music, and how music is made. This is what I loved most about this book. Richards’ passion for the music, and the guitar in particular. He clearly sees the guitar in the same light that I see poetry: as a phenomenon of infinite resource. Its possibilities can never be exhausted.
There is a wonderful passage in the book in which Richards’s expounds on his discovery of open G tuning:
The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitar is that you’ve only got three notes -- the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart. It’s tuned GDGBD. Certain strings run through the whole song, so you get a drone going all the time, and because it’s electric they reverberate. Only three notes, but because of these different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound. It gives you this beautiful resonance and ring. I found working with open tunings that there’s a million places you don’t need to put your fingers. The notes are there already. You can leave certain strings wide open. It’s finding the spaces in between that makes open tuning work. And if you’re working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you’re not playing. It’s there. It defies logic. And it’s just there saying, “Fuck me.” And it’s a matter of the same old cliché in that respect. It’s what you leave out that counts. Let it go so that one note harmonizes off the other. And so even though you’ve now changed your fingers to another position, that note is still ringing. And you can never let it hang there. It’s called the drone note. Or at least that’s what I call it. The sitar works on similar lines -- sympathetic ringing, or what they call the sympathetic strings. Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of the whole thing you’re trying to do. It’s the drone.
Richards’ enthusiasm for open G tuning is revelatory. It reveals a number of things: his creative joy in discovering a way to expand his repertoire, his need to challenge convention (including his own settled habits), his need to crash barriers, his passion to exceed limits, his willingness to take risks, his intuitive alertness to outside influences, to random elements, to that eternal wilderness of sensation on the other side of our skin.
Most importantly: it’s what you leave out that counts. That’s brilliant. This is the true generosity of the artist. This is what creativity is all about. It is what makes creativity so exciting, so intoxicating. It is to find yourself in a dimension free of logic, the constraints of reason, a realm where possibility assumes new hues, colors and color combinations that resist scientific analysis. A place of harmony, but dissonance as well. A place where paradox and contradiction are as elemental as puddles after a spring rain.
Attunement to a dialectic of alterity, with something other than ourselves. It is a matter of control and knowing when to relax control. It emphasizes the crucial business of balance and composition. Sympathetic ringing. Sympathetic strings. The resonant richness lying in the space between things. A fullness of experience we achieve by emptying ourselves.
Richards’ exposition on open G tuning also has a lot to say about how closely he listens to other artists. He discovered, for instance, what an immense influence Johnnie Johnson had been on Chuck Berry’s song writing, by noting Berry’s preferred chords:
I asked Johnnie Johnson, how did “Sweet Little Sixteen” and “Little Queenie” get written? And he said, well, Chuck would have all these words, and we’d sort of play a blues format and I would lay out the sequence. I said, Johnnie, that’s called songwriting. And you should have had at least fifty percent. I mean, you could have cut a deal and taken forty, but you wrote those songs with him. He said, I never thought about it that way; I just sort of did what I knew. Steve [Jordan] and I did the forensics on it, and we realized that everything Chuck wrote was in E-flat or C-sharp -- piano keys! Not guitar keys. That was a dead giveaway. These are not great keys for guitar. Obviously most of these songs started off on piano and Chuck joined in, playing on the barre with his huge hands stretching across the strings. I got the sense that he followed Johnnie Johnson’s left hand!
It seems like a cruel irony that a man so closely identified with freedom would be a victim of heroin addiction. But then, many, if not all, of my preconceptions of what it is to be a rock star have been proven wrong. I had always assumed that once one attained a high level of stardom and wealth that immunity to life’s pricklier complications came with it. Not so. The stress of having to perform day after day night after night and maintain civil relations with the members of the band are extreme. Far greater than what I would imagine them to be. Added to this is pressure from the music company to come up with new material. I could not do it. Maybe it’s a blessing that I love music but have an utter inability to play it. I envy the audiences that rock musicians get; but I certainly don’t envy the unrelenting pressures of being such a high profile character in the public domain. I love poetry, and poetry needs solitude. I would be exhausted within a week of the grueling schedules that Richards and the Rolling Stones maintained. How much money do these guys need, one wonders.
But it’s not really the money that drives these guys. It’s the joy of the music. As Richards puts it so eloquently at the end of the book, “I can’t retire until I croak,” he states.
There’s carping about us being old men. The fact is, I’ve always said, if we were black and our name was Count Basie or Duke Ellington, everybody would be going yeah yeah yeah. White rock and rollers apparently are not supposed to do this at our age. But I’m not here just to make records and money. I’m here to say something and to touch people, sometimes in a cry of desperation: “Do you know this feeling?”
My answer to that is a resounding yes. The feeling I have derived from the Stones has been at times sweet as pancake syrup, sometimes bitter as Columbian coffee, heavy as oil, thick as grease, but always the engine behind much of my life. Pure diesel. Corso’s Gasoline. An essence of stars and the fusion of birthing suns. The Stones have been disinhibiting as a shot of Jack Daniels. Given me the courage to say and do things that otherwise would have stayed safely caged behind my ribs. And perhaps should have. But what the hell. Life is life. Blood and bone and muscle and impulse. Big and fat and maniacal as Van Gogh’s stars.
I confess to a high level of voyeurism in reading this book. I’ve always been fascinated by heroin. Never got the chance to take it. Did not want to risk addiction. I had enough problems with alcohol as it was. I must say, after reading Richards’ book, I don’t think I’d have the stamina for heroin addiction.
Some of the lengths to which Richards’ went to give himself a fix while on the road are actually quite funny. I am impressed with his ingenuity.
Once again, everything revolved around the stuff. Nothing could be done or organized without first organizing the next fix. It got more and more dire. Elaborate arrangements had to be made, some of them more comic than others. I had a man, James W, who I would call up when I was going from London to New York. I would stay at the Plaza Hotel. James, this sweet young Chinese man, would meet me in the suite, the big one preferably, and I’d hand him the cash, he’d give me the shit. And it was always very polite. Give my regards to your father. It was difficult in the ‘70’s to get hypodermics in America. So 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 would put the trilby with the red, green and gold feather in the hat bag. So the minute James turned up, I got the shit. Ok, but now I need the syringe. My trick was, I’d order a cup of coffee, because I needed a spoon for cooking up. And then I’d go down to FAO Schwarz, the toy shop right across Fifth Avenue from the Plaza. And if you went to the third floor, you could 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! My niece, you know, she’s really into that. Must encourage her.” FAO Schwarz was my connection. Rush back to the room, hook it up and fix it.
“The more things a man is ashamed of, the more respectable he is,” states John Tanner in George Bernard Shaw’s play Man and Superman. It is telling that the legendary bad boy of rock and roll, a genuine rough and tumble outlaw who has left a great deal of debris in his wake, should have no regrets. But nowhere in Richards’ portrait of himself do I sense shame or regret. He confesses to numerous mistakes, many wrong turns, many misconceptions and many blunders. He has wrestled his share of demons and gone through the ordeal of heroin withdrawal multiple times. But he does not appear to be haunted by any one wrong decision. There is no recantation, no defection. The overall sense throughout this back, apart from his passion for music, is acceptance. Tolerance. He describes firing Brian Jones from the band as an extremely painful decision, but one which was made after months of repeated warning to Jones to take his role in the band more seriously. Jones had become dead weight. Richards describes how taking over two guitars instead of just the one helped him in many ways, but it was still too much to handle. “One can get very sarcastic on the road and quite vicious. ‘Just shut up, you little creep. Preferred it when you weren’t here.’”
Despite the problems with Brian Jones, and Mick Jagger, of which there is much of that in the book is well, Richards thrives on camaraderie. “There’s something beautifully friendly and elevating about a bunch of guys playing music together. This wonderful little world that is unassailable. It’s really teamwork, one guy supporting the others, and it’s all for one purpose, and there’s no flies in the ointment, for a while.”