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He’s been up and down and over and out… and he’s still rolling
With his "Killer Bread," Dave Dahl goes legit
BOOK REVIEW: Life
By Keith Richards, with James Fox, Little, Brown and Company, 2010, Hardcover, 564 pages, $29.99
There are a few sincerely expressed regrets in this autobiography. But not many.
Keith Richards has led a largely unapologetic and extraordinarily raucous life. An acclaimed musician and songwriter, Richards has conjured up some of the most memorable guitar riffs in the history of rock and roll. His propensity for an array of pharmaceuticals and alcohol is legendary and borne out by his own recounting. The kaleidoscopic tourbillion that has been Richards’ life seems to amaze even him.
As a working class kid in Dartford, just east of London, he only wanted to be able to play guitar well enough to perform in local clubs, make enough money to pay the rent and survive. He has made the rent. And remarkably he has survived after decades of the disorienting demands of global touring made more chaotic by his admittedly reckless inclinations. Were it not for the money, notoriety and connections that Richards has as one of rock’s most enduring icons he would either be dead or doing serious time in some dreary hoosegow in any number of jurisdictions around the world. But thankfully he is free, alive and still making music.
Imagine the exuberance of an English kid in love with the Black blues of the American South who is suddenly in the heartland of his beloved genre: “We were in Mississippi. We’d been playing this music, and it had all been very respectful, but then we were actually there sniffing it. You want to be a blues player, the next minute you fucking well are and you’re stuck right amongst them, and there’s Muddy Waters standing next to you. It happens so fast that you really can’t register all of the impressions that are coming at you. It comes later on, the flashbacks, because it’s all so much. It’s one thing to play a Muddy Waters song. It’s another thing to play with him.”
In the early days along with many other British bands the Rolling Stones followed close on the coattails of the Beatles. Their first hit record was a Chuck Berry number “Come On”. Up to that point the Stones saw themselves primarily as a blues band that played club venues. Richards recalls: “At the time there was a purist strain running through the band, which I obviously was not on top of. I loved my blues, but I saw the potential of other things. And also I loved pop music. I quite cold-bloodedly saw this song as just a way to get in.” The impact was swift and the band’s success meteoric. “The record wormed its way into the top twenty, and suddenly, in a matter of a week or so, we’d been transformed into pop stars.”
But having had that first hit song meant that another had better follow fairly soon. Their manager Andrew Loog Oldham was in a bit of a panic about this prospect when he happened upon John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Oldham shared his dilemma with them. The two talented songwriters gave the Stones “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which became their second hit. “They deliberately aimed it at us. They’re songwriters, they’re trying to flog their songs, it’s Tin Pan Alley, and they thought this song would suit us. And also we were a mutual admiration society.”
Richards’ musical tastes are eclectic. In addition to blues and rock he has an enthusiastic affinity for reggae and country. Throughout the book he elaborates openly on the stresses of working in a band and on his many relationships: his deep and ambivalent connection with friend and collaborator Mick Jagger; his less than fond memories of late band mate Brian Jones; his abiding appreciation for Stones drummer Charlie Watts; his difficulties with Chuck Berry; his friendship with Elvis’ guitarist Scotty Moore; his tortured and drug-addled relationship with Anita Pallenberg; his long estrangement and eventual happy reunion with his own father. He expresses his admiration for two late friends: “Of the musicians I know personally (although Otis Redding, who I didn’t know, fits this too), the two who had an attitude towards music that was the same as mine were Gram Parsons and John Lennon. And that was: whatever bag the business wants to put you in is immaterial; that’s just a selling point, a tool that makes it easier. You’re going to get chowed into this pocket or that pocket because it makes it easier for them to make charts up and figure out who’s selling. But Gram and John were really pure musicians.”
The myriad stories and recollections Richards renders in this appealing tome are straightforward, honest and plainly written. It is a romp through a life that is a triumph of durability rife with creativity and laughter, along with painful moments and a few episodes that are outright frightening. In any case this Stone is still standing.
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