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LIFE Keith Richards (with James Fox)


LIFE | Keith Richards & James Fox | Little, Brown & Company, 2010 | 564 pages, some with photos | memoir

§§ This book is quite an easy read, although not as raunchy as you might expect from a founding member of The Rolling Stones, and is often preoccupied with Richards' fractious relationship with Mick Jagger.

It's similar to Andy Summers' One Train Later in this regard, where Summers' aching disappointment with Sting arcs through much of the action, and as such, is perhaps a recognizable guitarist-singer syndrome for rock and roll bands. Keith Richards certainly sees it as a syndrome, has a witty name for it, "LVS" (lead vocalist syndrome), although it could easily be designated PMS (Point Man Syndrome). Symptoms include being a control freak, working sneaky deals behind the band's back, screwing your old lady and secretly plotting a solo career. For those who have read a lot of rock and roll gossip in Rolling Stone and elsewhere over the years, none of this will be news, and at times might sound like a bit of a chick "relationships" moan... and indeed, this book might be aimed at women more than men. Despite the casual obscenity, it's soft.

Even though he packs an unregistered 38 and a knife, Keith's macho nature is soft macho, the fugitive criminality of the junky pirate. When you spend so much of your life either sleeping (narced out) or performing on stage, there has to be a lot of acting going down. In this story of a rocker's transit from childhood to old age, you always see the boy in the man.

Possibly the ghost writer James Fox (acknowledged) has something to do with this persona, but for sure the editor did. This is prime-time reading, Walmart discount table stuff, 30% off and no bad dreams. No clinical sex, no true confession. Yes, the women and the groupies are mentioned, although you are left with about five or six who really mattered. For the most part, off-stage is off-stage. If you want more blow-by-blow, read the Tony Sanchez dope dealer view in Up & Down With the Rolling Stones (1980).

Keith calls the Sanchez book tabloid but it's dramatic like a non-fiction novel, and is now a rock 'n' roll classic. These days Keith Richards has grandchildren, doesn't need that sort of notoriety, and probably isn't as interested in that old shit anyway. Other than dope, guitars and guitar playing is what he's all about, and there's plenty of that in Life... although, again, if you're a guitarist and have read the interviews over the years, you know this stuff already. In fact, you've read it in the official Stones coffee table book According To The Rolling Stones (2003), so you might be left thinking all the "co-writer" James Fox did was montage this existing material with a few updates by Keith on the tape recorder.

Linda Keith broke his heart, but you probably knew that. "That's the first time I felt the deep cut," says Keith, admitting that he stalked her a couple of times. Oddly, although Linda eventually became involved with Jimi Hendrix, she's still alive today. Then, of course, there's Ronnie Bennett, of the Ronettes, whom Keith met on a tour of England in the mid-sixties. Ronnie was the trophy girlfriend of the infamous American producer Phil Spector at the time, a man so jealous that when he and Ronnie were later married he had a gold coffin made for her, kept it in the basement "just in case".

Anita Pallenberg... you know about her. They had three children and would still have been together if she hadn't screwed up so badly under dope dereliction. In 1979 the toy-boy lover who shot himself playing Russian roulette was the last straw, probably, although she and Keith were no longer playing house. You might recall the particularly nasty description by some rock journalist back then that she was "now bloated beyond gender." Again, oddly, she survived this and is still alive today.

The others? You can read about them if you want. Keith likes models, especially German ones. There was Uschi Obermaier -- "The best bad girl I know" -- who reappeared unexpectedly in Cabo San Lucas when Keith spent a lost year there in 1982, and then vanished after her boyfriend was decapitated when he crashed his motor cycle outside of town.

This was just before he married Patti Hansen, an American model who is still his wife today. The Richards presence is still folkloric in Cabo, where many still point to a shack on the beach, say that's where he got married or got stoned, or claim to have drank Jack with him in Sammy Hagar's club Cabo Wabo.

Even by then, Keith Richards was a legend, the subject of a collective hallucination. Many of you aspired to be him, just as he says "Mick was aspiring to be Mick Jagger, chasing his own phantom."

Keith mentions his friendship with John Lennon a number times, says Lennon was no good with dope, threw up easily. He admired Lennon's approach to music, the world, and indeed he had to have been affected by Lennon's assassination, although he doesn't go into it. If ever a rocker needed a reason to carry a concealed weapon, Lennon's death provided the rationale. Lennon was an influence, no doubt about it, as he and McCartney provided the Stones with their first original song (I Wanna Be Your Man), which made it plain that Richards and Jagger should be writing their own material. And although Richards says he was introduced to "open tunings" on the guitar by Gram Parsons and Ry Cooder, it's possible that John Lennon may have shown the way as he started out using a banjo tuning under the tutelage of his aunt.

Whatever way Keith Richards came upon the 5 string G tuning, there is no disputing its influence on the signature Stones sound, especially after Honky Tonk Woman. Discussing another Stones classic of the period, Jumpin' Jack Flash, Richards says he's heard many bands try to play it but just can't quite get it because you have to use the five string open G tuning to to get that chime. Would Johnny Winter and Rick Derringer agree? After all, they did a stunning live version of Jumpin Jack Flash on the 1971 album Live Johnny Winter And ... although you never know with Johnny, of course, as he often goes open E for his slide.

Keith Richards: Life

There is an interesting aside concerning the origin of this tune. Keith says it's a Richards-Jagger composition, implies the lick is all his, yet in his attractive 2002 coffee table book Rolling With The Stones, bassist Bill Wyman states categorically that the Jumpin' Jack Flash lick is his. Keith Richards describes quite clearly his song-writing method -- the lick, the opening vocal phrase, with the Jag finishing off the words -- and mentions nothing about Wyman when talking about JJF. In fact, more often than not he mocks "Bill Perks" (Wyman) for his pathological sexual gluttony and for bailing from the band back in 1992 supposedly because he'd developed a fear of flying. Could be so, and when you consider Wyman's age and his outsider status, there should be no surprise. By the early nineties, the Stones as a band were dysfunctional, and many considered them history.

Life: When is it sniping, or edgy fraternal humor, or plain brute innuendo? Mick's "tiny todger" or "Bill Perks" (Wyman), the thousand chick lothario with his own personal groupie spotter. When the Stones were living as tax exiles in France in the early seventies, Wyman started hanging out with the artist Marc Chagall; Keith Richards describes Wyman & Chagall as "one of the weirdest couples" out there. Maybe so, but the fact is Wyman's book Rolling With The Stones is a very good symposium of photos, art, artifacts and recollections about the Stones, tells you all you really need to know. Keith often praises the drummer Charlie Watts, but doesn't move much charity Wyman's way (well, once, when Wyman came to see him in jail). Maybe this is why you never seem to hear the bass in the majority of the Stones recordings, especially in the pre-Sticky Fingers era -- old Bill was only in there for the visuals.

Too much time, too much money; Keith Richards went straight from school into a rock band, never truly experienced the reality of ordinary work. He seems to have spent close to 40 years in a narco somnambulism, sleeping by day, partying by night. His anger at Jagger taking over the band seems misplaced; if Keith's going to spend most of his time doped up, hiding out like Norma Desmond in drag, missing appointments, gigs, sessions or taking an hour in the can to fix up between takes, what does he expect?

Still, it's all relative in a band of brothers, isn't it... with the appearance of Bianca, Jagger becomes insufferable, behaves with the worst case of nouveau biche a cat can have, hangs with the diplomats and the culture crowd. Disco was cocaine and Mick was cocaine. A betrayal of his Dartford street origin, Keith thinks. The movement from clown to pet to aristo is quite easy when you have money and all the flattery it can buy.

Keith is quite scornful about Mick's knighthood, and why not? It suggests that Mick really is the force behind the Stones, and that Mick is the person the Establishment prefers to negotiate with. Knighthood is like a gang tattoo, a snot inclusion zone, a perpetuation of that niggling class issue that the UK suffers from, that is, which side of town do you come from. These guys -- the Glimmer Twins -- are not from the middle exactly, they're from the hole in the middle.

Keith Richards' childhood... well, it's not Rupert the Bear, and it's not Great Expectations either, although the Dartford marsh is a bit like the bleak graveyard by the river where the boy Pip encounters the fugitive convict Abel Magwitch. Keith's mother and father split, he lives like a refugee. Yep, it's not ideal, but at least he doesn't whine about it, and you have to be impressed by how he stuck with his young son Marlon when his "marriage" to Anita Pallenberg became a thing in name only. But then again, even this isn't beyond criticism, as Marlon appears to have been looking after his dad rather than the other way around. If Keith didn't have minders, he'd be more than late. Despite his stated fastidiousness about measuring his smack intake, you recognize early on in the story that the man is a fatalist. Forget the eye shadow and the skull rings -- anyone who wakes up and puts on his wife's clothes has to be.

§ Life is mostly the story of a junkie -- the apprentice, the professional, the exhibit. The danger was that music would disappear, just as writing disappeared for the heroin author Alexander Trocchi, that the stupefaction becomes the art. The ritual and the trivia of finding and fixing... and the outsider culture of those who belong like persecuted Christians. And Williams Burroughs, the old bitch cadaver junkie, is floating around the edges of Keith Richards' recreational world, giving priestly advice about junk, i.e. apomorphine. Did Burroughs really listen to the Stones? Or did junkies read Burroughs? You know the answers. Keith certainly absorbed the Burroughs-Gysin cut-up method, yet it certainly didn't make him a poet. It's a pity that he saw fit to print some of his lyrics towards the end of the book because they diminish the songs, reveal the banality within the sublime. When he went solo with the X-Pensive Winos, he proved he had a style, a dreamy nicotine sound reminiscent of Al Green, 4 shots of Jack and a concealed Bible. Make No Mistake About It, for example, is a funky fox trot with a Richards' vocal that hangs between between inhalation and exhalation, pure suspension and astral detachment.

Yes, the work of a maestro, Make No Mistake About It.

Gimme Shelter. The man has several houses... London, Sussex... Jamaica, France... Connecticut, British Virgin Islands and god know where else... rich enough that he never has to sell, yet withal he professes not to be materialist, even with a warehouse full of guitars, hundreds of them, not a materialist. And you believe him. When talking about the Klein rip-off -- Alan Klein, the Stones' second manager, who swindled them by creating a mirror publishing company in the USA, sucked away the rights to such seminal songs as Satisfaction, Angie, Wild Horses, et al -- he says: "I've made more money by giving up the publishing on 'Satisfaction', and my idea has never been to make money." And you believe him, because there's a simplicity behind the messiness of his life, a purity in his obsession with the guitar, and his place in its history.

Well, some say, if he and his fellow Stones are so modest, how come they live as tax exiles? "(In the UK) the tax rate in the early 70s on the highest earners was 83%," says KR. No wonder they were forced to decamp to France (initially). Drugs aside, the move was good for them, as the double album "Exile On Main Street" followed, a basement classic from the Villa Nellcote. Now of course, no one thinks of it any other way; rock stars live wherever they want. Bowie, Jagger, McCartney, Richards -- you can run into one of them on a Caribbean beach anytime.

One of the more interesting episodes in the Richards legend is the Blue Lena story, when Keith and Anita go to Morocco, driving the famous blue Bentley across France and Spain. Brian Jones falls ill en route, is left by Anita in a hospital in France. "Anita, sexy fucking bitch," says Keith, obviously enjoying the memory. And: "I have never put the make on a girl in my life... my instincts are always to leave it to the woman." Not a problem for Anita, the former German model and player in the Euro art scene. When they got to Tangier, it was all about art, wasn't it, lying around the pool being photographed by Cecil Beaton or doing hash candy in the Medina. Tangier was a place where homoerotic artists such as Beaton and William Burroughs had easy access to young boys back in the 60s. The memoir reveals nothing new here, although the exoticism of the landscape, the decadence, the romance, in this illicit oasis at the Gates of Hercules captures the shifting morality of the times and the role that drugs played. By the time Altamont took place (Dec 6 1969), the idealism of the counter-culture movement was passe.

Altamont. The evil twin of Woodstock. A free concert in the bleak treeless hills south-east of San Francisco to celebrate freedom. Says Keith Richards: "In actual fact, if it hadn't been for the murder, we'd have thought it was a very smooth gig by the skin of its fucking teeth." Is he kidding? Take another look at the film of the event, Gimme Shelter by the Maysles Brothers, see if you can watch it all the way. It's ugly, and shooting in color wouldn't have made it less ugly. The beautiful people stayed home, clearly, and the Stones played poorly. Once again, where is Bill Wyman in the mix? Wyman apparently missed his helicopter flight to the site, which delayed the Stones set, yet you have to wonder if he ever showed up at all as there is no bass in any of the live clips. To a man, they were rattled. Perhaps after all these years old Keef is simply trying to finesse the memory.

He doesn't finesse his feelings about the 1970 film Performance which starred Anita Pallenberg and Mick Jagger, and what happened between them under the manipulative direction of Donald Cammell. Says Keith: "I really didn't like Donald Cammell, the director, a twister and a manipulator whose only real love in life was fucking other people up." Although he tries to refrain from gloating, Keith tells us that Cammell eventually shot himself as part of a videotaped suicide, no doubt his version of a Mishima exit.

Brian Jones dies, his replacement Mick Taylor stays a mere five or six years, suddenly quits, leaves Keith still wondering why. Ron Wood replaces him, and then Bill Wyman quits, and Keith wonders about this too. And then, for a while -- this is the eighties -- it looks as if Mick Jagger has gone his separate way and the Stones are finished as band.

But of course they're not, they acquire some new players, lumber on. It could be argued that the Steel Wheels Tour of 1989-90 was their best; certainly the Max concert at Wembley in 1990 is one of their best recorded concerts. How could they follow it? Bill Wyman felt they couldn't.

What is the appeal of these rock memoirs? The reliving of your own past through the celebs you considered friends? You played them at your parties, took road trips with them, got stoned with them in the darkness of your private past. Perhaps you even thought they were speaking to you in the hallucinatory way that song lyrics do. Hey, maybe you dressed like them at one time or even passed yourself off as the seventh member. "Friendship is a diminishing of distance," says Keith in one of his poetic moments.

Hmm. This makes you wonder about his statement that he hadn't visited another Stones dressing room in 20 years. Even in Rio, where they played to more than a million people on the beach in 2006.

And the final verdict? What is, who is, Keith Richards? "I need a jury that's at least half full of rock-and-roll players... a jury of my peers would be Jimmy Page (and the like)," he says, concerning one of his drug busts. No doubt it's been a stressful life, in no sense normal, and his survival is a thing of wonder. When he fell out of a tree in Fiji, he concussed himself a blood clot on the brain, and that could have been it. He's a boogie man, a chemosynthetic man, a loyal man, but hey, is he a gold coffin man?

Lawrence Russell October 2010

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