Keith Richards’ “Life”

I have been so pleasantly surprised by Keith Richards’ memoir that I would recommend it to any music fan.  Yes there is lots of titillating anecdotes of sex and drugs and rock & roll; and yes there is a fair amount of back story on the relationship between Richards and Mick Jagger.

For me, however, the most significant value of the book is that he tells the story of the music! He talks about his influences and he talks about how he arrived at certain sounds.  For example, both Jumpin’ Jack Flash and Street Fighting Man were recorded on an early version of a cassette recorder!  He overloaded the microphone using an acoustic guitar.  That’s it.  There is no electric guitar and no amp on Jumping Jack Flash!  They took the cassette and recorded the master from that.  Mind-blowing!

He discovered that he didn’t need all 6 strings on his guitar so he simply took the lowest one off!  He abandoned classic guitar tuning (E-A-D-G-B-E) for “Open G tuning” in which if you play all the strings just open, they play a G chord.  That gave him the distinctive sound you hear on Brown Sugar, Tumbling Dice, Honky Tonk Woman, and so many more.

After 50 years of well-publicized drug addiction, hard living, and clashes with the law, he hardly set us up to expect a well-crafted autobiography.  True, he had help from a writer, British journalist James Fox.  The book is very well-written and in my opinion, Fox deserves perhaps as much as 50% of the credit for this book.  I think he spent years teasing out the stories, organizing them into the broader narrative.

But Keith Richards is not the drug-addled zombie you might expect.  He’s witty and clever, and he has genuine insight into the significance of events in his life.  Go on youtube and look at any recent interview with him.  None of those have a writer, word-smithing his responses.  The guy’s an intelligent, thoughtful man with something to say.

Throughout a lifetime of fame, bad behavior, and conflict, he managed to maintain a family, and work with the Rolling Stones for 50 years!  He talks of his prolific song-writing abilities and he discusses the environments that led to certain songs.  How he sat in a window one day as a huge storm was rolling in.  At the time, his relationship with his girlfriend was challenged and he was facing a betrayal from his closest friend, Mick Jagger.  He started to play his guitar and put words to his thoughts and the line came out, “Ooh the storm is threatening, my very life today.  If I don’t get some shelter, ooh I’m gonna’ fade away” and the beginning kernel of the song Gimme Shelter was born.  I’ve listened to that song hundreds of times and it always puts a chill in my spine.

He describes the collaborative process of their songwriting.  Either he would begin with a snappy guitar lick, or Mick Jagger would come in with a catchy song lyric and together they would build on it and develop the idea until it was a full song.  Often they would bring in side men, session musicians on horns, keyboards, and such to round out the sound they wanted.

He talks at length about his influences.  The first time he heard Elvis’ Heartbreak Hotel it changed his life.  He describes it as realizing for the first time that music, like a painting, did not need to fill every square inch of the canvas.  The stripped down haunting sound of Heartbreak Hotel put just a few important curves on the canvas and the listener took it from there.

Keith spent some time living in Jamaica and one result of that is some reggae influence.  It was the blues, however, that had the greatest influence on the Rolling Stones’ music.  It’s obvious in songs like Midnight Rambler, and Honky Tonk Woman, but I would highly recommend you explore some of the early Stones music that did not become so popular that it’s still played today.  Go back and listen to the album Exile on Main Street.  and not just the big hits like Tumbling Dice and Happy.  Listen to some of the songs you’d never really heard, or maybe forgot, songs like Ventilator Blues, or Rocks Off.  Listen to Sweet Virginia, one of their many country songs.  These guys traveled through the rural and southern United States and toured with a lot of black musicians and famous blues artists during the 60’s and it had a profound affect on the music.

The album Black & Blue never received a lot of critical acclaim or financial success but there are some absolute gems on it!  The song Hey Negrita was panned and more or less written off; but go back and listen to the jagged edgy blues in this song.  It is raw and dark and sounds more like musicians jamming after hours and less like a polished over-produced record album.  The album featured a song called Melody that had the unmistakable sound of Billy Preston, his voice and his piano.  He sings with Mick, and Keith rounds it out with his guitar, injecting blues riffs around the edges.

I “read” this book on audio and that made a huge difference!  It is read in parts by Johnny Depp, Joe Hurley, and Keith Richards himself. Depp, who modeled his Pirates of the Caribbean character after Keith Richards is great, and it’s a fantastic finish to have the author read the conclusion of the book.  It is Hurley, however, who steals the show.  He sounds more like Richards and after a chapter or two, your mind relaxes and assumes it is him.  There’s something about the audio, the rich British accent, the timing, it was a great experience.  The book is long, the audio version was 23 hours!  That 23 hours took me all summer to get through because I had downloaded it onto my iPhone and every time he’d mention some song or artist I would pause and go listen to it.  Thus, it ended up costing me a lot of money too because I bought a lot of the music he sent me to hear!

In the space of reading this book he has made me a huge fan of Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, Gram Parsons, Ry Cooder, and more.  He made me a bigger fan of Elvis–early Elvis, rockabilly delta blues Elvis.  He’s made me appreciate the Rolling Stones music a lot more.  Now I hear things in the music I never noticed before.

I am a diehard fan of rock & roll, with a special emphasis on improvisational jam bands.  For me, this book was like a budding magician reading a book that explains how all the tricks were done.  Yes, it’s pretty cool to red about Keith partying with Jimmy Page in a hotel room in New York, or how he and John Lennon dropped acid together and drove across the English countryside in Richards’ Bentley.  More important however, is that this all led to the music, more music, different music, and better music.

If it’s been a while since you really listened to the Rolling Stones, grab a pair of headphones and put on the song Let It Bleed.  This is a great version of the blended textures and sounds of their music.  It has a country vibe, bluesy tones, an acoustic texture and slowly gains energy as the song progresses.  After the first verse Keith’s distinctive 5-string guitar tuned in open G kicks in and makes its mark.

One of his goals in their music was to avoid the traditional roles of two guitars, one banging out the rhythm and the other whaling away on lead.  Instead, he and Ronnie Wood weave two complimentary guitars together, both as rhythm, and both as lead.  The result is rich and complex.  In the book he challenges us to listen to Beast of Burden and figure out who is playing which guitar.

This is a significant book that sets down a historic marker for rock & roll music fans.  It has broadened my music perspective and entertained me all summer.  Not bad Mr. Richards, not bad at all!


One comment

  1. Tony,

    You’re the second person to give the book rave reviews, so I’m going to download it and read it. I may not be as big of a RS fan as you, but I’m a huge music fan. Also, speaking of music, if you’re a fan, you need to check out the documentary Twenty Feet From Stardom. I was blown away by the documentary and there’s a really good clip about Sympathy for the Devil in it. If you haven’t watched it, I recommend it.


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