Monday, February 7, 2011

Life and Exile

Keith Richards LifeFirst of all, congratulations to the Green Bay Packers on their Super Bowl win! It was a great game, and I was happy to see the Packers win. Sorry to any Steelers fans out there, but I haven’t like the Steelers since the Cowher days, and I also like Aaron Rodgers for coming in and leading the team after Favre. But no matter who you were rooting for, it really was a great game, and it’s always fun to see a close, well-fought championship game.

Okay, I promise that this could be the last time I’m going to write about Keith Richards’ autobiography Life. (Did anyone get that reference?) Well, maybe not the last time goes by, it’s possible that something will start me up and I’ll get no satisfaction until I write more about it for my own emotional rescue, probably undercover of the night...okay, I’ll stop! heehee

I finished the book this weekend, and I can honestly say that not only is this my favorite biography/autobiography that I’ve read, it’s one of my favorite books of all time. I don’t know if I can express the love that I have for this book, but I’ll try.

Keith writes about his childhood, his parents, his schooling, all that...but things really get to popping when he finds rock and roll (Elvis’s “Heartbreak Hotel” just totally did it for him) and his granddad Gus lets him play his guitar. Thus young Keith is set upon his path. Although he briefly encountered Mick Jagger when they were very young and lived near each other, they ran into each other at a train station when they were teenagers, and Mick had all these blues records that Keith was very envious of, so they started hanging out together. As Keith said, you hung out with the guy who had the records!

I loved reading about their influences, which were very much American blues, especially Chicago blues. They loved all the Chicago blues guys. Keith also wrote a lot about how he developed his technique and what it entails, which I will mention a little further on.

This book isn’t for the faint of heart. The details of his and others’ drug use is not pretty. Keith makes no apologies for it, saying “This is who I was, this is what I did, so deal with it,” but he also doesn’t glorify it. He was rich enough to afford the best pharmaceutical grade stuff, but he was eventually forced to resort to the cheap shit when on the road. He went cold turkey several times, and describes rolling in bed for three days and shitting himself and literally clawing the walls. Glamorous stuff, right? His addiction to heroin was insidious...he had it under control for so long (or so he thought), and finally realized that he was no longer in control. After seeing countless friends (and a bandmate in Brian Jones) succumb to addiction, he was finally able to get himself out of it.

He describes staying up for days on end as he worked on music. Nine days was his record. Anyone who has been sleep deprived knows how wonky you can get. Hell, after being up for 24 hours, I’ve had hallucinations. I can’t imagine adding heavy drug use on top of that. There is an argument to be made that there wouldn’t have been such great music without the drug use. Entirely possible, but that’s a topic for another day. I’m just glad Keith survived, when so many didn’t.

He talks about the early days in England, when they were just starting to catch fire. The crazed teenage girls, throwing panties on the stage, once trapping him in a mob and literally tearing his clothes off. He feared for his life. Never underestimate the power of teenage hormones! He tells a story about one encounter:
The sky is sullen. It’s a day OFF! Suddenly the storm breaks viciously! Outside I see three die-hard fans. Their bouffants are succumbing to nature’s forces. But they stay! What can a poor boy do? “Get in here, dopes.” My tiny cubicle is filled with three drowned brats. They steam, trembling. They drench my room. The hairdos are done. They are trembling from the storm and from suddenly being in their (or one of their) idol’s room. Confusion reigns. They don’t know whether to squat or go blind. I’m equally confused. It’s one thing to play onstage to them, it’s another to be face-to-face. Towels become an important issue, as does the john. They make a poor attempt to resurrect themselves. It’s all nerves and tension. I get them some coffee laced with a little bourbon, but sex is not even in the air. We sit and talk and laugh until the sky clears. I get them a cab. We part as friends.
I think I fell a little in love with Keith when I read that. Oddly enough, throughout the book, I was struck by what seemed to be a fairly sweet demeanor and attitude. He’s a badass, no doubt about it, but he is also loyal to a fault once he has made friends with someone, and he is a devoted husband and father. His kids might have had a rather unorthodox upbringing (his son Marlon hit the road with him when Marlon was seven years old), but there is no disputing that he loves them unconditionally. After years of no contact with his father, he renewed their relationship and they became great friends. (If you want the story about him snorting his father’s ashes, you’ll have to read the book.)

A very stormy relationship is that of his with Mick Jagger. This was a little hard for me to read, because I love both of them. At times, Keith seems petulant and rather petty in his criticisms of Mick; they almost split a few times, but always found their way back to each other. Keith resents Mick trying to “take over” the band, and was pissed that Mick was making so many of the decisions concerning the Stones. He glosses over the fact that during his years of drug use, he was uninterested in such business decisions, and it was probably because of Mick that the Stones survived. I found their relationship a fascinating dynamic. They both seem to realize that they bring out the best in each other musically, and this symbiotic relationship has proven insoluble. He said their friendship goes far beyond bandmates and simple friendship. They are brothers, which includes the hate and loathing that very often occurs between siblings. He says that they have their disagreements, but no one can say shit about Mick in front of Keith. “I’ll slit their throat,” he says. Loyal to a fault. Exile on Main StreetAs for his playing style, I know very little about guitar, so I asked my friends Jim and Darren. I learned a little about open tuning, and about how Keith dropped his sixth string and usually plays with five. As I was reading about this and learning about it (at least what little I could comprehend), as well as the blues influence on the Stones, I found myself listening to their music with a renewed ear. I listened to the remastered “Exile on Main Street” a lot, and I’m hearing things there that I’d never heard before. It is on the verge of an epiphany. And what an absolutely remarkable album is “Exile.” As I listen to it again, I am stunned at just how good it is. Keith writes a little about various songs he and Mick wrote, and their songwriting process (which is pretty much to throw everything at the wall and see what sticks). Keith would usually come up with the riff, and Mick would add the lyrics. “It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll (But I Like It)” was all Mick’s, though, and Keith says it’s brilliant. I love listening to all of these songs again and hearing Keith’s licks as influenced by the blues.

I adored this book, and I have a newfound respect for Keith. He wrote with brutal honesty and great humor about his journey. This is an absolute must-read for anyone who loves music, and especially, anyone who loves the Stones. There is truly none other like them, and the same holds true for their founding guitarist. He’s one of a kind. I was utterly and completely charmed.


  1. I'll be buying this one soon. I love Keith to pieces, and we share the same birthday. ;-))

  2. i was waiting for this entry! I can not wait to read it...hell, i may even buy it....i have loved the Stones for 25 yrs....your excellent review just makes me want to read it even more. I decided on 1/1/11 that i was reading more this year and so far i have kept that promise to myself...i am so glad you liked it. XO


  3. I've been wanting to read this but now I can't wait! I'll order it asap. Good post!

  4. OK -- you've talked me into buying this. Sounds like my cup of tea anyway.


I'm funny how, I mean funny like I'm a clown, I amuse you?