Saturday, April 28, 2012

Life according to Keith Richards

There's a great video on You Tube that I stumbled on the other day, in which Rolling Stone magazine contributing editor Anthony DeCurtis interviews Keith Richards. DeCurtis starts out the interview by mentioning that, in an earlier interview Richards had answered a question about how he thought things had changed since the Rolling Stones had first started out by observing that "nobody reads anymore". DeCurtis then asks Richards to talk a little bit about what books and libraries have meant to him. Richards says that libraries are the "center of things", and that this is the way it should be.

And then Richards says that when he was growing up, libraries were the only place he "willingly obeyed the rules".

Reading Richards' autobiography, Life (Little, Brown and Company, 2010; 564 pages), written with James Fox, there is a continuing sense that this must be the truth. Richards, it seems, has broken just about every rule there is, in all aspects of life, and managed to come out the other side with intelligence and wit intact.

Richards makes no apologies for the things he's done, not about the drugs, not about relationships, not about anything. His philosophy seems to be that, yes, he'd done some stupid things, and some dangerous things, and that no one should try to emulate him in doing them, but that, hey, that's life, what can you do. And, in the end, it doesn't seem like all that bad a philosophy to have. Far too few of us can forgive ourselves for the things we've done, and Richards' ability to forgive himself for his transgressions is probably healthier in the long run.

Of course, he talks about the drugs. And there were a lot of drugs, including years of addiction to heroin despite many attemtps to clean up. This has been documented endlessly. But, he feels compelled to point out that, despite the reputation as a junkie that still follows him around, he's been clean of heroin for over thirty years, finally kicking it after an ultimatum from his manager. He admits that he loved heroin but that enough was, finally, enough. And, at one point, lest any of his fans think that they might like to try to emulate their hero's drug habits, he blatantly warns, "Don't try this at home" (p. 262).

But he also talks about the music, and about his long and rocky relationship with Mick Jagger, saying that from his point of view, Jagger makes it hard to be friends with him, but that they're brothers and that he would be there in an instant if Jagger really needed him and that he believes Jagger would be there for him in time of crisis. Richards documents, in fact, the times Jagger was there for him when he really needed him. This does not mean that Richards didn’t also point out what he sees as Jagger’s personality flaws.

The only time the book dragged for me, as a reader, was when Richards wrote about the technical side of his guitar-playing, about his discover and use of alternative tunings and so forth. It was interesting, but I don't play guitar, and so the discussion was too technical for me to really understand.

There is a lot in this book, stories of the road, stories of friends, those lost and those who have remained for decades. He talks particularly fondly about his relationship with Gram Parsons, who didn't manage to make it out the other side from drug addiction. He writes about meeting some of his own musical heroes, who didn't always live up to expectations as people, but who mostly met and exceeded expectations as musicians. And he talks about the women in his life, both those he had long relationships with and those who came into his life briefly while he was on the road with the Stones. In his case, at least, he claims that there wasn't nearly as much sex going on as one might assume.

Well, you can believe him or not about that, but in the end it all seems beside the point.
I've read a lot of books about rock and roll music and those who make it, and this is one of the best. It is written as if, as I commented to someone while I was reading it, someone put Richards before a tape recorder, turned it on, and said "Go!", and then edited it just enough to put events in a roughly chronological order. Richards' voice comes thorugh loud and clear, telling the story of his life as he sees it.

And an interesting life it has been, and continues to be.

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