Thursday, 6 September 2012

Life by Keith Richards

Here's an interesting fact about Keith Richards - he may not even be able to play the guitar at all!  He does this thing called open tuning, so the strings are naturally set to G without fingers. It's the only way you can make Start Me Up and Brown Sugar sounds right, apparently.  And he only uses five strings, rather than six.  It sounds more Guitar Hero than guitar hero to me, but who am I to judge.  All I can play on the guitar is Patience.  And not the Guns and Roses one...

Keith's writing has an easy and seductive flow, and he's got a robust sense of irony and the poet's eye for picking out telling details.  He manages to portray himself as the the sensible, down to earth one in the Rolling Stones, even when he's sleeping with a gun under his pillow, and can only be woken by his seven year old son Marlon in case he opens fire.

So, about those other Stones.  Brian Jones doesn't come out looking good at all.  Manipulative, massively egocentric, out of control and a woman beater.  Keith steals Anita Pallenberg from him (also portrayed in this book).  Bill Wyman - likes 'em young, boring, but once went and bought heroin for Keith, so a point in his favour.  Charlie Watts he has a lot of respect for, and was the one member of the band they really had to fight for in their younger days.  And he gets on well with Ronnie Wood too because they've both got that gypsy/pirate thing going on.

His relationship with Mick Jagger is a bigger issue.  Keith talks fondly of them sitting down, writing songs together, and he rates Mick as one of the best harmonica players in the world.  Says it's the one time he's not striking a pose onstage.  That's his problem with Mick - he always wants to be something else, rather than Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, which Keith feels should be enough for anyone.  His failed attempt at a solo career in the 80s created a pretty big rift between them.  And, of course, the knighthood from Tony Blair is roundly mocked.  He's still got plenty of respect for him, but it's striking that they haven't been to each other's dressing rooms for decades.

A lot of this book is about the drugs, and it's great on the exhausting and humiliating efforts to get enough gear just to make you feel normal.  He remembers how, from his youngest days, he was never knocked out by illness.  You just man up and keep going.  He took that businesslike approach to taking huge amounts of drugs, and still turning up on stage.  Fair enough, he used to regularly vomit behind the speakers, but he says they all did that.  Plenty of others in his life, however, didn't have his stamina, and he tends to skirt the issue of how much responsibility he should feel in introducing these casualties to a lifestyle only he can really maintain.

Thankfully there's also plenty about music - his passion for the blues shines off the page.  As well as how to tune your guitar, there's how he comes up with riffs, meetings with his musical heroes (Chuck Berry, predictably, is a big disappointment), on-stage mishaps, like a firework burning right through his finger on stage as they open with Start Me Up.  He doesn't even stop, but of course he's got that open tuning, so it's not that impressive.  What's also really interesting is who's playing what on those early tracks: on Play with Fire for instance, that's Phil Spector on bass.  And the harpsichord isn't Brian Jones, it's Frank Nitzche - the man who really invented the Wall of Sound!  He also played piano on Paint it Black.  Well....I thought it was interesting.

A very easy and entertaining read this - rock and roll, drugs and sex.  In that order.