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The human riff, in his own words
Life: Keith Richards - Keith Richards
Member Name: JOHNDMR
Life: Keith Richards - Keith Richards
Advantages: It's all right - in fact, it's a gas
Disadvantages: A few aspects glossed over, such as the reasons for Taylor's departure
Around forty years ago, Keith Richards was considered the next most likely rock'n'roll star to succumb to drugs. However the man has defied all the odds in staying alive, and continuing to do what he has been doing for almost half a century. In the process, he has earned the sometimes grudging, sometimes unqualified respect of those who would once never given him the time of day.
This memoir, or at least the opening paragraphs, begin(s) in 1975. It was one of many years when the Rolling Stones were touring America. What was so remarkable about it was that, in Keith's words, open season had just been declared on the most dangerous rock'n'roll band in the world, for inciting riots, gross behaviour, and even appearing on stage dressed in the Stars and Stripes. There is no greater crime against humanity or the common good...well, if you're an American. Ironically, turn to the back flap of the book and you will learn that the contrary old geezer now lives in Connecticut. Like it or not, Uncle Sam now has him as one of his citizens.
From that little prelude, we take a leisurely ride through almost seven decades of hell-raising in one form or another. The wartime baby, an only child born in Dartford, Kent, a former choirboy whose first, er, major gig was at Westminster Abbey - the Queen's Coronation - grew up fascinated by music, inspired by the blues and by the early records of Elvis Presley. His childhood memories on the south-east edge of post-war London then give way to the days of roughing it in a run-down flat during the freezing cold winter of 1962-63 as he and his friends, inspired by the R'n'B scene which was taking over from trad jazz, decided to form what would become one of the most durable groups of all time. He has plenty to say on their rebel stance, underlining the fact that the Stones originally regarded themselves as anti-pop, anti-ballroom, taking pride in being a genuine blues band and not enjoying the experience of being screamed at onstage by teenagers as if they were ersatz Beatles, or having to lip-synch to their records on TV. Still, the lure of the pound and the dollar was too strong. They wanted to sell records, so they had to play the showbiz game. Yet there were limits as to how far they would be tamed, as their notoriously boorish appearance on David Jacobs' normally genteel 'Juke Box Jury' on TV amply proved.
I was glad that he had plenty to say on the pivotal year of 1967, the year of the notorious drug busts and trials. He tells us that he used to believe in law and order, the British Empire and the incorruptibility of Scotland Yard. The massive corruption that was endemic in certain sections of the police, and which came to light at that time, soon changed his mind. As for press and TV crews arriving just before, not after, a knock on Brian Jones's door by the boys in blue with the arrest warrant, and the myths about Marianne Faithfull and the Mars Bar, that probably says it all. The Beatles, with their MBEs, were for a while the great untouchables, and the Stones were therefore turned into martyrs and folk heroes overnight. As I had anticipated, this was (for me at least) one of the most interesting sections of the book.
There is much about the subsequent drug offences that peppered his career up to the late 1970s, when the group's future looked in jeopardy, and about the women who came in and out of his life. But it is a long book, and he also devotes a good deal of space about the various personnel changes, from Brian Jones's increasing self-detachment, being asked to leave and subsequent death, to Mick Taylor's replacing him - the latter being a great guitarist, but never really fitting in with the rest of them as a personality (and, what Keith doesn't tell us, rightly resenting being denied a fair sum in royalties as some songs should have credited Taylor as joint writer but never did), from Ron Wood taking up the subsequent vacancy, to Bill Wyman's calling it a day many years later. He also discusses his and Mick Jagger's development as songwriters, from writing slushy, pretty ballads like 'As Tears Go By' for Marianne Faithfull, to the more cutting edge material which gave them some of their greatest hits.
Needless to say, there are no punches pulled about his love-hate relationship with Sir Mick. The latter is portrayed as a shameless opportunist, the one who hung out in New York discos and was behind their jumping shamelessly on the disco bandwagon with songs like 'Miss You' (admittedly their most successful single on both sides of the Atlantic for several years), the one who took advantage of Richards's preoccupation with the court cases as a result of his heroin possession to seize control of the group, and then decided a few years later that he would put his efforts at a solo career above his commitment to them. The impression is of two men like chalk and cheese who openly and fiercely disagree about much, and who might have to be forcibly separated if left together in the same room too long, yet despite that have turned it to their advantage in keeping the sparks flying and the group going as an institution. In short, they succeeded for many years after their rivals John Lennon and Paul McCartney could no longer work together.
In a review like this, I can do little more but touch on some of the most interesting aspects. It's a very full book, and if you're a Stones fan you will certainly not be disappointed. Richards and Fox tell the story with irony, humour, admittedly regular expletives, and to the guitarist's credit a certain amount of self-deprecation. It was probably one of the most eagerly awaited music memoirs of the last few years, and I don't see anyone being shortchanged. Keith Richards may not be the easiest colleague to work with, but he has given us a pretty enthralling, extremely lively read.
[Revised version of review I originally published on ciao and Bookbag]
Summary: The grand old rebel tells all, well nearly all, about life in one of our most enduring bands