Keith Richards’s autobiography “Life” is irritating, frustrating, disappointing and, at times, revealing.
When I say “revealing,” I’m not talking about his tales of extensive drug use which, at a guess, take up probably a third of the book. What he was using when is of little interest to me. And I’m not talking about his attitudes towards women whom — no surprise — he often refers to as “bitches.”
I’m talking about the real insights he gives the reader into the creation of many Rolling Stones songs, a detailed recounting of his contribution in terms of chord progressions, riffs and other musical elements to such songs at the core of rock ‘n’ roll as “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Satisfaction.”
Regarding that last tune, he writes:
It was down to one little foot pedal, the Gibson fuzz tone, a little box they put out at that time. I’ve only ever used foot pedals twice — the other time was for “Some Girls” in the late 70s, when I used an XR box with a nice hillbilly Sun Records slap-echo on it. But effects are not my thing. I just go for quality of sound. Do I want this sharp and hard and cutting, or do I want warm, smooth “Beast of Burden” stuff? Basically, you go: Fender or Gibson?
In “Satisfaction” I was imagining horns, trying to imitate their sound to put on the track later when we recorded. I’d already head the riff in my head the way Otis Redding did it later, thinking, this is gonna be the horn line. But we didn’t have any horns, and I was only going to lay down a dub. The fuzz tone came in handy so I could give a shape to what the horns were supposed to do. But the fuzz tone had never been heard before anywhere, and that’s the sound that caught everybody’s imagination.
I am a dunce when it comes to musical instruments. I’ve never been able to play anything, and I know nothing about how musical sounds are generated.
So when Richards writes about a fuzz tone and a slap-echo, I take him at his word. It’s similar to when I was reading the many maritime novels of Patrick O’Brian (who, it turns out, is also a favorite author of Richards). I know nothing about sailing, so I take what O’Brian writes on faith that he knows what he’s talking about. Same thing with Richards, except I can hear, as evidence of his knowledge, the results of the creative process he is describing.
Also here’s the thing: He writes about such things in a way that gives me a glimmer of understanding of what’s going on, even if I can’t grasp the details. So, when Richards is talking about giving the opening riff of the song a distortion of some sort, I can listen to the song and hear — a bit — how the distortion adds to the feel of the tune.
This was eye-opening to me because, even though, like everyone else, I responded viscerally to the siren call of that riff, I never thought about how the riff was produced in that particular way.
Even more eye-opening was his reference to wanting that opening to sound like horns.
Yes, that’s what the chords sound like, now that I listen again with this in mind. And not only for this song, but I realize that the starts of several other Rolling Stone songs also sound as if the guitar were trying to be horn-like.
It was a wonderful gift from a musician of high talent and achievement to a lowly non-musician like me.
I guess it would be possible to sift through “Life” and gather together all of the many descriptions Richards provides about the creation of many, many songs. Now, that would be a book that wouldn’t disappoint.
Alas, this is an autobiography, and every autobiography is about image. As a result, much of “Life” is taken up with feeding the expectations of fans who have grown accustomed to Richards’s image of a drug user extraordinaire and someone who thumbs his nose at just about everyone else, particularly anyone in authority, even within his own band — i.e., Mick Jagger.
At one point, Richards complains that, during a tour appearance in Tempe, Arizona, the band was introduced as “Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones!” For pages on end, again and again, Richards harrumphs about how Jagger has always been trying to portray himself as the leader of the group.
In the toilet
Yet, he does it himself in his own descriptions of the production of one Rolling Stones album after another. He even brags about forcing the rest of the band members to stand around for up to an hour doing nothing while waiting for him to come out of the toilet (where he has gone to take drugs and meditate on what music they should play).
Maybe Richards really is the one who makes many of the musical decisions for the band. Maybe not. The Beatles wouldn’t let Paul McCartney take that high-horse approach, and somehow I have the suspicion that the Stones wouldn’t give Richards quite so much power.
On the other hand, for the general public, Jagger certainly seems like the leader of the group — at least as much as the Stones have a leader at all.
Trashing those around him
In a way, Richards’s long-documented hate-love relationship with Jagger is to be expected, given their strong talents and egos.
Nonetheless, in his autobiography, Richards doesn’t have to take such an anti-Jagger approach, and, by no means, does he have to trash so many other people he’s worked with, including Chuck Berry, Bill Wyman, Jerry Lee Louis, Billy Preston, Brian Jones and Mick Taylor.
With each of these people, Richards usually has one or two good things to say, and then he unloads a dump truck of dirt to sully their reputations. Now, wait, you might argue, these are rock ‘n’ rollers we’re talking about here. They’re supposed to be disreputable. True, but Richards makes it clear that he finds each of these and many others morally, musically, physically and/or mentally wanting, even for a rocker.
Where’s the chemistry?
What I found particularly frustrating is how Richards trashes other members of the Stones (except the sainted Charlie Watts), but gives little or no indication of how he must have worked well with each of the other members earlier in the band’s history.
To read this book, one would think, for instance, that Brian Jones was a loser from day one. Could that have been true? I don’t know why Richards couldn’t have written about how he and Jones had worked together to help develop the sound of the Rolling Stones.
This tendency is even more egregious when Richards writes about Jagger. Again, there is precious little about how they worked together in writing many of the Stones songs, about the give-and-take of that process. There is even less about how they were best friends early in the band’s career.
The Jagger-Richards relationship is one of the most essential partnerships in rock. Yet, here, Richards has really nothing to say — except to complain for pages and pages about why, later in the band’s evolution, he came to dislike Jagger.
There is much that is irritating about this book, and one perhaps small irritation is how Richards portrays himself as someone how thumbs his nose at the rich and powerful — while he seems blind to the fact that, for nearly half a century, he has been one of the rich and powerful.
He writes about buying this mansion and that one and another one here and one over there. He talks about being a poor black under his skin, like his many Jamaican friends, but c’mon!
As he shows in this book, he’s a rich dude who pushes people around and surrounds himself with sycophants.
And don’t get me going on what a clueless loser he is as a parent.
Still, when Richards writes about music — about creating the sound — I can almost forgive him his book’s sins.
But not quite.
Patrick T. Reardon