Classic Rock Review

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Life by Keith Richards (2011)


This memoir, written with the help of writer James Fox, is an intricately detailed account of Keith Richards life, both in and out of music-but mostly in. All the stories are here-the funny, the touching, the horrendous, and the amazing. Some are well known, some weren’t even known to Richards-he only hears later, from others who were with him, what went on. And he’s put it all in this book. Included are 32 pages of b&w and color photographs (including one of the band, with Jagger driving, in a vintage red convertible, across the Brooklyn Bridge) in two groups, plus photos throughout the book itself chronicling Richards’ life. Also of interest is an early diary that Richards kept detailing the bands early gigs and impressions of the music the band played.

Richards has been known as many things-“the human riff”, as some kind of prince of a dark underworld filled with drugs, booze, and skull rings, as “Keef”, a rock ‘n’ roll pirate, as someone who should be dead (several times over) from massive drug use and other lifestyle choices, and as someone hounded by law enforcement-looking to incarcerate this bad example to all the kids. But Richards is also known as a settled (for him) family man. But somehow he’s survived it all. And now, with this autobiography, he’s letting us into his life. This book looks back at all the times-good, bad, and just plain strange.

Beginning with Richards’ boyhood in post-war England, no stone is left unturned in detailing his young life. A life which changed forever with his discovery of American blues. From that era the book details the formation of The Rolling Stones (I would like to have learned more about Brian Jones’ in relation to the formation of the group), which changed his life again-a life he continues to the present.

This book is important, interesting, and at times, harrowing, with a myriad of details surrounding Richards, his band, and anyone caught up in their universe of music, good times, misery, drugs, violence, and just plain weirdness. But the book also shows another side of Keith Richards. The pain he felt (and still feels) when his young son Tara, died while Richards was on tour. The loss of musician and friend/band hanger-on, Gram Parsons. Looking back with regret as people close to him sunk into a hellish pit of drug addiction. And Richards’ own account of his years of drug use-especially heroin and the misery he brought on himself, even while he was careful not to go to far over the edge.

Of course no memoir concerning Richards would be complete without accounts of the ups and downs, over many years, with Mick Jagger. There’s a number of fascinating asides and insights concerning their ideas of what direction the band should follow. Unfortunately, but not surprising, Jagger (and the other band members) are not heard from. That’s unfortunate because of all the valuable insight concerning Richards’ life on and off the stage, and the inner workings of one of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll bands, that his long time band mates could bring to the story. But others who have known Richards over the course of many years were interviewed. People like Ronnie Spector, Jim Dickinson, Andrew Oldham, Bobby Keys, and a number of fellow musicians and friends, all have telling bits and pieces to add to the overall picture of just who Richards is.

The detail Richards and Fox have put into this well written memoir is almost staggering. Reading about the early days of the band is exciting and fascinating, if for no other reason the era they came up in is long since vanished. The discovery and idolization of musicians like Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Slim Harpo, and other blues greats, trying to emulate the hard scrabble lifestyles of American blues artists, the small scruffy clubs the band played in the beginning, living in abject poverty and squalor, the large concerts in later years, the songs, the albums, the drugs, and the many fascinating (and sometimes disgusting) characters that drift in and out of Richards’ life-it’s all here. And taken together, this is a story only Keith Richards could live (and survive) to write about in such detail.

While there have been other decent books on Richards and/or the Stones, for the straight, unvarnished truth, as he sees it and lived it, this is the book that matters. This memoir, written in a Richards-to-you conversational style, is interesting, exciting, gritty, informative, harrowing, and important. And with this book, written in his own words, we can’t get much closer to the man and his life than that.

May 9, 2013 Posted by | Book Life by Keith Richards | , | 1 Comment

Keith Richards Talk Is Cheap (1988)


Keith Richards probably never ever even dreamt of making a solo album – until he was hard pressed to it by Jagger. He gave everything he ever had to the Rolling Stones, and he never had or, at least, always controlled his ambitions within the band. But when Mick dissolved the band (and yes, everybody knows that it was primarily Mick’s fault), what was a poor boy to do except to sing in a rock an’ roll band – his own rock an’ roll band?

So, as much as good ol’ Keith hated it, he was simply forced to assemble his own bunch of musicians, come up with some lyrics and croak out most of the vocals – himself, because, ambitionless as he was, he really didn’t want to become the next Jeff Beck. The guys he plays and jams with are mostly nameless, honest studio workers, and the ‘big star’ of the album is Keith’s co-producer Steve Jordan: he plays bass, drums and probably something else, plus he co-wrote most of the tunes with Keith.

Critics loved this album – and I can easily understand them. History has probably overrated it, but there’s no denying the fact that Talk Is Cheap was an astonishing accomplishment for Keith: nobody thought he would be able to do a record at least half that good. Now see here, it doesn’t always sound like the Stones, this one. First of all, it has no Mick Jagger on vocals. A banality, yes, but an important one. I’m not the biggest fan in the world of Keith’s vocals.

I mean, I certainly don’t have to bring up the fact that the guy can’t sing worth a dime – that goes without saying; and sometimes, his dreamy, croaky and soulful vocals can be an interesting distraction from Mick’s harsh, sly tone. But when he sings throughout a whole album, that’s damn hard to take still. Also, if you already enjoyed my Stones’ reviews, you probably already know that I’m not a fan of what I’d call ‘typical Keith-style boggy ballad’, stuff like ‘Sleep Tonight’, ‘Coming Down Again’, all that crud, which is very soulful and emotional, for sure, but lacks strong melodies completely.

Of course, Keith couldn’t miss the chance to insert a couple of such babes onto this record: ‘Locked Away’ and ‘Make No Mistake’, to be exact. The former just drags at five minute plus, and does nothing for me, although I understand perfectly that devoted Keith fans will get additional years of life out of listening to it. ‘Make No Mistake’ is a little better, maybe just because there’s something endearing in the way Keith gurgles out these ‘make no mistake… abooooout it…’ lines all the time.

But in any case, it’s not the ballads that are gonna make this album. For an ex-Rolling Stone (soon-to-be-Rolling-Stone again), the general tone on the album is remarkably soft: most of the rockers are subdued and subtle, with little distortion or ‘ass-kicking’ to get in your way. Nevertheless, Keith still plays that six-string in a way that no living man on Earth can. Listen to his pulsating, incredible licks on ‘It Means A Lot’ to know what I mean. How on Earth can he achieve that incredible rock-rock-rockin’ effect by playing just a few chords in a few places? Over the years, he’d learned that famous ‘syncopated’ style of his that could only be equalled by Pete Townshend in his prime days – but Townshend’s prime days are long over, while Keith is still in perfect form for a rhythm guitarist (not for a soloist, though). And most of the songs here display his guitar playing talents, thank you Lord – after all, the back cover of the album, with the famous fingers, the famous skull-ring and the famous guitar, should really tell you something.

Apart from ‘It Means A Lot’, there’s a great funky opener, ‘Big Enough’, that at first seems like a more self-assured, real-song-like rewrite of ‘Hot Stuff’ – but it isn’t, it’s actually a separate strong song in its own rights. ‘Take It So Hard’ is the song that rocks out the fiercest on here – with lots of prime riffage, some cool vocals and a great party atmosphere. And don’t bypass the jolly Fifties sendup on ‘I Could Have Stood You Up’ – together with some doo-wop harmonies and funny lyrics. Yeah, Keith is no great lyricsman, but he does well for a beginner. He even summons all his forces to write a venomous, How-Do-You-Sleep-ish message to Mick (‘You Don’t Move Me’), and succeeds – come to think of it, it isn’t even venomous, it just sounds like an innocent, angry, but not really thoroughly pissed off scolding of an older brother who’s always been an example but isn’t any more. ‘You made the wrong motion, drank the wrong potion’.

All in all, no Rolling Stones fan will ever be disappointed by this record. Arguably, it is considered the best offer by a solo Stones member that money can buy – and while I certainly disagree, because, shame on me, I enjoy Mick’s solo output a lot better, it is quite decent and, well, definitely better than Dirty Work, at least. It is, however, obvious that Keith really needs Mick. The Beatles’ solo careers proved that John didn’t need Paul, and Paul didn’t need John – they could get on by themselves just as well, even if with a diminished commercial and artistic success. Keith and Mick cannot successfully function without each other, not for a long time period of time, at least.

Mick needs Keith’s great riffs and his ‘primal’ sense of melody; whereas Keith certainly needs Mick’s vocals and sense of experimentalism. The latter is especially important: perhaps the greatest flaw of Talk Is Cheap is that it is horrendously formulaic. People complain about the Stones’ mythic ‘formula’ (although I hardly ever understand what they’re talking about); well, this album certainly has a ‘formula’, and it gets a bit tiring near the end, though on this particular release it never gets too tiring. Buy it still! And get Keith to autograph it to you! Hurry up – he’s still alive, miraculous as it may seem!

May 6, 2013 Posted by | Keith Richards Talk Is Cheap | | Leave a comment