Pacific Rim Review of Books

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“Just Like a Rollin’ Stone”

Joseph Blake

Keith Richards
Little Brown. 564 p., cloth, $33.99

Rock and roll outlaw Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has produced an honest, rollicking, detailed and surprisingly moving autobiography. With the editorial aid of James Fox, whose own White Mischief was an acclaimed record of hedonistic British nobility, Richards has written a smart, incisive narrative. It’s a “take it or leave it” telling, ripe with bawdy, caustic wit and brutal honesty.

In a conversational, albeit profane, literary voice, the musician traces his love of music back to a council estate boyhood and through a long, enduring love affair with the blues. A shared love of blues birthed the Rolling Stones. It’s a bond that still links Richards and his writing partner, Mick Jagger, who Richards often refers to as Brenda in his bitchy, gossipy recollections.

Richards uses his diaries, letters, notebooks, as well as the reminiscences of other participants to sketch bawdy tales of sex, drugs and rock and roll. It’s funny, in places introspective, and told in a spare, confident voice. It’s a joy to read. Richards spends a lot of his book describing and reflecting upon his drug usage, a habit that landed him at the top of British music publication New Music Express’ list of musicians “most likely to die” for a decade.

“It’s not only to the high quality of drugs I had that I attribute my survival. I was very meticulous about how much I took,” Richards explains. “I’d never put more in to get a little higher. That’s where most people fuck up on drugs. It’s the greed involved that never really affected me. People think once they’ve got this high, if they take some more they’re going to get a little higher. There’s no such thing. Especially with cocaine.” Except for a short spell at the bottom of the heroin ladder shooting “Mexican shoe scrapings” with Gram Parsons, Richards enjoyed pharmaceutical-quality drugs. Early in his habit, he bought from Britain’s National Health-registered junkies. Later, he describes a nine-day binge (his personal record) without sleep while recording rock masterpieces during all-night sessions.

Richards also notes the horror of the apomorphine cure, a cold turkey treatment complete with sadistic nurse introduced to the musician by William Burroughs. Parsons and Richards briefly kicked their habits “with a bucket to throw up in, if you could stop twitching for enough seconds to get near it.” Better than the harrowing tales of police, prison time, addiction, and death is Richards’ depiction of making music. You don’t have to be a guitarist to gain insight from the musician’s straight-talking description of his great discovery: five string open-G tuning derived from banjo tunings from the rural south and introduced to Richards by slide guitarist Ry Cooder. Removing the big, bottom string on the guitar, the sounds drone and resonance is central to Richards’ guitar playing.

“Logically it shouldn’t work, but when you play it, and that note keeps ringing even though you’ve now changed to another chord, you realize that that is the root note of the whole thing you’re trying to do. It’s the drone.”

Richards goes on to connect West African music, Don Everly’s open G tuning, Mozart and Vivaldi, and train rhythms, adding “Five strings cleared out the clutter. It gave me the licks and laid on the textures.”

The guitarist’s classic riffs and spare lyrical ideas are completed by Jagger’s editorial additions in Keef’s telling of the Jagger-Richards collaboration. He makes a pretty strong case for his importance to the duo’s creations, while describing the long friendship’s strains, estrangements and partial reconciliation. He has a healthy respect for the Stones’ historical importance, as well as its debt to previous forms and masters of the blues.

“When we put out “Little Red Rooster”, a raw Willie Dixon blues with slide guitar and all, it was a daring move at the time, November 1964. We were getting no-no’s from the record company, management, everyone else. But we felt we were on the crest of a wave and we could push it. It was almost defiance of pop,” Richards writes. “In our arrogance at the time, we wanted to make a statement. ‘I’m a little red rooster/too lazy to crow for day.’ See if you can get that to the top of the charts, motherfucker. Song about a chicken. Mick and I stood up and said, come on, let’s push it. This is what we’re fucking about. And the floodgates burst after that, suddenly Muddy and Howlin’ Wolf and Buddy Guy were getting gigs and working. It was a breakthrough. And the record got to number one. I’m absolutely sure what we were doing made Berry Gordy at Motown capable of pushing his stuff elsewhere, and it certainly rejuvenated Chicago blues as well.”

Near the end of his raw narrative from inside the rock and roll crossfire hurricane of the transformational 1960s and ’70s, Richards’ passion for black music takes him to Jamaica, reggae music, and the hypnotic drum rhythms of Rastafarianism. This leads to his work with the Wingless Angels, his own band the XPensive Winos, and a home in the Caribbean. His accident in Fiji where he nearly died from falling out of a tree in 2006 is detailed with panache: the New Zealand brain surgeon who operated on him had lionized Richards from his boyhood years. The book notes get-well messages from fans including Jerry Lee Lewis, Willie Nelson, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, who wrote, “Dear Keith, You’ve always been one of my heroes.” Married to a Staten Island-bred model and a self-described family man clean of a serious drug habit for two decades, the 66-year old Richards includes a recipe for bangers and mash, as well as advice on how to use a knife in a street-fight in this sprawling autobiography of a life fully lived. With his Prince of Darkness long hours, Richards must be at least one hundred in normal human years, and this autobiography gathers a lot of great stories. As he writes on the dust jacket, “This is the life. Believe it or not I haven’t forgotten any of it.”

Joseph Blake is Music Editor for PRRB.