Keith Richards talks of a lifelong bender

[3 November 2010]

By Greg Kot

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

“Life” by Keith Richards and James Fox; Little, Brown and Co. (576 pages, $29.99)


Ever wondered what’s the longest Keith Richards had stayed up while pursuing a song, drugs, kicks, the next misadventure?

Nine days, it turns out.

“I have been conscious for at least three lifetimes,” Richards writes in his fast-paced, pull-no-punches autobiography, “Life” (Little Brown and Co.), estimating that he sleeps on average twice a week.

The Rolling Stones guitarist has built a well-deserved reputation for indestructibility in those three lifetimes, surviving drug addiction, legal shakedowns, life-threatening accidents, a parade of unsavory companions and unstable lovers, and his own reckless nature. Along the way, he co-wrote some of the greatest songs in rock history and created an archetype of cool that seems only to expand with the years. In a culture awash with impermanence, the guitarist with the skull ring and the half­cocked smile endures as a symbol of outlaw integrity.

Underpinning it all are a devotion to music and an innate musicality as a guitarist, songwriter and band leader that make all the rest seem like a series of distractions. For what really matters about Richards is the sound of those records he created with the Stones at their best, and this book unpacks the secrets of that quest with a passion as searing as the guitar solo on “Sympathy for the Devil” or the ringing, distorted riff that ushers in “Gimme Shelter.” Richards has always been a great interview, in part because he never seems to have an agenda beyond telling it like it is.

His transparency stands in stark contrast to his partner in the Stones, Mick Jagger, the guarded, glib celebrity half of one of rock’s most enduring, if fractious couples.

That relationship is at the heart of “Life,” and it is a complex and often unsettling one. Richards is brutally frank about his own shortcomings, and he doesn’t spare Jagger. They move from close-knit blues fanatics to rock’s decadent Glimmer Twins to warring divorcees to alienated co-CEOs presiding over a multimillion-dollar corporation that lumbers into stadiums around the world every few years to play 30-year-old songs for fans paying as much as $500 a ticket.

The pair bonded in London during the early ‘60s on a mutual love of the hardest-edged Chicago blues; they were part of a small but soon-to-be powerful sect of callow British youth transformed by the sounds of the first generation of Southern blues men who migrated North in search of jobs after World War II.

For the Brits, these artists were deities whose every musical note demanded their absolute attention.

“You were supposed to spend every waking hour studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson,” Richards writes. “That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin.”

Jagger, Richards and Brian Jones were roommates who played blues covers with a certain attitude, a spirit that set them apart from their more academic counterparts on the nascent British blues scene. When Jagger-Richards became a songwriting team, Jones was marginalized and eventually ousted from his leadership position. Three weeks after departing the band, he was found dead in his swimming pool. Even more than 40 years after Jones’ death, Richards refuses to indulge in any false sentimentality or regretfulness.

He is equally unsparing of former lovers, wives, advisers, bandmates. The tone may be cruel, but it also comes across as unfailingly honest. Not for nothing does Richards insist that he still carries a knife.

He sounds disingenuous only when addressing the Stones’ infamously sexist (misogynist?) attitude toward women in songs such as “Stupid Girl,” “Under My Thumb,” “Stray Cat Blues,” “Some Girls” and countless others: “Maybe we were winding them up. And maybe some of the songs opened up their hearts a little, or their minds, to the idea of we’re women, we’re strong.”

Richards is at his best when digging into the reasons he plays music, and how he creates it.

He remains an appreciator of bands and the mechanics of how they interact, whether Muddy Waters’ quintet or James Brown’s Famous Flames. He would sit for hours listening to their records and dissecting how they worked, then applied these principles to the Stones.

For Richards, it wasn’t about separating the guitars, bass and drums but allowing the sounds to bleed together to create one forceful entity. He saw silence as a vast canvas, and his mission was to leave spaces in the music for the distortion and drone to drift through like phantoms that haunt and resonate.

The Stones, he insisted, must be minimalists. He began shaping sounds on a five-string open-tuned guitar, at last tapping into the vastness he heard on Elvis Presley’s “Heart­break Hotel” or Reed’s “Little Rain.”

He is frank about the group’s decline. His drug use caused him to check out through much of the ‘70s, a period when Jagger assumed dictatorial control over the band. When Richards got clean in the ‘80s, his rift with Jagger only widened, and by the ‘90s the former mates who once wrote classic songs head to head in their manager’s kitchen now couldn’t even stand to be in the recording studio at the same time. Richards expresses his disappointment in Jagger, but his attitude toward his partner has never been a secret; in one interview with the Chicago Tribune in the ‘90s, Richards was so disgusted with his songwriting partner that he referred to Jagger only as “she.”

People grow apart, and Richards acknowledges that he’s at least partially to blame when friends and lovers drifted from his life.

Only music never let him down, in part because “there is no ‘properly’” in how to play his beloved blues. Within that vast, lawless space, Keith Richards created his sound, which in turn shaped one of the greatest characters rock ‘n’ roll has ever known.

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