Friday, September 18, 2015

No Ordinary Life: Keith Richards' Autobiography Gives Rare Inside Account of the Stones and More

There's a reason Robin Leach's show was popular in the late eighties and nineties. He took people where they'd never been, and gave them a glimpse of a life they would never experience themselves. And this is exactly what Keith Richards' autobiography delivers, a life like no other, told straight up by a guy who epitomized the "sex, drugs and rock and roll" ethic. The book is called Life.

I am listening to the audio version of the book, co-authored by Richards and James Fox, read by Johnny Depp (first quarter) and Brit Joe Hurley.  Here are a few of the things that stood out for me or especially interested me, in no particular order.

1. The inside story of how Keith and Mick met and those early days of commitment to the Chicago blues are truly fascinating for rock historians. Keith, Mick and a fellow named Stu were so totally into learning the music their entire waking life was listening to music and practicing. They considered it a violation of their commitment to even go see girls. The shoplifted food in order to survive because they had no money and no gigs. Their biggest initial problem was how to acquire Charlie Watts as their drummer. He played real gigs that paid him and they couldn't pay him anything. This presented a serious problem, a problem they eventually resolved. And the rest, as they say, is history.

2. How Keith and Mick came to be songwriters was exceptionally interesting to me. For some reason I'd never taken the Jagger-Richards team seriously as writers. In reading Keith's account I came to appreciate far more deeply how serious he was about the craft of writing, and how the two worked together bring lyrics and riffs together.

Keith describes the process all writers go through in which they begin to see things from a more detached view, seeing every experience as an opportunity to translate life into a story or poem or, in his case, a song. Sometimes they wrote songs that didn't fit the image the Stones were crafting, and they gave those to others, such as As Tears Go By, which was initially recorded by Marianne Faithful.

3. The role Brian Jones played with the Stones was different from what I thought I knew. Initially he was added value for the boys, but when LSD washed over the scene in 1966 along with fame, Jones began a three year meltdown, never fully recovering his center. Though remarkably talented he became a liability to the group.

A year ago I picked up a copy of Anthony Scaduto's book on Mick Jagger, Everybody's Lucifer, which painted the darkest possible picture of the manner in which Jagger contributed to Brian Jones' death. Scaduto, a former crime reporter, gives the impression that Mick killed Brian Jones. Keith Richard's account of the events surrounding Brian's drowning may indeed have involved an accidental manslaughter, but nothing to do with Mick.

4.  The story of how Decca came to sign the Stones is quite hilarious. It's one of the great stories of rock history how Decca Records turned down the Beatles because, "The guitar is on the way out." By the time Andrew Loog Oldham brought the Stones to Decca, the Beatles were already a phenomenon and Decca was a laughingstock. Not wanting to make the same mistake twice, these suits signed them up, no matter how much they hated what they stood for or disliked them.

5. Richard's perspective on Altamont makes the film Gimme Shelter complete.

6. How Exile on Main Street came to be is a lengthy part of the book. The British tax structure is what make them exiles. Some of the income was taxed at the 82% rate and another kind of income was being filched at a 98% tax rate. George Harrison wrote about this on Revolver: "There's one for you nineteen for me." I didn't realize Harrison wasn't kidding.

There's a lesson here. Critics of the rich want to force them to hand over their wealth through taxation. Why wouldn't they do what the Stones did? "Hey, this is bull--" That's a conundrum that will require creative thinking on the part of better minds than I.

7. Keith Richards has had more cold turkey experiences than any living human that I know of. He speaks graphically about many of these, and we understand that Dante's descriptions of hell may not have been far off. Richards experienced a life with many highs, but some pretty ugly rugged places along the way.

8. Details about drugs and women feature prominently in his life story. Of the former he says straight up, "Don't try this at home."

* * * *
Much more can be said, and you can read it all -- or hear it -- here.

The Publishers Weekly review at Amazon states:
Johnny Depp and Joe Hurley capture Richards's rock 'n' roll spirit in a wise, charming, and textured narration of the famed guitarist's memoir. Tracing Richards's trajectory from boyhood in England through the formation of the Stones to the band's rise to world domination, this audiobook is chock-full of frank revelations and enlightening stories behind the music. The three readers do superb turns—but the seemingly arbitrary switches between them can be jarring and confusing. Depp's narration is steady, well-paced, clear, and grounded. He produces a delicious range of voices for dialogue (most notably a drunk judge in Arkansas), and Richards himself sounds a bit like an elderly, bluesy Jack Sparrow. Hurley captures the voice of Richards throughout, narrating in a gritty, growl that is spot-on. And sections read by Richards are a real treat; his raspy voice is unmistakable and haunting. A Little, Brown hardcover. (Oct.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Audio CD edition.

One of the other reviewers wrote this:
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.

The book is called Life. There's nothing quite like it.

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