Friday, December 02, 2011

A Life Extraordinary

It's taken a while but I have finally reached the end of Life by Keith Richards (with James Fox). It is a real page turner, all 547 pages of it. It's interesting that it takes Keith some 480 pages to trace from his childhood in Deptford through to the Stones 1989 'Steel Wheels' tour and then under a hundred to cover the next twenty years a reflection perhaps that the Stones contribution to music has publicly diminished over that period. Looking at the biography of Joe Strummer, which covers the period 1952-2002 I noticed there are over 600 pages but I guess that size isn't everything.

The book is as much a love letter to the band and to Mick Jagger as it is about the rollicking adventures of the 'human riff' and the real life pirate of the Caribbean. Its all in there from the humble beginnings through the flat sharing years to the  drugs (it's a good job this book isn't available in scratch and sniff format) the relationships, the musicians and the family. What comes through loud and clear above everything else is that Keith loves music and he loves musicians. The kick that he gets from meeting his heroes jumps out of the page whether its John Lennon, Willie Nelson, Jerry Lee Lewis or Chuck Berry (although he does find the latter a bit difficult at times) he loves them and embraces them, sometimes even feeling humbled in their company.

There are points in the book where you raise an eyebrow at some of the goings on and despite being a Keith fan you can't help think that at times he's an old hypocrite, something he acknowledges along the way. The stories behind those classic Stones albums are all there as you'd expect plus the real stories behind some of the more ridiculous tabloid headlines down the years.  The pages dealing with the reuniting with his Dad are touching, the meeting with his future in-laws hilarious and the tales of guns and knives quite scary. The growth of the band from the formative days in Richmond, where Bill Wyman gets the job as bassist because he has his own amp, through to the drug busts and the gig watched by a million people in Rio are all there. 

He makes the point on page 545 (of 547) that people are always carping on about the age of the band, something he says that people never did with Basie or Ellington and he's right of course. I suspect that's more to do with the fact that jazz always seemed 'grown-up' whilst pop and then rock and roll were something for the kids.

One muso fact that I learned explained something that has been bugging me since I was a teenager, the sound of Keith's guitar. You can hear it most obviously on Jumpin Jack Flash and Street Fighting Man, it's the sound of open tuning, a technicality way above my head but it comes down to the fact that Keith plays a guitar that only has five strings on it and the explanation of how he discovered it and then discovered that other people used it but had never said anything about it is one of the best passages of the book.     

It's also an eye opener to see how little money the band made from touring until the late 1980's when a change in management and strategy saw them embarking on stadium tours that at least guaranteed them income whilst album sales were negligible in relation to their place in rock music history. Even then though Keith's main concern is how the band sound and whether or not the sound will be carried out of the stadium by the wind, he also explains how due to the acoustics of outdoor gigs the band sometimes have to guess from Jagger's movements where exactly the singer is in any particular song.

It's a fascinating read about the life of one of life's great characters and as I have said whilst the band may not have recorded anything worth listening to since around 1978's 'Miss You' the subject has lived his life to the max.


Span Ows said...

Yeah, well, by primarily using open tunings for fingered chording, he developed that distinctive style of syncopated and ringing I-IV chording...

ahem, you can tell I wrote that, right?

Sounds like a good read! Didn't know that Jagger and Richards were schoolboy neighbours and only realised a common musical taste by a coincidental meeting on a train many years later (Wiki)

Paul said...

I'm impressed, I would have expected that from Shy!

Right about the wiki entry, another useless fact from the book is that Mick Jagger wrote 'It's Only Rock n Roll' for David Bowie because Bowie couldn't get arrested at the time, Keith heard the rough demo and said, "That's too good for him, we're keeping that."

Bowie then went onto create Ziggy Stardust instead.

A Northern Bloke said...

The open tuning is really just a way of making life easier for yourself if you play a lot of chords. Also, slide guitar is quite difficult without open tuning.

Paul said...

See I knew he'd know!

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