Sunday, February 2, 2014

Life by Keith Richards

In his autobiography, Life, guitarist Keith Richards' tone is wryly informal, coarse language and all. This intimacy works very well in the audiobook format [Hachette: 22.5 hr]. Three main narrators perform: Johnny Depp (a few chapters at the beginning and then two again near the end), Joe Hurley (the middle section), and Richards himself (the final chapter). Depp was surprisingly bland and Richards speaks in a half slur, half mumble. Hurley stole the show with his laid-back growl, Cockney swallowed 't's, and obvious delight in the material.

Richards rambles back and forth across time, from drug charges to confessions of marital infidelity to his recipe for shepherd's pie to Rolling Stones tour madness in the 1970s.

"It's very hard to explain all that excessive partying."

Yet Richards seems able to explain, charm or luck his way out of every tight spot. One of my favourite anecdotes is how he got through airport security in New York with a .38 special and five hundred rounds of ammunition:

"I used to carry a lot of heat. None of my guns were legal. [...] In the hold it would have been cool as part of the general baggage. And Bobby got it fucking wrong, and I saw the bag with the shooter in it going through the X-ray. Fuck! No! I yelled out, 'BOB!' and everybody that's looking at the machinery turned round and looked at me and took their eyes off the screen. They didn't see it go through."

Music has always been central to Richards and of course he has much to say about it. Like this:

"When you're making records, you're looking to distort things, basically. That's the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound. And it's not a matter of sheer force; it's always a matter of experiment and playing around. Hey, this is a nice mike, but if we put it a little closer to the amp, and then take a smaller amp instead of the big one and shove the mike right in front of it, cover the mike with a towel, let's see what we get. What you're looking for is where the sounds just melt into one another and you've got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through. If you have it all separated, it's insipid. What you're looking for is power and force, without volume -- an inner power. A way to bring together what everybody in that room is doing and make one sound. So it's not two guitars, piano, bass and drums, it's one thing, it's not five. You're there to create one thing."

"Very soon after Exile, so much technology came in that even the smartest engineer in the world didn't know what was really going on. How come I could get a great drum sound back in Denmark Street with one microphone, and now with fifteen microphones I get a drum sound that's like someone shitting on a tin roof?"

Richards describes himself as a voracious reader. "I'll read anything. And if I don't like it, I'll toss it. When it comes to fiction, it's George MacDonald Fraser, the Flashmans, and Patrick O'Brian. I fell in love with his writing straightaway, at first with Master and Commander. It wasn't primarily the Nelson and Napoleonic period, more the human relationships. He just happened to have that backdrop. [...] It's about friendship, camaraderie. Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin always remind me a bit of Mick and me."

Richards has good and bad things to say about Mick Jagger. "Well, Mick got very big ideas. All lead singers do. It's a known affliction called LVS, lead vocalist syndrome." [...] Mick is quite competitive, and he started to get competitive about other bands. He watched what David Bowie was doing and wanted to do it. Bowie was a major, major attraction. Somebody had taken Mick on in the costume and bizarreness department. But the fact is, Mick could deliver ten times more than Bowie in just a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, singing 'I'm a Man.' Why would you want to be anything else if you're Mick Jagger? Is being the greatest entertainer in show business not enough?"

Jagger had "a spongelike mentality when it came to music. He'd hear something in a club and a week later he'd think he wrote it. [...] The writers' credits under 'Anybody Seen My Baby?' include kd lang and a cowriter. My daughter Angela and her friend were at Redlands and I was playing the record and they start singing this totally different song over it. They were hearing kd lang's 'Constant Craving.' It was Angela and her friend that copped it. And the record was about to come out in a week. Oh shit, he's lifted another one. I don't think he's ever done it deliberately; he's just a sponge."

"I once had a mynah bird, and it wasn't a pleasant experience. When I put music on, it would start yelling at me. It was like living with an ancient, fractious aunt. The fucker was never grateful for anything. Only animal I ever gave away. Maybe it got too stoned; there were a lot of guys smoking weed. To me it was like living with Mick in the room in a cage, always pursing its beak." (I laughed out loud when I got to that part in the audiobook.)

One of the photos in the book shows Richards performing with Chuck Berry for the film Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll. You can see a clip from the 1986 concert at Fox Theatre on YouTube here. Richards writes it's "the best Chuck Berry live you'll ever get." He also explains why he was disappointed with Berry. Find more on YouTube by searching their two names. A clip showing them arguing about an amp is priceless.

Partway through listening to the audiobook last month, I felt a need to hear some Rolling Stones music. I was on holiday in Waikiki, and the only sound files on my iPod were audiobooks and podcasts, but all I needed was internet access. An hour flew by while I watched YouTube clips of Stones concerts that transported me back to my teens.

Partway through writing this review today, I heard the sad news that actor Philip Seymour Hoffman has died, apparently of a heroin overdose. Richards is candid about his past addictions and knows he is fortunate to still be alive. He says he hasn't had a bump since 2006. "Actually, I've done so much bloody blow in my life, I don't miss it an inch. I think it gave me up."

Hooray for that and may you continue to thrive, Mr Richards. I was surprised to find so much pleasure in listening to your Life.

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