A Leaf Through Keith

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Rhiannon Hill reads between the lines......

I was ‘there’ in the 1960s and we adolescents really did divide into the Beatle tribe and the Stones tribe.... me, Beatle, girls mostly did.

As a working semi pro musician I’ve of course encountered Stones material over the years, and as a former journalist, their folklore, but it’s important to approach Keith Richards’s autobiography, as Neil Young said, ‘mining for a heart of gold.’ In this respect the book definitely offers ‘Satisfaction.’

 In ‘LIFE’, now out on Kindle, Keith carefully positions himself as a highly intelligent,vulnerable, loving, violent workaholic and hard partying musical genius. He was also a bewildered, angry exhausted junkie who couldn’t do adult relationships, a musician so ‘professional’ he routinely made stadium audiences wait two hours while he fretted over a shepherd’s pie.

Keith cleverly owns his bad boy behaviour, specifically the mountains of substances, in the full knowledge that for some, regret and insight are enough, for others the drugs still work, so the romance is carved in, er, stone.

Thus we are treated to a fairly genuine read, rather than the usual straight hagiography. Apart from the jawdropping nostalgia for ‘pure drugs’,  well, yes Keith, you could afford them, it offers the chance for a prurient peep into his version of the rock star lifestyle.

The definitive, clear description of what really happened between the author and Jagger is a treat, he keeps it simple and it probably is. But even though the hard drugs are long gone, the madness rumbles on, with our heroic survivor still apparently ripping it up around the globe in his late sixties while inexplicably, claiming to yearn for a life as a librarian. This is classic rock star whingeyness. (I once interviewed Peter Noone, from Herman’s Hermits. He said, ‘oh, I always wanted to be a reporter.’ I resisted the urge to punch him and say, OK then rich rock star, let’s swap, see how that will go.)

But Keith is definitely ‘feeling the love’.

keith richards keef the rolling stones rhiannon hill zani 5.j

For me, his emotional journey is far more fascinating than the list of guitars owned and jails visited, although I also absolutely loved the disingenuous descriptions of how he plays guitar, how he learned to sing, how he puts it together in the studio, how he runs things on stage, I struggled to keep remembering that among musicians the consensus is that it is the Stones as a unit who are the phenomenon, and technically it’s originators, with the possible exception of Charlie Watts, who, while a respected jazzer doesn’t push the rock ‘n roll envelope much, are not, well, that technical. He also admits they haven’t written a really good hit song for years and that all his own stuff just bombed.

Marketing, charisma, image maintenance and the age old skill of the famous to recruit the right drones, is probably what’s sustained The Stones rather than musical genius. The touching video on YouTube of Chuck Berry teaching Keith the riffs and licks to ‘Carol’  - wow, even I can play that and I’m not really a guitarist! - proves that Steve Vai he ain’t,. He goes on a lot about guitar playing, especially the hilarious – ‘I discovered I only needed five strings so people started making me five string guitars’, oh, pass the sick bag Alice. All you’ve got to do all day is play the guitar, as Keith himself admits, you’re always learning, so tuning down is one thing, but five strings?

Your celebrity autobiographer knows he’ll have to make it interesting with a bit of soul baring, but he does gloss over some of the major nastiness. That’s ok. If you’re going to become a Stone you probably won’t be able to be very nice, especially in the early days, and he does, much of the time, own it a fair bit.

This is also a War Baby, while he could justifiably claim to be among the creators of the social revolutions of the 1960s he was brought up as a teenager in the 1950s, so I can just about forgive him for a whole chapter where he refers to groupies as ‘bitches’, which as a member of the Germaine Greer generation absolutely grates on me.

What I also hated was the assertion that being a junkie was ok, the stories of expensive lawyers, and local politicians in the pocket, that enabled the Stones to be above the law. Never mind butterflies and wheels, Keith went on to offend over and over and got away with it.

But what I liked most about Keith is that unlike Jagger, he does not seem to have bought into the jet setting, social climbing bullcrap that the Rich and Powerful believe defines them. Keith is quite happy to rescue a tatty mongrel, change  babies’ nappies, and hide in a vast crumbling house with no heating during the Winter. Quite happy to spend Xmas back in humble Dartford, importing the exotic and psychotic Anita round to Doris’s with the kids when he probably could have been cavorting with royalty on Mustique. But of course Keith’s does have some starfucking history, being awed when Hoagy Carmichael phoned him, and of course, the Rolling Stone who gathered Kate Moss.

‘LIFE’, unlike a lot of celeb autobiographies, probably has enough grains of truth in it to give a tiny glimpse into whoever the real Keith might be. If you can see Keith’s stories through the lens of what a sane, mature person would do, you do see him a bit more clearly. Money makes some things ok for some people, but it doesn’t mean they are any better than you or I. Those who get fame, money and adulation from their late teens just don’t get the chance to grow up. As your body ages, that adolescent is still trapped inside. Keith has had a very long journey to any kind of adulthood.

This is evidenced by the incongruous tutting over Mick’s many infidelities while espousing the ‘Rock Stars can do groupies and still be married’ philosophy himself. Marlon’s patchy education. Letting his elderly mum bring up the children while he jets around being A Stone and Being Stoned.  Writing songs with Mick in the 90s from different ends of the studio,  the infantile public sniping and the long, destructive years of tolerance to Anita Pallenberg in her psychotic period. As his fantasy alter ego, Cap’n Jack Sparrow’s father might have said, this book is a glorious romp through the piratical progress of a reprobate rock star. I’m just waiting for the biography......I have the feeling in that, he’d be painted a little more black.

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© Words - Rhiannon Hill

Read 4098 times Last modified on Friday, 08 May 2015 16:02
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