Slipping Away

I am not the kind of person who skips over Keith Richards’ grackle-voiced contributions when I listen to Rolling Stones records. Nor would I want to listen to an entire album of his croaking either. Keith’s there to lend a little bit of soulful grit to what’s become a very shiny and polished enterprise, but he’s hardly a born frontman, in either personality or vocal gifts. Not all of the Keith songs are standouts, but they never fail to reset to the mood to an earthier level. As far as the obligatory “let’s let Keith have the mic” numbers go, this one is by far one of my favorites. It is such a poignant outro, without even knowing the knotty history behind Steel Wheels. It’s all there in his voice. You can hear the many miles and years logged to get to that precise moment, the history and tragedy and burned bridges and grudgingly given love that make the Rolling Stones the often barely-functioning family that they are.

Happy

If any Rolling Stones song is Keith’s official anthem, this one’s it. It’s got his attitude and no coincidence, it’s his best performance as frontman. Now compare the decades-apart life performances. In 1972, the sound is dirty, hard and fast, almost chaotic. In 2006 the same song sounds clean and streamlined, the playing impeccably professional, the venue a new world record in itself. Look at those arthritic old monkeys, hopping about on a stage the size of football field. Conventional wisdom says the old performance has to be superior. Yes, things have changed, but was it for better or worse? Because, for one thing, in 1972 Keith Richards was simply in no condition. It’s supposed to be Keith’s big number, but the focus is steadfastly on the irresistible spectacle of Mick Jagger’s arse. Mick’s not hogging the spotlight, he’s just taking up the slack – Keith, eyes rolled back and teeth missing, can barely cough out the chorus. By 2006, though, he’s earned his full three minutes of solo spotlight. In his book, he noted with pride his ongoing improvement as a singer, and you have to notice it – the old devil’s gotten way better in front of the microphone. Say what you will about aging rock stars with more money than God commanding two-million-member audiences, but this time around Keith’s actually conscious for his big number, and relishing it.

 

Life

Keith Richards’ autobiography has rocketed to the top of my favorite Stones books list, with good reason. It’s not like other celebrity memoirs, not written to make a buck, grind an axe, or make the author look good. It doesn’t have the anonymous bland tone that signals the hand of the ghostwriter. It takes off in a chatty conversational voice that is unmistakably Keith, and it shows, over 550 pages, what it’s like to be Keith. That’s an epic achievement in itself. Keith Richards has always cut a mysterious and slightly terrifying figure. Always on the run from the law, knife in boot, weaseling out of one scrape after another while all around him his associates drop like flies. Did he sell his soul to the devil? Ineffably cool, but not exactly likable. Well, now he’s managed to make himself very likable indeed, by making no apologies about his badness.

Life is no tour guide to rock star depravity. It’s a love story – between Keith and his music. It runs throughout the book, an undimmed, unabashed, joyful enthusiasm for all things musical. Keith Richards really fucking digs his job, and he’s never stopped being amazed at his success. Not his popularity or ability to fill stadiums, but just the ability to play and write songs and make great music and earn the respect of other musicians. There are constant long asides about the technicalities of guitar heroism, stuff about tuning and strings and dropped chords. As a non-musician, I’ve never understood the significance of those things, and this is the closest I’ve ever come to grasping it. It’s the best window on how those famous sounds came to be. That alone makes the old devil immensely sympathetic. Also, his disinterest in repeating the sordid old anecdotes. There’s some juicy bits there, all right, but they’re not the point. The notorious pissing on the wall incident doesn’t even merit a mention. Richards isn’t interested in what’s been talked to death already, he wants to tell the stories he thinks are important. Like a daring rainbound cat rescue, a childhood accident with a rock, or how he met his wife’s family for the first time. The death of Brian Jones is dealt with in a few lines – he’d been written off as a goner long before he took that fateful midnight swim – while the deaths of Ian Stewart, Gram Parsons, and Keith’s mother are given full requiem.

Besides music, the other long running love story is the one with Mick Jagger, of course. The notorious Glimmer Twins who used to be thick as thieves are now barely cordial, to Keith’s eternal chagrin. Mick Jagger has changed, not for the better, thinks Keith, while Keith has stayed steadfastly the same. It was Marianne Faithfull, in her own memoir, who called it out that those two were really the loves of each others lives. What I think we have here is the kind of passionate romantic friendship that used to flourish among the Victorians, a Platonic union stronger and more important than any marriage or sexual relationship. Each party complains bitterly about the other’s shortcomings, accusations of betrayal fly, sometimes blows are exchanged, but they always come back to each other. Keith repeatedly complains that Mick is jealous and hostile, actively trying to block potential ‘rivals’, but he seems unaware that his own criticism of Mick, Mick’s personality and Mick’s solo work comes off more like the bitterness of a neglected spouse than any valid point being made. The shocking and much publicized denigration of Jagger’s manhood does occur, but the context is more interesting than the slur itself. In the same paragraph Keith claims not to care about Mick’s affair with Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, brags about nailing Marianne and suggests that Donald Cammell’s suicide was good riddance. Reading between the lines, it’s clear the betrayal stung and stings still. The low blow is just a jab of payback. It’s a tragedy, according Keith Richards, that Mick Jagger had to grow up and become the monstrous ego demon “Mick Jagger.” After all those years and ups and downs, he’s still missing the kid on the train with the blues records.

Jagger has become the “Jagger” we know and love. He grew out of his blues purism and his stance against the world, accepted his knighthood, let the flattery and flashbulbs go to his head, and runs The Rolling Stones like a well-oiled money making machine. Richards has stayed the same blues-obsessed outlaw who goes to sleep hugging his guitar. He’s the one who exults in the honor of being allowed to jam with the locals in Jamaica, or the honor of playing with obscure but brilliant sidemen who haven’t seen the spotlight since the fifties. Jagger is delighted to have Wyclef Jean as a collaborator. Richards thinks it’s an honor to write with Tom Waits. They used to be The Glimmer Twins, now two more opposite men cannot be found, but together they still manage to form one badass entity called The Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger reveals bits of himself in his songs, but he will probably never open up and tell his side of the story. Thank God Keith Richards is open-hearted enough to share his life with us.

Had It With You

I love you, dirty fucker
sister and a brother
moaning in the moonlight
singing for your supper
‘cos i had it i had it i had it with you
i had it i had it i had it with you
You always seem to haunt me
always try to haunt me
serving out injuctions
shouting out instructions
but i had it i had it i had it with you
i had it i had it i had it with you
i had it i had it i had it with you
And i love you with a passion
in and out of fashion
always got behind you
when others tried to blind you
but i had it i had it i had it with you
i had it i had it i had it with you
i had it i had it i had it with you
It is such a sad thing
to watch a good love die
i’ve had it up to here babe
i’ve got to say goodbye
‘cos i had it i had it i had it with you
and i had it i had it i had it with you
Loved you in the lean years
loved you in the fat ones
you’re a mean mistreater
you’re a dirty dirty rat scum
i had it i had it i had it with you
i had it i had it i had it with you
i had it i had it i had it with you
i had it with you
i had it with you
i had it with you………

According to Keith: “That’s the kind of mood I was in. I wrote ‘Had It With You’ in Ronnie’s front room in Chiswick, right on the banks of the Thames. We were waiting to go back to Paris, but the weather was so dodgy that we were stranded until the Dover ferry started rolling again […] There was no heating, and the only way to keep warm was to turn up the amps. I don’t think I’d ever written a song before, apart from maybe “All About You,” in which I realized I was actually singing about Mick.”

There you have Dirty Work, an album primarily interesting as a document of the torn and frayed partnership of the former Glimmer Twins. As I suspected, Keith’s book provides deep insight into how and why (Keith thinks) the Jagger/Richards team went inseparable to barely on speaking terms. It’s because Mick Jagger is so selfish and full of himself, evidently. What Mick’s side of the story is, we’ll probably never really know, but I imagine he would say something about what an incorrigible, unreliable, unprofessional, drunk-addicted wreck Keith spent most of his life being.  Then Keith would call Mick a vain, jet-setting, trend-hopping fashion victim. Then maybe there’d be a fistfight. It’s clear to see why they live on different continents now. Obviously, The Rolling Stones are an entity much greater than the sum of its parts. Alone, Mick is all like “let’s go to the biggest most expensive studio with all the most famous people!” and Keith is like “let’s just jam in my garage for a while and drink whiskey.” As their solo records attest, neither approach is all that good. But together, they can have that jamming-in-the-garage-with-whiskey vibe, and have the biggest and best studio, and bring in the most famous people or the best, most obscure people and be the best of both worlds.

Gunface

The Stones being hardcore and urban in their golden years. All part of their sporadic interest in criminality and violence. Even in 1997 the boys could still get hip. This is the closest to a hip-hop beat they’ve ever come to, and with their usual verve and aggression. Bridges To Babylon has some really bright moments. The whole thing does sag on the second half, due to an unwise sequencing of three very long and slow sad ballads all in a row at the end. There’s also some heartfelt and poetic lyrics, but not in this song. This is your typical moment of Mick Jagger imagining himself to be a violent criminal. (Keith Richards actually is a violent criminal, famously armed to the teeth, so no need for him to imagine anything.) Now generally, violent lyrics about teaching people (especially girls) a lesson are a disturbing turnoff, but such macho posturing from someone as effeminate and pampered as Jagger is kind of adorable. Jagger has gotten away with a lot of nasty lyrics about whipping slaves and slashing throats without coming off like an irredeemable asshole because it’s so clearly a campy fantasy and he’d never dream of knifing anyone, for fear of getting blood on his trousers. Richards is another story; he’d easily knife and shoot you, but only if provoked and he’s not the one prancing around singing about it.

Gun

Get ready for another impassioned defense of Mick Jagger’s solo career. Seriously, some of it is really good, especially that last one. Who are you gonna believe, me or Keith Richards? I’m still angry with Keith for calling Goddess In The Doorway ‘dogshit’. Although I concede that it’s probable he was just joking. I’m in the middle of reading Keef’s fascinating memoir, and it’s shedding a lot of light on their songwriting dynamics. I suspect that by the end of it I may have to reconsider some of my assumptions about the whole relationship. Like why they continually fight like old spouses. (Because in a way, they are old spouses.) The theory stands now that the reason The Rolling Stones’ songwriting has (purportedly) declined in quality is because The Glimmer Twins don’t spend as much time occupying the same continent as they used to, losing that essential ongoing give-and-take of mutual inspiration. While at their zenith in the sixties, those two practically shared one brain, but over the years they drifted apart both geographically and in other ways. By the 80’s both were increasingly writing by themselves and delivering nearly finished songs to the studio. And since Jagger has been writing songs by himself and either recording them with the Stones or saving them for his solos, there really isn’t a significant difference in quality between Stones songs and solo songs – they all come from the same basket. Of course, not having that group dynamic does make a difference, as does choice of collaborators. I mean, Lenny Kravitz looks good in eyeliner and all, but musically he’s not fit to lick Keith’s dirty bootheels. Which might be why Keith chafes so that Lenny’s the one who gets to play on what’s actually some pretty funky songs that Mick wrote and hoarded all to himself. Sometimes I wish Mick and Keith would just go ahead and marry each other now that it’s legal.