"Maggot", Anita Pallenberg, biography, Blues, Book Review, Can't You Hear Me Knocking, Disasterpeice, Drugs, Folk Hero, Gimme Shelter, Guitar, history, Individual Will, Jumpin Jack Flash, Keith Richards, Keith Richards's Hands, Left Behind, Life, Mick Jagger, music, records, Rock and Roll, Rock Star Biographies, Rolling Stones, satisfaction, Slash, Slipknot, The Dirt
I’m a maggot. Immediately a handful of people will raise the devil horns, spit out a “stay sic fucker,” and hopefully crank up Left Behind and start headbanging. The rest of my regular readers will either shake their head or perform a Colbert, which, for the record, I could do before that guy became as famous as he did.
Being a “Maggot,” for the reader who’s waiting for me to clarify, means that I’m a fan of the band Slipknot, a heavy metal band (dare I call them Nu Metal?) based out of Des Moines, Iowa. They’re known for their masks and jumpsuits and song materials that range from obscene to downright horrifying. I usually cite the opening lines of the song Disasterpeice which begins, “I want to slit your throat, and fuck the wound, I want to push my face in and feel the swoon, I want to dig inside, find a little bit of me, ‘Cause the line gets crossed when you don’t come clean.” It’s lyrics like that remind me that I was an odd duck in high school, but despite the intensity I wouldn’t be alive right now if it wasn’t for Slipknot. I crawled up into the fetal goat and Clown kept me safe and alive.
This is why it’s so odd to me that Keith Richards seems to hold such a mythic place in my life. I was never a Stones fan growing up. My parents played lots of Aerosmith, AC DC, Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, and just about every pop-song ever recorded during the 1980s. To this day I have the Eurythmics as muscle memory thanks to my mother’s CD collection. But in this pile of Rock and Big Band there was a band called Guns N’ Roses which I gravitated to alongside Slipknot. The sound was like Aerosmith but it had more a rebellion and grimey feel to it. I started to read more and more about the band, and when Slash published his self-titled memoir in 2007 I bought up the book and started down a journey that wasn’t always pleasant.
I bought a guitar. Didn’t play it. I grew out my hair. Didn’t get laid. Wrote a bunch of songs. They were shit. Started to get depressed. But there was music, and that saved me from the darkness I was pushing myself to. I dug into Slash and through that book I started to memorize information and facts about rockstars and bands, and as Slash talked more and more about Keith Richards the myth began.
That’s why, just a month back, when I was looking for a new audiobook to listen to on the way to work, I selected Life by Keith Richards. I checked it out from the library, popped it in, and after just two discs I ran out and bought the actual book. I needed to own it.
Life isn’t written, or at least it doesn’t feel like it’s written, the way other Rockstar memoirs are. I know that because I ingested the genre in the timeline previous mentioned. I moved from Slash to The Dirt, the infamous Motley Crew biography, to White Line Fever about Lemmy Kilmister, and between these I sampled from biographies about Van Halen, AC DC, Iggy Pop, and Jim Morrison. The Rockstar biography tends to be a stale genre because almost all of it follows the same structure. Rockstar had a shit childhood, Rockstar had one good teacher who taught them about music, Rockstar ran away from home, Rockstar met the other rockstars they became famous with, Rockstar becomes famous, Rockstar discovers drugs, overdose, rehab, Rockstar is happy and healthy.
This is what I expected from Keith Richard’s Life, given the fact the man is famous for his drug use and being virtually unkillable. I hate the phrase “pleasantly surprised,” so instead I’ll go with surprised as fuck to find that Richards biography was not only well written, the man comes across a wise soul with a deep appreciation for life. Rather than set his narrative as a means of promoting his career, Life is exactly as the title suggests and works as Richards simply looks over the extent of his existence and the strange turns it has taken. Whether it was the tragedy at Altamont, his turbulent relationship with Anita Pallenberg, his struggle to manage his relationship with Mick Jagger, finding the woman who would bring real stability in his life, taking his son on tour with the Rolling Stones, falling out of a tree, almost having his skull imploded by the sketchbooks of Leonardo da Vinci, or simply making his bangers and potatoes, Richards manages to show his life simply and honestly.
For my own take though, reading this biography was fascinating for the way Richards manages reflect on the nature of music. In one early passage he describes learning music without the help of written pages:
I’ve learned everything I know off records. Being able to replay something immediately without all that terrible stricture of written music, the prison of those bars, those five lines. Being able to hear recorded music freed up loads of musicians that couldn’t necessarily afford to learn to read or write music, like me. Before 1900, you’ve got Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, Chopin, the cancan. With recording it was emancipation of the people. As long as you or somebody around you could afford a machine, suddenly you could hear music made by people, not set up rigs and symphony orchestras. You could actually listen to what people were saying, almost off the cuff. […] It surely can’t be a coincidence that jazz and blues started to take over the world the minute recording started, within a few years, just like that. The blues is universal which is why it’s still around. (70-1).
This passage is difficult for me, because my wife can play and read music and I cannot. I never learned to play a musical instrument, and in fact the only instrument I can play with any degree of general confidence is the harmonica and I can’t play any songs on it. My wife, on the other hand, can just listen to a song and pick out the instruments being played, and whether or not the players are keeping tone, pace, and rhythm properly. I can achieve something similar when I listen to most rock music, but Richard’s brief philosophizing about music in general reminds me of many similar testimonies by musicians. Most of the ones I gravitated to, which tended to be the great ones, tended to follow this similar policy. A musician who can listen to a song and acquire it manages far more than professionals because it forces them to dig into the sound, rather than allow it to become an abstract concept.
But, again, I have no real background in music so what business do I have in this category? I like this passage however because it speaks to the kind of musicianship Richards tries to accomplishes, which is a simplified appreciation of music as a form. Something that’s approachable, and, more importantly, universal.
The Rockstar is a figure that, within the last decade, has become something of a straw-man. It’s not that the image doesn’t or can’t frighten from time to time, but looking at a figure like Keith Richards in comparison to the crop of rock stars in today’s market, nothing can really compare. At one time Richards and the Rolling Stones were the most dangerous group in the world, and in some parts of the territories there were some who honestly believed they were the devil. The Rockstar was a figure of controversy that could actually inspire fear and loathing from governments and parents’ groups, whereas today rock stars are becoming reality-show TV stars and performing for politicians. I suppose I’m sounding whiny as I write this, or else I have become that all-too-real cliché of a man who mourns this current age and wishes for a time when “the music was real man,” but all I’m trying to note is that as figure in the public consciousness rock stars have become parodies of themselves. Rock N’ Roll no longer seems to be able to inspire or enact any kind of awe, and the rock-star themselves are too predictable.
That’s why one passage stands out to me the most from Richard’s biography, as he observes his mythic status:
There’s something inside me that just wants to excite that thing in other people, because I know it’s there in everybody. There’s a demon in me, and there’s a demon in everybody else. I get a uniquely ridiculous response—the skulls flow in by the truckload, sent by well-wishers. People love that image. They imagined me, they made me, the folks out there create this folk-hero. Bless their hearts. And I’ll do the best I can to fulfill their needs. They’re wishing me to do things they can’t. They’ve got to do this job, they’ve got this life, they’re an insurance salesman…but at the same time, inside of them is a raging Keith Richards. When you talk of a folk hero, they’ve written the script for you and you better fulfill it. And I did my best. It’s no exaggeration that I was basically living like an outlaw. And I got into it! I knew that I was on everybody’s list. All I had to do was recant and I’d be alright. But that was something I just couldn’t do. (365).
It’s ridiculous this need to feel like someone is living the life we should or want to be living for us, and yet at the same time I completely understand this impulse. I’ve grown out of it now, but for many people the idea of a hero is still something they hold to. Heroes are the people who live the life we believe we want to live, they embody the virtues or strengths that we do not, and most importantly of all, they’re not human. I see this impulse most strongly in religious types who hold to the idea of the divine Christ who in no ways was human and therefore could never have felt anything like sexual desire, but I’ll keep god out of this.
I think probably the best example is John Wayne. For so many people, including myself, John Wayne was the man, the Man’s man. He was the man who could do anything and never let anything get in his way. The only problem of course is that, the actual John Wayne, was a flawed racist, alcoholic who had trouble with women. There’s some impulse to ignore all that because it’s inconvenient. The man who sells insurance, or works at the DMV, or works in a corporate building and does nothing but read and write emails all day needs the gung-ho cowboy John Wayne because he needs the idea of that man in his life. Like I said, I can’t pretend like I’ve never believed in this, but as I’ve gotten older I’ve realized more and more that this attitude can be corrupting rather than beneficial.
Heroes are over-rated because they keep us from recognizing our own strength and potential. Obviously, I will never be Keith Richards in terms of guitar playing, but if I hold to the myth that the man is perfect what point is there in picking up the guitar myself and trying to be different from Richards? It’s a simple question, but one that I asked a lot when it came to writing. I loved Stephen King, I loved Christopher Hitchens, I loved Jeffrey Eugenides…but I’m none of them and so I have to be my own creative voice.
And looking back to Life there’s one more passage that seems important and worth my reader’s time. Richards discusses the creative process and song-writing, specifically how it is an organic, rather than flat process:
But a song should come from the heart. I never has to think it. I’d pick up the guitar or go to the piano and let the stuff come to me. Something would arrive. Incoming. And if it didn’t, I’d play somebody else’s songs. And I’ve never really had to get to the point of saying, “I’m now going to write a song.” I’ve never ever done that. When I first knew I could do it, I wondered if I could do another one. Then I found they were rolling off my fingers like pearls. I never had any difficulty writing songs. It was a sheer pleasure. And a wonderful gift I didn’t know I had. It amazes me. (309-10).
This quote seems particularly important because I’m a writer. I find myself often discussing to no-one in the room how much I hate listening or reading other writers discuss motivations or spiritual exercises, and it might be my working-class background, but I’ve approaching writing much the same way Richards seems to with song-writing: I sit at my keyboard and start writing. If I don’t know what to write, I’ll simply write that and that in itself frees me up to be honest. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t bad days, and sometimes sitting down to write these essays will take an hour or several and feel like pulling teeth. But writing, creating, should never be about the drama of the act. Creation should always just be about letting go and doing the work.
Life then, apart from providing the reader with plenty of fun stories about the Rolling Stones and Richard’s use of drugs (the very first chapter is a long story about Richards and Ronnie wood being busted in the American south in a car that was literally filled with coke, heroin, and assorted pills) but sitting down to work on this review I wanted to focus on Richards as a figure and as an artist because the man has often been lost beneath the haze of cigarette smoke and cocaine powder. Richards was a drug-addict, and remains a self-described junkie, but the man has contributed more to music than most people have or ever will. His guitar licks in Gimme Shelter, Jumping Jack Flash, Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, and Satisfaction remain iconic Rock N’ Roll sounds that inspired generations to pick up the guitar.
Keith Richards is a sound unto himself, and reading Life is akin to hearing that sound melted into the written word. The book sits on my shelf giving my other biographies contact highs, and from time to time I’ll hear the sound what I’m sure is the devil’s own guitar strumming lightly those blues that use to make rock-gods and titans.
All quotes taken from Life were cited from the Little, Brown & Company Hardback First Edition copy.