Friday, January 28, 2011


I'm finally finding time to do some reading, now that we're back at our cottage in Laguna Beach after nearly a month away. Both the front balcony (sunny) and the back patio (shady for the most part at this time of year) offer the kind of tranquility that is conducive to the opening of a book.

I have Montaigne in mind. I'm dying to get back to him. In the meantime, though, I knew I'd never reach the end of Keith Richards's long Life if I didn't make the conscious decision to spend time with it. And I have just turned the last page, 547, not counting the lengthy acknowledgments and index.

It was quite a ride. I'm not, honestly, that familiar with the work of the Rolling Stones, nor with the rock 'n' roll scene in general. I enjoy hearing the band occasionally, when there's one of their more familiar tunes playing on the radio. But I am not a regular nor a particularly enthusiastic listener, and I would likely not even have picked up this book had it not been so widely praised.

I can see why. Despite its length, it does speed along through the years at a nifty pace, in a colorful, effortless romp of language that combines the musician's idiom with a kind of cocky, irreverential Brit-talk that you hear in a Monty Python episode. The narrative, I'm sure, is told orally by Richards and transcribed (by co-writer James Fox) with all its rough edges, non sequiturs and profanities intact--all of which makes for refreshingly salty prose. It's fun to read.

I have been aware, of course, of the bad-boy reputation of the Rolling Stones. Who hasn't, of those of us who have been and awake these past forty years and more? If it's hard not to like "Keef," it's also hard to know why. He does many dreadful, even despicable things. What to make, for example, of a man who is always on edge, ready for a fight--whether verbal or physical--and habitually armed with a knife or a gun? A man who consumes drugs with the abandon of a child let loose in a candy shop? Who never met a drug--including heroin--he didn't like? A man who takes his seven-year-old son on the road with him on a rock 'n' roll tour and uses the kid as a buffer between himself and the cops? Who delights in tempering a genuine tenderness and reticence with the women who love him with a loud and unabashed misogynism? Richards confronts us unapologetically with all the seamier aspects of his life, to the point where the reader--I refer here to myself--finds himself asking: Why am I reading this?

I thought about that. And I found several good answers to explain why I couldn't tear myself away.

The first is the kind of dreadful fascination that makes you want to watch the proverbial train wreck, whether in reality, or vicariously on a movie or a television screen. It's just so awful, you have to know how this disaster will turn out. You know already that our hero is going to survive, but how? What will it take to save him from himself?

Next is the complex character of this rock 'n' roller. It may seem strange to say this, but it strikes me that there is a child-like innocence to him, an (often naughty) boyish curiosity that is willing to climb any tree, take any risk, for the sheer joy of finding out what it is all about. It's the quality that makes women want to mother him.

He has other qualities, too, that endear him: his fierce dedication to his music is the most obvious. We read of his insatiable quest for mastery of the full potential of his instrument and a huge resource of knowledge about musical genres and styles and those who practice them, an adulation for the work of great pioneers. We watch his process as he composes songs, with and without collaboration. It's an unending and delicious love affair with the practice of his art.

We also come to like Richards for his genuine acts of kindness, a surprising sensitivity and tenderness, an unswerving loyalty, combined with an honesty that allows him to lay into lifelong buddies (like Mick Jagger) without, for the most part, seeming nasty. There's also a modesty about him that sees himself always as a part of something bigger than Keith Richards, be it a band (he's a great, if somewhat biased historian of the Rolling Stones) or family. It's a pleasure to get know his English mum and dad, his aunties and mates at the local pub.

There's another reason I kept reading, this one deeper and more personal: I was learning a lot about myself. Because Richards plunges without a moment's hesitation into the very place where I have always feared to tread--the place of darkness, chaos, the unknown. There is a great tradition of artists of his kind, from Francois Villon in medieval France to Arthur Rimbaud and, more recently, William Burroughs (who gets a frequent mention in "Life.") These are people who are willing to risk everything, including their lives, to discover something new. Against such artists--often geniuses--I measure my own creative timidity and, yes, envy their ability to shed the constraints of the socially acceptable and the controls that can provide useful formal boundaries, but also limit vision. Richards achieved notoriety, true, but also greatness, by embracing without restraint the demons of his inner nature.

These days, a man approaching a respectable age, he has been clean and (relatively) sober may years. He has been banging his head about severely--requiring, most recently, serious brain surgery. He is a grandfather, hanging out in his Connecticut retreat and relishing visits from his children and grandchildren. His greatest joy in life seems to be his extensive library--the site of one of his falls. The last picture in the album included in "Life" shows him lounging in this den, surrounded by shelves weighted down with a freight of books and record albums. A chalkboard reads, in child-like capitals, KEITH RICHARDS, MAIN OFFENDER.

Ah, well. Richards is no Montaigne, and I'm sure he would not claim to be. But this was, I promise you, a good read.


mandt said...

"the very place where I have always feared to tread--the place of darkness, chaos, the unknown" This is also the realm of the sojourner's spiritual quest. Beyond fear lies terror. Beyond terror lies peace.

PeterAtLarge said...

Oh, yes, MandT, I do know that. It's the subject of my 1998 memoir, "While I Am Not Afraid." Did you ever see a copy?

mandt said...

Peter, have not seen it. I'll hop on over to Amazon....thanks for the heads up! Welcome home! It's like Spring here in Sonoma. If you and Ellie have not seen 'Cherry Blossoms' rent it from net's a remarkable movie and contains some remarkable Butoh dancing, which may remind you of Eurythmy. peace, m

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks. Let me know if you have any difficulty locating a copy. I could send you one... And thanks for the suggestion.

CHI SPHERE said...

Having worked for and a few times with The Stones providing set pieces and backdrops for traveling gigs
during the last 30 years I got to know Keith a bit. He and Mick are very down to earth when it comes to doing business and their work ethic when on tour is as Rahm Emanuel, with whom I've also worked with.

Sure the weed flows through the air like secondary HVAC at times and Keith is occasionally bombastic but a workhorse who gives till he is exhausted. He is incredibly funny and kind. I once took him to a clinic of LA in Watts where kids were recovering from battering by their parents and saw him engage them with his music and songs from his childhood. He still sends them 100k a year to meet their budget.

I hope to read the book soon myself to hopefully discover what drove him to ingest the quantity of drugs and alcohol he has somehow survived during his 67 years. I'm 70 days older than Keith and once tried stop a brawl between he an Mick receiving a black eye and sore ribs in the process.

I hope he has found peace after a life of self destruction, chaos and incredible artistic production!

PeterAtLarge said...

CHI--you never fail to amaze me!

David said...

Have not read Keith’s book yet but thoroughly enjoyed your thoughts on it. I am sorry for you that you have not allowed yourself to fully appreciate the magic in the music of the Rolling Stones, and perhaps, rock and roll in general. But, take heart, it’s not too late.

There’s a lot to dislike about the Stones. A curious combination of the real and the phony. In the early days posing as satanically inspired rebels, the lords of anarchy, they were little more than greedy capitalists from day one. Yet, the music they made was authentic and they took rhythm and blues to a new level. If it not for the attention the Stones were getting with their live shows, it might not have been possible for four lads from Liverpool to make a dent in the early 60s London music scene. Unfortunately, the obscene prices they charge for their concerts and the way they over-pack them speaks to a general contempt for their audience, in my opinion.

But the music has been awesome, the best rock and roll to dance to ever made. The greatest rock band in the world and Keith the best rhythm guitar player. Nowadays, they are pretty much just a parody of themselves and their posing is somewhat laughable - nonetheless, I would sell my soul to the devil (if there was one) just to be Mick or Keith for one day.