Thursday, December 16, 2010

Keith Richard's "Life"

I’ve just read Keith Richards’ “Life,” with great enjoyment. Richards is the co-founder, co-leader, and lead guitarist of the Rolling Stones, and author or co-author of many of their songs. Notwithstanding the outrageousness of his life, the addictions and extreme partying--and there is a great deal of that in "Life"--Richards emerges as an unexpectedly dependable and reflective person, and I find myself resonating with his insights into friendship and leadership. In addition to being a rollicking good read across one of the definitive lives of our times, “Life” offers some key insights into human nature, as well as delightful observations about characters he’s come across.

Richards’ was always about the music, and his relationship with the fans is about maintaining the quality of the music at all stages of the process: writing, recording, performing. Notwithstanding all the craziness--the sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll--his commitment to the integrity of the music, and to providing musical and entertainment value for fans, is extraordinary. It is through that commitment that he helped form and maintain the huge musical, entertainment and business entity know as the Rolling Stones. And he has appreciated and collaborated with some of the greats in the music business, known and unknown.

Richards is unrepentant about his dependency on drugs, drinking, and assistants to fetch drugs for him and look after him, which have been cited as objections by some colleagues and friends to whom I've mentioned my appreciation of his autobiography. Speaking with Andrew Marr, in an interview posted on YouTube, Richards commented on the relationship between drug use and fame. "In its own weird way, that's how heroin, all this stuff, helped me, because it kept my feet in the gutter, not just on the ground. Fame is probably a bigger killer than drugs in my game..." One of the things that I find interesting about Richards is that he coped at all with the huge fame that he experienced as a young man; when, for example, after a Stones concert filled with hysterical female fans, the janitor commented that it must have been a good concert because there wasn't a dry seat in the house. This level of fame stopped the Beatles from touring and killed Elvis Presley, but Richards has managed to ride the wave, damaged but still himself, and with a very good memory for what happened; "episodic memory," as psychologists call it. In addition to his career success, he seems to have a successful second marriage, close family relationships, and a number of significant long-term as well as new friendships. It's because Richards cares so much and so consistently about music and relationships that his journey through sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll is so interesting.

He was a natural leader, who says that, if he’d gone into the army, “I’d probably be a general by now. There’s no way to stop a primate. If I’m in, I’m in. When they got me in the (boy) scouts, I was a patrol leader in three months. I clearly like to run guys about... I like to motivate guys, and that’s what came in handy with the Stones... It’s not a matter of cracking the whip, it’s a matter of just sticking around and doing it, so they know you’re in there, leading from the front and not from behind.”

Richards connects his outrageous partying to changes in states of consciousness. “Some of my most outrageous nights I can only believe actually happened because of corroborating evidence. No wonder I’m famous for partying! The ultimate party, if it’s any good, you can’t remember it... It’s very hard to explain all that excessive partying. You didn’t say, OK, we’re going to have a party tonight. It just happened. It was a search for oblivion, I suppose, though not intentionally... I can improvise when I’m unconscious. This is one of my amazing tricks, apparently. I try and stay in contact with the Keith Richards I know. But I do know there’s another one that lurks, occasionally, about. Some of the best stories about me relate to when I’m not actually there, or at least not consciously so...”

Here's a one-liner that I think will be around for a long time: “It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were.”

Having lived in Jamaica and hung out and played with Rastafarians, Richards places Rastafarianism in a cultural context. “Rastafarianism was a religion, but it was a smoker’s religion. Their principle was, ‘ignore their world,‘ live without society. Of course they didn’t or couldn’t--Rastafarianism is a forlorn hope. But at the same time it’s such a beautiful forlorn hope. When the grid and the iron and the bars closed in on societies everywhere, and they got tighter and tighter, the Rastafarians loosened themselves from it. These guys just figured out their little way of being spiritual about it and at the same time not joining in. They would not accept intimidation. Even if they had to die. And some of them did. They refused to work within the economic system. They’re not going to work for Babylon; they’re not going to work for the government. For them that was being taken into slavery. They just wanted to have their space. If you get into their theology, you can get a little lost. ‘We’re the lost tribe of Judah.‘ OK, anything you say. But why this bunch of black Jamaicans consider themselves to be Jewish is a question. There was a spare tribe that had to be filled and that one would do. I have the feeling it was like that. And then they found a spare deity in the unreal medieval figure of Haile Selassie, with all his biblical titles. The Lion of Judah, Selassie, I. If there was a clap of thunder and lightning, “Jah!” everybody got up, “Give thanks and praises.” It was a sign that God was working. They knew their Bible back to front--they could quote phrase after phrase of the Old Testament. I loved their fire about it, because whatever the religious ins and outs, they were living on the edge. All they had was their pride. And what they were engaged in was not, in the end, religion. It was one last stand against Babylon...What really turned me on is there’s no you and me, there’s just I and I. So you’ve broken down the difference between who you are and who I am. We could never talk, but I and I can talk. We are one. Beautiful.”

Richards has some pithy observations about cultural events and people. Here's Richards referring to Ken Kesey in the context of remembering founding Stones member Brian Jones, who later drowned in his own swimming pool. Taking LSD “made Brian feel like he was one of an elite. Like the Acid Test...Brian saw it as a sort of Congressional Medal of Honor. And then he’d come on like, 'You wouldn’t know, man. I’ve been tripping...' It was the typical drug thing, that they think they’re somebody special. It’s the head club. You’d meet people who’d say, “Are you a head?” as if it conferred some special status. People who were stoned on something you hadn’t taken. Their elitism was total bullshit. Ken Kesey’s got a lot to answer for.”

On the emergence of the punk bands, Richards notes “a certain sense of renewal” in the Stones when they felt “we’ve got to out-punk the punks. Because they can’t play, and we can. All they can do is be punks... I love every band that comes along. That’s why I’m here, to encourage guys to play and get bands together. But when they’re not playing anything, they’re just spitting on people, now come on, we can do better than that.”

About pop art: “I liked the energy that was going into it rather than necessarily everything that was being done--that feeling in the air that anything was possible. Otherwise, the stunning overblown pretentiousness of the art world made my skin crawl cold turkey, and I wasn’t even using the stuff."

About Allen Ginsberg: "Allen Ginsberg was staying at Mick’s place in London once, and I spent an evening listening to the old gasbag pontificating on everything. It was the period when Ginsberg sat around playing concertina badly and making ommmm sounds, pretending he was oblivious to his socialite surroundings.”

Richards' instinct for co-creating friendships that combine his intensive love of music, musical enterprise, and enjoyment of life--the latter of which does seem to have meant different things at different times--is on view throughout "Life." He comments: “Most guys I know are assholes, I have some great asshole friends, but that’s not the point. Friendship has got nothing to do with that. It’s can you hang, can you talk about this without any feeling of distance between you? Friendship is a diminishing of distance between people. That’s what friendship is, and to me it’s one of the most important things in the world...”

No comments: