Happy Birthday, George

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Life, by Keith Richards

Who would have bet, thirty years ago, that Keith Richards would be around long enough to write his autobiography? This is the man who, for several years running, was consistently voted “Most Likely To Die” by culture mavens everywhere. At this point, he’s being voted “Most Likely To Outlive Cockroaches And Bacteria” by those same people. Say this for the man: he seems to be damn near indestructible.

Life is the story of the man, told from his point of view. From his youth scraping by in post-war England, when food was rationed and bombed out craters were playgrounds, straight up until his noggin-cracking fall against an unyielding palm tree that sent him for brain surgery, Keith Richards lived a wild life.

Whether the reader finds it refreshing or, frankly, sociopathic, Richards tells his tale with no sense of shame or regret. His life was decadent, immersed in rock and roll, drugs, and sex (in that order). But rather than wearing a politically correct hair shirt and throwing himself on the mercy of a public that wants their musical heroes fresh out of rehab, Richards shrugs. It’s his life, and he had a great time living it.

The book concentrates its energies on the 1960s and 1970s where the reader is introduced to the two great loves of Keith’s life. In the 1960s, that love is music; in the 1970s it becomes drugs. Life isn’t that neatly divided, though, and there’s considerable overlap. The best music of Keith’s life was written and recorded when he was a regular heroin user. But not long after 1972’s Exile On Main Street, the drugs began to take center stage. Keith was no longer a user. He was a junkie.

Richards does acknowledge that his true junkie years were when he lost the path, and that his life became about getting the next hit. Where the early Stones tours were marked with concerns about getting to the gig on time and what to play, the Stones tours in the 1970s were all about where to score heroin in each new city. Knowing that the police had their eye on him didn’t slow him down. Even when he was unable to get good drugs and had to resort to what he calls “MSS” (Mexican Shoe Scrapings), he steadfastly refused to believe that there was a problem.

But there was a problem and it’s clear to the reader, even if it’s not so clear to the writer. The early part of the book is filled with the stories of the early Stones, and Keith’s love of music is pressed on to every page. This is the first rock musician autobiography I’ve read where the author uses barrels of ink to talk about the musicians who influenced him, the thrill of creating music, the love of listening to music and sharing your thoughts with like-minded friends. Living together in a small flat, Richards, Mick Jagger, and Brian Jones sat around listening to and dissecting Chicago blues, talking about it constantly. Even leaving the apartment to be with a woman was considered a betrayal to the first mistress: music.

Drugs were present early, but mainly confined to marijuana and pills. LSD reared its misshapen head in the mid-60s but despite dabbling Keith claims never to have been that much of an acidhead. Still, the hallucinogen played havoc with the band inspiring the worst album they did in the 1960s (Their Satanic Majesties Request) and driving self-appointed band leader Brian Jones over the edge.

Despite Keith’s blood brother allegiance to Ron Wood, the other Stones who get the most press in the book are Mick Jagger (of course), and Brian Jones. In interviews Keith has usually skirted around Jones, painting a picture of a man who was a screwup and who let the team down by putting drugs before the Stones. In Life, that portrait is fleshed out and it’s not a pretty picture. Jones is portrayed as a horror, a petty, vindictive, mean, girlfriend-beating narcissist who, despite loads of talent, was an albatross around the band’s neck as early as 1965. Keith describes his stealing of Jones’s girlfriend Anita Pallenberg not as a betrayal of his friend Brian, but as a rescue of a monster’s girlfriend. If the portrayal of Jones here is accurate (and I’m inclined to think it is), then Keith actually stands on pretty solid ground here.

Mick Jagger is the other main character in Keith’s life, and is the relationship that receives the most attention from the author. Keith and Mick were best friends for decades, sharing a bond that survived even their brief affairs with each other’s girlfriends (Mick had an affair with Anita Pallenberg while filming the movie Performance; Keith didn’t mind so much because he was having an affair with Marianne Faithfull at the same time). What eventually drove them apart were the drugs and what Keith’s addiction meant to the Stones.

Shortly after Exile, Keith’s addiction led to a more carefree attitude about the band. Decisions that had always been made together were now being left to Jagger alone, and Mick discovered that he liked the power. By the time Keith got off the smack, not too long after being arrested in Toronto, Jagger’s grip on the business side of the band was absolute. When Keith wanted back in to the decision making process, he was told that his services in that regard were no longer needed. It was now Jagger’s band. (Keith maintains that during the 1981 tour one of the large video screens introduced the band as “Mick Jagger and The Rolling Stones” until Keith screamed bloody murder about it and Jagger backed down.) Jagger’s using the Stones contract negotiations to secure himself a solo contract was a mortal blow to their friendship and, to Keith, a far worse betrayal than merely bedding down Anita Pallenberg. Jagger was now cheating on the Stones, and that was an unforgivable sin to Keith.

While they managed to hold it together for a few more albums (Undercover and Dirty Work), Richards became even angrier when Jagger refused to tour with the Stones, opting instead to tour as a solo artist. It clearly still stings Richards to this day (he dismisses Jagger’s first album with the withering line “I’ve never listened to it all the way through. Who has?” Ouch. True, but ouch.) The relationship now is best described as love/hate. Keith still refers to Mick as “Brenda” or “Her Majesty” but makes it clear that nobody else better insult Mick or they’ll pay the consequences. They are distant brothers who get along fine when they are alone together, talking or writing music. But when business intervenes, Jagger is still the King and Keith still resents it.

The other Stones are peripheral players. Charlie Watts receives nothing but praise, Bill Wyman barely gets mentioned, Mick Taylor’s skill as a guitarist is highly praised but his abilities to blend in with the Stones are dismissed, and Ron Wood is seen as Ron Wood: likable, happy-go-lucky, usually drunk and/or high, although Richards does confirm the rumors that Wood was close to being fired during the 1981 tour because he was so wasted he could barely play.

It’s all here in Life. As the drugs take center stage the music gets pushed aside, and some albums (Between the Buttons, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll, Tattoo You) don’t even rate a mention, but that’s the life of a drug addict: everything else that you love takes a back seat and becomes subordinate to the next high.

At over 500 pages, this is a lot of Keith to digest. Mixed in with the rock and roll and drugs are celebrity cameos (John Lennon makes a brief, but hilarious appearance hugging the bathroom floor at Keith’s house after a night of partying, Gram Parsons, Paul McCartney, John Phillips), groupies, marriage, children, grandchildren…there’s even Keith’s recipe for bangers ‘n’ mash which is the funniest recipe ever written.

I’m not sure how much of the book was actually written by Keith and how much by his co-writer James Fox, but it’s irrelevant. The voice is entirely Keith’s. I’ve seen and read enough interviews with the man to know that whatever Fox did he did using Keith’s style. And Keith is a great storyteller, which makes Life a quick, satisfying read and an in-depth look at the Rolling Stones from someone who was there at the beginning.

The Rolling Stones: Goats Head Soup

There really was simply no way for The Rolling Stones to surpass the triumph of their previous album, one of the greatest in rock’s history. The fact that between 1968 and 1972 the Stones were about as flawless as any band has ever been made the job of an Exile On Main St. followup even more difficult. It is the lofty expectations placed on the band that have made the critical reviews of 1973’s Goats Head Soup so untrustworthy. I’ve been guilty of this myself, at one time in my life dismissing Goats Head Soup as a largely terrible album. It is not a terrible album. Nor is it a great album.

Soup marks the point where, as Keith Richards once said, “I picked up the smack and Mick picked up the slack.” It is very much Mick Jagger’s album, evidenced by the atrocious front cover (the back cover is an equally atrocious Keith picture). For this reason, the album sounds much less unified than their previous efforts. For me, Goats Head Soup is a precursor to what the band has turned into over the past 30 years: a professional touring and recording act making solid, workman-like albums that run high on sound and low on inspiration.

Unlike their albums from Beggars Banquet to Exile, Goats Head Soup today sounds very much of its time. It should have “1973” stamped on every groove. That’s not to say that there isn’t an awful lot of good, and even great, stuff on the album. There are two Stones classics on the album, the ballad “Angie” and the rocker “Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)” and two songs that should have been Stones classics, “Silver Train” and “Star Star.”

The album kicks off with “Dancing With Mr. D,” yet another song wherein Jagger sings about a malevolent identity, in this case the personification of Death. Coming after “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Midnight Rambler,” not to mention other songs wherein Jagger trips the dark fantastic (“Let It Bleed,” “Monkey Man,” “Brown Sugar”), “Dancing” sounds like a cartoon version of the theme. The music, led by Mick Taylor’s great slide guitar, Nicky Hopkins’s piano, and a snaky bass line (also played by Taylor) is great. It’s cleaner than the murky Exile, but it’s still raw enough to have real bite. The lyrics are Jagger on autopilot. Sex? Check! Death? Right here! Intoxication? Got it! It’s not a bad way to start an album, but after album openers like “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Gimme Shelter,” “Brown Sugar” and Rocks Off,” it is perhaps inevitable that “Dancing With Mr. D” should sound downright anemic. The music tries but the lyrics don’t, which makes the song both enjoyable and forgettable at the same time.

One of the undeniable highlights of the album follows. The funky clavinet (played by Billy Preston) and a liquid guitar solo from Taylor give “100 Years Ago” a fantastic vibe. Jagger’s vocal is one of his best, and the lyrics are a great ode to nostalgia and fond memories of days gone by. There’s a brief interlude where Jagger camps it up by singing about how he’s a “lazy bones/ain’t got no time to waste away” but that’s soon overpowered by a return to the solid melody and a fine, raving end.

“Coming Down Again” is Keith’s showcase, a piano ballad that he’s been rewriting ever since. Again, a triumph of sound and feel and not songwriting. Like its later rewrites (Dirty Work‘s “Sleep Tonight,” especially), “Coming Down Again” takes an interminable length of time to say nothing. Other than a wicked line about slipping “my tongue in someone else’s pie,” most of the lyrics are just an endless repetition of the title. The piano is quite nice, and Keith’s vocal is excellent, but “Coming Down Again” is at least three minutes too long.

Goats Head Soup picks up dramatically from here with a run of great songs. “Heartbreaker” wears it’s Stevie Wonder influence on its sleeve but, run through the Stones more rock-oriented prism, emerges as a singularly funky tale of sadness and murder, and features a solid beat and great fills from Charlie Watts. “Angie” is solidly in line with some of the great Stones ballads, with its delicate acoustic guitars and Jagger’s plaintive vocals.

“Silver Train” is catchy, countrified blues with a great bass line from Keith Richards and a magnificently slurred vocal from Jagger and one of the few songs that might have fit on Exile On Main Street. It’s a souped-up “Sweet Virginia,” and a great showcase for Taylor whose blazing slide is everywhere.

The only thing that mars “Hide Your Love” is a vocal that is so blurry and indistinct it becomes little more than background noise. This, too, could have fit on Exile, but what is a standout on Soup would have sounded like a cross between “Ventilator Blues” and “Just Wanna See His Face” on the earlier album. It’s a great lost Stones track, with fine piano played by Jagger and Ian Stewart, and again Taylor struts his stuff.

The lovely ballad “Winter” presents something of a problem. It’s one of the best Stones ballads, with excellent lyrics and vocal from Mick Jagger. There is a lush string section underpinning the song, and some searing lead guitar from Mick Taylor. It’s a wonderful song. Unfortunately, it was a wonderful song two years earlier when it was called “Moonlight Mile” and was the closing track on Sticky Fingers. As good as “Winter” is, it’s still really a copy of a superior song. It’s still far better than “Can You Hear The Music,” which doesn’t know whether it wants to be rock or reggae, and fails at both.

The Stones turned up the salacious aspects of their career for the album closer, “Star Star,” an X-rated look at groupies set to a Chuck Berry riff. The lyric is funny, and Jagger’s delivery is spot-on. It’s not fit for the kids, and definitely not safe for playing at work, but it showcases the band’s sense of humor which has always been their secret weapon. The lyrics prevent “Star Star” from ever being played on the radio, so it’s not one of the band’s most well-known songs, but it’s a good way to end an album.

Goats Head Soup has its problems. There are some uninspired songs and performances, several of the songs linger past their stay fresh date, and the energy level of the band has clearly dropped a notch from the previous albums. Still, there is a bit of greatness and enough good material to praise. The Stones had done far better, but they will also do much, much worse.

Grade: B

The Listening Post: January 2011

A freezing, snowy January…which can only mean it’s time for Mark Lanegan.

  • The Winding SheetMark Lanegan. The undeniable highlight of this first solo album by Screaming Trees singer Lanegan is a harrowing version of Leadbelly’s “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” Later, Nirvana would take Lanegan’s arrangement almost note-for-note and give a goosebump-raising performance on MTV’s Unplugged. In fact, Kurt Cobain sings a very prominent backing vocal on Lanegan’s version, his cracked and tormented voice beautifully underpinning Lanegan’s doomy baritone. Nothing else on this album is on a par with this performance (though the opener, “Mockingbirds” and the other Lanegan/Cobain duet “Down In The Dark” come close), but there are more than enough gems to make the album a solid listen. It’s not Lanegan’s best solo album, undermined by several so-so tunes in the middle of the album (“Woe,” “Eyes Of A Child,” “The Winding Sheet”) and a crackhead junkie nightmare worthy of William S. Burroughs near the end (the mercifully short, but terrifying, “Juarez”). The sound of solo Lanegan is here in full on The Winding Sheet, very different from his work with Screaming Trees. The sound here, as on all his solo efforts, is intimate, dark, and scary. Lanegan is combining the feel and groove of blues with the sound of rock music and creating music that sounds like both and neither. It’s potent stuff, even if the songwriting chops run a little short on this album.
    Grade: B
  • The Fire Of LoveThe Gun Club. So this is what the White Stripes might have sounded like with a bass player in 1981. This isn’t punk rock, it’s not blues, it’s not rockabilly. It’s all these things. Long before Jack White took blues music and grafted it to a punk attack, Jeffrey Lee Pierce and The Gun Club were playing a version of Robert Johnson’s “Preaching The Blues” that sounded like Billy Lee Riley And His Little Green Men on a cocktail of amphetamines and Red Bull. Pierce howls his way through eleven tracks that range from very good (“Promise Me,” “Cool Drink Water”) to brilliant (“Sex Beat,” “Ghost On The Highway,” “Jack On Fire,” “Black Train”). Fire Of Love is an encyclopedia of Southern music: blues, country, hillbilly, rock. It also is deeply ingrained with that Flannery O’Connor-ish Gothic darkness that is a hallmark of the South. Just listen to “For The Love of Ivy,” when Pierce sings of his plans when the girl he loves rejects him: “Gonna buy me a graveyard of my own/Kill everyone who ever done me wrong” before concluding “I was all dressed up like Elvis from Hell.” That’s brutal stuff, and Fire Of Love is not a feel-good album. The body count on the album is as high as you’ll find on the most violent gangsta rap album, but here the tales of sex and murder are downright chilling, not cartoonish braggadocio. Compare Snoop’s rhymes about putting a cap in someone with “You slaughtered your loving man/Killed him in his sleep/The blood and crying of his murder/Simply stains your sheets/Now you’re a ghost on the highway…” It’s like hearing songs written by Charles Starkweather. It is masterfully recorded, avoiding all the 1980s production techniques that instantly carbon dates so many songs from that era. It is a triumph of performance, sound, and writing.
    Grade: A
  • ZumaNeil Young & Crazy Horse. For awhile there in the 1970s, it must have seemed like Neil Young could do nothing wrong. Starting with 1969’s Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere and running right up until 1979’s Rust Never Sleeps, Young was amazingly good. Sure there were a few missteps here and there but his career during that decade was a model of consistently good songwriting and recording, a stark contrast to the incoherence and largely dreadful work he did in the 1980s. Zuma emerged in 1975, hot on the heels of the tortured Tonight’s The Night (which had been recorded two years earlier, but released just five months before Zuma). This is a much more accessible and easy-to-like album, filled with huge chords, an open production, and solid melodies. Crazy Horse is in fine form, and “Cortez The Killer” gives Neil an excuse for a guitar workout, even if the lyrics praising the bloodthirsty Aztecs are unforgivable (while it’s not a perfect parallel, imagine if he’d written a song saying that the Germans knew no war before the invasion of Normandy and you’ll get an idea of the historical idiocy of the lyrics). There are some nice acoustic numbers, notably the lovely “Pardon My Heart” and “Through My Sails,” a song rescued from an aborted album with Crosby, Stills, and Nash. The withering putdown of “Stupid Girl” drags a bit, but otherwise Zuma is an excellent collection. “Don’t Cry No Tears,” “Looking For A Love” and “Cortez The Killer” are among the best songs of Young’s best period.
    Grade: A
  • Zero Hour EP and …PlusThe Plimsouls. Rounding out the month are two brief offerings from L.A.’s Plimsouls. Zero Hour is an outstanding 5-song EP released in conjunction with their first album. Featuring a slightly different version of the LP’s “Zero Hour” plus four other tracks, it’s a beautiful listen, opening with the gem “Great Big World” and closing with an rip-roaring live version of Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” That the EP also has the brilliant “Hypnotized” and the raveup “How Long Will It Take?” is just icing on the cake. …Plus is four songs that were released as bonus songs on the CD of their first album (as was the Zero Hour EP). The outtake “Memory” is excellent, and there are bloodcurdling live versions of “Dizzy Miss Lizzie” and “Hush Hush” along with a good, but unremarkable instrumental called “When You Find Out.” The live tracks bear out the reputation of the Plimsouls as being one of the very best live bands of their time. This is raw, exciting rock ‘n’ roll, not to be missed. Garage rock at its finest.
    Grade: A