Keith Richards’ autobiography opens with a drug bust in Fordyce, a hick town in Arkansas. Travelling in a car stashed with drugs, he and fellow band mate Ronnie Wood and a few friends stop for lunch at an eatery. It is 1975, and the Rolling Stones are on another grinding tour of America, “inciting” and “corrupting” the young. The police find some cocaine and a knife in the car and haul them in front of a drunken judge, who adjourns the hearing to go off to buy a bottle of bourbon across the street. He returns to the courtroom, the bottle hidden in his sock, and lets off Richards and his friends with a fine. The judge also poses for a photograph with the outlaw Stone. In typical irony, the police escort them next morning to their aircraft, stacked with Jack Daniel’s and waiting to fly them away to the next destination.
For Richards and fellow members of the self-proclaimed world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band, such brushes with the law came with the job. Early in their career, their wunderkind manager Andrew Loog Oldham packaged them as scallywags, an antidote to the schmaltzy Beatles. So the Rolling Stones got thrown out of hotels for dressing inappropriately, urinated in public places, and did all kinds of things that Oldham spun to the media slyly with the poser to harried parents: “Would you let your daughter marry a Rolling Stone?” As Richards writes with barely concealed glee in his new memoir Life, “We were obnoxious...the media was so easy to manipulate.”
Life: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 564 pages, Rs 995.
Disarmingly honest, insanely funny, savagely in-your-face, pulling no punches and with enough musical insight, Life is a roller-coaster ride of a story of the guitarist who laid down the riffs and co-founded a band of shaggy haired, hugely talented Englishmen who play rock ‘n’ roll with the best bluesy undertow. The Rolling Stones may have become a giant corporation cashing in on nostalgic baby boomers with their spectacular world tours today, but as Richards tells it, it all began in a rather dull and dreadful town in England.
Dartford was where “everything unwanted by anyone else had been dumped—isolated and smallpox hospitals, leper colonies, gunpowder factories, lunatic asylums.” He led a desultory childhood, hating school, getting shot in the bum by an airgun-wielding tramp in the woods, and singing in a choir till he met Mick Jagger, who lived a street away with a stash of the choicest blues records from across the Atlantic. The rest, as we know, is history.
In Richards’ story, there are plenty of drugs—cocaine, heroin, downers, uppers, you name it. There is some sex—caring groupies who only Richards can get away with by calling “nurses”, who would bathe and feed him too. But there’s loads of rock ‘n’ roll. Of how Satisfaction, possibly the greatest rock song ever recorded, was actually taped with an acoustic guitar on a cassette player at Richards’ London apartment, while Jagger wrote the lyrics by a pool in Florida. The growling fuzz tone which elevated it to an anthem was added later at a Hollywood studio. Sympathy for the Devil, another grimy gem, turned from a “turgid folk song into a rocking samba”, and from a “turkey into a hit”. The hypnotic Gimme Shelter, most fittingly, was written on a stormy day.
There are peerless observations about peers and friends. John Lennon is a likeable “silly sod” who wore the guitar too high and couldn’t keep up with him in his consumption of substances, inevitably ending up in his bathroom “hugging the porcelain”. Or Jean-Luc Godard who looked “like French bank clerk” and shot Sympathy for the Devil, an incomprehensible film based on the Stones song. Richards tears Godard’s labour of love to pieces—“the film was a total of crap”.
How the rogue Richards and the mercurial Jagger have stuck together in one of the world’s abiding musical partnerships for close to half a century remains a riddle. Richards confesses that he is a yokel compared with Jagger, and says he is one of the best natural blues harp players. But over the years the relationship has strained (remember the execrable Dirty Work?) and their work together has suffered—why haven’t they written a single truly great song since Start Me Up in 1981? There are no clear answers. He blames Jagger for drifting away. “I used to love to hang around with Mick, but I haven’t gone to his dressing room in, I don’t know, 20 years. Sometimes I miss my friend. Where the hell did he go?” Where did the Stones go, musically?
They are still rolling but gathering a lot of moss. But like his idols, the venerable bluesmen, Richards says he won’t retire “till he croaks”. “I’m not here just to make money and records. I’m here to say something and to touch other people, sometimes in a cry of desperation: Do you know this feeling.” Yes, we do.
Soutik Biswas is the India editor of BBC News online.
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