BY COLONEL TOM SHEEHY The year 2010 will go down as a very industrious year for The Rolling Stones. Even though there was no world wide tour, or a new album, the lads were very active in this recent past. For example, they released a newly remastered version of Exile On Main Street which included previously unreleased tracks, all of which were issued in support of the debut of Stones in Exile, a documentary of the making of the album they recorded in Keith’s basement in France, at a time when the band pulled up roots from the United Kingdom and fled to the French side of the Mediterranean as tax exiles. This year also saw the long awaited release of Ladies & Gentleman … The Rolling Stones, which is a remastered version of the 1974 theatrical release taken from four shows the band performed in Texas during the 1972 tour. This film is packed with torrid performances from arguably the greatest Rolling Stones tour of all time. Also this past year, Ronnie Wood was somewhat occupied as he turned his attention to recording a new solo album called I Feel Like Playing. This of course followed time he spent getting sober after an alleged binge that lasted since the end of the last Stones tour which finished in 2006. Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts may seem to be just laying back in 2010, but even though the Stones London office has denied rumors of a 2011 world tour, sources say that Jagger is engaged in the planning the next world wide leap, which would mean Mr. Watts has been focusing on designing the stage and all of the visual graphics which accompany every tour. However, the crème de la crème of 2010’s Stones diligence is Life, the new memoir by Keith Richards.
Now of course this autobiography includes the mandatory background narrative of young Keith Richards growing up as an only child in Dartford, England; Keith the lead singing choir boy at Westminster Abbey; Keith the adventurous Boy Scout, and naturally the infamous meet up with a young Mick Jagger at the train station where Keith noticed his former school mate carrying blues albums under his arm, a meeting which ignited a nearly 50-year musical relationship (which along with Brian Jones, the founder of the band) established one of the most enduring and influential musical ensembles in the history of Western civilization. It also includes Keith’s wonderful tales of trekking through Europe in his Bentley, catching up with the Stones on their next gig. Also found in Life are Keith’s stories of the women who captured his soul, and of course Dr. Richards as rock and roll chemist explaining the right mix and correct concoction for whatever was the drug of choice which would get one high without overdosing. The writing is exquisitely penned with the help of Keith’s side man on this book, James Fox.
All of this prompts a few questions: Why all this interest in Keith Richards in 2010? Why all of these stunning reviews for this tome? Why is it number one on the New York Times Best Sellers List? Is it because Keith is the lead musician in the best band in the world’ Or is it because no one other than Miles Davis has defined cool in the 20th Century and now the 21st as succinctly as Keith Richards does? Or maybe it is his forth rightness that attracts people to him in the business of music which is built around calculated falsification and an never ending cycle of mistrust.
What makes this book such a compelling read is Richard’s brutal honesty along with his irresistible persona which conveys the mark of a true gentleman. Richard’s ability, along with James Fox’s seamless contextualization, allows his voice to come pouring through the text as if one was sitting next to him in conversation at a local pub, or hangin’ out with him at The Plaza Hotel in New York City, over forty years ago, as this writer had the esteemed pleasure of doing after The Rolling Stones had just finished their legendary performance at Madison Square Garden in November of 1969. More on that in a bit.
Born on 18 December 1943, Keith Richards was a World War II baby. Although Keith claims to have no recollection of hearing the bombs which Germany dropped all over the city of London, Keith retains a very clear picture of the bombing’s aftermath. As a young boy, he saw buildings that were either burned out or completely devastated in his neighborhood. Although he came into a world surrounded by urban destruction from Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Keith Richards grew up to be a master of musical construction. Some of rock & roll’s greatest riffs were built on his fret board: “The Last Time” “Jumping Jack Flash” “Honky Tonk Women” and “Brown Sugar” just to name a few. Whenever Keith would feel the inspiration coming on, he’d refer to it as an “incoming.” But instead of a bomb aimed to destroy, Keith came up with a smash hit that flew up the charts. In his memoir, Keith confirms the long held legend, that it was manager Andrew Loog Oldham, who locked both Keith and Mick Jagger in the kitchen, and told them they were not to come out until they’d written a song. That wood shedding session clearly paid off, because the two of them are still prolific songwriters one-half century on. Before the Jagger-Richards partnership, there was another one in the band between Keith and Brian Jones. Keith and Brian were continually in music training camp, where they would listen to the Chicago blues masters, dissect what it was those musicians were doing with guitar interplay, and once they discovered the magical methods that a Jimmy Reed, or a Muddy Waters band were utilizing, they developed something themselves which Keith refers to as, “The ancient art of weaving,” which continues even to this day with Keith and Ron Wood.
With the Richards & Jones guitar interplay backed up with Charlie Watts’ jazz approach to drumming, topped off with Mick Jagger’s vocal style, The Rolling Stones sounded “black” compared to their British contemporaries. In fact they billed themselves as a “rhythm & blues” band and they had the credibility to back it up on stage. Unlike The Beatles, who were such polite lads when they sang in beautiful three part harmony a lovely request such as, “I Want to Hold Hold Your Hand,” The Rolling Stones were fiercely demanding and in one’s face when they recorded Willie Dixon’s, “I Just Wanna Make Love to You.” Their sound was deeply primal. The Stones sold sex to girls and raucous behavior to boys. The band quickly conquered London, and then they spread north all the way up to Scotland, where drunken blokes would spit on them at concerts, long before anyone ever heard of the Sex Pistols. As Keith recalls, at a Glasgow show, a riot broke out, and the five members of the band were lucky enough to escape from the hall with their lives.
Keith Richards was not only inspired by the American greats, he down right stole their ideas. As T.S. Elliot once noted, “Good poets borrow, but great poets steal!” Keith was a master thief. So much so, that it was highly appropriate for Johnny Depp to base his Jack Sparrow character in the movie Pirates of the Caribbean on the Keith Richard’s persona. After all it made perfect sense, because Keith was a musical pirate from jump street. For Keith has said many times throughout the years, that he stole every one of Chuck Berry’s guitar licks. He probably stole the title to the greatest rock and roll song of all time from Berry as well. In Chuck’s song about a jail sentence called “Thirty Days,” he sings, “I can’t get no satisfaction from the judge.” That lyric, married with the riff from the Martha & The Vandellas song, “Nowhere to Run” pretty much gave Keith Richards his masterpiece “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The rest of the song’s lyrics were composed by Mick Jagger. However, when once questioned about the song title in an interview, Jagger simply said, “No, I didn’t come up with the title. No Englishman would ever say something like that.” What Jagger was suggesting, was he would never have written a sentence that contained a double negative, that it must have been his writing partner, Keith the thief, who came up with it. Keith brings an infectious enthusiasm to this book when explaining the process of songwriting and especially when he shares the influences on his guitar playing. Chuck Berry and Scotty Moore are no brainers, but who would have guessed that Don Everly was such a great inspiration on Keith’s approach to playing rhythm guitar, or that it was pop music’s Bobby Goldsboro who taught Keith the power of the five-string open-tuned guitar, which allowed Keith to come up with his signature riffs for songs like “Brown Sugar” or “Start Me Up.”
Some of the stories Keith tells in Life may seem overly familiar to some, like the Keith and Mick on again off again bit. Keith’s relationship with Mick Jagger or “Brenda” as he refers to him in the book must at times be torturous, yet he has always found a way to keep that professional partnership together. Yet this love hate thing at times seems awfully concocted. Like when Keith has a new album and tour with his side band, the X-Pensive Winos to promote, or in this case, a new memoir to sell. Remember, it was a young Keith Richards who once said, “I don’t care what they write about us, just as long as they write.” Keith Richards has been a publicity savvy artist for many a year; he knows damn well how to manipulate the press. However, some narratives bear repeating like the drug bust at Redlands, Keith’s country house, where the law found Marianne Faithful clad in only a rug. At the hearing that followed, the Prosecutor asked Keith if he thought it “normal” for a young woman to be found wearing only a fur rug in the presence of a Moroccan servant. Keith simply replied, “We are not old men. We are not worried about petty morals,” Brushes with the law and near brushes with The Man permeate this book as they have the life of Keith Richards. The one that nearly did him in occurred in Canada where he was arrested for trafficking narcotics. Although Keith was found guilty, the judge refused to incarcerate him, because he felt it was more important that Mr. Richards seek treatment for his addiction. The judge added one condition to his sentence. He told Keith that he must perform a concert for the blind. The judge arrived at this sentence inspired by a blind Stones fan named Rita who found her way to the judge’s home and told him that she followed the band to every gig, and that Keith Richards made sure she had something to eat before every show. As Keith indicated, “The love and devotion of people like Rita is something that still amazes me.” Keith has always been a complete gentleman around dedicated Stones fans.
I know what it is like to be somewhat obsessed with The Rolling Stones at a young age. As I look back on my earlier days, I remember I liked the Beach Boys, I loved The Beatles, but I lived The Rolling Stones. So much so, that it began to affect my grades in High School. Consequently, my Guidance Counselor called my Dad on the telephone to discuss with him my “Rolling Stones problem.” The music of The Rolling Stones connected with me in a way that nothing before it ever had. They got my soul to the point where a priest confronted me with the question, “Son, are these degenerates your god?” I guess on some level they became such an important part of my young life, that I converted from a devout Roman Catholic to a committed Rock & Roller. This passion all came to a head on November 27, 1969 when the Stones performed at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Little did I know, that on that night, I would not only see one of the greatest performances the band ever gave, or that I’d get to meet the man himself. For me, Keith Richards was The Rolling Stones and I had to meet him. My friend Harvey and I made a pact. We were going to meet Keith Richards, and all we needed was the perfect plan. We knew the Stones were staying at The Plaza Hotel, but we didn’t know what floor Keith was staying on; we needed inside information and for that we turned to the Groupies. Back in the 1960’s, the Groupies knew everything. They had all the information and the access because they took care of the limo drivers. We then bumped into one we knew, her name was Lizzy from Queens. We told Lizzy what we were up to, so she told us what we needed to know, and that was, Keith was staying on the ninth floor of The Plaza. Lizzy also told us that as soon as the band finished “Street Fighting Man” that night (the last song of the set) the Stones would literally jump into their awaiting limos and rush back to their hotel. There would be no after show backstage hang that night, so time would be tight.
Harvey and I the calculated that to beat the limos back to 59th and Fifth, we would need extra time. We then decided we had to leave the Garden as soon as Keith hit the opening chords of “Street Fighting Man.” With our plan formulized, we went into the Garden, and saw one of the best Stones shows ever. The Rolling Stones always stepped it up a notch when they played Manhattan. There was and still is a special relationship between that band and that town. It is similar for Philly when Bruce Springsteen takes the stage here. One of the other reasons the Stones seemed on fire that night, may have been the presence of cameras. I had no idea who was filming the show, or for what purpose, but as the set progressed, the anxiety level began to rise, because for two guys among those 18,000 fans, a strategic mission was about to be launched. As the Stones hit it with “Honky Tonk Women,” my hearty started pumping because I knew our cue was next. At the end of “Honky Tonk Women,” Charlie Watts took a few extended drum rolls. Jagger smiled and said, “Charlie’s good tonight ain’t he.” It seemed like forever between songs, but I had my eye on Keith Richards’ hand. All of a sudden, there it was, that opening chord to “Street Fighting Man.” I looked at Harvey and we both turned around and started moving through the crush of humanity that was shoved up against the stage. It was like swimming through a formidable tide with people looking at us as if we were crazy to be leaving the Garden at that intense moment in time.
The subway ride uptown could have been dubbed: Operation Intense. Harvey and I didn’t say a word to each other on the train. The only sound I heard was of the wheels of the subway car scraping across the tracks. The posters on the wall of the car looked more vibrant than ever before and the ride seemed like it took forever, but the train finally stopped at fifty-eighth street and the two of us tore ass up the steps and ran right towards the Plaza. When we arrived, we did a quick check through the glass door windows. Not a soul was in sight, so we darted through the entrance and began ascending the fire tower. It was very dark in there. It was simply a circular stairwell that was dimly lit and at every floor there was small sign indicating which floor. The steps were steep and I thought we’d never climb all the way to the ninth floor, but we did. We were both out of breath, but we had to remain quiet so that we were not discovered. The door between the fire tower and the hallway had a lace curtin, so we could see the elevator. All of a sudden, the light above the elevator lit up, and the bell rang just as the elevator door opened. A huge guy who looked like a linebacker for the New York Giants got out and then he turned around and grabbed four black leather guitar cases, two in each hand. Just then, Keith Richards emerged from the elevator right behind him looking exactly as he did on stage at the Garden. Harvey and I then opened the door to the fire tower and said hello to Keith. The guy holding the four guitars, who was obviously Keith’s bodyguard, shouted at us, “Get the fuck outta here!” Keith looked at him and said, “No, they’re cool man.” We then introduced ourselves to Keith. I told him we were from Philadelphia, and as much as I liked the show at the Spectrum earlier that week, I thought that tonight’s show was far better. Keith smiled and said, “Yeah, tonight was a really good one wasn’t it.” Harvey then asked Keith to sign a photo he had taken, and while Keith was doing that, I asked him who was filming the show that night. Keith explained to me that they wanted to make a documentary of the band on tour and in the studio. He said they shot a lot of behind the scenes footage, but New York was the only time the band was captured while performing in front of a live audience. Harvey then told Keith he thought that he was the greatest guitar player in the world. Keith smiled and said thanks, but he added, “I think you should go downstairs and tell Mick Taylor that.” I had forgotten that the other members of the band were staying at the Plaza as well. I guess that was because I really had no interest in meeting them. I then asked Keith if I could take a photograph of him, and then get one of he and I together. I shot one of Keith, and just then, Sam Cutler, the tour manager showed up and asked Keith if everything was alright. Keith told him everything is fine and then he took my camera, handed it to Sam Cutler, and told him, “Take a photo of the two of us.” Keith and I posed, and Sam got the shot in one take. Keith then asked me, “Do you have any rolling papers?” I told him sorry, but I do not. I didn’t do drugs so I had no papers, but boy I sure wish I did that night. Cutler came back and told Keith that he had to go into a meeting with him. So, we shook hands and said thanks and goodbye. Mission accomplished!
The documentary the Stones shot at Madison Square Garden ended up being called Gimme Shelter. I am in the film as the camera pans the audience. I look like the pensive Stones fan, taking it all in for the sake of posterity. The audio recording made that night was later released as an album called, “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!”
Thirty-seven years later, I got to see The Rolling Stones play Atlantic City at the very end of their “Bigger Bang” tour. Right before that tour began, Charlie Watts was diagnosed with throat cancer. Yet, he beat it, and hit the drums harder than ever that night. Ron Wood was in mourning due to the sudden loss of his older brother. Sir Mick Jagger was in mourning as well, because his father was buried that morning in England. Jagger could not attend the funeral, because he had to work that night. And then there was Keith. Playing like a man possessed during “Jumping Jack Flash.” You would have never known that just a few weeks prior, the man had a hole drilled in his skull to empty blood from his brain as a result of falling out of a tree while on holiday in Figi. That night in Atlantic City was the fortieth time I saw that band play. All eyes were on Keith Richards that evening because it was just thrilling to watch the man play following a near death experience and playing like a twenty something year old punk. Keith was truly alive and well that night. Led by Keith Richards, that show was one fierce performance and the 2005-06 tour was the highest grossing tour in history.
As he has noted in his memoir, Keith may have rescued his former girlfriend Anita Pallenberg from an abusive relationship with his band mate Brian Jones, but it was the greatest love of his life, his wife Patti Hanson who provided Keith Richards with the emotional rescue he greatly needed to kiss drugs goodbye and provide him with the stability he desperately needed in his life which has not only kept the coolest cat in the world alive, but the greatest rock & roll band on earth still ready to play.
The author with Keith Richards November 27th, 1969.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Tom Sheehy is a scholar at University of Pennsylvania working toward his doctorate in 20th Century American History. Previously, Mr. Sheehy worked in the music business for thirty years doing publicity and marketing for record companies, radio stations, and concert promotors.