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It's only rock and roll . . .

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Posted: Monday, January 3, 2011 6:19 pm

In the wee hours of this morning, I finished reading 'Life' by Keith Richards. I'd gotten it as a Christmas gift and would have read nonstop if holiday shenanigans hadn't gotten in the way.

I was attracted to this book for two reasons: I love memoirs of people who seem to be a bit off-kilter (and I think he fits the bill nicely); and I love music. I've never been a huge fan of the Stones, I've never seen a show. But their longevity tells a story. And you don't have to be their biggest fan to enjoy this book. Just having heard, over a 40-plus year period, of Keith's antics and his ups and downs within the band, you know you're in for an interesting ride, no matter where it takes you.

And I loved the ride. I was surprised at Richards' insight and intelligence. The book was co-written by James Fox, but it carries a conversational feel. Very informal and relaxed. And honest. Beginning with his childhood, to his early band years - when they had no money to eat, but managed to scrounge up enough for guitar strings - to his current comfortable life with wife and kids and grandchildren in Connecticut. Keith knows his limitations and owns up to his vices. He doesn't try to hide anything - or make excuses. Without apology, the whole story is there - warts and all - to interpret however you see fit.

What I learned was that he had a hard-scrabble upbringing in a lower-middle class neighborhood in Kent. He was an only child and his parents were typical of the era. It took Keith a while to find his way, and he had a few scrapes along the path. But once he discovered music coming from America on a tinny old radio his life took a different direction. The more I read the more I realized that most of the choices Keith made for the rest of his life (so far) were based on his love of music. He has an almost encyclopedic knowledge of blues players. And not just the big names, but their bands and backup people. He cultivated this knowledge and later in life when he was fortunate enough to meet some of his idols, he couldn't believe his luck. He compared himself to a sponge  - soaking up information and learning from whoever he could.

He has great reverence and affection for the people he learned music from and played it with. And he gives credit where credit is due.

Even to Mick Jagger, who he's known since they were teenagers. They've had a rocky relationship, but when Mick did something right, Keith acknowledged it. Oh he talked some trash about him sometimes, but always admitted that it's because they're 'brothers' and that's just how they treat each other. 

More than once he got very involved in descriptions of chord progressions, tuning techniques, and musical terminology that was a little above my head. But I still read each word, fascinated by his knowledge and passion for the process of making music. I learned a few things.

And one of those things is that he's a really funny guy. He takes responsibility for his actions, but he does it with humor and humility. Even the abundant drug use. He explains his philosophy of drug use, but doesn't advocate it. He may go into great detail about the purity of his heroin or cocaine, and then remind us "Don't try this at home."

There are also quite a few references that I didn't understand. A lot because they were British, but some I just couldn't figure out. I had to look a few up on the internet while I was reading. Like this:

"Cyril was a panel beater from Wembley, and his manners and his way of coming on were exactly what you'd expect of a panel beater from Wembley . . ."

What's a 'panel beater?' I didn't get the reference. (A panel beater is someone who does auto-body work . . . of course!)

His book moves along in chapters with incredibly long subtitles that read like a table of contents.  But within each chapter, don't expect the narration to be linear. He progresses through his life, but not in a straight line. We jump around sometimes from 1996 back to 1969 back up to 1999. It doesn't make the book less readable, or enjoyable. I kinda doubt he's a linear thinker.

But a thinker, he is. And whether you think the opening riff of 'Gimme Shelter' contains some of the best notes played on a guitar (like I do), or not . . . it's worth a read. Especially if you want to learn about 5 string open g tuning.

. . . and I like it.