Half a Century Through the Eyes of Keith Richards
A review by Tobe Damit
Of course, as a dedicated fan of the Stones, I had previously read Richard’s acclaimed autobiography Life. An autobiography has the undeniable advantage to come straight from the horse’s mouth and yes, it gave me a unique intimate input about how the guy sees himself , where he’s coming from, his influences, opinions, tastes and thoughts but Victor Bockris has taken writing biographies to a whole new level and in total honesty, I can tell you that I felt I knew the guy a whole lot more after reading Keith Richards:The Unauthorised Biography (2002) revised edition of Keith Richards:The Biography (1993). That earlier edition of Bockris’ celebrated biography was the first to recognise that if Mick Jagger is the public face of the Rolling Stones, Keith Richards has always been the band’s heart, soul and musical powerhouse and to fully substantiate and validate Richards’ pivotal role in the Stones legend. This one below, just like the one above that I used for the present review, is another revised version of the earliest 1993 edition that has been expanded to accommodate ten more years of Richards’ storied life.
Bockris’ biography on Lou Reed: Transformer: The Complete Lou Reed Story (”Scholarly and precise…Lou is effectively pinned down like a butterfly”-Q) and this one on Keith Richards are very similar in terms of high standards. There is a main difference between the two books though and it only more so shows their relevance and the closeness that Bockris has with his subjects; Whereas Lou Reed relatively cold, complex, unpredictable and ever-changing persona who prefers to keep a certain distance could explain the academic/scientific experiment feeling that you get reading Transformer. Keith Richards more open, welcoming, honest and predictable personality really comes across in Bockris’ bio, allowing the reader to feel that same intimacy you get in Life, as you get to know Keith from the early days until the end of the nineties. The more you get to know the man, the more you get to like and understand him as well as really getting the way he plays and feels the music because Richards is how he plays. In short I would say that the main difference between the two books is that Life focuses a lot more on what Richards is now and his point of view on the past with the eyes of the man he has become today. A good example would be Richard’s renewed interest for experimenting with reggae and Jamaica in general that were ignited a long time ago but bloomed more recently. This subject will be talked about extensively in Life. Bockris also talks about that too, but the input you get about previous parts of Richards’ life as well of what was happening with the Stones and in his private life are coming from other sources too, giving the reader the feeling you are right there in the front seats with not only Richards himself watching and commenting the movie of his life as it’s playing right in front of him, but also with the people who were close to him during a certain precise period in time and hearing their comments as well! In Richards’ case it’s a very important advantage because SO MANY THINGS HAPPENED!!!
God knows Richards missed more than just a few of them and he will the first to readily, freely in all good faith admit to that himself! And let me be really clear here; I’m not trying to put down his autobiography. I loved reading it but when it comes to getting the facts, I think a strong biographer needs to be involved and the beautiful thing is that Bockris never makes you feel a distance. You totally get intimate with the guy, his relatives and his friends, relating to what they have been through, the good times and the bad times. You will find that Keith is totally 100% honest and forthcoming and this is what you get reading this biography AND when you’re listening to the Stones. ”Look at this face! Keith has one of those I’ve-done-it-all mugs you see in French movies of the Thirties. Almost from an ethical standpoint I could say authenticity is there in his face, in his style, also a certain grace. He does have a soul, he does look like what he is, and there’s a very beautiful, delicate, tender and lyrical style that he has. There’s a lining of different sort inside of Keith. It’s a matter of being all of a piece. Richards struck me as being, in some weird, almost mystical way – and you find these people in jazz, too – someone who gave himself up so completely, who did so little to protect himself from its dangers and its traps, that he eventually developed a strange purity amidst the filth. He obtained a kind of blessedness in the gutter” -Albert Goldman as quoted in Keith Richards: The Unauthorised Biography by Victor Bockris, 2002, Omnibus Press, p.278
I couldn’t help notice the tremendous effort that was made to document each and every aspect of Keith Richards and of course The Stones as a group. Bockris of course went right up to the source and gives a really complete tour, with every possible tool (including amazing pictures) to understand why The Stones are what they are and what was Richards key involvement in it, starting back when they were all living together. At first it was Jones who seemed to be the one that firmly and unconditionally believed in the band. I’m pretty sure that all of them living in such harsh conditions created a bond that could never be forgotten. ”The sexual electricity among Brian Keith and Mick fulled the triangular flow of energy(…)As they continued to weave the web of love and hate that would dominate their lives in the years to come, on the coldest nights, for warmth, Brian and Mick slept in the same bed. ”Space was so limited” Jones claimed ”that we even had to regulate our breathing”…The Rolling Stones’ creative method was the consumption and rejection of people as fuel for their work. Keith was always attracted to unusual, antisocial underdogs. ”The crazy chemistry of the people is what kept us going,” he said. They needed each other – as scapegoats, rivals, catalysts, fellow travelers, and friends”(…)” Speculations on the homoerotic bonding at the core of the Rolling Stones was not confined to the Jagger-Jones duo. The Beatles became friendly with The Stones in the spring of 1963. Paul McCartney told a friend that the first time John Lennon went around to see Mick and Keith at Edith Grove, they were in bed together. John reported back: ” I’m not sure about those two, you know. What d’you think?” Paul said they were never sure. He also said that the first time Mick and Keith came backstage to see them they couldn’t believe that the Beatles were wearing stage make-up. It really freaked them out. The next time they saw the Stones play, Mick was all made up like a transvestite.” –Keith Richards: The Unauthorised Biography by Victor Bockris, 2002, Omnibus Press
Now I would like you guys to keep in mid of what was going on in New York with Andy Warhol and the Factory around that same period of time, the transvestites, Lou Reed and the Velvet and later on with David Johanson and the New York Dolls…Was I talking about Lou Reed a few moments ago?? What a coincidence right?? Well it came to my knowledge that a lot of punks didn’t like The Rolling Stones. On one hand I can understand this because the Stones’ music came from deeply rooted Chicago blues and were attracting teeny-boppers when they first started to be known. Punks were aiming at something more detached from everything that was already considered as already established and were definitely out for rebellion, something The Stones as a band maybe weren’t 100% identified with from the start BUT Keith definitely had this element in him from the get go and maybe, just maybe, this is what made the Stones what they have become further down the line. Let it be known that while Beatlemania was hitting UK, The Stones had already understood that they were going to bet on being ugly and on being these guys you definitely do not want your daughter not be involved with in any ways which is pretty close to what punk would become on the other side of the ocean a few years later. I’m not trying to say who was first but I’m just saying that the Stones in my mind definitely had some elements of the rebel attitude that would characterize the punk movement, it’s just that they started expressing it using a different type of music but they were no choir boys at all.
” Despite the strange closeness, their essential character differences were already evident. Alexis Korner:”Of Brian, Mick and Keith, Keith was the more open. Brian was interested in portraying himself as any of the fantasies he had of himself. Keith was the least interested in portraying himself as something other than he was. Keith is a man of belief and Mick is a man of fear. Mick works on fear, that driving thing. ” What if I fuck up?” It is a lot easier to be like Keith than it is to be like Mick.” –Keith Richards: The Unauthorised Biography by Victor Bockris, 2002, Omnibus Press
Keith Richards comes across to be the musician to have given the best series of interviews, he was and still is the major driving force behind the first bad boys band, a band that was always fueled by Keith’s contagious, unconditional love of music. Bockris really made a fantastic work at taking the best parts of interviews and quotes as well as his own research and interviews with Keith and his friends and relatives of course. This book really delivers all you want to know in its every details: Keith’s problems with girls, booze, drugs, cars, other members of the band, the arrests, etc. (all this backed up by really cool pics) but what comes out in the end is that Keith main reason to live is and always has been music and his unconditional love for The Stones. Whenever the band was drifting away from their very roots, Richards would remind the rest of the band, willingly or not, that the love of music is all that really matters and that no matter how their marketing men wanted to play it safe, Keith always wanted the Stones to do exactly the contrary because ”when you play it safe, the best you’re going to come up with is something that’s not bad. And we’re not sitting here talking because the music is not bad. We’re sitting here talking because it’s fucking great!” –Keith as quoted in Keith Richards: The Unauthorised Biography by Victor Bockris, 2002, Omnibus Press, p.352.
If you really are a fan of the 60s-70s, Keith Richards and/or the Stones do yourself a favor and check it out. It’s most definitely a must because through the eyes of Richards you will get to travel around the world, in a time-space manner that you couldn’t do otherwise and I swear to God you are in good company with Keef and Victor for one helluva journey! Now you might think I’ve given you too much but trust me there’s much, so much more to know!!
Leaving you with one last quote by Bill Wyman from the Bockris’ bio that is very revealing of the importance of Keith in the band:
”Every rock’n’roll band follows the drummer. If the drummer slows down, the band slows down with him or speeds up when he does,. That’s the way it works – except for our band. Our band does not follow the drummer, our drummer follows the rhythm guitarist, who is Keith Richards. It’s probably a question of personality. Keith is a very confident and stubborn player. Immediately you’ve got something like a hundredth-of-a-second delay between the guitar and Charlie’s lovely drumming, and that will change the sound completely. That’s why people find it hard to copy us. Now I’m not putting Charlie down in any way for doing this, but on stage you have to follow Keith. You have no way of not following him. The tune is basically worked out, but it changes all the time,it’s very loose.So with Charlie following Keith, you have that very minute delay. When you actually hear that it seems just to pulse. You know it’s right because we’re all making stops and starts ans it’s in time – but it isn’t as well. The net result ia that loose type of pulse that goes down between Keith, Charlie and me. That’s what we think the reason is for our sound. ”
Click here for a Q and A with author Victor Bockris on Keith’s biography here on Loud Alien Noize!