Happy birthday Keith Richards, king of the underground

Keith Richards has an unusual problem for a memoirist: a too dramatic life:

The temptation for most memoirists is to beef up, at times even to make up, life; for Richards, who has lived one of the most eventful and excessive lives ever, the point is to tamp it down. His is an odd book for many reasons, among them its refusal to impute any meaning to the structure of experience, beyond its basic contingency. The book tells no “story,” presents no overwrought “themes,” proposes no shape to life beyond the amorphous ooze of passing time. Thus the hilariously nonchalant title, which, shorn of the expected first-person possessive, would suggest that Richards’s life is more or less the one we all experience.

At one time or another, everyone rides in a red Cadillac with the Ronettes out to Jones Beach, then wakes up on Ronnie Spector’s mother’s living room floor in Spanish Harlem, to a plate of bacon and eggs. We’ve all had the major licks of “Satisfaction” come to us in a dream, then adjourned to the pool to write the lyrics with Mick Jagger. This is the kind of thing that happens. Uschi Obermaier, the German leftist supermodel, chews off your earring in a Japanese-style hotel in Rotterdam, leaving you with a “permanent malformation” on your right earlobe. The prime minister of Canada’s wife turns up in your hotel room, looking eager to party. That’s life. Or,Life.

From a great review of Richards' memoir, Life, by poet Dan Chiasson in the NYRB. Which he really likes! Typical with Keith: Take him for granted, despite his fame, his known brilliance as a writer of songs, his greatness as a player. As his old pal and bassist Bill Wyman said, in the doc Crossfire Hurricane on HBO a month ago, the Stones' have an unusual sound for a reason. 

Most bands follow the drummer. When we got together, something happened, something magical. Every band followed the drummer. We don't follow Charlie, we follow Keith. So the drums are barely slightly behind Keith. Just a fraction, you know. I tend to play ahead. It's got a sort of a wobble. And it's dangerous, because it can all fall apart at any second.  

Think you can hear that in some of the songs: the near-chaos that resolves into a chord in "Tumbling Dice"; the yelling back and forth in "Get Off My Cloud," and harrowing violence in "Sympathy for the Devil." And too, the unexpectedly sweet ballads, such as "Wild Horses," which the band was glimpsed finishing in the studio in the famous doc "Gimme Shelter."  

The image of Richards, though, is what stays with you: head back, eyes closed, sloppily lip-synching to Jagger’s vocals. Keith had written the song as a lullaby for Marlon, his son, according to Jim Dickinson. Jagger got his hands on it and made it a love song, probably addressed to Marianne Faithful. It is hard to know whether Keith is synching his own lyrics, which Jagger changed, or is simply too high to sing along. But it is an unforgettable image, the image of a band beholding its own complex chemistry, even as they are beheld by the Maysles’ camera. That moment seems to me the peak of the Stones’ career. From there, as Richards puts it, things went “from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

Hard to disagree. Here's a photo from that era, l971, with Mick, Keith, and Gram: 


Happy birthday, Keith. Many happy returns of the day. 

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