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Review of Keith Richards (and James Fox), Life

Did it start with Bowie, or was it Gary Glitter—that vast mid-1970s dumbing down that glam rock initiated and then perfected? “Outrageous” outfits, the androgyny fix, retro Space fantasies, and at the fringes the desiccated meth freaks for whom the Velvet Underground was alpha and omega. The Stones, Yardbirds, Animals and even purist Eric Clapton; the Ur Blues freaks suddenly relegated to B movie back story. Andy Warhol spouted mercantilist platitudes and his Super Stars wallowed in the death cult that Punk would later codify.

It was over, and the sad shadow of Edie Sedgwick and Warhol’s many victims surfaced briefly and were then assigned to that terminal place where fame meets a needle; where celebrity eats itself; where all the patent absurdities that were to follow the Sixties slowly devour anything with heart.  Dylan was forced further and further into absurdist posturing, all of it summed in the absolute narcissism of Renaldo and Clara; in the filmed final moment when, as at Altamont, the fabled 60s went belly up, victim to its icons.  The Grateful Dead end, not with Garcia, but long before as the spaced out acid fantasies of their audience terminate in the meaningless Peace symbology reduced to groovy hieroglyph for kids there for the tie-dye with oldsters still looking to Boogie.

Richards has long indicated with his skull rings and deaths head profile that all that Romance ends in death. Everything the Stones touched has now turned to Tales of Stoner Glory. The YouTube videos, in stark black and white featuring screaming teens pissing themselves while Jones smirks, Jagger dances and Richards batters a berserker fan, while good ol’ Bill and Charlie lay it down rock solid, like. (For the best account of the early Stones stage shows see Nik Cohn’s Rock From the Beginning, still the best book on the early English scene.)

And what of Andrew Loog Oldham, the manager, who oversaw some of their first definitive stuff, convinced them to play with make-up and androgyny, knew that the Beatles had to be countered, and that the Stones were what the kids really wanted; something nasty, Contra-wholesome brimming with hostility for the Established Order (King and Queen, Mom and Dad) which Sir Mick became. But not Keith whose middle distance stare, bottle and an advert for hedonism, and rasping whiskey voice once signaled London cool reaching for the nether regions where only The Funk could thrive.

Oldham is now rumored to be living in Columbia, still record producing for South American markets; a family man, relatives, the whole mishigas. Oldham who forced them to sit down and write their first tunes, Oldham who oversaw what he called the “ Edsel” that they had so carefully constructed those first heady years when everything was getting hammered into place. The Stones have always generated not just help, but their own salvation, at just exactly the right moment. As if the Zeitgeist were convinced of their absolute necessity. Oldham appears as they are birthed in confusion and media promo. Jimmy Miller produces Beggars Banquet after the faux Pink Floyd disaster of Their Satanic Majesties Request. Allan Carr “out-thugs” the lawyers at Decca. Anita Pallenberg hovers as they grope for personal styles and not just a “look” but an attitude.

Attitude is the to be the real key to Post Stones rock . . . Instrumentalists who couldn’t play, Johnny Rotten is the Ayn Rand of DIY rock.

Again and again there is someone there to point the way, even as they stumble, bumbling once again in the midst of that Pop mess they once inhabited before the deification and the Jann Wenner moment: what other group has had its fan letter masked as a rock journal?

Even Altamont, in all its murderous, racist horror helps further the legend, as the Maysles’ document in Gimme Shelter the bands’ reaction to the murder of James Meredith, the moment at which illusionist PR blends with America’s poisoned naïf poses and the pool-cued fascism of the Hell’s Angels. Godard film Sympathy for the Devil is unable to see that Jones is floundering, on his way out, and soon to die, either a suicide or murdered. Stoned lives turned into B movie fodder: wasted Brian smiling, staggering toward the street of Tabloid sadness.

Keith Richards positions himself here as the real conscience of the Stones; never sells out.  Jagger attempts a privatized event but fails at a solo career.  Richards was drawn to the sons and daughters of the demimonde, seeking what he told a recovering Marianne Faithful was the “Holy Grail.” Some of the lyrics blend the theological with the demonic- Richards knows his King James, the language still audible in Robert Johnson and Blind Willie; in Fred McDowell and the Blues legends. Men raised with the stunning language of the English Bible, and lives as tormented as the Man could make them. How’s that for “lyrical” motivation?

Richards only does the purest drugs – unavailable to anyone but the best-heeled and best connected and best-served of the Druggerati. The best of the songs are tales of the street, of love gone wrong or wandering, of what those at the bottom can hope to encounter- who cares that some of it is top down?  Druggie affectations of the well-heeled playing at edgy life or based on works inspired by Black culture and the terrible price it paid?

Richards is capable of the occasional kindness and real generosity. He is also a ruthless SOB quite prepared to see those who can no longer ‘cut it” be left to the jackals. As he ages he comes to resemble that other harbinger of Death, Bill Burroughs, whose desiccated face educated the kids bent on Hipness soon victim to the stone cold amorality of Manson or the Angels. The rocker stoners have had a terrible lesson to learn too late:  the wasted existence that was to set them free, murders them instead.

There is a chilling account, which does not appear in the biography, of one of the Stones tours when Richards was deeply addicted. He’d become attached to a street smart anarcho prince who had retained the touch for copping and insinuating himself in high places. This drug buddy was deep trouble and brought with him what the Stones Security feared most – a deeply dangerous companion who reeked of imminent overdose.

It’s axiomatic among junkies that sooner or later a shot will go bad; it needs to happen but once. It was decided that the guy had to be deep sixed and the once favored chap was beaten so badly that the message must remain engraved in his bones: he disappears. Richards moved on leaving the waster wasted. A junkie’s tale? They’re a sixpence a dozen those stories- but they tell you the truth, even when sweetened with a little too much anecdote.

Keith Richards began in Dartford, an end of the line bog near London; he’s reared in Post War bleakness. England was a landscape so grim it could drive bands like the Stones and Beatles, Kinks and Pacemakers, Yardbirds and Pink Floyd into musical careers so focused and maniacal they leave the American competition in the dust generated by the semi-motivated. The Beach Boys were not desperate to escape Southern California, or the Dead to flee San Francisco. But the English, with their visions of America, really wanted out. Only a few made it. The elements in what became the “English Invasion” are almost invariable. Grinding poverty and Post-war angst, art school careers, music as salvation, bands and managers and finally celebrity, if not success. The Beatles were for a time the most famous people in the world, and the Stones and Oldham proved that nasty was completely marketable. Latecomers like Malcolm McLaren just build on the Stones “naughty” premise.

The mid-1960s were fertile ground for revolution, protest, and the sound track was rock. It never got any better, and in fact the fecund combination of Avant Gardeistas and a loose aggregate of Bohemians and Collectors, loose change Kapital and new media were never again duplicated.  Dylan, the Beatles, the Stones, the Antiwar resistance, the media’s simplistic reduction of the whole period to drug-driven lunacy, and the gutter presses preoccupations with sexual titillation; the image of artist as genius/pervert; all of it was pushed by the Philistine fascination with deviance.  The dreams of the bourgeoisie remain sealed in this historical rewrite, and look what’s come after: people for whom Lady Gaga’s academic poses are as outsider as it gets, or the pathetic Grungers aping their moral and musical betters with whiner angst. Jesus: what a fucking comedown… as Keith himself has obliquely noted.

Richards was not alone in his preoccupations which, in Blues and popular music, were really about embracing the Black take on a culture which had tried to enslave it, and having failed at that, to lynch it out of existence. There is this terrible anxiety in the early Richards, you notice it in the books about those brief London days when it was all just coming together. The competition was fierce, the Blues purists unbearable esotericists, the club scene primitive and the press and public clueless about what motivated the first Stones. It was Muddy Waters, Howling Wolf, Chuck Berry, James Cotton, the Chess Records stable of Bluesmen overseen by Willie Dixon. Dixon’s name appears as co-writer on hundreds of traditional Blues, Chess recordings. Why? Because Dixon was an enforcer for the Chess Brothers, and if you wanted the gig you gave away some of the publishing.

I once saw the man throw a recalcitrant guitarist down a flight of stairs at a Blues Festival in Chicago. You didn’t mess with Willie’s three hundred pounds of joy. Richards and the band show up at Chess in the mid-Sixties and discover that Muddy Waters is a janitor, and if you want further insights listen to Sonny Boy Williamson talking to one of the Chess Brothers, in studio, during a session: “What do I want to call it… call it your Mother, I don’t care what you call it.”  Richards and the Stones later put Marshall Chess, the erratic son, in charge of their own label, and then discover…but lets leave that for another episode. The Chess Brothers helped invent the modern record business, Polish Jews who set up a recording studio and begin to tape the songs and stories of Blacks driven from the South and into the ghettos of Chicago looking, as they used to say “for a better life.”

Richards quickly sussed the Chicago Blues scene, which for someone raised within Britain’s caste system must have seemed Paradise Found. Though Richards never formulates the “problem,” his life offers ample evidence of what the Hipster obsession with drugs created. It is hardly ever mentioned out loud but the Hipster code has always held that at the top of the creative pantheon, an altar composed of Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, Lenny Bruce, and countless others, sits a bag of heroin.  For anyone pushing the envelope, and Richards qualifies completely, right there with sexual experimentation, music, and the Bohemian edges, there has always been smack. Richards never tires of pointing out that he only did the best stuff. But its Chamber of Commerce material, inserted because a man with kids doesn’t wind up being lumped with the pushers. That Blacks to the present moment continue to be copper fitted to drugs, addiction, and family dysfunction, is axiomatic in a country where the current political atmosphere is solidly racist, reactionary, and well-funded. Factor in Fox News and one sees just how every drug episode plays into the Right-wing agenda. But what a tale- a tale you don’t need Johnny Depp to explain.  Money, fame, celebrity, and talent can bring with them all that’s necessary to the Good Life. What they can’t do is redeem the players or change the game.

 

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