Some say the Rolling Stones are the best rock band in the world. That’s a little extravagant; it’s like calling Earth the best planet in the universe. How do you know unless you’ve seen them all?
That said, the Stones are certainly one of the most interesting bands in the world, and guitarist Keith Richards may be the band’s most interesting member.
Keef, as fans call him, has, against all odds, reached age 68, and in 2010 he released his autobiography, “Life.” When you read about the copious drugs he and his bandmates took for many years (Richards swears he’s been off junk for 30 years), it makes you wonder why you’re paying extra for organic free-range chicken, soy milk and other things that are supposed to be so good for you.
The parts of “Life” that are not about taking drugs, scoring drugs or being busted for drugs are about his many trips to rehab to get off drugs. The thing is, it wasn’t just the boys in the band smoking, snorting and shooting dope. The roadies, the groupies, the record execs, the studio musicians, the agents and their famous friends were all doing it, too. Richards would get out of rehab, and the next day a “friend” would lay some smack on him.
By the way, he still drinks. He writes that while recording in Canada not long ago (in Rolling Stone years, anyway), the band and its entourage cleaned the Jim Beam out of every liquor store within 50 miles by the end of the first week. When Keef heard about it, he put down his elf-booted foot. “That’s it,” he said. “From now on, we’re drinking vodka.”
One of the oddest things about successful musicians is that they are workaholics. It’s hard to tell if Richards is bragging or complaining when he says that in its first five years, the band didn’t take one day off. None of the Stones ever had a job other than playing in a band. If they weren’t playing or recording, they were writing songs, doing photo shoots or appearing on TV. That’s what it takes to stay on top. You can never stop.
Keef can be as charming as Captain Jack Sparrow, the “Pirates of the Caribbean” character that Johnny Depp modeled on Richards. But not always. Throughout the book Richards casually refers to women by the b-word, sleeps with a gun under his pillow, and seems to be under the delusion that he is a large, black Jamaican rastaman. Then it starts to get weird.
He and Mick Jagger haven’t spoken in 20 years except to write songs whenever they needed to raise some quick cash. Incidental tidbit: It seems that most of the time, Richards writes the music and Jagger writes the lyrics.
What else? They all hated Brian Jones because he was a girlfriend-beating, needy, selfish, egotistical piece of goose dropping. No one in the band seemed surprised or upset when Jones turned up dead in his swimming pool a month after quitting the band in 1969.
Bassist Bill Wyman quit because he was afraid of flying. Richards left longtime girlfriend Anita Pallenberg because she was doing (BEGIN ITAL) more drugs than he was(END ITALS). How is that even possible?
As for the music, Richards gives a blow-by-blow account of recording the songs for “Exile on Main St.” That album was recorded in the basement of a seaside villa he’d rented in southern France so that he and the rest of the group wouldn’t have to pay confiscatory British income taxes. For months the band members recorded in a hot, sweaty root cellar until they got what they wanted. Then in one line, Richards says something like, “Then we took the masters to LA and added the vocals and overdubbing.” Wait, what? That could have been fleshed out a little more.
Depp and Richards read some of the chapters of the audiobook version, and it is hard not to laugh when you hear a Captain Jack voice say, “I don’t have a drug problem; I have a police problem.”
I saw the Stones in 1972, figuring it would be the band’s last tour because all the bandmates would be dead of pop-star excesses in a year or two, Keef being the first to go. It seems he may outlive us all.
Jim Mullen’s newest book, “How to Lose Money in Your Spare Time — At Home,” is available at amazon.com. You can reach him at jimmullenbooks.com.