'Keef' Essays

Back from the sunny Atlantic shores of Cuba where, in addition to sampling local liquid treasures, I read Keith Richards’ can’t-put-me-down memoir,Life. It’s a splendid and stupefying work. 

Richards claims that he’s been awake for the equivalent of three lifetimes. Perhaps.  What’s undeniable is that he has remembered a great deal.

In collaboration with his friend, the former Times of London journalist, James Fox, Richards has ingeniously fleshed out a narrative that is not only chock full of content; it’s humorous, tragic and, often, quite moving.

As social and cultural  history, Life supplies an unparalleled first person account of working class post-World War II Britain and London in the swinging 60s. Musicologists and rock ‘n’ roll fans will lap up Richards’ detailed account of recording techniques and guitar tunings. Equally notably, it’s refreshing to read one person’s unapologetic, frank account of the ecstatic highs and miserable lows associated with the extravagant use of mind altering substances over many years.

Life reminds one of the outlandish inventive energy and intelligence of a great Rolling Stones recordingDecades have past since LPs such as Beggars BanquetExile on Main Street or Some Girls. Richards’ autobiography approaches the prosaic equivalent.

It is fashionable in some circles to assault the ‘rock aristocracy’ of the 60s and 70s. There’s no denying that Richards’ account leaves much to question about the human cost of the drug and sexual excesses that Richards chronicles with glee and panache. At the same time, it is equally undeniable that a plucky working class lad from the edge of London fell in love with some classical forms of American music, and that along with a handful of British musicians like Eric Clapton and Peter Green, ‘Keef’ and his mate Mick Jagger, helped give Chicago blues and 1950s rock ‘n’ roll back to the world just when they were being abandoned by American mass audiences. Life is a suitably rollicking take on the singular rebel spirit behind that enormous contribution to world culture.

Exile redux: What a beautiful buzz!

I’m seldom one to vaunt a digitized re-release of an analog recording, but the Rolling Stones’ renovated Exile on Main Street is marvelous. If you have never experienced the magisterially murky, smoking evocation of Americana that the Stones captured in the basement of a French chateau and in studios in London and Los Angeles way back in the early 1970s, here’s your chance for satisfaction. There’s good reason the new release is currently the Number 1 CD in the United Kingdom.

The re-mastering of the original album is splendid (even if, as Keith Richards correctly argues, it’s unnecessary.) However, the selection of 10 outtakes and alternate versions is worth the price of admission. In re-working this material, Mick Jagger has reclaimed whatever is left of his artistic soul (not to mention, his voice). Like large parts of The Beatles Anthology, the result makes this Exile more like a new release than a re-hash.

If you figured the Stones had absolutely spit the bit out (I know I had), you might be surprised. As Ben Ratliff, a writer from The New York Times, maintains, the alternate take of “Loving Cup” is perhaps the best track in Stones history. He’s not kidding. On that track, Jagger effectively channels both Muddy Waters and Hank Williams. Charlie Watts’ drumming defies description.

As for The Keef himself, he might be a digital skeptic, as that fascinating article by the aforementioned Ratliff reveals, but his own vocal performance on an early version of “Soul Survivor” is a drawling, semi-improvised, book-marking joy. Only Keith Richards could make repeatedly growling ‘Et cetera!’  into primordial rock ‘n roll.

The Stones have traditionally been slow to plumb their own archive. Further, the early “re-mastered” CD releases of their 60s and 70s LPs were sometimes an audiophile’s nightmare. This re-release, however, shows the possibilities of a harmonious marriage of analog original and digital post-production by the likes of Don Was and mature artists such as Jagger and Richards.