‘It’s impossible not to end up being a parody of what you thought you were’Keith Richards muses in one of the more thoughtful bits in his autobiography, ‘Life’.
‘I can’t untie the threads of how much I played up to the part that was written for me. Image is a long shadow…I think some of it is that there is so much pressure to be that person that you become it, maybe, to a certain point that you can bear’.
I’m not sure if the Rolling Stones were the first band to self-consciously try to create a “legend” around themselves. Obviously, every rock music act, successful or otherwise, has tried to create an image around themselves. It goes with the territory.
But the ‘Stones set out to go beyond that, it seems to me, and to build the whole ‘outlaw’ thing around themselves. ‘The Rolling Stones are not so much a group, they are a way of life’ their first manager proclaimed sometime during that self-consciously legend-making time of the mid-60s. And they decided to live up to that – the songs which were as much image making as music making (Sympathy for the Devil, Stray Cat Blues, Midnight Rambler, etc etc etc….)
The journalist in me finds all this a bit bogus. I love the music the band did, between 1968 and sometime towards the end of the 1970s (their last good album, ‘Tattoo You’, came out in 1981, but it was mostly outtakes from the 1973-78 period. I’m in a minority here, I know, but I think it’s better than ‘Some Girls’ – the groove tracks Topsand Slave have a real grinding funk missing off the more acclaimed 1978 album).
But what strikes me is some of the “legends” don’t quite ring right. Back in the late 90s I read a biography of Richards (very much an “as told to” effort by a transcriber by the name of Bokris) which had a number of claims Richards is careful to leave out of his official autobiography.
The Birth Legend is the best of these – born in the middle of a bombing raid.
‘Hitler had me marked!’he proclaimed to Bokris.
Richards was born in December 1943, and its a fact of history that most of what was left of the German Luftwaffe was on the Russian front, or converted to night fighters and trying to defend the Reich (December 1943 was the height of Bomber Command chief Arthur Harris’s expensive and bloody ‘Battle of Berlin’) at that time.
And Richards, as a bit of a war buff, probably knew this.
So that Birth Legend sounded a bit bogus – and Richards, notably, doesn’t repeat it in his official autobiography.
He specifically dumps on the ‘Keith gets his blood changed before every tour to flush the heroin out of his system’ legend – a throwaway comment to get rid of pestering journalists, he reckons.
That’s got the ring of truth to it.
So, the ‘Stones play Auckland tonight and I’m not bothering going. Garth Cartwright, in this week’s Listener, mentions something I’d also noticed from the more recent clips of the band in concert – Keith is barely playing.
But if you look at them, here, playing ‘Jumping Jack Flash’, they’re in full flight – Richards playing to drummer Charlie Watts, whose precise, spare, neat drumming is the anchor which allows the rest of the band to meander off in their ragged fashion.
The whole band is playing their guts out here. They mean it. They’re not posing in this clip, they are playing. If you look at recent clips, there seems to be a lot of posing.
So this tour is about the legend, not the music. And forgive me for being a cynical, black-hearted journalist, but I’m a bit allergic to self-conscious legend making.
Of which there has been much around the band. I’ve been de-toxing from the recent general election campaign madness by reading rock music autobiographies for some light reading.
Well, I says ‘light’–some of these buggers take themselves awfully seriously (looking at you, Townshend, Morrissey).
The Keith book caused a stir when it came out because he was so rude about lead singer Mick Jagger: the reviews mostly focused on the claim Jagger slept with Richards’ partner, Anita Pallenberg (which was not a new revelation) and also that Jagger has a small todger (which was, although given the way Sir Michael has put it around over the years, there must be a fair section of the female population – and if legend is true, one or two of the males – for whom it wasn’t such news).
He is also very rude about New Zealand’s very own Dunedin, during the ‘Stones first visit in the mid-1960s – ‘I don’t think you could have found anything more depressing anywhere. The longest day of my life, it seemed to go on forever. ..Dunedin made Aberdeen seem like Las Vegas. Boredom is an illness with me and I don’tsuffer from it, but that moment at the lowest ebb. “I think I’ll stand on my head, try to recycle the drugs”.’
Which, you have to admit, is pretty funny.
The public sledging of Jagger was already 15 years old when the book came out: they had a massive public spat in the mid-80s when Jagger recorded a couple of solo albums, and when the ‘Stones came to do their next album it was full of songs about fighting.
They even built what – to me – is their last great single around this, One Hit (To the Body) : the accompanying video shows Richards and Jaggar shaping up to each other (look at the clash around the 2 minute mark) and according to Richards’book, they nearly came to physical blows during the filming of this.
Personally, I smell more self-conscious legend creation.
But there is still the music – and that’s what matters here. When I was growing up in the late 70s, the ‘Stones were on the radio a lot, but it was either the then-current stuff – Miss You, Faraway Eyes, and Beast of Burden off of ‘Some Girls’, or the Big Ones from the sixties/early 70s (Satisfaction, Brown Sugar, Jumping Jack Flash and Honky Tonk Women mostly).
Oh, and they were on the news bulletins, obviously. It was around the time of the legendary (there we go again) Toronto drug bust, when it looked like Richards would go to jail for drug trafficking.
I couldn’t have been less interested in the drug aspects (all that stuff struck me as being a bit silly, and still does) but I loved the guitar sounds. Most of the radio at the time was disco (or so it seemed) and there is something about the kerrang of an electric guitar and the swing and punch of a good solid rhythm section which still gets me.
But because I always liked to know the history of everything I got interested in, I started reading about this outfit….first year away from home, at Wellington Polytechnic, discovered the tape library and borrowed ‘Let it Bleed’and ‘Beggars Banquet’.
From the opening bars of ‘Gimme Shelter’ (this version, live from the late 1990s, is pretty good) I was hooked.
I bought my first copy of ‘Exile on Main Street’, second hand, in Cuba Street’s Silvio Records that year – the first album I’ve ever bought on the strength of knowing only one track.
Still probably my favourite, the superb Tumbling Dice, of course: love the drunken skid of guitar at the start, then Watts rights the song with a couple of precise drum strokes. (there is a *great* live version from the mid-1990s here, on Martin Scorseses’s “Shine A Light” film.)
I’m now on my fifth copy of Exile. It takes a while to get into, this album –it’s a double album which means almost all reviews call it “sprawling”–but its mix of country, blues and rock is something other, lesser bands, have been trying to recapture ever since.
This one leapt out at me the first time I spun that tape, and I still love it.
Torn and Frayed is *very* country, reflecting the Gram Parsons influence on Richards at the time. And, again, it is about the legend of the ‘Stones and of Richards in particular: all about a band, and a guitar player ‘Joe’ who needs ‘codeine’ to fix his ‘cough’. Umm, yeah.
Still. Magical track. As someone observed a few years ago, during the height of the alt-country thing a few years ago, ‘Alt country is just what the Rolling Stones were doing between 1968 and 1972″. Here’s your proof.
Jagger himself doesn’t like Exile much – too ragged and disorganised, apparently – and Richards has a final jab at him on the subject:
‘Whenever I heard “Oh we don’t want t go back and recreate Exile on Main Street” I’d think “I wish you fucking could, pal!”‘