On November 3, 1964, the mayor of Cleveland, Ralph S. Locher, banned the Beatles and what The New York Times called “similar singing groups” from performing at the city’s venerable Public Hall. The mayor’s reasoning: “Such groups do not add to the community’s culture or entertainment.” The ban would go into effect that night, immediately following the appearance of what the Times referred to as “another group of shaggy-haired English singers” — the Rolling Stones.
There’s an easy irony to be had pointing out that Cleveland is now home to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, which presumably would treat a 1964-era lock of that hair as a holy relic.
But a more telling irony is found in another Times piece from the era, this one about how musicologists were “astonished” by the popularity of the Beatles and their shaggy ilk. (Back then, it seems, there was very little written about the Stones that didn’t mention the Beatles, too.) In a 1965 piece entitled “Beatles Stump Music Experts Looking for Key to Beatlemania,” The Times noted that “The Stones, as they are called, have a rough, wild style in which everyone seems to go his own way.”
Wrong. What the Stones had was a rough, wild style in which just the opposite occurred – which brings me to “Life,” Keith Richards’ pleasingly anecdotal, breezily amoral memoir that well proves that point, containing generous helpings of Richards’ own brand of musicology to go along with the requisite tales of debauchery and criminality.
In fact, “Life” throws bad behavior’s holy trinity into reverse — proffering rock ‘n’ roll, drugs and sex, in that order. As such, Richards’ recollections have become essential not only for those readers interested in the salacious (who, despite the odd blowjob reference, will be disappointed to learn how often our Keef prefers to just “cuddle”) and the druggy (who will finally discover whether or not he really did have every drop of blood in his body replaced) but also for people who care about the Stones mostly for their records. In fact, what makes “Life” so compelling is that Keith Richards’ love for the music is as pure as the pharmaceutical cocaine he so adores.
There are nuggets galore. One of my favorites: Richards reveals how he managed to create the legendary sound of a song that to this day epitomizes tough-ass rock, “Street Fighting Man,” without using a single electric guitar, save the bass. If that sounds preposterous, put in your earbuds and check it out — those are all acoustic guitars, recorded onto an old Phillips cassette recorder and played back through a speaker into a microphone and laid back to tape to create a rocking, distorted sound, but one quite unlike any an electric guitar would make.
There’s also a mini guitar-playing seminar, in which Keith tells how he discovered (via Ry Cooder) the ringing drone that came with tuning his guitar into an open G chord, leading him to explore the neck of the guitar as if finding a whole new instrument, and discovering the signature voicings of some of the Stones’ best-known riffs — the defining guitar parts of “Honky Tonk Women,” “Brown Sugar” and “Start Me Up” among them — and eventually taking the lowest string off his guitar altogether, allowing him to easily finger five-string jangly barre chords that have baffled his would-be imitators ever since. He takes a gleeful poke at the millions of bar bands he’s seen trying to play Stones songs in standard guitar tuning: “It just won’t work, pal.”
But by far the most satisfying bits are those that describe Richards’ love of the innovative styles of his idols — Jimmy Reed, Scottie Moore, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry, et al. — and how he and his mates incorporated them into what became the Stones’ signature sound.
Put those earbuds back in and take a listening tour:
He admires how Jimmy Reed and his band were able to transform the repetition, even monotony, of songs like “Baby What You Want Me To Do” and “Take Out Some Insurance” into “this sort of hypnotic, trancelike thing” that greatly influenced the Stones.
He revels in how Elvis Presley’s “Mystery Train” — featuring Moore on lead guitar — is one of the greatest rock ‘n roll tracks ever despite its having no drums. It proves, he says, that a suggestion of rhythm is sometimes all that’s necessary: or in his words, “It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.”
And he adores John Lee Hooker’s willful disregard of the ordinary time-keeping that causes ordinary blues players to change chords on the beat within a 12-bar structure. (If you really want to hear a performance to baffle the musicologists, try to count along to Hooker and his band romping through this live version of “One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer.” You will hurt your head.)
But what he clearly loves most is what he calls “the magic art of guitar weaving,” loosely defined as “what you can do playing guitar with another guy.” But “weaving” isn’t just two guitars playing at once; it’s two guitars in utter sympathy with each other, one countering the other harmonically and rhythmically, creating an appealing architecture that blurs the traditional lines between “lead” and “rhythm” guitar.
His “weaving” heroes include Muddy Waters with his brilliant backup guitarist Jimmy Rogers, The Aces’ Louis Myers with his brother David, and Chuck Berry with himself. (While acknowledging Berry’s studio brilliance, Richards charges that Berry overdubbed “because he was too cheap to hire another guy most of the time.”)
But, of course, if you made a list of the greatest guitar weavers of them all, you’d have to include Keith Richards and whoever he happened to be playing with at the time. Give a fresh listen to the break on 1965’s “The Last Time,” with Brian Jones playing the main riff and Keith layering his part on top. Then there’s Keith — without apologies to Chuck Berry — overdubbing those multiple acoustic guitars on “Street Fighting Man.”
Perhaps the epitome of guitar weaving can be found on 1978’s “Beast of Burden” from Some Girls. The song was a big hit and you’ve heard it a million times. But do yourself a favor and give it a new, close listen where you ignore everything but how Richards and guitarist Ron Wood play off each other. (Keith’s is the first guitar you hear, Wood’s the second, and there are definitely some overdubs as well.) They create the audio illusion (if there can be said to be such a thing) of “everyone going his own way,” but what’s really happening is that the players are finding their way together. The rhythm is the lead, the lead the rhythm, the playing gently slinky, impeccably timed. As such – you’d likely find no disagreement in Cleveland – the community’s culture and entertainment are served.