Few people in the history of the human race have had a life as unprecedented, indulgent, lucky, uninhibited, or impactful as Keith Richards’. A full-fledged rock star since the age of 18, Richards has seen levels of excess and luxury unimaginable to even history’s most gluttonous monarchs. A life even he never would have thought possible, Richards’ saga is one of mythical proportions, spawning enough mystery and folklore to fill volumes. The creative force behind the greatest Rock n’ Roll band ever, Richards’ unlikely tale is sure to entertain even the least suspecting reader.
A book that in no way presents itself as “fine literature,” Life is a straightforward recollection of Richards’ journey from the rural wastelands of Dartford to international infamy as the original rock star – at least what he can remember of it. Pieced together with the help of friends and contributors, this book is a fascinating story of a completely unprecedented life. Of course, it has its fair share of foul language, drug use, sex, violence, and let’s not forget, Rock n’ Roll, but Richards makes no attempt to glorify his past or impose his behaviors on others. The focal point of the book is the music – something Richards serves above all else. To put it simply, it’s the story of an English kid, immersed African-American music, who proceeds to use it as a vehicle for expression with a group of like-minded individuals, The Rolling Stones. Like a lovable friend who just can’t keep it together, Richards becomes an enticing character who, despite major flaws, you can’t help but empathize with. Although a generally lighthearted read, Life will reveal a depth and sincerity behind Rock’s most notorious outlaw that will make you realize it’s not as easy as it looks. As Keith says, “I’m not the guys I see on MTV, who obviously think they are me” – he is something far more complex.
One thing that I gained from reading Life is a greater appreciation for Keith as a musician and guitarist. Recently, he was named # 1 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s “Top 100 Guitarists,” and I couldn’t agree more with their decision. I mean talk about riff merchants – this guy is the wholesaler. “Start Me Up,” “Brown Sugar,” “Happy,” “Satisfaction,” “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” – 40 Licks is a vast understatement. The king of tone, Keith is instantly recognizable. As a player, he is amazingly well versed in the blues vocabulary. I mean, all of the Stones are heavy into early African-American Blues – Chess Records, Robert Johnson, etc. They may as well have Musicology degrees with a major in Blues – they really know their stuff. Not only that, they even recorded at Chess records in Chicago during their first visit to America, where they were mentored by Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters! But I digress. Keith may not have chops like EVH, Hendrix or Page, but he’s channeling somethings much deeper – he is the greatest rhythm guitarist of all time. Who would have thought that the torch of African-American blues would be passed on to five White, English lads? Perhaps that is why Keith cannot be killed by conventional weapons.
The real secret, that had many guitarists stumped for years, is Keith’s tuning. Taught to him by Ry Cooder, Keith began primarily using open-G tuning in the late 60s. From Low to High it looks like this – DGDGBD. Keith would also occasionally remove the lowest D string, giving him a 5 string variant. This tuning is the distinctive characteristic of his sound. Using what he calls “drone notes,” Keith plays his signature IV/I – I phrase with barre chord shapes borrowed from standard tuning. You’ll notice that open-G tuning isn’t drastically different form standard tuning, so it retains many elements of traditional guitar, but allows major chords to be played with a single finger – an elegant solution for getting an intoxicated Richards to play otherwise difficult progressions. But in all honesty, it’s genius. Few guitarists have fully embraced alternate tunings or applied them in such a creative manner. Most people will toy with open-E, common to slide guitar, and hardly break out of the standard lick repertoire. Richards took a unique alternate tuning and made it his iconic sound, and the sound of Rock n’ Roll – no small feat.
Overall, Life is a worthwhile read that demystifies one of the greatest cultural icons of the 20th century. Hearing the tale from his perspective, you realize that there is a primal element to Keith’s philosophy. A modern-day pirate, an adventurer in cultural exploration, Keith has simply lived his life the way he has wanted, all the while serving music like a god. A man who seems to know no bounds, Keith developed his own moral code, which he strictly abides by, one that you may find more chivalrous than expected. So if you’re a Rolling Stones Fan, Rock history buff, or just want a fun read about an unimaginable Life, check out Keith Richard’s Life.
“Everyone talks about rock these days; the problem is they forget about the roll.” – Keith Richards