Saturday, September 15, 2012

An Only Child


Besides that five-string open-G tuning everybody brings up, nine things that I learned from Keith Richards' memoir, Life:

1. His mother was from a family of seven daughters, and if you've ever wondered about the hardiness of Keith's constitution, you should know that most of his aunts are still alive.

2. London streets used to be full of animals. Keith: "When I was growing up, it was heavy fog almost all winter, and if you've got two or three miles to walk to get back home, it was the dogs that led you. Suddenly old Dodger would show up with a patch on his eye, and you could basically guide your way home by that. Sometimes the fog was so thick you couldn't see a thing. And old Dodger would take you up and hand you over to some Labrador. Animals were in the street, something that's disappeared. I would have got lost and died without some help from my canine friends." (The roughly 60 pages of childhood stuff is probably the book's high point. Effortlessly evocative, it reads at times like some long-lost Dickens narrative, with asylum escapees on the heath, army deserters hiding in the woods by the Thames, a dead tramp found covered in bluebottles, street bullies, even a fatal explosion at a fireworks factory.)

3. The winter that Keith, Mick, and Brian Jones shared a flat was London's coldest since 1740. They had a pay heater—had to keep feeding it coins.

4. Keith not only wrote the bulk of the music for most of their best songs; he often came up with the lyrical angle as well: "Satisfaction," "Gimme Shelter," "Wild Horses" (I could go on) are all concepts that Jagger simply—albeit brilliantly—expanded on.

5. While Mick was fooling around with Anita Pallenberg on the set of Performance, Keith had revenge sex with Marianne Faithfull (and fled through a window when Mick came home). I've thought of Mick and Keith's friendship as fairly up and down, but the best way to describe it, for thirty years now, would be simply nonexistent. Interestingly, there are more entries in the index for Mick Jagger than there are for Keith himself. (My favorite: "Jagger, Mick and giant inflatable cock, 12-13, 485").

6. In the late '60s in the UK, if your physician registered you with National Health as a junkie, you could receive heroin pills plus an equal amount of cocaine (the idea being that the coke would counteract the opiate effect of the heroin). This was the purest heroin and the purest, May & Baker pharmaceutical cocaine. Definitely no "MSS" (Mexican shoe scrapings—Gram Parsons' term for low-grade smack).

7. Injuries sustained: finger squashed by a dropped flagstone, earring ripped from his ear as he slept, passing out after nine days without sleep and falling headfirst into an amplifier, finger burned to the bone by stray lump of phosphorous from stage pyro, punctured lung (falling off ladder), cracked skull (falling from tree).

8. When I was fourteen I found an old copy of Oui magazine in, of all places, a deer blind in the hill country of Texas. ("For the man of the world"—yeah, that was me all right.) One of the models was a dark-haired German who, in one memorable shot, drank water from a see-through garden hose. And now, all these years later I find out her name is Uschi Obermaier, a long-standing crush of Keith's. When he learned of Gram Parsons' death in '73 he was in Innsbruck; on a mad impulse he drove to Munich in the middle of the night to hunt Uschi down, although he barely knew her. He miraculously found her, woke her up, broke the news, got a single sleepy kiss for his trouble, and left. 

9. Towards the end, the book starts to simply mark time—this is his manager, this is his guitar technician, these are his neighbors in Jamaica, this is the snapping turtle Keith caught in the pond at his house in Connecticut, etc.—and it begins to sound like an acceptance speech at the Grammys. The lesson is that everybody's life eventually winds down into routine, even for an outlaw like Keith Richards. And so this is the ninth thing I learned:

When you're cooking bangers and mash, you've got to use a cold pan, no preheating. 

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