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Friday, February 24, 2012

(8th in a series of) Stepping Stones: "Partners for 'Life' "

Song: She’s So Cold
Album: Emotional Rescue
Released: June, 1980

Partnerships can be risky business.  The variables to take into consideration are multiplied when two or more are involved in the decision making process, and over the long term the relationship typically must deal with an ever expanding set of dynamics.  Deciding to go into a partnership is ultimately a choice between success and failure, winning and losing, good times and bad.  Some remove themselves from the concept whenever they can, choosing to go solo in most ventures:  Hockey and football are abandoned at a young age for wrestling and swimming.  Charades is abandoned for chess.  The assembly line is abandoned for the work bench.  Big projects needing multiple skill sets are abandoned for smaller, more manageable go-it-alone ones.  

Being the safer bet, the solo route is still plenty gratifying when it pans out.  I’d argue however that a successful partnership has the potential to be far more gratifying.  Maybe it’s relating to someone else during the highs and lows.   Maybe it’s the ability to look back at a common experience.  Maybe it’s the triumph of a moment.  More likely, it’s all the above.  This week’s Stepping Stone is all about partnerships, along with the book that inspired the focus on this topic, and the boycott that had to be hurdled first.
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When I first mentioned to everyone that I was starting a new series centered on 50 years of Rolling Stones music, I was well into a personal boycott; that being a refusal to purchase and read Keith Richards’ 2010 autobiography “Life”.  This played out in the potential gift-receiving realm as well:  Nancy had hinted several times at buying the book for me, but my ambivalence gave her hesitation. 

My reason for the blackballing was simple:  Keith Richards has always refused to recognize his peers, and after leafing through the index of “Life” at a book store, my suspicions that his stance would continue were confirmed:  Little to no recognition of Pete Townshend and The Who; nothing on Ray Davies and The Kinks; no Syd Barrett, Roger Waters and Pink Floyd, no Van Morrison, and no Neil Young.  Absolutely nothing about much of the music that came soon after: Led Zeppelin, The Allman Brothers, and later Elvis Costello, the Clash, U2, Springsteen and R.E.M.  There was some content on the Beatles, but then again a Rolling Stones book would be impossible without saying something about the Beatles.  There was some content on Bob Dylan, but it’s impossible to write any music story that starts in the 60s without discussing Dylan.

On the contrary, however, there was plenty of reference to Keith’s early influences, the Bluesmen from the deep South mentioned in earlier Stepping Stones, as well the first wave of Rock ‘n Rollers that came before the Stones, including Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Fats Domino, Aretha Franklin, Jerry Lee Lewis, and the Everly Brothers.  But the fact of the matter is and has always been that if the music came along any time after the Stones, Keith Richards refuses to recognize it… unless he has some affiliation (for example his ties with the Rastafarian musicians of Jamaica).  It all reeked of a twisted need to build up his legacy (as if he needs it).  And if Richards was not going to recognize his peers, I was not going to recognize his book. 

So was the case two months back when the family and I headed down to the Citarell’s to join in the celebration of Dad’s birthday.  While there, fellow Stones aficionados, Amy and Paul, independently insisted that my first order of business in starting up the new series, should be to read KRs book:  They were unaware of my bias, and surprised that I had not yet picked it up.  Having read it themselves, they were both sure I would enjoy it.

Deep inside, I knew they were right. 

Upon its release in the fall of 2010, the aptly named “Life” was received by both fans and critics alike as a well written, open, and honest account of a true Rock n’ Roll rebel; the poster boy in fact. In the ensuing year, the reputation of the book had only grown, to the point where it was being talked about as an all-time, upper tier retrospective of the life of a pop-culture icon.  I had over that time already read several excerpts and reviews, as well as paged through copies in bookstores.  Just about everything I’d taken in confirmed it as a must read.  Amy and Paul’s recommendations were the last straw.  After thinking about it a bit more, I realized that Keith Richards is simply an anomaly:  His musical interests a bit out of the box compared with many in his circles.  I decided to put an end to my boycott.

I’m glad I did.  There are numerous reasons to read “Life” for anyone interested in the Rolling Stones, their music, and their times.  First, despite his appearance, and demeanor, Keith Richards has one helluva memory.  And he remembers interesting stuff, not overly factual or self-centered fluff (which was how Bill Wyman came across in his autobiography “Stone Alone”), but fascinating tidbits, like describing in passionate ways how he writes and plays music; his nomadic years (most all of them); the truths behind the myths regarding his Dad’s ashes, blood transfusions, and his tree falling episode; and his views on being a life-long member of many-a top-ten-deathwatch lists (often ranking at number 1).

Second, despite his 9-lives, self abusive history, Richards has become quite the family man over the past several decades.  I credit his wife Patti Hansen for this, but I also credit Richards for knowing a good thing when he saw it.  One of the more moving stories in the book was how Hansen’s father and brothers slowly, begrudgingly accepted Keith as part of the family.  It had the feel of the movie “The Quiet Man”, with Keith as John Wayne’s character, the ex-boxer Sean Thornton going up against Red Danaher to gain Red’s approval for his sister’s hand in marriage.  In Richards’ case, several of Hansen’s brothers are very Christian, and, well, it was just hard for them to accept this wiry, ex-heroin addict into the fold.  But they eventually do, in a big way, and its how Richards handles himself in the face of the adversity that ultimately wins them over.

Thirdly, as stated in a review I read, this is not a confessional, 12-step recovery type of story.  For someone who has been through as much as he has, Keith Richards has no regrets.  This is oddly refreshing.  But he does not hold back on discussing the low points.  He reveals the sad story of his friendship with fellow addict Gram Parsons and his hard-to-read relationship with Anita Pallenberg.  He does not recommend any of it, but he does not deny any of it either.  Again, it works.

Fourth, Richards comes across as a true friend to many.  On any given tour, you find him chumming with roadies, support musicians (particularly Bobby Keys), fans, or relatives touring with the band.  He does not come across as elitist or money-driven in the least.  And there does not appear to be a prejudice bone in Richards’ body, be this in regards to age, race, sexual orientation or even gender.  This last one may be hard to believe with the reputation the Stones have gained through their music and related exploits as a chauvinistic band.   But I finished this book last week with no sense that Keith Richards has ever had a disparaging slant in his views on woman.  You have to read between the lines, but that’s what I concluded.  If anything, he “puts them on a pedestal”.

Fifth, his “Life” is truly amazing to read about.  The opening chapter says it all; his arrest in a rural southern town in the early 70’s (“Why did we stop at the 4-Dice Restaurant in Fordyce, Arkansas, for lunch on Independence Day weekend?  On any weekend?” is how he starts the book) and how he got out of it (sorry, you will have to read it to get the details).  Few of us could be so charmed.  Also, how he lived for months on end in the South of France during the “Exile on Main Street” sessions:  Open house; music blasting at all hours; people constantly roaming in and out; neighbors being driven to the brink and beyond; days without sleep; sporadic, intense and unpredictable moments of musical inspiration.  This is the story of a true bohemian.  I can connect with bits and pieces of it, but when adding this period up with many others in his “Life”, it’s all hard to fathom.

Now all this being said, Keith Richards can be nasty, and very much so. There are moments reading this book when I cringed at some of the things he says about others.  His nastiness is aimed in surprising directions though, including at fellow band members, the late Brian Jones and more daringly, Mick Jagger.  Despite the vitriol though, I’m surprised that I did not come away thinking any less of Jones or Jagger (well, maybe a little of Jones).  I suppose it’s because the writing was too good: Cutting while not permanently damaging.  And there was plenty of praise mixed in as well.

One of the biggest reasons for most folks to read this book was to hear KRs slant on his 50 year connection with Mick Jagger.  He does not disappoint.  Which brings me back to the main theme of this week’s Stepping Stone:  Partnerships.  Such a long period to spend as a business partner with someone is not unprecedented, but it is rare.  In fact, setting aside longevity for a moment, there are only a handful of successful songwriting tandems that even compare with Jagger/Richards:  Lennon/McCartney, Rodgers/Hammerstein, Plant/Page, Bacharach/David, and Taupin/John all come to mind.  Again, none were nearly as sustained. 

With such a long stretch of being a tandem, there were bound to be down periods for Jagger/Richards.  One pivotal stretch in their relationship was the late 70s/early 80s.  Keith Richards was just getting over a long period of addiction, and ready to get more involved in the business side of things, as well as the future direction of the band.  According to Richards in his book, his partner would have none of it.  Jagger had gotten used to making the big decisions by this time, and one of them was taking the band in a new music direction. The front man was sick of being a jack hammer on stage.  He wanted to start grooving, and began to introduce a more poppy, dare I say, disco sound.

What do you get when one strong willed partner’s impulse is to morph (Jagger) regardless of the implications, when the other strong willed partner’s impulse is to stay the course (Richards)?  In just about every case, it leads to a band breakup.  In the Rolling Stones case, the world instead got songs like She’s so Cold, this week’s Stepping Stone.

To many critics the new sound was viewed as an over compromise.  Fair enough.  But when seen through the eyes of Richards, and anyone who appreciates what can happen when people defy the odds, it was much more than that.  One thing that comes across in “Life” is how much KR values his band and that only an act of God should allow it to dissolve.  This philosophy is what distinguished the Stones from most all other bands, including The Beatles:  Artistic differences were not going to do them in and Richards was the man behind this attitude.

Seeing Keith Richards making the types of music changes he made during this time is akin to seeing Frank Sinatra roll out a rap record, or Madonna going punk, or General George Patton carrying a peace sign.  I believe Keith’s attitude was, “if this is what is going to motivate Mick (basically, how it’s going to be) then I need to Stones-ify the sound”.   He did it as best he could, and I’m certain that a song like She’s so Cold would not have survived as a Jagger solo effort (and speaking of Jagger solo projects, Richards gets into those too > “Have I listened to Mick’s solo albums?  Who has?”). 

The official pre-MTV video of She’s so Cold ( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrRSEVRgqVY
) is over the top (as many Stones videos are), but I do find it interesting.  First, it’s likely one of the best “Jagger in the Mirror” videos out there (SNL with Jimmy Fallon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i9_Z0-fRB54 ).  In other words, if you are going to attempt to imitate Moves like Jagger, this is a good place to start (“But she’s beau-ti-ful though” at 1:46 of the video is a perfect example).  Secondly, I noted Jagger stepping up on to the raised drum stage during the bass-driven bridge (2:15) to join the rhythm section.  Mick had unlikely allies during this musical transition in Watts and Wyman,(who’s bass playing on disco pop hits like Miss You, Emotional Rescue, and She’s So Cold are some of his best), and he appears to show his appreciation here.  Thirdly, it’s clear that the Glimmer Twins (Jagger/Richards) are not connecting in this video, as most of Mick’s goofing is with Ronnie Wood instead.

A few more personal thoughts on partnerships:  After making the challenging transition from listening to Sister Morphine (last week’s Stepping Stone) to listening to She’s so Cold and focusing on “Life”, I began thinking of my own personal partnerships.  Three of them came to mind.  The first is my marriage to Nancy, which I’d already elucidated on in several Gem Videos (particularly #’s 14 & 65), and which I’ll be certain to discuss more if I’m lucky enough.  The second is a team of five that I have been honored to be associated with for many years at USGS, the StreamStats team (http://water.usgs.gov/osw/streamstats/), which has been an amazing experience for me.  But, jeez, I’d be boring the daylights out of everyone with that one. 

The third partnership that came to mind was a much shorter one:  3 months to be exact.  This was a partnership of adventure, taking place in Europe during the spring/summer of 1986.  My partner in this case was my great friend Bob Mainguy (included here as always), and I call our trip a partnership because we were dependent on each other for a good stretch of time, in numerous countries, and we needed to make many decisions together, often under duress.  I hope to at one time do it all justice, but I’ll just say for now that there was no one who could have made that experience any more fascinating than Bob did.  She’s So Cold is actually a personal memory of that trip:  Singing it with several other friends we had made on the streets of Pamplona during the Running of the Bulls.  Great memories never die.

Ok, I’m going to wrap up, but not before adding a few more loose ends to this borderline bombast.  First, Keith Richards not recognizing his peers can be humorous at times.  Case in point: Often the Stones have guest appearances during their shows, and one show I was watching on pay-per-view had Axl Rose from Guns and Roses, duet-ing with Mick Jagger for a rendition of Salt of the Earth.  At the end of the song, Axl is bowing to the crowd and Keith, from behind, points at him and then gestures “thumbs off”.  That was funny.

Second, Richards had a number of folks chime in for his book to help illuminate parts of his story.  One of them was his best buddy, Bobby Keys, a Texas boy and longtime backing saxophonist for the Stones.  One of my favorite lines in the book was Keys explaining what Keith Richards said when they both discovered that they were born within hours of each other (12/18/43):  “Bobby you know what that means?  We’re half man and half horse, and we got a license to shit in the streets”.  According to Keys “Well, that’s just one of the greatest pieces of information I’d ever received in my life!”

Finally, though the album “Emotional Rescue” (on which She’s So Cold is on) makes few fans lists of best Rolling Stones albums, it does hold one higher distinction (as revealed by Richards):  It is the only Stones album where the original tapes were actually blessed by the Pope.  I’ve spent parts of this week trying to grasp the effects of this distinction. 

It will take more time:  Maybe a “Life” time.

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