Thursday, November 15, 2012

(46th in a series of) Stepping Stones "Spotlight on Keith Richards: Substantive Results"

Song: Torn and Frayed
Album: Exile on Main St.
Released: May, 1972

Spotlight on: Keith Richards

In the walk of life, there can be no better fortune than to cross paths with an authentic soul:  Someone who is genuine, true, real, veritable, and original.  I’ve been blessed in this way, having connected with numerous solid individuals over the years, be they friends, family, or colleagues.  You tend to cling to these types.  They make life’s meaning clearer, deeper, and even easier.   This is not to say they don’t have their own struggles.  None of us are perfect.  In the same vein, neither are they similar in nature to one another.  But one constant is they all have a core personal value system that works.  And they stick to it, ultimately making their integrity clairvoyant to those of us who have been graced to see it for what it is.

It’s one thing to perceive authenticity at a personal level.  Making that type of observation in someone you do not know is much harder.  Yet it can be done.  Most of us, for example, can come to a fairly quick conclusion that Abraham Lincoln was authentic.  A fair percentage of us would say the same for Gandhi, Vincent Van Gogh, Martin Luther King or Mother Teresa:  There have been enough teachings and writings about these historic figures to at least make an educated guess on the subject.  For each of these movers/shakers, the authenticity is personified in some way be it 1) decision making in the face of adversity, 2) their writings/oratory 3) artistic expression, 4) alms, 5) spirituality or 6) activism.  As such, the concept of authenticity includes the ability to find your niche, and then to master it, while in the process making those around you better for it.

The music world has shown us a fair share of authenticity as well.  Here, it’s primarily about mastering an irreproducible sound.  One could conclude that Mozart was authentic, simply because he was so brilliant at making music.  Same could be said for Edith Piaf, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams, Billie Holiday, and Bob Dylan.  But it all goes a bit beyond the ability to be a good musician:  There have been many very proficient composers who have never connected with the world the way these musicians did.  There are other factors that come into play, and you can hear it in that inimitable sound that each one produces.  With Mozart it’s hard to confirm this because his original concerts predated recording.  We can only take the word of those who were there (read: Antonio Salieri). For all these other musicians however, you can hear something beyond the notes.

With a successful band, it can be harder to decipher where the authenticity is coming from.  Rarely do you find it all evenly dispersed, as was the case with R.E.M.  Usually you find one or two authentic individuals who bring out the best in their bandmates.  John Lennon’s authenticity brought out the best in Paul McCartney.  Brian Wilson brought out the best in Mike Love.  Neil Young brought out the best in Stephen Stills.  Robbie Robertson brought out the best in Levon Helm (sorry Levon).  Ray Davies brought out the best in Brother Dave.  Jerry Garcia did the same for Bob Weir.  Roger Waters brought out the best in David Gilmour.  And Pete Townshend did it for Roger Daltrey. 

Strangely enough, in all these instances it could be argued that the musical abilities of the authentic soul were inferior to those of the recipient.  McCartney, for example, is recognized as one of the best musicians of his generation; Gilmour one of its most brilliant guitarists.  My earlier point though in regards to authenticity in a musician is that it is not solely about the music.  It’s about the overall sound, and what contribute to it are intangible qualities.  Musical notes can be duplicated.  Distinct sound cannot be.  Distinct sound captures a mood.  It captures a moment in time.  It captures an essence.

The Rolling Stones?  Well, I’ve been enjoying their music for the better part of four decades now.  Yet it would take a straight year of listening to them and writing about them to realize that this band also has an authentic musician in their midst. 

The bandleader is no other than Keith Richards.

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In the process of writing these Stepping Stones, I’ve shined the spotlight on Bill Wyman (Stepping Stone # 3), Brian Jones (# 11), Mick Taylor (# 19), Ronnie Wood (# 29), Charlie Watts (# 37) and Mick Jagger (# 43).  All that remained was the Human Riff.  The King of Rhythm.  Mr. Instinct.  In other words, I saved the best for last.  As recently as last year, I would not have been willing to conclude this. Richards is a hard nut to crack.  But heavy listening can get you to the bottom of most music. 

Before I get into some of the reasons why I now grant Keith Richards the distinction of carrying the Rolling Stones authentic torch, I thought I’d reflect briefly on my personal evolution in ranking the individual Stones.  I’ll preface this ranking by first saying that ALL of the Rolling Stones bring a boatload to the table, so these rankings are relative:

A: My early years of listening (mid-70s to mid-80s) > 1) Brian, 2) Bill, 3) Mick, 4) Mick Taylor, 5) Keith, 6) Charlie, 7) Ronnie

B: The last 20 years or so > 1) Mick, 2) Mick Taylor, 3) Brian, 4) Keith, 5) Bill, 6) Charlie, 7) Ronnie

C: Now > 1) Keith, 2) Mick, 3) Charlie, 4) Bill, 5) Ronnie, 6) Mick Taylor, 7) Brian

I believe I have it right now.  So what happened?  Well, there are many reasons.  The biggest I believe is that the Stones most explosive period was a 4-album stretch from 1968 (‘Beggar’s Banquet’) to 1972 (‘Exile on Main St.’) and this was the period that Richards was at his most dominant.  Every great band has a ‘classic’ stretch of music.  The Stones are no exception, and their ‘Imperial Era’ could also be defined as the personification of Keith Richards.  I’ve teased this out while listening to these albums intensely this year.  Reading about this time period in Stones history helped, but ultimately it came down to hearing it, which was finally what happened with me.  We all hope to have some stretch in our lives when all cylinders are clicking.  When we really show what we are made of.  That period for Richards was ’68 – ’72.

Secondly, Keith Richards puts his band ahead of most everything else.  And he has never wavered from this stance.  When Bill Wyman decided to quit the band in 1993, Richards stated something to the effect that the only way you could leave the Stones was in a casket.  Richards is passionate about the Rolling Stones.  He reveals this through his endurance; willing to take a session into the wee hours and beyond. He reveals this in his renowned ability to go days without sleep, which may have something to do with his trying to connect on a deeper level with those around him in order to master the musical moment.  He reveals this in his refusal to recognize his contemporaries in any substantial way; a true home-team kind-of guy. 

Thirdly, Richards brings the edge and mystique to the Stones: Skull rings, blood transfusions, his Dad’s ashes, refusal to acknowledge royal recognition for his accomplishments, jail sentences, drug busts, and grace under pressure are but some of the examples.  For decades Richards was listed at #1 on celebrity death lists.  Now the running joke goes that in the case of a nuclear disaster, the only survivors will be cockroaches and Keith Richards.  Back in the late 60s, Richards made the observation that he was being miscast as a social deviant.  Most of us would try to correct a false image.  Not Keith Richards.  His attitude: “If that’s how you are trying to paint me, I’ll give it to you in spades.”

Fourth, Keith Richards is an open book.  His songwriting partner, Mick Jagger, is guarded.  Who can blame him?…..he is after all constantly dealing with the pitfalls of superstardom.  Not Keith though.  He never shies away from a challenging question.  And I don’t mean this in a soul-searching way.  I mean it in a confident “I know who I am” way.  In retrospect, this may be just what threw me off all those years ago with Keith Richards.  As mentioned in Stepping Stones # 44, growing up in the 70s connected many of us to the humanization of Rock n’ Roll;  the period of confession.  Richards was the exception.  Other than the rare occasion (i.e. Coming Down Again), he did not play that game.  He didn’t have to.

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I was ‘torn’ for this week’s Stepping Stone.  On the one hand, I had Torn and Frayed, an enchanting song that cuts to the core of Keith Richards value system.  On the other hand was How Can I Stop, which is a bit more of a hidden message but…. also cuts to the core of his value system.  In the words of Don Was, the Stones producer for 1997s ‘Bridges to Babylon’, How Can I Stop would have been the perfect swan song for the Rolling Stones.  It describes Richards’ passion for his band in a way few songs by any band have done.  In the end though, I settled on Torn and Frayed ( ).  It’s on the Stones best album, and in all honesty, is the better song. 

So here’s to authenticity!  Not all of us are going to find what we are truly cut out for.  Yet, it can be almost as fun to recognize it in others.  I came around with seeing it in Keith Richards.  I’m willing to bet that at one time or another; the remaining Rolling Stones have too.

-          Pete

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