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The human Riff

music Updated: Dec 10, 2010 22:58 IST
Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra
Hindustan Times
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In April 2003, a week after filching Keith Richards' half-empty pack of Marlboros from a press conference held before their Bangalore concert, I found myself sitting impatiently inside the Taj Mahal hotel on Mansingh Road in Delhi. My plan was to nab Keith, who was staying in the hotel with his family, and then engage in a long chit-chat where I would ask him interesting questions about his music and his life.

Just as I spotted him walking in from the pool area outside, I stood up and briskly walked towards him. He was wearing pajamas with his head wrapped in a giant towel looking like a Paharganj backpacker. "Keith! Hi, could I have a word? Just a few questions," I muttered.

The mainline of the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world stopped in his tracks. "I'm with family, mate. I can't talk now. Maybe after lunch," he growled before bounding up the stairs towards the lifts. I had already run some of the questions I would ask him in my head: "How did you come up with that echoing riff in 'Gimme Shelter'", "When did you discover open string tuning?" and "Would you say that the Stones sound is essentially amplified Chicago Blues?" But all that came out at the Taj stairs that day was: "Um, er, did you like India? Will you be back?" Rooted to my spot well after Keith had vanished forever, not only did I sense a great opportunity lost but I also felt like a full-bloated moron, the kind who asks a visiting Stone whether he will ever play with AR Rahman.

Then, a few weeks ago, this book landed on my desk and I finally had my aborted long conversation with Keith Richards.

Because that's essentially what Life is: an hours-long chit-chat with Keith (via the medium of James Fox) about Keith's favourite music and his life centred around the Stones. And he does tell the reader where the echoing riff of 'Gimme Shelter' and the liberating open five-string tuning come from. ("It transformed my life. It's the way of playing that I use for the riffs and songs the Stones are best known for — 'Honky Tonk Women', 'Brown Sugar', 'Tumbling Dice', 'Happy', 'All Down the Line', 'Start Me up' and 'Satisfaction'. 'Flash' too.... If you're working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you're not playing. It's there. It defies logic. And it's just lying there saying, 'Fuck me'.")

Like Bob Dylan's peripatetic Chronicles: Volume 1, Keith's chronicle is part-memoir and part-celebration of music and musicians. And he celebrates with the passion and energy of a full-bloated fan. There are kneeling passages on Elvis's guitarist Scotty Moore ("I'd have died and gone to heaven just to play like that [Scotty on 'Mystery Train ' and 'Money Honey'], on John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bo diddley ("There was the power in [these] people's voices. It wasn't loud, necessarily, it just came from way down deep. The whole body was involved..."), on Etta James ("my bride in a rock'n'roll 'marriage'"). And there are seams where he simply deep-dives into the sea of music itself and comes up with pearls like: "Rock'n'roll ain't nothing but jazz with a hard backbeat."

And, of course, he chortles about Mick. With a best pal's sadness. It was the love of the same kind of music — literally, considering that the two became thick as stones after they first met at a train station in 1961 when Mick came up to Keith who was carrying a Chuck Berry record — that brought them together and has made their rocky million-year 'marriage' work. Keith is, in a way, in awe of Mick's past talent as a singer.

But he is also the old man on the couch in the book talking about his jaded 'missus': "I used to love to hang with Mick, but I haven't gone to his dressing room in, I don't think, twenty years. Sometimes I miss my friend. Where the hell did he go?"

He sticks it to the Stones frontman about his terrible need to be 'with the times' and his fondness for hanging out with 'posh people'. About Mick accepting the knighthood, Keith says: "...he called up to say, I've got to tell you this now: Tony Blair is insisting that I accept the knighthood. You can turn down anything you like, pal, was my reply. I left it at that. It was incomprehensible... The Mick that I grew up with, here's a guy who'd say shove all your little honours up your arse... It may have been another attack of LVS [Lead Vocalist Syndrome]." It becomes pretty clear that Keith's primal protective and filial duty has always been towards the Rolling Stones, even if that means protecting the band from Mick Jagger. And the book is a delight for Stones and rock music fans alike in the nitty-gritty Keith goes into about sessions and concerts and the very process of the band creating their music and sound.

Life, not surprisingly, is also littered with notes about Keith's relationship with drugs, which he insists he took to "be grounded". "It's not only to the high quality of the drugs I had that I attribute my survival. I was very meticulous about how much I took..." This line of thought of insisting on — and being lucky about — having only the highest quality of heroin or cocaine, makes him sound less like a snort'n'sort rock star and more like a gaunt guitar-playing Sherlock Holmes.

Till now, Keith has been portrayed either as the iguana-skinned, drug'n'booze-fuelled, less-articulate half of the Rolling Stones, or as the world's 'most elegantly wasted' man who, along with the cockroach, is likely to survive a nuclear blast and who cracked his skull after falling off a tree and snorted his father's ashes (both incidents 'explained' in the book). But as he told Christopher Sandford in the 2003 biography Satisfaction, "I'm just a herbert from Dartford. None of you guys ever gets your shit straight." So along with the birds and the riffs and the Stones and the drugs, we also get a recipe towards the end of the book of bangers and mash. Somehow he manages to make even that sound rock and roll.