(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
It may surprise you to learn that Keith Richards is one of the most charming people you might ever meet. And one of the most avid readers. And a disarmingly skillful prose writer.
All this in addition to being one of the best songwriters and guitarists ever. And being the lodestone forever of rock and roll. The image has become iconic — the wasted pirate, the skull ring, the lines of blow and the bottles of Jack. Forget the image for a while and consider the man. The world is going to be a better place because he has been here. There are not many living people I can say that about with such finality.
I have never met anyone who is more passionate about music. One of the great pleasures of my job over the years has been covering several Rolling Stones tours and spending time sitting and talking with them and simply hanging out.
Just lounging in Keith’s hazily-lit hotel suites in different tour cities, with exotically-colored scarves draped over the lamps, people coming and going, and drinks and food being endlessly served early and late, was always a nonstop feast of the senses. Talking with Keith about music itself was always a privilege and a pleasure.
He could discourse long and passionately about singers ranging from Buddy Holly to Howlin’ Wolf to George Jones to Robert Johnson to Hank Williams. It has always been all one music to Richards. He devours it all.
Now he’s finally written his autobiography. Life, with co-author James Fox, is an engrossing 564-page read that covers his life and career and centers on, naturally, what he wants the readers to know.
Many reviewers have already focused on the relationship between Keith and his musical partner of many decades, Mick Jagger. It has been a sometimes contentious musical marriage, but it has stayed together longer than many a domestic marriage. I was always amused that Keith sometimes privately referred to Mick as “Brenda” or “Her Majesty,” but I never felt that it was personal. On the other hand, I’ve never heard Mick’s nicknames for Keith.
At any rate, the book is far more than any such narrow views and is both a broad overview of the history of the Stones and of rock and roll itself. And the tales of the magic and the mystery and the drudgery and the tedium of rock and roll touring. In economical but surprisingly detailed prose, Richards eloquently tells his life story. He writes the way he plays guitar: powerful, yet graceful.
I found some of his descriptions of musical artists who are also mutual friends to be fascinating. Keith recorded “Say It’s Not You” with George Jones at Bradley’s Barn outside Nashville. It was a song Gram Parsons had recommended to Richards. Keith was fascinated by Jones’ voice of course, but by his hair: ” … the pompadour hairdo is perfect. It’s such a fascinating thing. You can’t take your eyes off it. And in a fifty mile an-hour wind it would still have been perfect. I found out later that he’d been driving around because he was a bit nervous about working with me. He’d been doing some reading up and was uncertain of meeting me.”
He further writes, “There’s a quote from Frank Sinatra, who says, ‘Second-best singer in this country is George Jones.’ Who’s the first, Frank?”
In talking about Willie Nelson, Keith is more garrulous. “Willie’s fantastic. He has a guy with a turned-over Frisbee, rolling, rolling, rolling. A beautiful weedhead is Willie. I mean straight out of bed. At least I wait ten minutes in the morning. What a songwriter.”
Keith had a very deep personal and musical relationship with the late Gram Parsons, whose hugely influential songs and musical partnerships would be a shaping force in both rock and country.
“When I fell in with Gram Parsons in the summer of 1968,” he writes, “I struck a seam of music that I’m still developing, which widened the range of everything I was playing and writing. It also began an instant friendship that already seemed ancient the first time we sat down and talked. It was like a reunion with a long-lost brother for me, I suppose, never having had one. Gram was very, very special and I still miss him.”
And, tellingly, he notes, “Gram taught me country music — how it worked, the difference between the Bakersfield style and the Nashville style. He played it all on piano … I learned the piano from Gram and started writing songs on it. Some of the seeds he planted in the country music area are still with me … .”
And Keith has special praise throughout the book for Nashville resident Bill Carter who, for decades as the Stones’ and Keith’s security advisor, has kept them out of jail and prison and securely spirited them across sometimes difficult borders. The entire first chapter of Life is devoted to an account of Carter’s getting Keith out of certain jail time in Fordyce, Ark. It’s a strange story that could not have been made up.
And it’s a ripping good yarn. As is the whole book.