im finally reading the keith richards autobio “life”. actually johnny depp is reading it to me via audible. you miss details when youre driving around LA listening to johnny read the words of the stone, you daydream and think, “did johnny really know what he was in for? this book is loooong. is he tired? did he get paid a million bucks or did he do it for free?”
but then a passage like this comes to you and you hope you remember to make note of it. so heres the note: keith is incredible.
we are on page 108 when Keith, talking about 1963, the time right before the stones blew up, writes:
There you have it. That was all we listened to at the time. Just American blues or rhythm and blues or country blues. Every waking hour of every day was just sitting in front of the speakers, trying to figure out how these blues were made. Chicago blues hit us right between the eyes. And as long as we were all together, we could pretend to be black men. We soaked up the music, but it didn’t change the colour of our skin. Some even went whiter. Brian Jones was a blond Elmore James from Cheltenham. And why not? You can come from anywhere and be any colour. We didn’t want to make money. We despised money, we despised cleanliness, we just wanted to be black motherfuckers. Fortunately we got plucked out of that. But that was the school; that’s where the band was born.
The early days of the magic art of guitar weaving started then. You realise what you can do playing guitar with another guy, and what the two of you can do is to the power of ten, and then you add other people. There’s something beautifully friendly and elevating about a bunch of guys playing music together. This wonderful little world that is unassailable. It’s really teamwork, one guy supporting the others, and it’s all for one purpose, and there’s no flies in the ointment, for a while. And nobody conducting: it’s all up to you. It’s really jazz: that’s the big secret. Rock’n’roll ain’t nothing but jazz with a hard backbeat. So we sat there in the cold, dissecting tracks for as long as the meter held out. A new Bo Diddley record goes under the surgical knife. Have you got that wah-wah? What were the drums playing, how hard were they playing . . . what were the maracas doing? One of the first lessons I learnt with guitar playing was that none of these guys were actually playing straight chords. There’s a throw-in, a flick-back. Nothing’s ever a straight major. It’s an amalgamation, a mangling and a dangling and a tangling thing. There is no “properly”. There’s just how you feel about it. Feel your way around it. It’s a dirty world down here.
Mostly I’ve found, playing instruments, that I actually want to be playing something that should be played by another instrument. I find myself trying to play horn lines all the time on the guitar. When I was learning how to do these songs, I learnt there is often one note doing something that makes the whole thing work. It’s usually a suspended chord. It’s not a full chord, it’s a mixture of chords, which I love to use to this day. If you’re playing a straight chord, whatever comes next should have something else in it. If it’s an A chord, a hint of D. Or if it’s a song with a different feeling, if it’s an A chord, a hint of G should come in somewhere, which makes a 7th, which then can lead you on. Readers who wish to can skip Keef’s Guitar Workshop, but I’m passing on the simple secrets anyway, which led to the open-chord riffs of later years — the Jack Flash and Gimme Shelter ones.
There are some people looking to play guitar. There’s other people looking for a sound. I was looking for a sound when Brian and I were rehearsing in Edith Grove. Something easily done by three or four guys and you wouldn’t be missing any instruments or sound on it. I just followed the bosses. A lot of those blues players of the mid-Fifties — Albert King and B. B. King — were single-note players. T-Bone Walker was one of the first to use the double-string thing — to use two strings instead of one, and Chuck got a lot out of T-Bone.
Musically impossible, but it works. The notes clash, they jangle. You’re pulling two strings at once and you’re putting them in a position where actually their knickers are pulled up. You’ve always got something ringing against the note or the harmony. The reason that cats started to play like that was economics — to eliminate the need for a horn section.
Brian and I, we had the Jimmy Reed stuff down. When we were really hunkering down and working, working, Mick obviously felt a little bit out of it. Also he was away at the London School of Economics for much of the day to start with. He couldn’t play anything. That’s why he picked up on the harp and the maracas. Brian had picked up the harmonica very quickly at first, and I think Mick didn’t want to be left behind. I wouldn’t be surprised if from the beginning it wasn’t just from being in competition with Brian. And Mick turned out to be the most amazing harp player. I’d put him up there with the best in the world, on a good night. Everything else we know he can do — he’s a great showman — but, to a musician, Mick Jagger is a great harp player. I find it hard to listen to him without awe. His harp playing is the one place where you don’t hear any calculation.
I say: “Why don’t you sing like that?” He says they’re totally different things. But they’re not — they’re both blowing air out of your gob.
It was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us. Anybody that strayed from the nest to get laid, or try to get laid, was a traitor. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin. It was that kind of atmosphere, that kind of attitude that we lived with. The women around were really quite peripheral. The drive in the band was amazing among Mick, Brian and myself. It was incessant study. Not really in the academic sense of it: it was to get the feel of it.
And then I think we realised, like any young guys, that blues are not learnt in a monastery. You’ve got to go out there and get your heart broke and then come back and then you can sing the blues. Preferably several times. At that time, we were taking it on a purely musical level, forgetting that these guys were singing about shit. First you’ve got to get in the shit. And then you can maybe come back and sing it.