Sympathy for the Devil

“The only things Mick and I disagree about is the band, the music and what we do.” – Keith Richards

Glimmer_Twins.pngThere are two kinds of people: those who like the Beatles and those who like the Rolling Stones. I have always been firmly planted in the Stones’ camp.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the Beatles, but I can take them or leave them. They just don’t do it for me they way the Stones do. Besides the brilliant music, I think part of my fascination stems from the almost fifty-year songwriting partnership between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. I am drawn to dramatic and tense relationships and these two are the poster boys. They put the funk in dysfunction, and despite their tumultuous relationship they have managed to co-author more than one hundred songs. They must be doing something right.

During my first professional writing gig as an intern for MovieMaker Magazine, I was tasked with compiling a list of the 10 best documentaries of all time for the magazine’s top ten issue. The films were rated by a group of industry professionals, i.e. directors and producers that I surveyed to compile the best of the best.

Gimme Shelter, Albert and David Maysles groundbreaking film that followed the Rolling Stones during the end of their 1969 U.S. tour that culminated with the murder of Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angels, was at the top of everyone’s list. The film was raw and exposed. The filmmakers had become insiders and viewers were offered a real glimpse into the lives of the Rolling Stones. When the Maysles brothers began filming they had no idea what they would end up with. The filmmakers had never even heard of the Stones, but once they heard them play it was a kind of, let’s follow these guys around and see what happens. Gimme Shelter viewers were able to witness the Stone’s first reaction to the devastating violence at the Altamont Speedway, the site of a free concert that had been billed as a sort of Woodstock west. The band was filmed watching the first playback of the footage of the murder, and the film captures their actual reactions.

Keith Richards says in his memoir, Life, that the Stones had no idea what had really happened at Altamont until the next day. They got on a plane immediately after the show to escape the escalating mayhem, and they didn’t have a clear view from the stage to see what was going on. As Meredith Hunter was murdered the band played on.

Writing that story, watching Gimme Shelter and interviewing Albert Maysles about his experiences with the Stones made me even more curious about the inner workings of this band, which started off as a blues cover band playing clubs in London and went on to become the biggest band in the world. When I heard Keith Richards was writing a memoir, I was ecstatic. I pre-ordered Life and devoured the 547-page manuscript within a few days. Keith Richards has had more lives than an alley cat. He has survived almost five decades in the Rolling Stones, two house fires, exile from his home country, heroin addiction, brain surgery, the death of a child, two perforated lungs, broken ribs, multiple car accidents and countless drug busts. This guy is seemingly indestructible.

Keith makes everything sound perfectly reasonable. He justifies his actions the way only an addict can. I mean who wouldn’t smash their guitar on the dining room table in the middle of Thanksgiving dinner the first time they meet their girlfriend’s parents? All chaos and bad behavior aside, Keith tells a fascinating tale. Once I began reading, Keith climbed inside my head and it was as if he was telling the story to me directly.

Among many surprises was how much of a gentlemen Keith Richards is. Despite his well documented temper tantrums, skull ring, kohl rimmed eyes and the fact that he sometimes wields a gun or knife to “make a point,” his narrative is often tender in its expression of love toward his family and the other people and animals in his life. He speaks lovingly and respectfully of  ex-girlfriend Anita Pallenberg (mother of three of his children) and wife of twenty-seven years Patti Hansen. He rescues a nearly drowned kitten from a sewer and takes in a mangy dog on tour during a stop in Russia. Of course there’s the predictable tales of excess, but what really drew me into this book was the subtle undercurrents of love that are expressed by Keith Richards toward Mick Jagger, of course this is offset by the duo’s famous bickering, but in the end they share an unbreakable bond.

Since its release many people have made note of Keith’s poor treatment of Mick in the book, but I think most people are missing the point. I agree Keith goes a bit far when he insinuates that Mick Jagger is less than adequate in his manhood, but it’s obvious the comment is a jealous snipe stemming from Keith’s claim that Jagger slept with Anita Pallenberg. The two men have known each other since they were five-years-old in England. By chance or fate, they ran into each other when they were eighteen at a train station. Mick had a stack of records under his arm and the two realized they were into the same music, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and American blues. Mick sang. Keith played guitar. The gravitation toward one another was natural and magnetic. As Keith has said, Mick is rock and he is roll.

The Stones never had any aspirations of going to America or writing songs. Their goal was simple: to be the best blues cover band in London. They even took their name from the Muddy Waters song “Rollin’ Stone.” Their manager Andrew Oldham knew that if the band was ever going to go anywhere or make any money they needed to write and record their own songs. As Keith tells it, Oldham locked the duo in the kitchen and refused to let them out until they had written a song. Richards and Jagger came out with “As Tears Go By,” a melancholy ballad they didn’t feel was worthy of the Stones, so Oldham gave it to Marianne Faithful to record instead. A decade’s long songwriting partnership was born, and almost a year later the duo penned “The Last Time,” a tune they felt comfortable sharing with the rest of the band.  They often worked with Keith coming up with the guitar riff and a few lines and then Mick writing the verses. Sometimes the process worked the other way around.

What makes the story of the Rolling Stones even more fascinating is their nomadic existence after they were forced to flee England in the early 1970s because they owed more taxes than they could pay. The group became tax exiles and bounced around all over the world to avoid the taxman. They recorded their legendary album Exile on Main Street in the basement of Keith’s rented mansion in the South of France as is captured in the documentary Stones in Exile.

Along with a litany of other betrayals such as Mick’s attempt at a solo career and the almost total control he took of the band during the decade Keith was addicted to heroin (Keith had a hard time securing syringes in America so he pinned his needle to his hat and bought multiple toy doctor’s kits at FAO Schwarz in New York and used those syringes to shoot up), Keith accuses Mick of having Lead Vocalist Syndrome, a disorder developed by singers who begin to see themselves as more important than the rest of the band. While Keith’s words toward Mick and his LVS are not kind, he says a lot of admirable things as well, like how Mick can work a stage in a small club better than any performer around. He says Mick is the best harmonica player, bar none, he chronicles the tight bond they shared in the early days of the band and he praises Mick’a ability as a songwriter.

As for the claims that Mick became an out of control ego maniac, it’s water under the bridge. Mick and Keith have slung so much mud at each other in the press for so many years, I doubt Life reveals anything Mick Jagger hasn’t already heard from Keith’s own lips. and Keith says as much.

The point is that despite all of the acrimony that a tense creative relationship of five decades can bring, when push comes to shove Keith Richards loves Mick Jagger. He lives by the family code,  I can talk smack about my family, but don’t you dare. Keith says, “Mick and I may not be friends – too much wear and tear for that – but we’re the closest of brothers, and that can’t be severed. How can you describe a relationship that goes that far back? Best friends are best friends. But brothers fight. I felt a real sense of betrayal. Mick knows how I feel, although he may not have realized my feelings went so deep. But it’s the past I’m writing about; this stuff happened a long time ago. I can say these things; they come from my heart. At the same time, nobody else can say anything against Mick that I can hear. I’ll slit their throat.”

Mick and Keith are very different people, but that’s what makes the partnership work. Each one has something the other needs. Mick is rock and Keith is roll. Keith is rolling and Mick is stones. They are better together than they are apart. In their late sixties the boys show just the smallest signs of slowing down. Keith stopped using drugs post 2007 brain surgery after he fell out of a tree in Fiji, and he has switched from Jack Daniels to the less raucous vodka. By all accounts Keith does indeed seem calmer, just don’t cut the crust on his shepherd’s pie or mess with his bangers and mash.

Keith says he’ll be writing and playing until they put him in the ground, so one last tour is not out of the question as long as Keith and Mick can kiss and make up. And, yes Keith says he is ready to get back on the road with his old pal.

“I mean shit, if you’re going to work with a guy for forty-odd years, it’s not all going to be plain sailing, is it? You’ve got to go through the bullshit; it’s like a marriage.”

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