During harvest/crush season, when I live with two terriers in a barn without TV and only spotty cell and radio reception, entertainment sometimes runs thin. Out in the country, it gets really, really dark once the sun goes down. And with a Mountain Lion prowling, my entertainment options get further limited. If I’ve remembered to walk to the top of the hill during daylight hours to get download capability for my Kindle, entertainment mostly includes books. Which is how I found myself reading Keith Richards’s new bio, Life. Blame it on the relative scarcity of books in Kindle editions, because I’m not now nor ever have been much of a Stones fan. And I certainly have never understood half of what Keith has been saying in the few interviews I’ve heard him do.
But from the moment I booted up Life, I was hooked. It’s written just as it should be, as if Keith fired up a tape recorder, opened a bottle (or several) of Jack Daniels and just started talking. So immediate is the writing (or transcribing) that I had the eerie sensation that Keith was talking directly to me. In an isolated country barn when it’s pitch black outside, having Keith sitting beside you talking is kind of a scary thought. By the third chapter, I was talking back to my mate Keef. Out loud. Admittedly, some of this is cabin fever. During particularly long stretches here, I have been known to reach the Dr. Doolittle level of craziness — where I’m convinced I can talk to the animals — even wild ones that might eat or gore me. So it’s a small step from addressing a stag I happen to see while stepping out to get firewood and talking back to a formerly drug addled rock and roller whose book I’m reading.
I don’t want to include any spoilers for those of you may buy the book, but what overwhelmed me in the first section, which is mostly about his sometimes bleak post-war English youth and musical coming of age, is how incredibly hard this guy worked on his craft. In an age of Kardashians and Hiltons, when loads of people become famous for no particular reason at all, it’s interesting to remember back when people became famous because they made themselves the best in the world at what they did. Keef can certainly claim that mantle. His first foray with drugs were pharmaceuticals to keep himself awake so he could work 85 hours straight figuring out a particular Robert Johnson riff. (Indeed, when his first adult girlfriend got involved in hard drugs, he was so horrified, he called her parents. Quel ironie.) While most of the guitar stuff is so technical, it went right over my head, it was still fascinating to read. But it wasn’t just Delta Blues or Chicago Blues that influenced Keith. A few very musical relatives gave him a love for music from Classical to English vaudeville and an ability to deconstruct a musical passage or song — with an almost mathematical approach — to find the essence of how it works. Later in the book, in a bit of forensic musicology, he figures out that Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry’s original pianist, contributed at least half — if not the whole music — for Berry’s biggest hits. How? He figured out that Berry’s songs were based on piano, not guitar chords, even though Berry was playing them on the guitar. Johnson never got any royalties for his work, but, thanks to Keith, was able to leave his bus driver’s job in St. Louis and get back to a successful musical career for the last 15 years of his life.
“Good one, Keef!”, I yelled out, since by this time we were good buds.
The middle part of the book is awash in drugs as Keith consumes increasing quantities of every known kind. Then he finds heroin or, as he describes the state of the Stones at that point: “I picked up the Smack and Mick picked up the slack.” He kicks heroin. Again and again and again and again. I’d suggest you skip that part, but he keeps throwing in more interesting nuggets of musical information which you wouldn’t want to miss. Besides, by this time, Keef and me were tight. To the point where I kept warning him:
“No, Keef! Remember the terrible detox you did just a month ago. Don’t take that heroin, not even a sniff. Walk away, Keef. Noooooooo, Keef.”
He didn’t listen.
I’m still a little mad at him for not exactly summing it all up with “Kids, don’t do drugs.” He sort of intimates that you can do drugs if, as he did in the early days, you stay with pure pharmaceutical grade product. And I don’t even want to comment on his poor kids by Anita Pallenberg who seem to have been shuttled between their junkie parents, dropped off with various relatives, cooks, or Rasta musicians in Jamaican shantytowns or dragged along on Stones tours as Keith’s “minders”. Keef doesn’t offer a mea culpa for that, but, then, he doesn’t apologize for much.
He is not as harsh on Mick Jagger as some reviewers would have you believe. One interesting passage really analyzes Mick’s unique performance abilities. Keef makes a strong case that Mick is one of the best harmonica players ever. High praise from a man who, if they gave PhDs in Blues, would have fifteen.
Keef seems to be intensely loyal, even to people it would have been better for him to have dropped. And he’s surprisingly humble about his own musicianship, taking great pains to give credit and explain in detail all the artists who influenced and shaped him. The one thing he can’t seem to get over — mostly in the case of Mick — is rudeness to the crew and back-up people and choosing ego over teamwork. Clearly Keef is someone you want in your corner. Because it would be beyond frightening to have him mad at you.
“So”, you may ask, “This is all very interesting. But what does it have to do with winemaking and wildlife and Two Terrier Vineyards?”
I’m getting to that.
Keef’s latest adventures kept me reading a bit too long and yesterday’s last punchdown of the Cabernet had to be done a little too close to night for my liking. The crushpad is way up over the hill and attracts a lot of wildlife who come around to munch on the discarded fermented grapes from the last pressing that are waiting to be hauled to the compost pile.
I turned the corner to the crushpad to see a young stag standing a few paces away. He’s not the large mature one we call Chuck the Buck. This guy is younger, judging by his smaller horns, but he’s a big strapping animal. And he’s full of ‘Tude. As I clattered around prying off the tops of the vats, punching down grapes and hosing off equipment, I expected him to run off. Instead, he backed into the bushes and did the deer version of a James Dean slouch. Then he fixed me with a “What are YOU looking at stare?”
I realized this buck had been eating his way through a large pile of fermented skins. In deer terms, he’d consumed about as many drugs as Keith Richards might have before one of the Stones’ Seventies tours. Yet, he was still standing his ground and giving off those “mad, bad and dangerous to know” vibes. He’s an outlaw. He’s the Cervidae version of a rock and roller.
Well, this buck now has a name.