By Harvey Kubernik
This past year, in conjunction with the Stones’ vinyl retrospectives and on the heels of their “Exile On Main Street” expanded re-release, Keith Richards published his long-awaited autobiography, “LIFE,” with James Fox from Little, Brown and Company (now available in paperback). Fox, born in Washington, D.C. wrote for the Sunday Times in London. His books include the international bestseller “White Mischief.” James Fox will never know how popular his book was in Hollywood.
“LIFE, ” of course, was sixty-seven years in the making. Never before has such an idolized public figure and terrific, soulful human being bared so intimately the details of the personal experiences that made him the phenomenon he is today. It’s a very rewarding read.
Keith Richards is as alluring and affecting on the page as he is on the stage:
“We didn’t have any other interests in the world except how to keep the electricity going. . . . We needed to work together, we needed to rehearse, we needed to listen to music, we needed to do what we wanted to do. It was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us. . . . 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.”
Keith Richards had no expectations when The Rolling Stones journey began. In the pages of “LIFE” it’s documented. “No one was looking for this thing to fly. . . . We didn’t think we were ever going to do anything much except turn other people on to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. We had no intention of being anything ourselves.”
In a November 2010 interview with DJ Little Steven (Van Zandt) on his Underground Garage channel on the Sirius /XM radio satellite radio network, Keith explained the motivation behind “LIFE” to the host.
“It was the right time. The idea came along and I said sure, you know, let’s spin the yarn. I didn’t know it was going to be that difficult to spin. But at the same time I’m glad I’d done it and working on volume 2.”
2010 also saw a Richards’ “Vintage Winos” album on his Mindless Records label a compilation of material culled from his solo recordings from the X-Pensive Winos albums, “Talk Is Cheap,” “Main Offender” and “Live at the Hollywood Palladium.” Also included is a unreleased bonus track, “Hurricane,” previously only available to supporters who donated relief to Hurricane Katrina during the Bigger Bang Rolling Stones tour.
I attended a dozen Rolling Stones’ recording sessions at Ocean Way in Hollywood for their “Bridges To Babylon” album. During breaks Keith mentioned co-producing with engineer Rob Fraboni a collection of five Nyabinghi Rastafarian drummers and Sister Maureen.
An album, “Wingless Angels” eventually surfaced, with Keith serving as executive producer for his own Mindless Records/Island Records label. It’s a recording of Rastafarian drum and chant sessions.
On the Rolling Stones’ “Bridges To Babylon” tour one night in San Diego I asked Richards in an interview, later published in my book, “This Is Rebel Music,” how did the “Wingless Angels” recording impact his recording activities or his gig with The Stones?
“With the Angels, I got very interested in ambient recording,” he disclosed. “The room is good if you know what you’re doing. Use as few microphones as possible. All the tinkering, splitting things up can never achieve. The whole idea when you play music is to fill the room with sound. You don’t have to pick up each individual instrument, particularly in order to do that. Because a band is several people playing something. And somewhere in the air of the room, that sound has to gather in one spot. And you have to find that spot.”
In September 2010, “Wingless Angels: Justin Hinds & Jamaican Nyabinghi Drummers, Featuring Keith Richards” was issued on Mindless Records. A Deluxe Box Set is out with Exclusive Online Offerings, Archival Photos, Interviews and Keith Richards Illustrations
This is Keith Richards’ deep-rooted tribute to his decades-long friendship with legendary ska and reggae singer Justin Hinds. Produced by Brian Jobson, “Wingless Angels II,” new recordings featuring Hinds’ last sessions before his passing, and a special re-release of the much-sought-after original album, long out of print.
“When you hear Justin’s voice, you get a nice, warm glow,” Richards mused in a recent interview with reggae scholar, music historian and archivist Roger Steffens. “With these recordings, he lives on. They play deliberately at just slightly under heart rate. The drumming goes deeper than your bones. It’s marrow music.”
Back to the November radio broadcast with Little Steven, Keith addressed the possibility of the Rolling Stones hitting the road in 2011.
“There’s whispers in the air. Nothing definite. I think we’ll cut some tracks. We’ve got some stuff that we’re still working on. And there’s some new stuff. New to me is what hasn’t been released. There’s songs lying around. ‘I like that but it’s not quite ready yet. Something is missing in it.’ I’m trying to find the bits that are missing to get these songs, you know…Sometimes you lay down these ideas and say, ‘hold that for later.’ And then you gotta go back to ‘em. ‘Cause if you thought it was worthwhile holding then there’s probably a good reason for it. And you just gotta apply yourself to it. And it needs finishing up. Everything is a continuity, right? I mean, just because you did it there and the original idea was a couple of years ago it doesn’t mean it’s been decided yet. I’ve got songs lying around for 35 years I haven’t finished yet.”
One evening at Ocean Way on Sunset Blvd., Richards commented on songwriting for the Rolling Stones, and then observing the melodic and lyrical path from creation to display.
“In a way, maybe when you write songs without even knowing it you’re kinda saying, ‘Can I do this live?’ And so in a way you add that in. You don’t know if it’s gonna work, but I guess you keep in the back of your mind is ‘We’re making a record here.’ What happens if they all like it and we gotta play it live? So in a way, that maybe in the back of the mind it sets up the song to be playable on stage,” reflected Keith, while cracking open a frozen bottle of Vodka and then adding cherry juice to pour a drink for this lounge visitor.
Harvey Kubernik is the author of “Canyon of Dreams: The Magic and the Music of Laurel Canyon”.
For related items that you may enjoy in our Goldmine store: