Really, little needs to be written about the Rolling Stones anymore (Mike Edison's forthcoming book excepted!) yet I'm always open to surprises, and when the most recent unbidden Stones immersion called unto me, I obeyed.
I've been re-reading Keith Richards's superlative Life, struck again by its humor, honesty, and surprisingly clear-eyed take on the epic sweep of his experiences. Dope was Richards's religion, or the religion that chose him. From the late 1960s to roughly 1980 Richards was a functioning heroin addict, the drug like the weather around him, both a taken-for-granted presence, easy to ignore, and the very atmosphere necessary for his survival. He writes about his addiction as one might write about living with a physical handicap, or tending a large estate for a living: it was his defining identity, and his job, and he took it seriously and not without some measure of self-reflection. Maintaining as lifestyle. Richards's passages on dope's appeal and its sly but ultimate stranglehold on him, and his various attempts to turn it away for good (but how do you keep out the weather?) are among the greatest that I've read in the long tradition of drug literature written by musicians. That image of the purest of pure dope in the safe behind the wall, and Richards waking up with bloody fingernails after having spent the night clawing the wall to get at that phantom safe, while remembering none of it, is chilling, and only one of several harrowing episodes he confesses.
But I was also reminded that Richards's best writing in Life comes when he holds forth on his other consuming passion. I'm always on the lookout for great definitions of notoriously-hard-to-define rock and roll, and Life delivers. On the mystery of rhythms and evocations in song:
There’s something primordial in the way we react to pulses without even knowing it. We exist on a rhythm of seventy-two beats a minute. The train, apart from getting them from the Delta to Detroit, became very important to blues players because of the rhythm of the machine, the rhythm of the tracks, and then when you cross onto another track, the beat moves. It echoes something in the human body. So then when you have machinery involved, like trains, and drones, all of that is still built in as music inside us. The human body will feel rhythms even when there’s not one. Listen to “Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley. One of the great rock-and-roll tracks of all time, not a drum on it. It’s just a suggestion, because the body will provide the rhythm. Rhythm really only has to be suggested. Doesn’t have to be pronounced. This is where they got it wrong with “this rock” and "that rock.” It’s got nothing to do with rock. It’s to do with roll.
Once you’re on a roll with the first few chords, the first idea of the rhythm, you can figure out other things, like does it need a bridge in the middle, later. It was living on a knife edge as far as that’s concerned. There was no preparation. But that’s not the point; that’s rock and roll. The idea is to make the bare bones of a riff, snap the drums in and see what happens. And it was the immediacy of it that in retrospect made it even more interesting. There was no time for too much reflection, for plowing the ﬁeld twice. It was “It goes like this” and see what comes out. And this is when you realize that with a good band, you only really need a little sparkle of an idea, and before the evening’s over it will be lat beautiful thing.
Well, I’ve got to tame this beast one way or another. But how to tame it? Gently, or give it a beating? I’ll fuck you up; I’ll take you twice the speed I wrote you! You have this sort of relationship with the songs. You talk to the fuckers. You ain’t finished till you’re finished, OK? All that sort of shit. No, you weren't supposed to go there. Or sometimes you’re apologizing: I'm sorry about that. No, that was certainly not the way to go; Ah, they're funny things. They’re babies.
Let's eavesdrop on Richards ignoring intelligence while letting "Happy" happen: